Portrait photographers use a myriad of different lights and lighting styles to achieve the results they desire. I’ve seen great portraits done with 10 lights, and even greater portraits done with a single light. The best photographers can do both and play around with lights like tools in their toolbox to create something unique.
In this article, I will dive down the rabbit hole to try and explain some of the most common light functions in portrait photography.
Before going further, I’d like to stress that this is just my point of view on light roles and how they should be applied. You do not need to feel like this is what you have to do to get results, this is simply one way to view light roles in still photography. A light placed in a kicker position can be key, and a light placed in a key position can be fill. It is up to the creative mind how each is applied.
This is the most important light in the picture and ideally, it is the most visibly present light in the image. A good idea is to have your key from left to right if you’re shooting for a primarily western audience or right to left if you’re shooting for a mainly Arabic audience.
The key light is generally the brightest and tends to be quite soft in most portrait situations, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot one can do with a hard key light. Some images, like the one shown above, only need a key light.
A hair light will bring out edge detail in the hair and highlight its shape. Naturally, a hair light is often used when you want to separate your subject from the background. Depending on your photography style, you will want to either make your hair light very bright and visible or go subtle with it and have it barely noticeable at all. If you choose to make it visible, it will of course look very artificial and faux, while if you pick a more subtle route, you will end up having a much more natural-looking image. The image below uses a very soft and subtle hair light, so much so that it is barely even noticeable without looking for it specifically.
Hair lights are common spots or gridded/barn-doored lights as we don’t want any spill on the rest of the subject. A particularly significant problem with hair lights is that they can produce spill which can turn out as glare in your shot. This is why it is always a good idea to have a method of reducing that light spread to the area you actually need to cover: the subject’s hair. This can be done in a few ways, one of them is by placing a grid on your light and aiming it very specifically on your subject’s hair. If you do this, you will reduce the overall light spread uniformly. If however you only want to remove flare from your image, you can also place a flag between the light and your subject & camera. This way the light will be far more controlled, allowing less spill to occur which will eliminate glare.
Hair lights can add a lot of drama to the picture and are commonly used by Film directors in horror movies or intense scenes to amplify that feeling for the viewer. Add a dramatic key that produces dark shadows and you have a perfect setup for some dramatic images.
Fill light is used to decrease contrast on your subject. For example, if your image has shadows that are far too dark, you may want to introduce fill to bring out shadow detail. Fill is often a large light source placed behind the camera and you want the fill light to be as flat as possible as it is meant to slightly brighten the whole image. Fill light should not cast any shadow at all. In fact, the topic of fill light is so huge that I wrote a separate piece on it which you can check out.
The side-light is used for creating split setups. It is common for side-lighting to be dramatic as it reveals only one side of the subject’s face. A very popular tool for side-lighting is a strip softbox (Stripbox). You can also create side-lighting by photographing your subject next to a natural light source, such as a window. Something to be keen of and is considered a common pitfall with side lighting is not having enough fill light. Remember that fill is always important regardless of its presence. Aim to have a little bit of shadow detail at least when you’re working with side-lighting.
Kick lights are another way of highlighting the face (or whatever your subject matter is). Many people will often confuse a kick light with a hair light. The difference is that while a hair light will light up only hair, a kicker can do that, as well as light up a side of the subject’s face. This will create more separation and add definition to the subject’s facial shape. Generally, kickers are a 0.75 or 1 stop above the other lights hitting the face. It is important to balance your kicker properly as it can look offputting if you do it incorrectly or inconsistently.
If you are using a kicker light, you should not forget that it is technically your key. The other light is a fill and it would be a wise choice to have a large soft source to create that light.
It is also possible to use a single light source to create both the kicker and fill lights with the right accessories. Any large light source placed relatively close and behind the subject will produce the necessary “kick” on the hair and forehead, while the large size will ensure that the rest of the face is also illuminated. To make things easier, it is not a bad idea to put a white foam core or reflector on the other side of the subject to balance things out.
Rim lights are used to highlight the shape of the subject as well as provide additional separation from the background. They are commonly strip boxes because of the thin and tall light pattern that they form. Rim lights are very common when photographing athletes and fitness professionals as they will accentuate the subject’s hard lines and body shape.
Remember that rim lights can also produce glare if positioned incorrectly. If there is no way to avoid the light in your frame, you can add grids and flags to the strip softboxes to reduce that effect.
Another way to achieve rim lighting is by placing a small light source directly behind the subject. It will create a halo around the subject’s hair and body. It is even possible to use a single light to create rim and hair lights.
A catchlight is the little white spot often seen popping up inside the photo subject’s eye. The reason I put it on the same level of importance as the key or rim lights is simply that very few people pay attention to their catchlights. If you pay attention to people’s eyes in the real world, there will always be a bright spot inside them. For that reason, you can’t overlook the importance of a good catchlight. Assuming that catchlights are a perfect reflection, you won’t need too much power to produce them if you don’t have them due to the setup. An easy way to make catchlights is to place a small light source on the eye level of your subject and put it at a power setting where it would only show up in the eyes and pretty much nowhere else.
Remember, these “definitions” and suggestions are only a single way to approach lighting for portraits. The truth is there is no right or wrong way to light. There is only appropriate, and not appropriate for the image you are trying to create. This also applies to light functions. If the picture calls for it, use a hair light and nothing else. I am simply presenting common definitions of light as applied to portraiture, not the right way of doing light. To be honest, I’ve personally disobeyed a lot of rules and got away with it because it worked for the situation and created a compelling image.
Regardless, I hope these terms cleared up a little confusion and helped you figure out something new for your next portrait session.
Image credits: Header photo from Depositphotos