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02.05.2014
© 2013 Lindsay Adler

© 2013 Lindsay Adler

Choosing the Right Light Modifier & Quality of Light

When your job is to flatter your portrait subjects, you need as many tools in your photographic toolbox as possible so you are prepared for any features, and any ‘flaws’.

I think it is important to mention that I am not judging people’s appearance. As a fashion photographer, I often get to photograph what society considers “ideal” forms of beauty. What I notice time and time again, however, is that certain models’ “flaws” are what make them unique and memorable. In fact, there are several supermodels with so-called flaws like gapped-teeth, unusual noses, and more.

What matters is not what society says is ‘perfect’ but instead how your subjects perceives themselves. You want them to feel confident, attractive and proud of the images you provide them. You want to help them reduce anything they are self-conscious about and help their expression glow in their images.

In Part 1 of this blog series I discussed how lens choice can help flatter more pronounced features of a person’s face including a more pronounced nose, chin or forehead.

Now, let’s discuss how choice of a light modifier and quality of light can make a significant impact on your subject’s appearance.

The quality of light you select will have a profound impact on your image and change the fundamental appearance of the frame.

Let’s look primarily at contrast. When you select a modifier for a studio strobe, you are controlling the contrast of this image. A small silver reflector dish will be an extremely contrasty light source. An extremely large softbox will be very diffused.

How does this effect your portrait? Think of it like this. When you drag the contrast slider in Lightroom or Photoshop to increase contrast, what happens to your image? The highlights become brighter, and the shadows become darker. You can drag the contrast so far the the whites become blown out (pure white with no detail) and the blacks loose detail (solid black with no detail.)

Some images look fantastic in high contrast. I have always loved high contrast black and white portraits. For a woman, if you go very over-exposed and high contrast black and white, the portrait seems timeless. For a man, a high contrast image can help you get a grungy look.

High contrast, however, is not flattering for certain types of subjects. A high contrast modifier changes the quality of light in the image. A person with wrinkles will appear to have more defined, deeper wrinkles. The high contrast of the light makes the shadows in the wrinkles darker. A person with blemishes will see them more defined in high contrast light. A person with oily skin will appear to have even oilier skin with blown out highlights. In this situations, a softer modifier is preferable.

*Note: In all images show, there is no retouching unless specifically noted! This helps you to better see the true results of changes in light!

Let’s take a look at a great example of how this would work on someone with oily skin. For this portrait, this woman warned me of her slightly oily skin and how she wanted to reduce this in her portrait. I started by provided blotting papers. These papers are only a few dollars at a local pharmacy or grocery store, and are great for soaking up the skins oils just before a shoot. This, however, was not enough in this situation. I needed to choose my light carefully to flatter her.

First, I wanted to emphasize her lovely jawline so I selected a contrasty modifier, a small silver reflector dish. With doing so, the oily sections of her skin became completely overexposed. As you can see here, the highlights are lost and the skin is not flattered.

© 2013 Lindsay Adler

© 2013 Lindsay Adler

Next, I opted for a 3×4 softbox. As you can see this vastly improved the contrast on the face by diffusing the light. By diffusing the light, the highlight detail of the skin in maintained and the tones throughout the face remain similar and give an gentler look to the photograph.

© 2013 Lindsay Adler

© 2013 Lindsay Adler

While this change in modifier and quality of light made a drastic impact, I also did a bit in Photoshop to clean up the skin and smooth everything out.

Each of your skills as a photographer (lighting, posing, photoshop) will all become essential elements for flattering any subject.

© 2013 Lindsay Adler

© 2013 Lindsay Adler

Let’s look at one more example of quality of light making a drastic difference for flattering a subject.

When a subject has defined wrinkles, opt for softer light and avoid it raking across the face. Instead, the light should have less contrast and be flatter to the face. Angle of light and quality of light should all aim to draw attention away from the texture and depth of the wrinkles.

For this woman, I started with a silver reflector dish illuminating her face. This high contrast modifier is simply unflattering. It really emphasizes wrinkles and skin texture. The high contrast makes the shadow areas go darker, and therefore look more defined and deeper.

© 2013 Lindsay Adler

© 2013 Lindsay Adler

Instead, in this shot I selected a 3x4ft softbox and the difference is drastic. Because the contrast has been minimized, my eye is drawn less to the contours of her wrinkles. The wrinkles, however, are still visible. Everything is softer, but certainly not eliminated.

© 2013 Lindsay Adler

© 2013 Lindsay Adler

I decided to soften the light to an extreme, and use completely bounced light (as soft as I could get it). I sat the subject in front of a window, with the window to her back. Next, I placed a large white V-flat (large white foam core reflector) directly behind me. This would catch the window light and softly bounce it into her face.

© 2013 Lindsay Adler

© 2013 Lindsay Adler

As you can see, this gave an even softer look to the image and helped to reduce attention drawn to the wrinkles. This light is broad, soft and diffused.

© 2013 Lindsay Adler

© 2013 Lindsay Adler

Finally, I was able to take this image one more step further my doing some subtle retouching. When I retouch for portraits, I still want my subject to look like themselves and the appropriate age, but seek to make them look fresh and energetic with my retouches.

If you enjoyed the information provided here, be sure to check out my Kelby Training “Photographing Anyone’s Good Side”, which will be available in March of 2014 with all of this information, retouching and much more. Furthermore, if you’ll be making it out to WPPI this year, please be sure to make it to my platform class sponsored by Sigma called “How to Flatter Anyone, No Really Anyone!”

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  1. Great article as always Lindsay. Very informative.