LIGHTING STRATEGIES: Placing a Hard Key Light
Hard light and faces... do they go together? The short answer is yes... but be careful!
By Art Adams | December 13, 2011
The most important thing you will ever learn about lighting is this: LIGHTING IS NOT A FORMULA. Learning about lighting, though, is a process of becoming aware, and in this first of many articles I'm going I'm going to try to increase your awareness of one specific thing per article. The more awareness you have the more easily you'll be able to adapt your lighting to your circumstances because you'll see, with your own eyes, what you need to do to make an image that satisfies your inner artist.
I think the best place to start is with classical key light placement. This knowledge is not something you will use verbatim as this is not a style that is in vogue at the moment. The underlying principles, however, should be of daily benefit.
In film school we all learn about the key light, fill light and backlight. We're typically shown a setup where a key light is placed 45 degrees to one side of the camera and raised high and tilted down toward the subject at a 45 degree angle. The fill light is placed in the same position on the opposite side of the camera. The backlight, or hair light, is opposite the camera, behind the subject.
This is a great way to learn the basics of lighting as long as you can grasp what the lights do and then completely forget everything about this formula. Lighting is not about formulas, it is about seeing. Formulas can be a trap. Learn from them, but don't rely on them.
There are almost infinite variations of this setup and other setups that deviate completely from this plan. The goal in my upcoming "Lighting Strategies" series is to open your eyes to some lighting techniques and strategies that I had to learn the hard way--because there are very few people who can communicate what they do artistically to another person. There are a lot of DPs who can tell their crew what they want, but if they had to tell another DP how they did it they'd fail miserably. I find that really frustrating, so I'm going to try to fill that void.
One of the hardest things to do is to light a face well with hard light, because hard light brings out details that not every face wants revealed: bumps, pores, imperfectly-formed noses, wrinkles... everything that can go "wrong" with a face shows up really well under hard light.
A hard light is defined as a light source that appears small in relation to the subject and casts a sharp shadow. This can be a small light up close or a big light far away. (I'll go into soft and hard light in another article.)
I believe that the origin of the "traditional" hard key light placement came from the old studio days of the 1930s when it was most common to light from a lighting grid placed over the set. Film speeds were quite slow and the lights used were quite big, and the easiest way to power them and keep them out of the shot was to hang them. This is probably where the 45-degree downward-facing key light came from, as this angle is one of the more pleasing for hardlit faces.
I'm not going to talk about fill or backlight in this article. I'm going to focus strictly on classical methods of placing hard key lights. We'll get to other lights, and mixing lights, in future articles.
Before we get into details you should understand the concept of "Rembrandt lighting."
Rembrandt most often lit his subjects by placing them near a north-facing window that was higher than they were. This did two things:
(1) A north-facing window in Europe almost never receives direct sun. This ensured that the subject was lit with the same quality of soft indirect light all day long.
(2) The height of the window caused the light to cast shadows along the "smile line," the invisible line that connects the corner of the nose to the corner of the mouth.
This kind of facial modeling is the hallmark of classical portrature, and it was only natural that this technique should find its way into early filmmaking.
On the following pages I'm going to illustrate some concepts using the software package Poser 9. It's easier for me to putter around on my computer and construct demos than it is to plan out everything that I want to show and then hire a model and try to shoot it all, so I hope you'll forgive the virtual nature of these illustrations. Also, I'm not going to show you lighting diagrams because I want you to figure out how to place the lights yourself. I'll give you a tip for observing where others place their lights, but not until the last page.
On to our first example. Turn the page...
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