One-light setups are popular, and it’s easy to see why; they make creating portraits so easy, you almost can’t go wrong. Place a light somewhere in the proximity of the traditional 45/45 position and you’ve got solid dramatic lighting. Nail your exposure, and you’re golden.
But there are some problems inherent with this type of portrait lighting including, potential hotspots and losing one side of your subject to shadow opposite the light. This happens when your background fades to black, and the shadow side of your subject is so dark that it disappears into the background.
When working with dark backgrounds (or backgrounds that go dark, due to a lack of illumination or their distance from the portrait lighting), one way to help define the subject is by using some variation of rim, side, or hair lighting on the shadow side opposite the main. Of course, that will certainly create a highlighted edge, but it might not be the effect you’re looking for. That highlight is great for popping your subject off the background, but what if you want to maintain that dark background, as well as those beautiful shadows and light falloff across your subject, without that sudden smack of highlight on one edge?
I often like to create a subtle separation between the background and the shadow side of the subject by varying the illumination just enough between the two. Sometimes this means adding a second light (the standard fill) at just enough power to make the difference. Another great way to do this is with the creative use of spill off the main light and onto the background. This essentially accomplishes what a dedicated background light would, but much more naturally and subtly. How do you do this? Just get your subject as close as possible to your background, place your light in such a way as to properly illuminate your subject, at the same time, the light light should be angled so that it spills over onto the background. Find the camera-to-subject angle that allows you to capture a portrait where the shadow side of the subject is distinct from the background.
Notice in the photo of Johannie (above), a very subtle separation of hair and background on the right side of the image.
This lighting setup shows how we placed our main light (in this case a softbox) very near to the seamless background. Our model will stand within inches of the background, near the light. Here, we added a fill light at a low power setting and good distance away.
Here the dark hair doesn’t come as close to fading into the shadows as light spill from the main light extends well past the point of the model’s head.
If you’d like to learn more about basic lighting, including dramatic portraiture, headshots, and more, please take a look at Basic Lighting For Portrait Photography. It will get you up to speed on what you need to know about lighting.
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