Newman’s Own: Attributes of Portrait Lighting

During the month of June I was able to take some night classes with Utah’s own Dave Newman.  Dave is an amazing internationally recognized photographer.  He has received his Master Photographer degree, and Photographic Craftsman, and is the author of Professional Portrait Lighting.  During our class we studied studio and natural light, and practiced all types of posing for portraits.

I love taking classes and Dave’s was no exception.  There were some points definitely worth sharing, enjoy!  (Warning: the first three paragraphs are a bit technical.  If you aren’t interested in the “how to get there” and you’d rather just arrive, feel free to skip ahead to the star:))

First, let’s look at lighting ratios. If you place a light directly in front of your subject there isn’t a ratio at all. This is flat lighting, or a straightforward exposure. This can come from diffused light from studio strobes, or from a window.  However, if you put the light right in front of your subject, and right in front of your subject is the camera angle, there is no dimension to your subject.  The subject is the same exposure from the forehead to the chin, and ear to ear.  This is fine, however if you are trying to tell the story of an upset or melancholy man for example, making a difficult decision, then this type of lighting is not appropriate.  It has no dimension, and tells a very flat story.

When two lights are used, such as a main and a fill, things get more interesting.  A person gains character, body, and dimension.  When there is an f-stop difference between the main light and the fill light, the light ratio is said to be 2:1. To determine the light ratio, I point the meter at the light source and not the camera. When the readout of the two strobes shows a one f-stop difference (shutter speed isn’t a factor here), such as between f/11 and f/16, then I have 2:1 ratio.

In the portrait studio, the terms 2:1, 3:1, 4:1 or 5:1 express ratio or intensity of one light level compared to another striking the subjects face.  In portraiture most digital printing responds nicely to 3:1 because printers are only able to print 5 stops of light. (I believe our eyes can see somewhere around 24 stops of light, so we need to control the print even though we enjoy so much more.)  A 3:1 ratio simply means three units of light strike the subjects face additively on the highlight side, while only one unit of light strikes the shadow side.  It follows then that the fill light, which strikes both sides, is only one-half the intensity of the key-light.

*  So the real important take away from this for me is to make sure I have ratios in my photography. When I’m out on location and using natural light, turn my subjects so that the light hits one side of the face before the other.  I might need a reflector depending on the time of day, the light falling off too fast, and the story I’m trying tell with the portrait.  I also might need to meter the face so that the ratio is what I want it to be from one side to the other.

The second point from my class I want to touch on is to make sure you have Lateral lighting. This is more obvious in the studio then outside, but on location if using natural light, lateral lighting is as equally important.  Dave suggests using your hand and placing it above your subjects eyes.  If there eyes shade over then there isn’t enough lateral side light coming in to light the eyes and light needs to be added.  This can produce a dead eye look that is very unflattering in a portrait. Lateral lighting is important as it helps to convey shape and form and give dimension.

The last point from my class I wanted to address is what Dave called Stumatura (honestly I’m not sure that’s how you spell it, but that’s what I wrote in my notes,) nevertheless, the meaning is “without borders.”  This refers to the transition from the lighted side of a form to the shadow side, or the 2 to the 1 referring to the ratio.   In his opinion, (and in regards to my style of shooting, I tend to agree) there should be a smooth transition from light to shadow, and not a rigid line.  Many photographers work hard to produce a natural, and comfortable look with the portraits we produce.  A smooth transition from light to shadow in a photograph adds beauty, depth, and life to the portrait.  We want shadows to help us accentuate curves, help us be thinner, give a portrait mystery, or bring out the highlights that reveal joy.  We don’t want a harsh line on a portrait to draw attention to the fact that there was a harsh line… and the photographer should have just picked up  a reflector or used a light meter.  This type of thought process distracts from the story, and the viewer misses out on the joy of the photograph.

Dave Newman’s portrait classes not only helped me better understand the need for light, shadows and ratios between them in my photography, but made me better aware of my desire to tell the right story with each and every photograph.  Stories full of feelings of mystery, compassion, love, devotion, excitement, confusion, delight and many more are best told with the perfect mix of light, shadow, dimension and shape.

I’ve included some of my work from Dave Newman’s class.  Hope you enjoy!



2 observations on “Newman’s Own: Attributes of Portrait Lighting
    1. Stephanie

      Thank you Beckie!! It was a fun class. He is a very good, and experienced teacher. We had fun:)


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