Light up a story

David Palumbo adds drama.

ImagineFX - - Contents -

Light shapes the mood of a paint­ing. How you light your model, ei­ther for pho­to­graphic ref­er­ence or live ob­ser­va­tion, will shift the tone from nat­u­ral­is­tic to melo­dra­matic or any­where be­tween. Think­ing care­fully about what mood you wish to achieve is the first step to find­ing an ef­fec­tive light­ing strat­egy.

All light­ing con­cerns come down to con­trol­ling the qual­ity and di­rec­tion of your light. Qual­ity of light mostly refers to how hard or soft the light ap­pears. Hard light casts harsh shad­ows while soft light will cast grad­ual shad­ows, pos­si­bly to the point of al­most no per­cep­ti­ble shadow. Di­rect sun­light is an ex­cel­lent ex­am­ple of hard light. Am­bi­ent light of a nearby win­dow shows soft light. Ex­treme soft light can be seen un­der an over­cast sky.

Light qual­ity re­lates to the size and dis­tance of the light source from the model. Larger light sources cre­ate softer shad­ows. For dra­matic hard light, aim an in­tense light di­rectly at the model. You can achieve a more at­mo­spheric or nat­u­ral­is­tic look by bounc­ing your light off a larger sur­face, such as a re­flec­tor, light um­brella or wall.

The di­rec­tion of light is the an­gle that light falls over the form of the sub­ject. Some ba­sic set-ups are shown here, along with a few par­tic­u­lar meth­ods that al­ways give me great, moody re­sults.

1 The­atri­cal over­head

A strong, sin­gle, hard light source di­rectly above and slightly to the front of the model or mod­els will cre­ate a spot­light ef­fect. This can give an op­er­atic level of drama to help your im­age feel big­ger than life, es­pe­cially when it is con­trasted against a darker en­vi­ron­ment.

2 In-frame light source

An in-frame light source such as a can­dle or lamp can add mys­tery and at­mos­phere, es­pe­cially when held by the model. Care­ful com­pos­ing or strate­gi­cally cov­er­ing the light source with other el­e­ments in the fi­nal com­po­si­tion will help keep the light from steal­ing the fo­cal point.

3 Edge and fill lights

Fig­ures re­ally pop with an edge light high­light­ing the con­tour, while fill light helps to in­form the shadow side. The edge light will be be­hind and pointed to­wards the cam­era, and the fill is gen­er­ally dif­fused and dim­mer (here it’s bounced off of a wall).

4 Un­der-light­ing

Be­cause we rarely see peo­ple lit from be­low, this ap­proach can give an un­nat­u­ral or fright­en­ing tone to a fig­ure. Hard un­der-light (as we can see here) will give an ag­gres­sive at­mos­phere. While in con­trast the sub­tlety of a soft light will cre­ate a more ethe­real and eerie feel.

5 Sin­gle light source ba­sics

Here are ex­am­ples of Rem­brandt, over­head, side-, un­der-, back- and in-cam­era flash light­ing. As you can see re­ally well here, the in-cam­era flash will negate most shad­ows and leave you with a flat, bor­ing, un­flat­ter­ing re­sult that’s al­most never use­ful as paint­ing ref­er­ence.

Bounce light from the white shirt A great mo­ment I would have missed with­out ref­er­ence Bright lit against a dark back­ground May need to be dimmed for bal­ance Hard edges to spotlit shad­ows

Hand-held light is of­ten also un­der-light Pos­ing mod­els to­gether in multi-fig­ure paint­ings helps im­mensely

A sim­ple clamp light would have

worked too

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