Hard Light Portraits; An Island In A Sea Of Softboxes Page 2

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Picture this. You're in a typical '70s photo studio. You hear "Kung Fu Fighting" followed by "You Light Up My Life." (I warned you about the music!) You check out the lighting setup. A bank of lights bounce into a back wall for fill. A light on a small stand with a metal tube sliced in half lights the background. Another light on a boom with a metal tube about the size of the cardboard toilet paper roll looms overhead. And what is going on with that main light over there? It looks like someone shoved a 3-foot wok over the light, put some plastic over the face, and then cut a hole in the middle of it! What the heck kind of light is that? Well, my friend, that is a parabolic light at work. And I can tell you that used properly, it will create some of the most beautiful portrait lighting you will ever see.

Let's ignore the other lights for this article and focus on the main light. Here is what's going on: The main light is being shaped by the parabolic reflector. It is controlling one of the "Qs" of light, quality. Used alone, it creates a pretty hard-edged light source. The plastic diffuser covering it softens it quite a bit. The hole in the middle? Glad you asked--that throws back a little more "punch" to the center of the light, creating a little more intensity, a sharper shadow.

Since these lights created a much narrower beam of light than softboxes, much greater care had to be taken in aiming them.

While we've had a trip down memory lane, is there anything to say you can't use parabolic light sources now? Of course not, you usually get one with each light you buy and either never use it or use it to stick your umbrella shaft through. Dig it out and give it a shot.

This is my typical lighting setup using a 4x6-foot softbox for the main light and a bounced fill. Notice the gradual transition from light to shadow area--can you see exactly where the nose shadow ends? Also notice the big catchlight in the eyes from the big light source. (Model: Neal Scott.)
This is the "hard light" version of photographer Neal Scott. Note the difference in the eyes and the well-defined nose shadow. I added a "kicker" light also on the shadow side. It does not have the drama of Jessica Scott's photos mostly because while the main and kick lights are small sources, they are not controlled with barn doors or snoots.

I believe there are a couple of reasons why "hard light portraits" have fallen out of style. First, a great educator, the late Dean Collins, showed generations of photographers how to create wonderful light with big light sources. Second, digital cameras do not have the dynamic range of negative film and can more easily capture both highlight and shadow detail when used with softer lighting.

That doesn't mean it's not right for you. While taking my sample portraits for this article, I felt like I visited an old friend. And while a lighting style will never wear bell bottom jeans, good technique never goes out of style!

Steve Bedell holds Masters and Craftsman degrees from the Professional Photographers of America. Bedell recently released an educational DVD about shooting in the sun called "Sparkle Light." For more information on the DVD or to subscribe to EPhoto, his free online newsletter for professional and advanced amateur photographers, contact Bedell via e-mail at: sb@stevebedell.com.

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