Wrapping Your Mind Around Portrait Lighting

Today’s Post by Joe Farace

“Wrap around light,” according to the always insightful Phoblographer, “…is light that literally wraps around a subject and gives the illusion of two lights.” He then goes on to suggest that this can be produced with a single light by using “One massive light modifier in relation to the subject…”

Recently a reader e-mailed asking me questions about portrait lighting and he was curious about how the size of a light source and it’s distance to a subject affected the lighting quality. He insisted that if a photographer was using “wraparound light” the size of the light source and its distance from a subject did not matter. Evidently he missed the part of the definition that says “massive light modifier.”

Light has many characteristics including quantity, direction, color as well as quality. Presented for your approval are some of my thoughts on the subject.

Please keep in mind that when it comes to portrait lighting I’m not Big Daddy Don Blair or the legendary Joe Zeltsman, just a guy who photographs women with the goal of making them look as beautiful as I can. (If you’re wondering how someone who was originally an architectural and product photographer came to wander down this path, it will be the subject of a future post.) Anyway, back to the subject at hand. Here are a few basics principles that, I think anyway, affect the quality of light for a portrait.

  • The larger a light source—and that can include any light modifier from a beauty dish to a large soft box—the softer (less contrasty) the light will be on he subject. Conversely, the smaller a light source is, like a tiny reflector, the harder (contrastier) the light falling on the subject will appear.
  • The closer a light source is to a subject, the softer it is. The converse is also true because the smaller and further away from the subject the light is, the harder it becomes.

Don’t forget the Inverse Square Law: Often misunderstood but important to any understanding of portrait lighting. It goes like this: The power of light is inversely proportional to the square of the distance. So when you double the distance between a portrait subject and light source, it illuminates a surface area that’s four times greater than before. Or to put it another way, the subject now has one quarter— not half—as much light falling on it.

The image of Erin Valakari above was made using a Panasonic Lumix GH4 and G Vario 14-45mm f/3.5-5.6 lens with an exposure of 1/160 sec at f/6.3 and ISO 200. Main light was Paul C Buff’s 320 Ws DigiBee DB800 monolight with 52x38x14-inch Plume Wafer Hexoval mounted and Buff’s Alien Bee B800 acting as side/backlight. Background was Savage’s 53-inch x 18-ft, Celebration Lights seamless paper.

If you want to experience what amounts to a introduction to these lighting concepts, please check out my affordable Magic of Umbrellas workshops.