When I completed Strobist as a project in 2021, I promised to check back in when I had something worth sharing. Today, I’m announcing my new book, The Traveling Photographer’s Manifesto, which seeks to do for traveling photographers what Strobist always tried to do for lighting photographers.

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SLC-1L-03: Need Light With More Edge?
Aim It Away From Your Subject.

The two photos above have the same light source, same light location and same white background. The only difference in the second photo is that the light has been aimed differently. Pointing your light away from your subject (i.e., using the edge of the beam) is a quick way to sculpt much more interesting light for a head shot or portrait.

But how far away do you need to aim it? Further than you'd think. And finding the nice edge to your light is definitely a game of inches.

Here's how to do it.

Living Room Head Shot

These photos were done as a quick head shot for Raksa Lim, who is studying acting in college and already gaining parts in local productions for stage and TV. He was auditioning for a true crime series and needed a recent head shot.

The light source was an LP 180 speedlight in an inexpensive 24-inch pop-up softbox. (We'll talk more about inexpensively adapting speedlights to softboxes here soon.)

The background was a piece of medium white foam core, "A-clamped" to a light stand. Everything was cheap and simple. And that background could just as easily been a white wall, if we had a white wall, which we didn't.

Here is a frame from the earlier shots, using the softbox in a typical way. Not only is it lighting Raksa's entire head, but it is also lighting the foam core background. In short, this is exactly what you'd expect from this combo.

And this is fine, as an identifier. But after doing this, I wanted some variations with a little more mood and drama. So to get that, we are going to feather our light.

Feathering Light

Feathering is a lighting term for when you use the edge of a light's beam, rather than the center of the beam. Feathering not only gives you control of your background tones, but can also be used to create drama or mystery with light on the subject itself.

To do this, the first thing you need is a light source that has an edge. In other words, not an umbrella. Light from an umbrella goes off like a hand grenade, hitting everything around it.

If you want light that is both soft and has an edge to work with, a softbox is an ideal modifier. The light it emits is more controllable than that of an umbrella.

And we are going to work with the edge of the edge of that soft box's beam. Meaning, the beam of light will disappear as it is revealing the lit side of Raka's face.

Here's how it looks:

I like to think of this kind of light as discovering someone's face. When you see it in the wild, it is almost always fleeting. Think of someone emerging through a doorway from a dark room into a bright room. This kind of light is usually momentary, and transitional. And also very cool.

You can also create light kinda similar to this with an umbrella, by using a cutter (like a piece of poster board) to partially block the light from the umbrella from hitting all of the lit side of the face. Or even from hitting the top of the head if you are trying to tone down a bright forehead, for instance.

But the light from the edge of the beam from a softbox usually creates a nicer and more controllable gradient for this kind of look.

Where Do I Aim It?

Short answer: further away than you would think. Assuming you are not using a grid on the softbox, which further constricts the beam of light, you should assume the light is radiating out in a 180-degree pattern from the front panel.

Of course, it is brighter near the center of the beam than at the edges. But that outer light is still there. In fact, all we are using is the outer light on the side of the beam. Because that light is falling off quickly, and thus is more interesting.

Okay, here is a pullback of the shot above.

I've aimed it further away than you thought, right? And not only that, but I am aiming it up as well.

This is to feather it not only off of Raksa's face, but also to let it fall off as it heads down his body. I am trying to put his face in the most interesting part of the light.

Really, if you are doing it right you are aiming the light so far away that it's almost comical. Your subject might think you're an idiot, until they see the pictures on the back of the camera.

But exactly how far should you turn it away from your subject? An overhead diagram will quickly sort this out.

Consider the face in this diagram has three zones that we are interested in, with respect to the light.

Zone A is the shadow (camera left) side of the face, transitioning to shadow. That transtion happens because the face itself will block the light as you move further left. I.e., the light (in the camera left shadow area) is behind the face.

Zone B is the center of the face, which can see the light, albeit at a thin angle, at camera right.

Zone C is the highlight-to-shadow transition that is happening because the camera right side of the face is wrapping around behind line that is the extension of the front plane of the softbox. In this shadow area, the face is literally disappearing behind the light.

So no matter where you are physically positioning your light, you want to rotate the light away from the face so Zone C is the intersection point where the face is going behind a line that extends from the front plane of the light.

A Game of Inches

Consider these three photos. The one at center is what I am going for. In the frame at left, I have rotated the light about an inch further towards Raksa's face.

This is a huge difference, from a slight move. And there is nothing wrong with the shot at left, if you are merely trying to control the spill on the white background. But his face is not in the "emerging into the light" zone yet.

In the one at right I have rotated it about an inch more away from Raksa's face. There's no getting around this one though. You are further out of the beam than where you want to be.

If you have a big enough backdrop, you can just move your subject a bit to contain them within the best zone rather than constantly adjusting your light.

Tip: when they are in the right place, tell them to close their shadow side eye, and remember how much of the light they can see with their open, light-side eye. Then they can always duplicate this positon even if they rotate their head for another frame, by closing one eye and readusting their position.

Other Things to Consider

Can you see how dark the subject is in the right frame of the triptych above? It costs you a lot of light to do this, because you are wasting most of it out into space.

Which also means you have to pay attention to the shadow side walls in the room, too. You don't want to be close to a white wall over there. It'll just throw that stronger, center-beam light right back at your subject and ruin your contrast.

Look again at the BTS pic above. You can see that because I am feathering the light up as well, the ceiling is catching a lot of center-beam light.

That's another consideration and something you may have to control to get back your deep shadows. Just so you know that your environment can really come into play here.

Start Simple, Then Stretch

Head shot on white: done. Darker, moodier head shot: done. Now let's switch it up and try for something different.

I killed the flash and worked with just the room's ambient light. There was a mirror on the wall, which provided something nebulous and "not seamless" for a backdrop.

Using the room's overhead light (which is my living room was actually designed to create nice light for photos) we did a few environmental head shots.

I've been experimenting lately with fast, 3rd party lenses for my Fuji X cameras. This is with a Zhong Yi Speedmaster II 35mm f/0.95 lens. I only use it for one thing: shooting wide open to make my Fuji's APS-C chip look like a much bigger chip.

And for that, the lens works great. It's never gonna be confused for a Leica Noctilux. But it also costs less than the tax on a Noctilux. So it's got that going for it, which is nice.

The point with this last photo is to use the fact that you already have the photos you were planning for safely in the can. So you have everything to gain (and nothing to lose) by stretching a little bit to make something different: different light, different background, different focal length, etc.

This last idea really has nothing to do with light per se. But it is one of the best rules to consistently follow as a photographer. After you have gotten what you want, spend the last ten minutes looking for something completely different.

At worst, you lose nothing. At best, you'll chuck everything you did before that last setup. And most likely, you'll end up with something that looks like it came from a completely different shoot.

FROM: Strobist Lighting Cookbook, One Light


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