Most modern portraits are shot in soft light. Soft lighting is more forgiving, more flattering and easier for beginners to master. So does that mean there's no place for hard light in portrait photography? Just look at any collection of Hollywood portraits from the 1930s and you'll have your answer. Golden age movie-stars often preferred to be shot in hard light, because hard light is dramatic and seductive. Drama and seduction, as we still understand today, help sell movie tickets. But shooting in hard light can be tricky. Here's how to create hard light portraits that will give your subjects a glamorous, dramatic quality.
What is hard light?
Soft light is diffused, meaning that shadows are absent or indistinct. Soft light can make a subject look younger and can downplay flaws in the skin. It also looks flatter than hard light. Hard light, on the other hand, is more contrasty. In hard light, shadows have harder edges and greater definition. Subjects shot in hard light tend to look more three dimensional.
First, learn how to distinguish a good hard-light subject from everyone else
Not every subject is a good candidate for hard light. A person with blemishes, for example, deep wrinkles or otherwise less-than-perfect skin is not going to appreciate the results of a photo session in hard-light, since this type of lighting tends to accentuate everything that is wrong with your skin. Even subjects with enviable skin can benefit from a little help in hard light; make-up will reduce reflections on the skin that will translate into blown-out highlights in the finished portrait.
While mastering hard light portrait photography, it's a good idea to shoot half your photos in hard light and the other half in soft. This will help you understand which subjects are naturals for these types of portraits and which ones just aren't. And you won't end up with a disappointed subject because you made the wrong judgment call.
Now ditch those soft boxes and umbrellas
Without soft boxes and umbrellas, you'll instantly transform your lighting equipment from soft light to hard light. You can use a single hard light source for very dramatic photos, which will create a background that falls rapidly into blackness--but you'll have more options if you stick with a basic portrait lighting setup (sans diffusers) with a key light and a fill light. Then you can experiment until you get the results you're looking for.
Be aware of shadows, but don't be afraid of them
With hard light, portrait photography becomes a game of shadows. Hard light will create hard shadows, and while some of them help create the effect you're looking for, others are just plain ugly and need to be exorcised from the image. And example is that harsh "halo" type shadow like the one you get with a standard on-board camera flash. You'll get this with hard studio light, too, so you'll need to angle your camera or change the position of the light so the shadow falls out of the frame.
Good shadows are those that define shapes and features, making a subject look more three dimensional than he would in a traditional soft-light portrait. Bad shadows are the ones that look out of place, such as a long shadow under the nose. To avoid shadows you don't want and create ones that you do, you'll need to experiment with the position of your lights and your subject. Have your subject look towards your key light (or face a window as above), and those unwanted shadows on the face will become less of a problem. And focused light (using barn doors, for example) aimed at your subject's face will make her appear brighter against a more shadowed background. You can also use diffusers sparingly - such as on your fill light - to make the shadows look less stark. You'll still have a dramatic photo, but without so many hard edges. Keep your reflectors on hand, too; if you want definition between your subject's head and the background, a simple reflector can create that for you without softening the impact of the hard light.
Some tips for hard light photography
- Try using strobe light instead of continuous light. Hard light may make your subject squint, and the last thing you want is a dramatic photo of a beautiful subject with her eyes at half-mast. Strobe will eliminate this problem, although it also has the disadvantage of being harder to set up since you can't see in advance with your own eyes where those shadows are going to fall.
- Convert your hard light portraits to black and white. This will give those shots that golden-era Hollywood look. And because black and white images have greater depth than color and a surreal quality, the hard lighting will serve to accentuate the drama that is already a natural part of that medium.
- For a truly dramatic black and white image, use a black backdrop. With this type of setup, parts of your subject will fall into shadow, while other features will pop, giving greater dimension to the image.
- Include some texture. Most models don't want to appear in an image that reveals flaws in the skin, but a heavily wrinkled face or a simple scar can add a lot of interest and character to a portrait, and these types of flaws also have their own particular kind of beauty. If you can't talk a subject with less-than-perfect skin into a photography session in your hard-light studio (and don't feel bad if you can't, it's really not that easy), you can add some texture to your subject's wardrobe instead. A knitted scarf or an embroidered hat will contrast nicely with that oh-so-perfect skin--just make sure to choose something subtle. You don't want to change the focus of the image from the subject to the accessory.
- As always, be creative. If your elderly subject doesn't want you shooting her face in hard light, you can still get a beautiful picture of her hands. You can also try casting deliberate shadows with a "gobo". which is a physical template with patterned holes in it that will create an interesting pattern on your subject.
Good hard light portraits can be challenging, so pay attention to every photo and learn to recognize those techniques that work in hard light and those that don't. And don't abandon your soft boxes and umbrellas--a photo session that includes both hard and soft light images will give you--and your subject--a broad range of images to choose from. Done correctly, you may find that your subjects prefer the drama and intensity of portraits shot using hard light.
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