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How I Light Women

Rules, they say, are meant to be broken. But for the most part, I personally find that when I light women I try for 2 (and only 2) lighting patterns: butterfly or short/loop. This isn’t to say that I don’t on occasion split light them, or present a profile, but I always start with one of these 2.

I’ve covered butterfly lighting in some previous posts, and will return to that subject as it was the first lighting pattern I felt that I really nailed. It was a look that worked for me.

I’ve found loop lighting substantially harder. I don’t know why, but it seems I have struggled with getting that light high enough such that the nose shadow looks right.

There are 2 general mistakes photographers make when lighting. The first I didn’t seem to have much problem with: getting the light close. Of course it depends on what you want to do – if you are trying to get hard light then distance is your friend. If you are trying for softness, though, you need to get it as close to your subject as possible. What’s the point in having a nice big softbox if you then place it 10′ away for a head-and-shoulders portrait? Get that sucker close!

The other is getting the light high enough.

OK I lied – there are 3. This one is the loosest, as again it depends on what you want to do, but in general the light needs to be placed ahead of the subject so that the wrap extends to the far side of the face. Unless of course you don’t want that, in which case you can ignore this and place them mid- or even post- light. But, in general, for beauty you want that light out in front.

I have found that with larger light sources – like a large octa – that it becomes considerably easier.

This image of the Lady Rosetta was taken with one light in a deep octa, placed close. Since it was supposed to be dramatic, I placed a flag subject right to absorb any reflection and to increase the contrast on that side of the image (hence the term “subtractive” lighting).

By turning the subject away from the light – even though it is flying out in front of her – I light the side that is away from camera – the “short” side. And since the light is slightly above her, and it is a large source, I get the nose shadow I want and the pattern on the camera side of her face. I find this sculpts the face, making it slender and more defined, and hence more flattering.

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