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Free resource for learning how to use off-camera flash and studio lighting.

Controlling contour in portraits

Chuck Vosburgh - Friday, June 29, 2012


Photographer, Chuck Vosburgh. Model: JoAnn Jensen

In studio lighting, it's often a temptation to use the largest soft-box you can to get maximum softness in a portrait. The down side to that is that the portrait can look flat, lacking contour and dimension. There are two ways to control contour and dimension in a photograph; angle and size of the light. The more you move the light to the side of the subject the more contour shows, and the smaller the light source is, the more contour shows. Like everything else in photography, it's a trade-off. Too much contour shows every flaw in the subject's skin and too little makes them look too flat. Taking your time and experiencing will help you decide what's best for your subject and your preferences. Take the time to adjust the angle of the light for each subject. The same angle won't be the best on everybody. Even though it looks good, careful evaluation and experimentation will make it the best it can be.

The good news is that it's very simple and easy

For this example, a large parabolic (bowl) reflector was used on the light as a main (key) light and the shadows are being controlled by a large soft-gold reflector. Start with the main light at 45° up and 45° to the side and about six feet away with no reflector to fill the shadows. Adjust the angle of the light to get a nice Rembrandt or Loop style lighting pattern on the face, along with a nice catch-light in the eyes. Shoot and adjust to suit you. Add a reflector to fill the shadows, moving it in closer to lighten the shadows, farther away to darken the shadows. Add a hair light to separate the subject from the background and a light on the background and you have a very nice portrait setup.

Here's the setup:

You can use any lights to make this setup: Strobes like in the example or flashes with an umbrella for the main light and a flash for the hair and background. You can also use clamp-on lights from the hardware store. Give it a try, it's easy. Let me know how you make out.

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