Photographic lighting is often compared to cooking. That might seem to be a strange analogy, but they actually have a lot in common, and while lighting is not something that everyone is proficient with, most people know something about cooking (or at least, most people know something about eating). The lights you use are like the ingredients to a meal, and how you prepare and use them will have a critical impact on how attractive the final result is. Let’s take a quick look at the individual components that make up a lighting setup.
The key light, or main light, is the main ingredient; it is the light that illuminates your subject. In this case, it will be typically be the light that lights up your figure’s face. It doesn’t have to be the biggest or brightest light that you use, but it often determines the character of your photo, and will thus often be the most important light in your setup. As such, its usage requires particular care and attention, and much of what we will discuss in this series of posts – light direction, quality, and distance – is principally applicable to the key light.
Your key light may also be your background light, if you so choose – or even if you don’t, if you aren’t careful about controlling the light’s spill. (Note that in the image above, a separate background light was used.)
Generally speaking, unless you’re trying to call attention to some specific part of the figure, you should aim your key light directly at your figure’s face rather than its body. Even if you’re shining the light through a modifier like a softbox, you will want to aim it at the head. The reason for this is that the center of your light will generally be the brightest area (termed the “hot spot”), and the most brightly-illuminated area is often the most attention-grabbing area. Thus, you will typically not want your figure’s face to be dimly-lit compared to some random part of its torso. This does mean that a large part of your light will be flying over your figure’s head, but that’s alright.
In some cases, you may not have a key light at all, such as when your are shooting a backlit silhouette. You may also have more than one key light, such as in a hatchet light setup (the most famous of which might be Arnold Newman’s portrait of the German industrialist and war criminal Alfried Krupp). There may also be instances where it may be nebulous as to which light you use is the key light; for example, if you’re outside with the sun behind your figure and you’re bouncing light into your figure’s face with a reflector (though personally, I think I’d call the bounce card the key light). I recommend not getting too hung up on terminology, and that goes for photography in general, not just lighting.
Fill is supplemental light used to brighten shadows generated by your key light (and other lights, as the case may be). You can use an artificial light source or sunlight, or you can also use a reflector, which will typically be a fill card. A fill light can actually be a technically brighter light than your key light (for example, in a multiple-flash setup where the fill light is placed much further away from the subject than the key light, you would need to boost its brightness to compensate for the increased distance). However, by definition, your fill light will not affect your image’s exposure as much as the key light will.
I recommend using a reflector rather than an additional lamp; they’re easier to work with and are guaranteed to not overpower the key light. Here is a typical configuration for placing a fill card:
The key light is setup to the left and the fill card is placed on the opposite side, reflecting light back onto the figure’s shadowed side (its left side). Such a result might look like this (if you want to compare this result with the image of just the key light, I recommend opening them in separate tabs and switching back and forth):
In this image, the fill card was placed quite close to the figure, about five inches away. Placing the fill card further away, of course, reduces the amount of fill:
In this case, the fill card was moved back to about ten inches from the figure. It is wise to take care in determining how strong you want your fill to be, should you use it; too much fill tends to flatten out the light, giving an effect similar to frontal on-axis lighting, which is generally not a good thing.
The conventional placement for a fill card is directly across from the key light, on the opposite side of the subject. However, other placements are possible; for example, you can place a fill card directly in front of the subject, lying on the floor:
In this case, light bounces back up at the front of the figure. This is particularly useful if there are areas that the key light cannot illuminate; in this instance, the figure’s stomach and groin, shadowed by the flare of her dress, are now well-lit. Another situation where this placement can be useful is when a figure is bent over; for example, I used this technique for Yagyu Jubei, whose torso would have otherwise been very dark. This placement also generates a more subtle fill effect in other areas; for example, it provides a slight lift to the shadows on the left side of Buddy’s face rather than the more noticeable effect caused by the more traditional fill card positioning.
You can, of course, use no fill at all. I don’t actually use fill very often; in fact, I’d guess at least 90% of my photos do not use any sort of intentional fill lighting. My own preference tends toward deep shadows and strong contrast, which are both reduced by fill. However, I do use it on occasion, and as it has a strong influence on the visual impact of your image, it’s important to be aware of the possibilities it provides and removes.
A rim light is a light placed somewhere behind, below, or above your figure, such that it provides a bright outline around some part of the subject. If you’re shooting on a dark background, a rim light can provide some separation between your figure and the backdrop so that its darkened side doesn’t meld with the shadows. A rim light can also be used to generate high contrast, amplifying the excitement level of your image. Continuing with the cooking analogy, rim lighting is like adding some sort of exotic spice to your dish; it can be subtle or prominent, complementary or overpowering. It can add a tremendous amount of drama to your photo. It can also completely ruin your picture. As such, it’s important to be aware of the pitfalls when using this type of lighting component.
A common placement of a rim light is behind your subject, on the opposite side of your key light. In this setup, looking at the photo from left to right, the key light creates a brightly-lit area, a shadowed area, and then the rim light generates a bright outline on the far side of the figure.
This particular rim light is noticeable but still somewhat subdued. A harder, brighter rim light generates a more obvious effect:
I tend to think of rim lights as being used more often in this manner – hard, crisp, and strong. It’s the sort of style often used on sports magazine covers, where drama is valued and the form of the body is emphasized. I find that this type of lighting works best with action-girl figures, but to be honest, I tend to use it with most of the figures I shoot.
You can also place a rim light on the same side as your key light. This can generate a more subtle result:
In this instance, it isn’t easy to tell that a rim light was used; if you compare it to the key light picture, the differences may not be obvious. However, you can tell a rim light was used by the bright highlights on the upper part of her right sleeve and along the right side of her dress and her right thigh. A brighter, harder rim light would, of course, have a more noticeable effect.
You can also use multiple rim lights, one placed on each side, creating a bright outline around the figure’s entire body. This is a popular look, but it’s not one I use that often, mostly because of practical concerns: in my shooting setups, I usually have my rim light on one side of the figure and my background light on the other, and there usually isn’t enough room for another rim light there. (This is why the position of the background light changes in the picture above.)
Now, I mentioned that you can run into problems when using rim lights. Perhaps the most annoying one is getting highlights where you don’t want them. Most problematic is when that happens on the nose; a rim light placed at too shallow of an angle can put a hot spot right on the side of the nose, smack in the middle of your figure’s face, where it is going to be noticeable by everyone (here’s a clumsy example of what that looks like). Note that this isn’t always automatically bad; I don’t have a problem with it on Samus, for instance, but that’s because she has a relatively realistic face whereas most anime faces don’t really have noticeable noses, so a bright spot on a nostril looks out of place. Unwanted highlights can occur elsewhere, such as on bits of hair or on other body parts, such as in this picture, where I don’t really like the big highlight underneath Cryska’s right thigh. If you’re using a hard rim light, this sort of light will emphasize texture, including dust, specks, and manufacturing defects, so you’ll need to make certain your figure is clean or be prepared to spend some time with the healing brush and clone stamp in Photoshop.
Anyone who has visited this site for a while knows that I love abusing rim lights. However, there have been a number of times where I’ve eschewed the use of a rim light, even when it might seem like something I would include. For example, with Katanako and Alisa, I wanted to impart a feeling of moodiness, mystery, and elegance, and I wanted the effect to be understated rather than forceful, even though both characters are carrying gigantic swords (I’m referencing the header images for both posts, which are the ones I care most about; some of Katanako’s pictures did use a rim light). Rim light usage can profoundly amplify the energy and intensity of your picture, and you should decide whether those are characteristics that you want to express.
A specialized type of rim light is the hair light, which is placed over your subject. This type of light is so named because it is used to provide a separating outline along the top of the subject’s head and shoulders. Search Google Images for “executive portrait” and you will find numerous examples of a hair light in use.
You’ll also see numerous examples where a hair light is omitted. An overhead light is very much an optional thing. Personally, I sometimes use one, and I sometimes don’t. When I do include a hair light, I tend to go for a more nuclear look than the relatively subtle usage employed in typical portraiture. This is particularly true in my stock urban rubble set (including Inori and Rei), where I try to simulate the harsh brightness of overhead street lighting. It’s the kind of style that I like to use:
I think of this light as “gangster” light; it reminds me of the classic images of Marlon Brando in the Godfather, with the glare on his pate, the deeply hooded eyes, and the strong shadows under his nose and chin. It’s an aggressive type of light that heightens the intensity of the image.
Now, you probably wouldn’t want to use this sort of light by itself. I find that I like this sort of look when I pair it with a hard rim light. This sort of setup tends to work less well with figures of friendly schoolgirls; with those, I would recommend going for a softer, toned-down look. This is particularly the case if you’re working with an interior set; most interiors feature overhead lighting, and a soft hair light can improve the realism of the picture.
While a hair light is typically fairly constrained in normal use, figures are so small that you’ll typically light up much more than just the hair and the shoulders. This includes the floor; you’ll typically have a big patch of light where the figure is standing, and it’s up to you to decide if that’s something you accept or not. The size of the lights that you will typically work with also provides an advantage when photographing figures with large breasts; the light provides the chest with more definition.
The background light does just what it says; it lights the background. This may be another light pulling double duty; for example, you could use spill from the key light or a rim light to light your backdrop.
However, in many cases, you might want to light the background separately from the figure. This is fine, and it’s what I do most of the time, but it does carry an enormous risk: if your figure and background light levels are too far off, your entire lighting setup starts looking unrealistic, as if you’d photographed the two elements separately and cut and pasted one on top of the other. That’s a really awful look and it’s something you want to be extremely careful to avoid.
My figure lighting setups tend to not change that much; it’s my background lights that vary from shoot to shoot, and so I’ll stay away from giving general tips on lighting up backdrops. We’ll look at some example setups a bit later on. I’ll also refrain from giving specific guidelines on shooting on black or white, as those setups really ought to get a post to themselves.