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Wednesday, 03 March 2010 11:05

Mastering the Art of Lighting Faces

Written by  Daron Keet
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Daron KeetsLearn the craft of lighting faces to artistically impact the mood of a scene from Cinematographer Daron Keet.

Cinematographer Daron Keet

Cinematographer Daron Keet

A black screen fades into a high-angled pool of light shining down…casting deep shadows into the eyes. The camera pulls back to reveal the foreboding silhouette of Marlon Brando. Contrasting beyond the darkened ominous interior, the camera cuts to a bright, sunny wedding scene enveloped in glorious kodachrome tones. That’s how master cinematographer Gordon Willis illuminated Paramount’s iconic opening sequences to The Godfather.

Marlon Brando Photo courtesy of Paramount

Marlon Brando’s shadowed eyes in Paramount’s The Godfather

I have always been fascinated with controlling the falling of light and shadow onto faces. Mastering the art and craft of lighting faces is about learning how to control every aspect of the light, or lack of light, in order to artistically impact the visual mood and emotions of a scene. The glorious history of lighting started with mere reflectors redirecting the sun. It progressed to rudimentary military searchlights used in the early studio system. Later came sodium vapor lamps, which lamp operators controlled with boat gaff sticks. Hence boat gaff sticks gave rise to the term gaffer, now ascribed to the chief lighting electrician on a film set. Today gaffers have a wide range of sophisticated lights to help control, shape and stylize exactly how cinematographers choose light to fall onto faces.

With the advancement of both digital sensors and film stock sensitivity, cinematographers are now able to work at lower light levels than ever before. This has opened the door for use of softer light sources, which are in fact far more forgiving in lighting faces than hard light sources. Because cinematographers of the past honed their craft in an era of hard source lights, they naturally gleaned a greater knowledge in understanding the shape of a face, cheekbone structure, jaw line strength, eye socket depth, hair length and so forth. As a result, I draw a lot of personal inspiration into my own craft from the master cinematographers of the hard source lighting generation.

The strategy I utilize for lighting faces is as follows:

* I first decide on my camera angles for staging of the actor in the scene.

* I then establish which direction I want the light and shadow to fall onto the actor’s face, and the surrounding scene.

* I then logically motivate the direction of the light with on-set practical props, such as candles, lamps, window frames etc, in order to support the scheme of my intended lighting direction.
Photo by Daron Keet

Look at the actor’s face on the set and decide which direction you want the light to come from

* Once my key light is established, I add a supplementary fill light to control the level of detail I require in the shadows. I prefer fill light to have no source direction to it, so I usually keep it close to the camera so any potential shadow falls directly behind my talent, thereby becoming invisible. Another option implemented by master Swedish cinematographer Sven Nykvist is to use fill light from a high angle. This approach helps the shadow from the fill fall on the ground and not walls, thus lessoning the risk of casting multiple shadows. I personally like to keep my shadow level at about two and two-thirds of a stop under my key light exposure.

* Because eyes are the windows to the soul, I’ll then consider supplementing my lighting with an eye light, unless the key light is already doubling up as an eye light.

Photo by Daron Keet

Eye light draws you into the performance

When I use eye lights I keep the exposure at around 3 stops below my key light, as eye lights are merely to reflect twinkle highlights into the eye, not as instruments to cast exposure into the eye. I only use eye lights on close-ups, never on wide shots, as wide shots are for creating overall visual mood, while close-ups are about reinforcing the connection between the audience and the actor.

I always position eye lights at reflection angles. To best understand reflection angles in positioning eye lights, imagine that if you point the camera at a mirror stuck flat onto an actor’s face, the camera should see the eye light reflected in the mirror. Eyes work like mirrors, so when you position the eye light in the reflected angle, you maximize the reflection into an eye’s moist surface.

Remember the theory that the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection. This means that the angle at which the light hits a flat surface will be equal to the angle at which it bounces away from the flat surface. The angle the light wave hits the flat surface is called the angle of incidence. The angle at which the light rays rebounds from the flat surface is called the angle of reflection.

* I then choose which movie lights to use. My lighting unit decision is based on what will best replicate the quality, intensity, color temperature and distance away from a subject I require the light to be. (The further you move your light away the harder the facial shadows; the closer the light the softer the shadows).

What I’ve learnt from master Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro is that the best way to sculpt light with a strong definitive separation between light and shadow is to keep lights far away so they become small sources like the sun. If you have lights close to actors you get an unavoidable midrange penumbra of ambient fill light. Lighting from a distance eliminates atmospheric fill light and allows you to cut shadows sharper. Bringing lights closer creates a bigger source in relationship to a face, creating more wrap light into the shadows, reinforcing the softer overall lighting scheme.

The classic lighting angle setups I primarily use are as follows: front light, three-quarter front light, side light, under light, backlight and overhead light.

Front light
Front lighting is very flattering—it fills in wrinkles and blemishes and as a result has been utilized as the primary beauty lighting angle of the modern era.
Photo by Daron Keet

 Front light is very flattering when used as beauty light

Photo courtesy of YBG Productions

Front light fills in blemishes and wrinkles

I am not a huge fan of front light as it lacks good modeling characteristics. The front light I utilize most is butterfly lighting, made famous on the face of Marlene Dietrich.

Photo courtesy of Paramount

Butterfly lighting used on the face of Marlene Dietrich

The name of this lighting style stems from the butterfly shadow cast under the nose from the lighting angle. The position of this light is behind the camera centered onto the face, high enough to create shadows under the chin, but not too high that it can’t reach into the eye sockets.
Photo by Daron Keet

Butterfly lighting defines the jawbone and cheekbone structure

For actors who suffer from turkey neck syndrome with wrinkles and skin flaps under the neck, butterfly lighting is very appropriate in shadowing these blemishes out. This is also the most effective key light angle in helping define and strengthen the jawbone and accent the cheekbone. The higher you position this light the narrower you’ll make a face appear, while the lower you go, the rounder the face.

Three-quarter front light
Three-quarter front lighting is affectionately termed Rembrandt lighting after the master artist. The three-quarter front lighting angle casts a triangle shadow below the eye on the shadow side of the face.

Photo by Daron Keet

Rembrandt lighting casts a triangle shadow under the shadowed eye

The human eye perceives the world in a three-dimensional perspective. Movie cameras capture information in a two-dimensional perspective. Because Rembrandt lighting adds modeling perspective to faces, it is a great lighting angle to reinforce the illusion of capturing a three-dimensional subject onto a two-dimensional format.

Side light
Before the Renaissance and Baroque periods, paintings were flat, two-dimensional images on canvas. Then came along master painter Caravaggio who utilized side lighting in his work and influenced an entire movement known as chiaroscuro—the Italian word for ‘light and shade’—whereby a face is framed half lit, half shadowed. Caravaggio hired actors to play the parts of the people represented in his paintings. He controlled and placed actors in specific lighting setups to formulate interplays of light against dark, in order to create contrast and separation. By extrapolation of his enormous influence on the art of lighting, I affectionately consider Caravaggio to be cinema’s first cinematographer.

Side lighting gives you the greatest amount of contrast and is most appropriate for a dramatic look. The angle of the light exacerbates wrinkles, imperfections and surface texture. The use of half light/half shadow on an actor’s face is an interesting technique to juxtapose the internal conflict of an actor’s good versus sinister side, through use of the metaphors light/dark, revelation/concealment.

Photo by Daron Keet

Side lighting at a 90-degree angle creates half light/half shadow

My favorite side lighting angle is slightly forward of 90 degrees onto the actor’s face. I usually raise the side light to a height that allows its light to just reach over the bridge of the nose and into the eye socket of the shadow side of the face, without touching the cheek of the shadow side.

Photo by Daron Keet

Side lighting with the light positioned to reach into the eye socket of the shadow side of the face

Under light
Under light is illumination that comes from an angle below eye level. Traditionally, under light has been given a bad rap as a type of horror lighting and is considered an unglamorous key light angle.

Photo by Daron Keet

 Photo by Daron Keet

Under light is used primarily for horror lighting

I find that soft under light that comes from just beneath eye level is in fact very glamorous and flattering on women and children. Under light is a very effective lighting angle for illuminating the eye sockets, and in particular for actors wearing hats. One of my favorite under light angles is called an “angel’s touch”— it is positioned onto a face from below eye level and from the side. It casts a vertical highlight onto the indentation between the nose and the upper lip, creating an ethereal effect on women. I usually have my angel’s touch light at 1 stop or more below my key light exposure.

Photo by Daron Keet  

 Photo by Daron Keet

Angel’s touch lighting kisses highlights into the indentation of the nose and upper lip

Back light
Back light will desaturate and mute faces. Back light separates the face from the background and helps create the illusion of depth.

Photo by Daron Keet

Back light with some return bounce fill light               

Photo by Daron Keet

Back light will desaturate and mute tones

I like to keep my back light at approximately a 45-degree angle, so the light kisses the cheeks, but never quite reaches far enough around to touch the nose. A back light hitting the nose is my pet peeve. I also like the height of the back light to be at least at a 45-degree angle onto the back of the actor’s face, to avoid shoulder or shirt collar shadows cast onto the side of an actor’s neck.

 Photo by Daron Keet

Back light is also an effective tool to light fog, water and rain

Photo by Daron Keet

Back light should be 45 degrees in height and angle to avoid shirt collar shadows cast onto the side of an actor’s neck

 Photo by Daron Keet

Balding heads don’t take well to back light as you end up with head reflection issues

A secondary type of back light is called kicker light, as it allows you to kick in some additional accent light exactly into the areas of the subject’s face you want to enhance. Primarily I would have my back light at 1 stop brighter than the key light, while kicker light I’d have at least three-quarters of a stop below the key light. A kicker light’s effectiveness is in regards to its reflected angled, rather than the physical illuminating output. While my back light is primarily situated at 45- degree angles to the subject, I usually set my kicker light just back of a 90-degree angle onto the face. I usually turn all my other lights off when setting a kicker light, so I’m able to see exactly where the kick pops out onto the skin. I always use barn doors or solid flags to cut kicker spill light hitting the nose.

Overhead light
Overhead light broke into cinematic vogue in the mid-70s following its groundbreaking use by master cinematographer Gordon Willis. Gordon Willis turned the idea of illuminating eye sockets on its head in The Godfather, where he deliberately had Marlon Brando’s eyes shaded, to prevent the audience from seeing what was going on emotionally in his head. When I set positions for overhead light, I in fact prefer it a little closer to the camera than directly over the actor’s head, so that the light seeps into the eye sockets yet maintains its top- down directional character. If I find the scene requires the overhead light to be a little steeper right over the head, I set a separate eye light to illuminate the eyes.

Photo by Daron Keet

 Photo by Daron Keet

Overhead light creates a pool of shadow under the eyes. Here I set a separate eye light at 3 stops below the key light

In conclusion, anyone can switch on lights and flood out a face with flat frontal light, but don’t forget that shadows create dimension, perspective and mystery. What is concealed in shadows is as telling as what is revealed in light. The light or shadow on a face should always be motivated and simple. Remember that one strategically placed light will ultimately be more efficient than multiple badly positioned lights.

Lighting is subjective, thus nothing is right or wrong. If you make the effort to understand the science of light, and master lighting angles and techniques, you will dramatically improve your skill in lighting faces, and in recreating the visual mood and emotion you intended for your audience.

To contact Daron go to his website at:

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