Four Hot Lighting Looks

Everyone is looking for a way to make his or her images stand out from the crowd. Today, when the crowd is huge and websites are selling decent-quality amateur work for $1, that crowd is bigger than ever before. Innovation in lighting is at the core of being a professional photographer, and creating today’s hottest, most in-demand looks is something pros do exceptionally well. We push the boundaries of creativity and we come up with the standards of tomorrow. That’s how you stay ahead in a turbulent marketplace.

In this article, we spotlight some of the lighting looks that are selling right now and that clients are looking for, whether they’re commissioning work or buying from stock. It can be beneficial to you to have these formulas in your repertoire as you freshen your website or send out your portfolio.

Sharpen Your Lighting Skills With Our Portrait Lighting Essentials tutorial

Blair Bunting (featured in the November 2010 issue of DPP) is a master of lighting for HDR shots like this. Bunting’s HDR is frequently somewhat muted, and he uses the lights to create separation in the frame.


Four Hot Lighting Looks



High dynamic range photography isn’t a lighting technique, per se, but the look is all the rage at this time, and to get the best results, it helps to think about your lighting up front in the capture phase. When photographing people and applying HDR software, more often than not, we’re unable to shoot multiple images, so in the processing phase, what we’re really doing is tone-mapping a single photo and not making a true HDR image. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it’s important to consider it up front. You want to light the scene in such a way as to gain separation between the main subject and everything else. When you apply the HDR software, you’ll keep the subject and background from blending. In the November issue of DPP, we featured the photography of Blair Bunting. He’s a master of using kicker lights to create that separation in his sports photographs. From there, the HDR effects have more drama because the main subject jumps out.

Focused Sources

There’s a school of thought that says start with a single light and do everything you possibly can to keep to that single source. The theory is that we only have one sun, and people are used to seeing shadows that come from a single direction. There’s a newer school of thought that says forget about that and break out as many lights as you have and use them to focus illumination in specific areas of the shot. The latter is one of the hotter looks today.

In this issue of DPP, we have an article on Peter Yang who’s a master of the technique. The key isn’t in the number of lights; it’s in the use of focus to keep each one playing a specific role and not spilling out into the rest of the scene. This kind of lighting is best achieved through the use of modifiers—a lot of modifiers. A beauty dish with a grid or a combination of grids as well as barn doors can get the job done. Snoots and optical snoots also are excellent tools to have at your disposal. Use the modifiers to keep the light confined and to give you complete control over the falloff. Usually when using focused light, you want fast falloff—let the light do its job; then keep it from interfering with anything else in the shot. Focused sources are ideal for adding light to hats and hair, the background behind the subject, accents on a person’s wardrobe and other elements.

Lens Flare

There was a time when flare in the shot was thought of as a technical fault and it condemned a transparency to the trash bin. Today, the washed-out, at-the-beach look complete with into-the-sun flare is so popular that it’s commonly created in Photoshop! In fact, the next time you’re watching a high-budget sci-fi movie with ships marauding through space, you’ll probably notice the use of flare as the viewer pans across a scene in space even though such a shot is completely created without a lens!

Whereas the ring flash can create a haunting catchlight in the eyes, the washed-out backlit shot with lens flare isn’t about calling attention to an intense gaze as much as it’s about generating a warm, soothing and casual overall image. Colors are muted, and the background is largely blown out. This look, of course, grew out of the amateur snapshots of our youth (when parents admonished children to shoot with the sun at your back). Today the effect is so in that, more often than not, it’s created with artificial light.

To get lens flare is simple. Just make sure you have the light source in the frame. Flare comes from the internal reflections off the multitude of elements in the lens barrel. A point source works particularly well, so if the sun isn’t available, use the smallest source you have. You also can re-create the flare in Photoshop if you prefer to have more control over it in postproduction. If you do shoot for flare, consider using a zoom lens with a long range. These lenses tend to have more glass-to-air transitions, which is what makes the flare—more transitions, more flare. Don’t worry about not using your sharpest lens. Between the blown-out background and the intentional use of flare, you’re probably not going for a shot with zero chromatic aberrations and razor-sharpness across the frame anyway.

Ring Light

The ring flash creates a distinct catchlight in a subject’s eye that’s slightly haunting and very cool. This isn’t a new look by any means, but it’s a big attention-grabber. To get the full effect, a ring flash is the ideal tool, but there are other options available, as well. You can set up a large umbrella and position it directly behind the photographer with a central obstruction to hide the reflection of the photographer and camera. The key is to have the light source and the lens on the same axis. If you’re using a ring flash, wider-angle lenses tend to be better at creating the look than telephotos because the farther back you and the ring flash are from the subject, the smaller the catchlight appears in the eyes and therefore the less of a ring effect. Moving back with a longer lens, however, does preserve the direct frontal nature of the light so even with a ring flash and a medium telephoto, you’ll get a very cool effect; it just won’t have the same catchlight.

Using a ring flash certainly can’t be thought of as a new, groundbreaking technique, but it generates a look that has broad appeal and remains popular with buyers.


Required Reading

Want to sharpen your lighting skills? Our guide to Portrait Lighting Essentials provides instructions on the must-know basic lighting techniques, and provides tips for making a memorable image.

Leave a Reply