Monday, September 13, 2010

The right direction

This past weekend I focused on the direction of light. I know that light direction is critical to show the form of the subject and sometimes its texture. I also know about the basic portrait lighting styles: broad vs. short, butterfly vs. loop vs. Rembrandt vs. side/split. But in practice, I haven't paid as much attention to the direction of light as I should have. Usually I will only try to make the light come from around 45 degrees to the subject. Not surprisingly, I haven't been satisfied with the results. Here is an example shot of what I'm talking about:

For this shot, I just placed a reflective umbrella to camera right, slightly higher than the camera. (I did feather the umbrella by it toward the shadow side of my face.) The resulting highlight/shadow pattern is not terrible but to me, there's something not quite right about it. A more experienced photographer who saw this commented that the light should have been placed higher. I thought about it, but didn't figure out how much of a difference it would make.

By contrast, in the shots from this weekend, I paid much closer attention to the light direction and the resulting pattern of highlights and shadows than I usually do. Through analysis and experimentation, I learned that it is better to think of light direction not relative to the camera (e.g. camera left, right, etc.), but relative to where the subject was facing. I also learned that to get a good Rembrandt lighting effect, I needed to put the camera a bit more to the side and a bit higher than where I usually aim from.

Comparing the highlight and shadow pattern between the shot of me and the shot of my wife and child, I much prefer the pattern in the shot of my wife, which I think does look like Rembrandt light in terms of shape, width and height (except that it's broad, when Rembrandt light is usually short). In the shot of my wife, I aimed the light at a high window shade about 4 or 5 feet above my wife's eye level, and to the side of the camera. Given the tilt of my wife's head, the light is around 60 degrees off to the side of her face, and between 45 to 60 degrees "above" her face.

This is only the beginning of my research into light direction. I think this is a fruitful avenue for exploration in order to improve the quality of my photos.