Light up a story
David Palumbo adds drama.
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).
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