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Sculpt Your Portraits with Light
Add Drama with Basic Lighting Techniques


Three models image shot with Nikon D70s, Hensel Monolights, and Lexar Professional Media. Retouched with Adobe Photoshop CS2 and Kubota Imaging Tools. Hair, makeup, and styling by Irena Murphy.
Allison Earnest


“Pirate” Jim Busha was lit with a Hensel Monolight and beauty dish as main light. California Sunbounce create fill and two additional lights behind model accent face and add depth.
Allison Earnest


Cowboy shot with Nikon D70s, 80-200mm Nikkor lens, sunlight, and California Sunbounce light modifier. Kubota Imaging Tools were used for retouching.
Allison Earnest


Image of couple on top of a glacier in Colorado was shot with a Nikon D70s. The sun lit the scene, slight fill as added with a Nikon SB-800 bounced into a California Sunbounce reflector.
Allison Earnest



Contrary to what some people may believe, a photographer is more than a picture taker. A photographer is an artist who starts with a raw subject and sculpts it into a final image using light. While there are many other components that make up a great image—quality and type of lens, pose, clothing, props, and background—without light there would be no recordable image.

Whether you choose artificial studio light, the sun’s natural light, on-camera flash, or a combination of two or more light sources, it is that light and the manner in which it is modified, diffused, and placed in relation to the subject that distinguishes a picture taker from an artist.

With the proper use of light, photographers have the ability to shape a face, show texture, invoke mystery, and produce three-dimensional images from two-dimensional subjects and objects. When the basic lighting principles become second nature, one can break the rules and sculpt with light.

The Keys to Sculpting

The four basic portrait lighting techniques are:

• Butterfly: Main light is pointed down onto the subject at a 45-degree angle, creating a small “butterfly” shadow slightly under the nose. Very popular for fashion and beauty photography.

• Rembrandt: Main light is pointed down on the subject at a 45-degree angle and 45 degrees off to one side, with the shadow portion of the face toward the camera. Great for low-key and dramatic effect.

• 45-degree lighting: Main light is pointed down at 45 degrees with the nose of the subject facing the main light, illuminating 50 percent or less of the face. This light, referred to as short light, is used often because it brings out the “sparkle” in the subject’s eyes, shows detail, and models the face using shadow and light.

• Broad Lighting: Subject’s nose points away from the main light, placing 75 percent of the face in the highlight. This lighting is usually used for men and high-key lighting sets and shows the least amount of feature alteration.

And while it’s not technically considered one of the basic lighting techniques, an accent or kicker light is essential for creating depth in an image and for adding accented luminance to areas of an image.

Incorporating Multiple Light Sources

I created the image of models Michael, Irena, and Amy to illustrate incorporating several different lighting techniques into one image. Shooting with a Nikon D70s, I lit the image with the German-made Integra Pro and Pro Plus Monolights by Hensel (www.henselusa.com). They have an extremely smooth and consistent illumination, from one monolight to the next.

The set was in very cramped quarters. Fortunately, the Hensel’s power and modeling light can be remotely controlled at the camera within 1/10 power, which made adjusting exposures a breeze.

I had one monolight (head half-covered with a blue gel) in the room illuminating the female models, producing a Rembrandt and split-light effect. The second accent light was placed midway in the second room, with a warm gel to add a warm feeling, depth, and design. The third Integra, attached to a beauty dish, was placed at a 45-degree angle to light the male model.

To obtain a proper exposure for the incandescent lights, an ambient meter reading was taken and I slowed the shutter speed on my Nikon D70s. The flash exposures were measured with an incident flash meter reading and my aperture was adjusted to ensure proper exposure of the flash.

Redirecting Sunlight

I captured the cowboy image with my Nikon D70s and an 80-200mm Nikkor lens for the model’s portfolio. After taking an incident meter reading of the ambient sunlight, with the dome facing the camera, I bounced the sunlight onto a small zebra/white reflector from California Sunbounce (www.sunbounce-usa.com) toward the model. The Sunbounce has a rectangle design with a tightly woven gold-and-silver material that adds a beautiful even glow to all my outdoor images. An incident reading records the actual light falling on the subject, thus a black will record black and a white will record white, not gray. Had I taken a meter reading from within the camera, the blacks and whites in the image would have recorded as gray.

If clouds had covered the ambient sunlight, I would have used Hensel’s new VISIT MPG 1500 portable outlet and bounced a strobe into the reflector for the same effect. I favor Hensel equipment, but the VISIT portable outlet can be used with any brand of lights. The image shows how sculpting of the face and a slight tilt of the camera can add a dramatic effect.

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