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Lighting 102: Angle

Abstract: Working in an environment of controlled fill light opens up all kinds of options for your key light.

The legibility from our fill light doesn't call attention to itself. It just makes your other light look that much better. It introduces a balance; a range; a relationship between the two lights.

Think of it like a backup band behind a soloist: the band is there to fill in the gaps, add background and make the soloist sound even better. Fill light is the music machine to your drunken karaoke key light.

So just like we did in Lighting 101, lets take a walk around the block and explore some lighting angles. For consistency, we are going to keep the same key light source for every photo on this page. So it is just about the lighting angles — i.e., no other variables.

For the record, I am using a small Photek Softlighter as my key light modifier. It's similar to an umbrella in design, but it lights more like a circular soft box (think: small version of a 60" Octa light).

The difference is that it has a black backing and a front baffle. So it doesn't emit any raw spill light from the back or sides. This will help us to better see the effects of our key light on our subjects without worrying about contaminating our backgrounds with raw light spilled from the umbrella.

I'm working with a fairly deep level of fill here, too. After all, we want to look at the effects of moving our key light around. I am probably 2.5-3 stops down on the fill. The jacket is going to black. The shadows on Dean's face will go dark—but not quite black.


Leading off, and pictured at top, is your basic Rembrandt key light. It is 45 or so degrees to camera left and 45 degrees up. Classic look.

It's popular, because it sculpts the shadow side of the face very nicely. See that triangle of light on the shadow-side eye? That's the tip-off that you are using Rembrandt lighting.

But we are not being forced into using this safe light, because our shadows are already spoken for. (Thank you, Dr. Fill.) Look at the shadow side of Dean's face. It's there, but it is not there. And remember, I set the shadows pretty deep because we are looking at the key light.

So let's push past Rembrandt a bit, shall we?

Camera Right: Oblique

Let's flip it and light our subject from the opposite side of their face. This is sometimes referred to as "broad" lighting (the opposite, AKA Rembrandt, being "short lighting"). But I tend to think of it as oblique lighting. Same thing, just a more geometrical term.

This lighting style will tend to widen the face's appearance a bit. But it can also make from of a thoughtful, evocative portrait. It's also great for hiding your light's reflection in a subject's glasses. Seriously, it works like a charm.

On-Axis and High

I internally think of this as a "topper." The light is between Dean and the camera, on axis, but high up and pointing straight down. Again, a little different shape to the face. You can see it in the camera-right cheekbone, for instance. And you can also see the background darkening to just about our fill light level because it is now our of the beam of the key light.

Our fill light is keeping his eyes from going all raccon-dark. It is also providing the catchlight, where the eyes would otherwise be black. And again, that fill can be at whatever level we want.

Back Camera Left: Profile Light

Profile lighting is its own animal. Little differences in the light position can make a big difference here. But usually, it is better to be a little "behind" the face that straight-on 90 degrees off camera with the light.

Go ahead and try it, you'll quickly see it gives your subject a better shape. As for the adjustments, do you want to light the camera-side ear or not? Your choice. It's all about the light position.

But either way, they both look much better with that fill. Now it is not all about a stark-lit profile (which can be nice, to be sure). But rather, more about nuance and how much you reveal. It's much more painterly.

And once you start working this way—with fill light—every one-light profile portrait you see will forever look like if came from a student portfolio.


Using two lights, set your fill light pretty deep and repeat this key light walkaround. Try some angles I did not include here: maybe go low and off to the side. Push the profile light a little more back behind the subject. Pull it forward.

What you should find: the fill light greatly increases the number of angles where key light looks pretty cool on your subject. The fill light is giving you the safety and freedom to explore.

Next: Distance


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