Subject-to-light relationship

As you can see here from the model's shadow, the light in this image is
about 45 degrees off-axis, but she is directly facing the light. This again
gives us an overall 'flat' effect.

So far, we've looked at the effects of changing the position of the light. Yet the final look of any image is also influenced by the relationship of the subject to the light source. If we place the light source off-axis but have the model looking directly into the light (as shown above), the effect will be very similar to the on-axis light with forward-facing model image we saw earlier.

In a typical 'three quarter' lighting setup, the light source is postioned about 45 degrees off-axis.

Now look at what happens if we have the model positioned so that her body faces a light that is now 90 degrees off-axis from the camera lens. This commonly used effect - known as side lighting or split lighting - creates a more dramatic look. Notice how the definition of facial features and even the folds of the dress have changed; the side-lit image has much deeper and more pronounced shadows.

A basic example of side lighting, also referred to as split lighting.

Compare this side-lit image to the one at the top of this page. Although the pose and disposition of the model is  similar, the light has been moved directly to the model's side, 90 degrees off-axis.

In this shot of the side lighting setup you can see the light is positioned at a 90 degree axis to the camera lens with the model's body facing directly towards it.

Let's take a look at another example of side lighting. With the light illuminating the model from a nearly 90 degree angle, and her upper body turned at a 45 degree angle to the camera, the result is dramatic. There are distinct shadows defining the model's facial structure, arms and figure. Compare this image to the previous  examples; the contours are much more pronounced.

Here, the light is positioned to the side of the model, whose body is
rotated about halfway between the camera and the light source. This
produces a more stylized look with deep, defined shadows.

Using Contrast

We've seen how using a single light source can lead to a variety of relatively simple looks. But limiting yourself to a single light does not mean you cannot go for more sophisticated lighting effects. 

This image was lit using a similarly minimalistic single-light technique.

Contrast is a primary source of visual drama. It is created through the separation of dark and bright tones in an image. Consequently, it's easy to create dramatic images when using a small number of lights; in such a situation, things that are not expressly illuminated will likely be rather dark.

The image above was created with a single light source projecting an angled cone of light onto the background. This produces a strongly shadowed image with high contrast. I also used the contours of the light cone and the model's shadow on the background as compositional elements. The crispness of the image comes in part from the delineation of the model's silhouette against the brightly lit wall behind her. This would not be quite as pronounced or effective if her arm and body had been lit with a fill light.

Here is the light setup used to create the image above. A single light in a simple reflector projects a conical swatch of illumination on the background.

I hope that these examples inspire you to experiment on your own with a single light setup. Working in this way is one of the best methods I know to develop a clear understanding of what the equipment at your disposal can be used for, and what each lighting modifier brings to the mix.


Thomas Park is a fashion / fine art photographer and educator based in Seattle, Washington. To follow his work, please visit http://www.thomasparkphoto.com

Models and crew: Melissa Ann, hair and makeup by Calvy Tran.  Melissa wears a hat by Thomas Park (top) and a dress by Poleci. Jessica Arden, makeup by Calvy Tran, hair by Jessee Skittrall @ Absolut Hair (absoluthair.com).  Jessica is wearing Costume National.