Photo Tip - How To Use A Separation Light In Portrait Photography!

Jul 11 07:41 2012 Dan Eitreim Print This Article

Most portrait photography requires three lights - the main, the fill and a separation/background light. Here is how to use a separation light in your portraits.

In our series of daily portrait photography photo tips,Guest Posting we've recently been covering portrait photography lighting patterns - and the shadows they create. Today we will cover the "background light" also known as a "separation light".

Deciding on the lighting pattern we want will determine where we place our main (key) light. Or where we place our subject in relation to a fixed light - like the sun.

Then our second light, the fill light is how we determine the depth of the shadows we created with our key light. This is where we start to insert our creativity into a portrait.

Most portrait photography requires three lights and today's photo tip will cover the third light - but first here is a side note about the fill light...

Be careful that your fill light does not create its own shadows! If you start getting shadows going both ways, it will ruin your portraits.

In most portrait photography, we use a three light setup. We've discussed the first two, now for the third light - the "background light".

The background light is also known as a separation light. It is designed to separate the subject from the background.

Not using the separation light is a common mistake that I see everywhere.

Suppose you have a subject with dark hair and you are using a dark background. No matter how perfectly you light the face with your main and fill lights, you are going to visually lose the top and sides of the head.

Put the subject in dark clothing and you end up with nothing but a floating face! If you are going for a spooky horror film effect, that may be perfect. If you want good portrait photography, you need to separate your subject from the background.

There are a few ways to do this... the obvious way is to use a light background if the subject has dark hair or is wearing dark clothing. In this instance, the background light may not be needed.

If you are using a separation light, it needs to be behind the subject, but there are two basic ways to position it.

You can position it to strike the background (most common). This creates that circle of light you frequently see on the backdrop in portraits and effectively changes the dark background to a light one and this "separates" the subject.

By putting colored gels on the light, you can actually make the background appear to be any color you want.

Another placement option is to have the light aimed not at the background, but at the subject. Doing it like this will put a rim of light all the way around the subject. The background is still dark and the subject is still dark, but the halo of light separates them.

This is a bit harder to get right, but can be a very effective and dramatic lighting technique.

You now know as much about portrait photo lighting as most professionals. In future articles, we will study specialty lights.

To practice today's photo tip, check out any portrait photography you can find and notice how the "background light" or "separation light" separates the subject from the backdrop. Try to find examples of both placements and even a sample of when the third light wasn't used (they abound - even among professional portraits).

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Dan Eitreim
Dan Eitreim

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Dan Eitreim has been a professional photographer in Southern California for over 20 years - his data base exceeds 6000 past clients, and he says that learning photography is easy, if you know a few tried and true strategies.

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