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Weekly Video Tip: The Secret to Lighting Faces

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By Stephen Schweickart

Just take a look at any well-produced TV drama or major motion picture. They specifically position the lighting to create shadows on the actor’s faces. This adds depth as well as an extra sense of drama and intensity to the scene.

As I said before, true pros know that different lighting techniques will be better for different people. So if you’re lighting someone with a round beach ball shaped face, it may be best to use the technique called short lighting – aka narrow lighting. Simply place your key light (remember, that’s you’re main or brightest light source) facing the short side of your talent’s face – creating a 45-degree angle between the camera, talent, and your light. When I say “short side,” this usually translates to the side of the face furthest from the camera’s lens. Having the light illuminate a smaller portion of your subject’s face will make it appear narrower.

Now, if you want to add a little drama to your scene, try using the split lighting technique. People have actually been known to call this the “comic book villain” lighting style, because some comic book artists would depict their villains with this type of technique. Just like short lighting, this is achieved by changing the position of your key light in order to create a ninety-degree angle between the camera, talent, and key light source. Having your main light coming from one side of the face will create a shadow over the other side – giving it a super dramatic feel.

Finally, we saved the best for last: butterfly lighting. This lighting technique is also known as clamshell lighting and is often used to add a fashion or glamour look to your subject. This style of lighting can be very flattering on people with narrow faces and high cheekbones because there is very little shadow cast on the face. This is why it’s often used to light female subjects. Keep in mind though, that it may not be too flattering for someone with a rounder, wider face. To achieve this style, place the light behind the camera and raise it above the subject’s head. Point the light downward at your subject’s face and you should see their cheekbones accentuated and a butterfly like shape under the nose.

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