short light

Portrait and lighting "rules"

Rules are meant to be broken

Many photographers and educators, myself included, present some “rules” that we follow. Today I want to write about two of them. One is about lighting and that short lighting patterns are often more flattering than a broad pattern and one about posing, that the nose should not break the cheek line.

First, a quick description of short and broad lighting patterns. With the subject’s face turned slightly to the side and with the light coming from the side the light can be placed so that it lights the narrower (short) side of the face or it can light the wider (broad)side of the face. The short side is the side where the ear is hidden and the broad side is where the ear is shown. With the subject facing to the right and the light coming from the right the short side of the face is lit and the broad side is in shadow. If the light was coming from the left the broad side would be fully lit and the short side would be in shadow.

Broad light (on the left) and short light (on the right)

Broad light (on the left) and short light (on the right)

Most photographers, including myself, tend to prefer short light for its depth and its slimming of the subject’s face. However, on a recent visit to Edinburgh, Scotland, I visited a few of their great museums, including the National Portrait Gallery and the National Art Gallery. And there I noticed that a great majority of the classical paintings were done with a broad lighting pattern. My guesstimate would be 90% broad lit, 7% flat lit (the light coming from directly in front of the subject), and only 3% short lit.

William Drummond by an unknown artist in the Portrait Gallery

William Drummond by an unknown artist in the Portrait Gallery

Elizabeth Murray by Benedetto Gennari in the Portrait Gallery

Elizabeth Murray by Benedetto Gennari in the Portrait Gallery

Rembrandt self portrait in the National Gallery

Rembrandt self portrait in the National Gallery

James Balfour by an unknown artist in the Portrait Gallery

James Balfour by an unknown artist in the Portrait Gallery

Robert Kerr by Jan Lievens

Robert Kerr by Jan Lievens

One of the closest images I could find to be short lit is this Lievens painting of Robert Kerr, but it is close to being flat lit. Is “short” lighting a modern development? Is it something that photographers think of, but not of much interest to painters? It was quite interesting to wander through the galleries in each museum and take note of all the broad lit portraits. So much for that “rule” that short lighting is most preferred.


Should the nose be allowed to break the cheek line?

Archibald Hamilton by Gavin Skirving in the Portrait Gallery

Archibald Hamilton by Gavin Skirving in the Portrait Gallery

Another “rule” I usually go by is to not let the subject’s nose break the cheek line. This one held up very well in the museum galleries. I could only find one portrait that broke this rule. That was this painting of Gavin Hamilton by Archibald Skirving, which is almost a profile image, though for a profile I tend to go by the rule of not letting the far side eye show in the image. Notice that in all of the other portraits above the subject’s nose is contained within the outline of their cheek. The reason for this is that when the nose breaks through the cheek line it tends to look larger than when it is contained.

Luckily there was a sculpture nearby that I was able to photograph from a couple of angles to help illustrate this. In the first example (sorry, I neglected to record the names of the subject or sculptor) I have framed the bust similarly to Skirvings positioning of Hamilton. In the next example I moved to the left a little bit to bring the nose back within the cheek line. You can see how less pronounced the size of the nose is by making this small change in camera or subject position.

190723-cornicello-0187.jpg

This “rule” is broken very often in modern portraiture, especially in “lifestyle” and candid photos. But it is still one rule that I try to keep following. Speaking of making the nose size less noticeable, another “trick” is to move back away from your subject. This will make the nose relatively closer to the eyes and cheeks than to the camera, thereby compressing the perspective. This also means the subject is smaller in the frame, so most times you would then switch to a longer lens to fill the frame. But recognize that the longer lens didn’t compress the scene, the physical act of moving back did that. The lens just changed the field of view, filling the frame with the more compressed image.

Another thing to look out for is a nose that is bent to one side or the other. In that case position the subject so that the bend in the nose points towards the camera so the tip of the nose is visible and not pointed away from you.

Do you have any rules that you try to stick with? Let me know in the comments.




Thanks!
John