Accent Lighting for Portraits

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accent lighting

Tthanks to the wonderful Bridgette for her work as the make-up artist in this image

Studio lighting continues to mystify and bewilder many developing photographers. The intimidation of lighting ratios, modifiers, set-ups, etc… often seems as complex as deriving the quadratic equation or suffering through an explanation of Michaelis-Menten enzyme kinetics. Oh yes, for those of you biochemically privy folk, I did just go there! Well, one does not have to get lost amidst the photonic chaos if they understand how to interpret and understand the meaning of light.

Wow! Meaning of light? Sounds kind of deep and metaphysical doesn’t it? Please don’t worry! The only thing you need to remember about light is that it illuminates and creates shadows. Fairly simple, huh? We all know that when we shine a light onto something it allows us to visualize whatever is illuminated by the light. That is simple enough, right? Now, consider that behind every good light is a shadow waiting to give shape, form and dimension to your subject. This intricate interplay between what you illuminate and what you keep in shadow is what brings visual interest and creative acuity to your images. In studio lighting, this is your raw material with which you have to work and create.

There are many articles and books that describe studio lighting and as the student you may tend to focus on that main key light with simple one or two light set-ups, so we can dip our toe into the pool, so to speak, and see if the temperature is warm enough for us to dive in. A main or key light is simply the light source that is providing the primary illumination for our subject. Now, don’t get me wrong, one can create some amazingly, captivating portraits with a single light, but what if you want to add a little something extra? A little hint of spice to get some unique seasoning and flavor?

This is where accent lighting comes out to shine.

What is an accent light?

accent-lighting-01

Accent lighting is typically a very controlled light source that highlights specific areas of the subject. It can be a hair light that gives you some separation from a background, or a side light that illuminates the drops of sweat on an athlete after an intense workout. It gives some shape or form to elements of the photo allowing your eyes to experience the different dimensions of the image. Now, there are two important things you want to remember about accent lighting:

  1. The source should be very controlled and only hit the areas you desire
  2. It should be brighter then your main light to create a proper highlight

Easy ways to control accent lights are with modifiers such as barn doors, spot grids or small strip soft boxes. Basically, anything that will narrow and direct the beam of light coming form the light source. Heck, it could be a flashlight beam, the sun shining on the back of a subject’s head, or even the bright screen of a tablet or computer in the right conditions (yes, the eye fatigue from staring at the LCD screen is setting in). Add some colored gels to the accent lights to really make your images pop or bring some warmth into the mix.

Personally, I love adding side accent lighting to my portraits by firing my strobes into narrow V-flats (two large pieces of foam core taped together to form a v-shape) directed at the subject on either side to highlight the cheekbones and neck and really sculpt out those beautiful forms in light and shadow. The possibilities with accent lighting are truly endless, and the luminous results are absolutely stunning.

accent-lighting-02

For more on portraits and lighting check out these articles:

Update: Accent Lighting for Portraits: Diagram

As shared by Alex (the author) in comments. Here’s a lighting diagram and the comments Alex left.

original

All three images were shot with essentially the same setup against a gray seamless paper backdrop. The only major difference is the photo with the white background had two shoot through umbrellas directed across the background (one form each side) to illuminate it enough to go white.

I use a clam shell or butterfly lighting setup with two soft boxes as seen in the included image. Usually, I have my upper soft box metered to f/8 and the lower to f/5.6, but as long as they are 1-stop apart you really could shoot at any f/stop. The sidelights are fired into V-flats made of foam core that are narrowed as much as possible to only throw a sliver of light from each side of the subject. I will be honest that I do not always meter these lights and usually adjust them so that there are no blown out highlights when viewed on my LCD.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Alex Smith is a photographer and blogger out of Denver, Colorado. He is cofounder of the blog Shutterhogs.com that is dedicated towards making better photography easier for everyone. More of his work can be viewed at alexsmith88.500px.com.

  • Michael Owens

    I have three strobes (that can also be used as always on lights), and two softboxes (both with barn door attachments if needed) can you explain what the best lighting setup would be for a generic portrait?

    On a personal note, I would have liked to have seen some diagrams in this article, perhaps more examples of how different setups can make the same shot look so different.

    That’s where I struggle. Any help like that would be more beneficial to me personally, and I am sure, to other readers.

    But, thanks for the article – DPS is still where it’s at!
    Mike

    PS. I meant diagrams like in your article here. I’d love it for this one! 😀
    https://digital-photography-school.com/studio-lighting-unravelling-the-complexity-of-multiple-lights

  • Alex Smith

    Hi Michael,

    I am happy to share a basic diagram of how the images were shot. All three images were shot with essentially the same setup against a gray seamless paper backdrop. The only major difference is the photo with the white background had two shoot through umbrellas directed across the background (one form each side) to illuminate it enough to go white.

    I use a clam shell or butterfly lighting setup with two soft boxes as seen in the included image. Usually, I have my upper soft box metered to f/8 and the lower to f/5.6, but as long as they are 1-stop apart you really could shoot at any f/stop. The sidelights are fired into V-flats made of foam core that are narrowed as much as possible to only throw a sliver of light from each side of the subject. I will be honest that I do not always meter these lights and usually adjust them so that there are no blown out highlights when viewed on my LCD.

    With your three lights, I would use a main light with soft box from above with an additional silver or white reflector that could be held by the subject under the face. Then I would use the other two lights coming in from the sides with the barn doors or with standard 7-inch reflectors into V-flats (if you have access to large foam core panels) to provide the accent lighting.

    I hope this helps.

    -Alex

  • Alex Smith

    Hi Michael,

    Sorry, the image did not load the first time.

  • Michael Owens

    Excellent (although can’t see any diagram in any of your posts at this time – maybe a direct link?), and I appreciate you taking the time to reply in this manner, and again, this is the reason why I prefer DPS over any other site out there.

    I have reflectors, but no V-Flats – are they essential in directing the light to a specific area then? Are they easy to make or buying easier?

    Cheers again Alex, much appreciated!

    PS. How important is a light meter? Should I definitely pick one of those up too?

  • Michael Owens

    Ahh… its shown up here now! Thanks again Alex, much appreciated. Really, thank you!

  • Barry E Warren

    Very good tips on lighting. Thanks very much.

  • Alex Smith

    Michael,
    I sent you an email with a bit more info, but figured I should answer your question here as well. You absolutely do NOT need v-flats although they are a great inexpensive accessory to have. The barn doors you mentioned would work just fine. Also, and many would disagree with me, but a light meter is not a necessity. They are incredibly helpful, but they can be a bit pricy and it is possible to find your exposure with a little trial and error and the use of the histogram and LCD in your camera. Good luck!

    -Alex

  • Interesting article Alex. I tend to work on location so v-flats aren’t really an option for me.. but will have a go next time I’m in the studio!

  • Michael Owens

    Hi Alex,

    Thank’s again for the reply, I looked for emails, but got nothing matey. Appreciate the replies though, really helpful, and a nice kickstart for my mini home studio (with the lighting diagram you gave, much easier!).

    Maybe try emailing again btw? mrxile@hotmail.com

  • Kristina Smith

    It’s good to see such innovative idea and that really works but what more important is how well you do it to get the best results.

    Outdoor Lighting

  • Michael Owens

    Nice to comment, but not nice to plug ‘outdoor pool lighting’ in the same breath. Hmmm…. stinks of hypocrisy!

  • Antonio Vargas

    Thanks for share the diagram Alex!

  • Prophoto

    Useless article. Would have been much better to show (a) shots without accent light and then (b) shots with different accent lights. No one learned anything from this article. Pls do better next time.

  • Michael Owens

    Why are you telling me?
    I learnt from this article. If you didn’t, no one forces you to be here.

  • Anon

    Maybe you should do an article as you know better?

  • Michael O

    It was a year ago and the user is no longer active. Just a troll.

  • I really like the sculpting aspect of it.
    I’m assuming the accent lights are around eye-level to sculpt under the cheekbones.

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