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Peter Hince



Pro Digital Portrait Lighting: Mixed Light Levels

By Peter Hince
Published by Pixiq

Learn how slight changes in your two-light setup will affect the look of your portrait subjects with this selection of lighting diagrams and images from Peter Hince's Pixiq book, Pro Digital Portrait Lighting.

This excerpt from Pro Digital Portrait Lighting: The Definitive Reference to Lighting Setups is provided courtesy of Pixiq. To purchase the book, visit the Barnes & Noble website.






If you’re using continuous light sources for your portrait photographs—tungsten lighting, or daylight-balanced fluorescent lights, for example—then controlling how much power they output will depend entirely on the specific lighting model. Some will allow you to vary the output, perhaps by illuminating fewer tubes in a fluorescent lightbank to reduce the intensity, while others might not have any control, so moving them closer to or further from the subject will be the only way that you can control the light.

With flash lighting, however, there is often much greater control over the power output. Studio strobes may offer a range from full power down to an output of 1/32 (or lower) of their maximum strength. In a confined studio space, being able to control the flash output in this way is particularly beneficial, as it means you can get the look you want from your lights, as well as the intensity of light you need to shoot at your chosen aperture. In this section we’ll look at just how simply changing the output of your lights can transform your lighting setups.

Light 1 (Full): From 0°

Light 2 (2 Stops Below): From 30° Right

When you are using two lights at different power settings, you basically have one main light source (your “key” light) that is providing the overall illumination, and a second (“fill”) light that is there to lighten shadows. As you saw earlier, a low-cost alternative to a fill light is a reflector.


Light 1 (Full): From 0° Left

Light 2 (2
Stops Below): From 60° Right

With the main light set at full power, directly in front of the subject, and the fill light at a 60-degree angle, outputting two stops less light, the left side of the model’s face is subtly lighter than the right side, preventing the portrait from looking overly flat.


Light 1 (Full): From 30° Left

Light 2 (2
Stops Below): From 30° Right

Both lights have been positioned at a 30-degree angle, but the main light to the left of the camera is two stops brighter than the fill light to the right. The different power settings avoid the face being evenly lit.


Light 1 (Full): From 30° Left

Light 2 (2
Stops Below): From 60° Right

In this setup, the main light is close to the camera, with the fill light coming in from a 60-degree angle. This gently lightens the shadows that would otherwise be caused if you were using a single light.


Light 1 (Full): From 60° Left

Light 2 (2
Stops Below): From 30° Right

As the main light is moved further away from the camera, the effect of the fill light is made more apparent as it illuminates the left side of the model’s face and prevents it falling into heavy shadow. This is especially effective when the subject is against a dark background.


Light 1 (Full): From 60° Left

Light 2 (2
Stops Below): From 60° Right

In this symmetrical setup, both lights are coming from a 60-degree angle, but the weaker output of the fill prevents the lighting arrangement from creating an overly flat image. The contrast between the two sides of the face creates a distinct three-dimensional look.


Light 1 (Full): From 90° Left

Light 2 (2
Stops Below): From 30° Right

With the main light at a 90-degree angle to the camera, it largely illuminates the side of the model’s face and nose. The weaker fill light (set at two stops less power than the main light) lifts the shadows sufficiently to reveal the subject’s facial features, even against a dark background.


Light 1 (Full): From 90° Left

Light 2 (2
Stops Below): From 60° Right

If you compare this setup to that on pages 112–113 (where the lights are in identical positions), you can see how using two lights at different strengths can create an entirely different look: where the previous setup delivers a bright, relatively evenly lit portrait, here the look is more sculptural.


Light 1 (Full): From 90° Left

Light 2 (2
Stops Below): From 90° Right

As you have seen previously, two opposing lights set either side of the subject will invariably produce a shaded band down the center of your subject’s face. Limiting the power of one of the lamps also darkens one side of the face, reducing the symmetry of the lighting.


Light 1 (Full): From 30° Left

Light 2 (4
Stops Below): From 30° Right

Compare this setup to that shown on pages 218–219. The lights are in identical positions, but in this arrangement the power of the fill light has been reduced, so it is now four stops lower than the main light. The shadows are still lifted, but the overall contrast in the face is heightened.


Light 1 (Full): From 30° Left

Light 2 (4
Stops Below): From 60° Right

Again, the fill light is set at four stops less than the main light, meaning the shadow areas created by the main light, although filled, remain fairly dark. Increasing the contrast between the two lights is especially effective when you’re shooting black and white.


Light 1 (Full): From 60° Left

Light 2 (4
Stops Below): From 60° Right

Although the fill light is set four stops lower than the main light, its angle to the subject still produces a bright catchlight in the model’s darker (left) eye. The less-powerful fill also creates some much-needed contrast in what would otherwise be an evenly lit portrait.


Light 1 (Full): From 90° Left

Light 2 (4
Stops Below): From 90° Right

Another symmetrical lighting setup, but two lights set to output different power settings avoid the mirrored lighting effect seen on pages 114–115. However, the distinct shadows around the eyes and cheeks created by the opposed lights remains, as does the dark central “stripe.”


Category: How-To
Click for more articles of: Peter Hince

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