Friday, September 6, 2013

Short Lighting Isn't for Photographing Short People

Candid Natural-light/Short-Light Portrait of a Model
(Click to Enlarge)

Just kidding. Short lighting is definitely not just for photographing short people. In fact, it has nothing to do with short people... or tall people for that matter.  I just wrote that in my title to get some attention. To bring a bit of humorous wit to this update. (Which I probably failed miserably at doing.) Short lighting, of course, can be used to photograph anyone: short, tall, young, old, people of all sizes and shapes.

Quite a few portrait photographers generally prefer short lighting for much of their portraiture. Conventional wisdom, leastwise amongst those anonymous photographers I just referred to, holds that short lighting often nets more aesthetically-pleasing, memorable portraits.

Since short lighting is an actual, conventional, lighting style, I suppose there must be some merit to the "wisdom" attached to short lighting being the preferred lighting style. For the most part, I personally subscribe to the notion that short lighting is often a (not necessarily "the") preferable lighting style, certainly in terms of conventional aesthetics for many portraits. I use short lighting techniques for many of the portraits I shoot, head shot portraits in particular. It's often my go-to lighting style for head shots, especially when I'm using artificial light.

If you don't know or are unsure what constitutes short lighting, here's a brief description of it, sort of an "in a nutshell" description:  Short lighting is when the main light is striking that part of the subject's face that is turned away or less revealed in a portrait. Short lighting is the opposite of broad lighting which, as you've probably already realized, is when the main light is striking that part of the subject's face most revealed in the portrait.

Both short and broad lighting are easily employed for portraiture, whether you're shooting in natural light or using artificial light. If you're using strobes, for instance, and you want to employ short lighting, set your main light so that it is pointed towards that side of the subject's face that is least revealed. Example: Set your main light camera-left and have your subject first face the camera, and then have them turn their face slightly away from the axis of the camera and towards the light. For many portraits, perhaps most, you'll still have them directing their eyes back to the camera.

There's no right and wrong portrait lighting style. Just because many portrait photographers might claim that short lighting is the preferred portrait lighting style, there's no scientific proof that it is. Like so many other aspects of photography, what's good and what's not so good (or as good) is purely subjective.

There are a number of other conventional portrait lighting styles beyond short and broad lighting. They include Butterfly, Rembrandt, Split, and Loop. As a portrait photographer (or aspiring portrait photographer) you should be well aware of them and know how to employ them. My advice, especially to less experienced photographers, is to practice diversity in the portrait lighting styles you employ. In that way, you'll likely become a more accomplished and appreciated portrait photographer.


Steve said...

Thanks for this blog post James. I was wondering of the many different lighting styles you mentioned are some better or worse based on the type of face (male, female, high cheek bone, etc.)?

jimmyd said...

@Steve: It's difficult to select one lighting style and say this one is best for this gender or for this sort of facial structure. Personally, I like using butterfly lighting for women. But again for women, soft lighting, regardless of the style employed, tends to be best. Obviously, for older women you would generally want to de-emphasize wrinkles so soft lighting, often Butterfly lighting, works nicely. Butterfly lighting also emphasizes cheekbones so it may or may not be the look you're going for with women having that sort of facial structure. For men, the lighting can be "harder" and use styles that make better use of shadow (short, Rembrandt, split) are generally what I prefer for men. But it's all subjective and the feeling you're trying to convey in the portrait goes beyond simply making these choices by gender, facial type, even age.

Steve said...

Thanks for the reply James. Bottom line I guess is while there are general guidelines there are no cookie cutter formulas.