Position of Hairlight

Started 2 months ago | Discussions thread
Ed Shapiro
Ed Shapiro Forum Member • Posts: 74
Re: Position of Hairlight

Ed Shapiro wrote:

Understanding the ACTUAL function of the hair light important in
determining its placement, intensity, and aesthetics. Although
the hair light and background lights DO HELP with separation of
the subject from the background and preventing darker hair from
blending into the background, that is a secondary function. If
there is insufficient shadow detail in the hair and the
background distance, lighting and its provision of tonal or
color mass are not sufficient and properly addressed, the hair
light will no do the job all by itself and will only provide an
incongruous highlight on the hair without detail and texture.
There should be some detail in the hair even before the hair
light is placed is applied. Attention to exposure, lighting
ratio, contrast, and dynamic range is the starting point.

The job of the hair light, IN CLASSICAL PORTRAITURE, is to
some additional specular highlights and "glamorizes" the hair.
In more stylized or theatrical portraiture, the hair light may
be more intense and less subtle and maybe multi-directional
whereas in classic work it should come from the same direction
as the main light to avoid disunity of lighting.

ANGLE OF INCIDENCE- The hair light is an ACCENT light and must
strike the subject at an angle of incidence that will be
sufficient to create the specularity. In order to do this, it
needs to come in at an angle, not directly over the subject's
head. It should not strike the lens and cause flare, it should
not spill onto the background and most importantly, it should
not wash down on the subject's forehead or the mask of the face.

POWER OUTPUT- When lights are placed at steep angles
of incidence (between 90 and 135 degrees from the camera subject
axis) they tend to appear brighter than the other light in the
setup even if they are set at the same output at the
same distance. So... cautions to be taken so that the
highlights in the hair are not wash out and retain detail and
some texture. You may have to regulate or reduce the power
output, distance or diffuse the hair lightly to prevent it from
overpowering the effect of the main light and still provide the
accent effect. In some cases FEATHERING will help, that is,
using the edge of the beam rather than the hot spot. Obviously
blonde, light, gray, or white hair will require less light than
darker hair. You also want to make sure that the hair light does
not cause dark hair to appear as prematurely gray or white. Add
the specular highlights and glamour but don't blow out the

LIGHTING GEAR. There are various ways of providing hair
lighting. The trick is to use a quality of light that is
compatible with the main lighting sources. In my studio, I use
various hair light sources. My usual source is an electronic
flash unit equipped with a FRESNEL lamp head. It has an
adjustable beam and can be fitted with barn doors, snoots and/or
diffusers. I have strip-light type softboxes as well-especially
were the manly source very SOFT. With groups, I may use a
strip-light softbox or multiple Fresnel spots.

SPECIAL GLAMOUR HAIR LIGHTING-Sometimes, with female subjects,
especially if they have an ample hairstyle, I use a special hair
light method whereby I use my background light with a kinda a
"half-shell" reflector and I hide it directly behind the subject
and aim it directly into the hair. Alternatively, I can use it
in BARE BULB mode and it will light the hair and the background.
This works nicely for theatrical, fashion style, classic "Old
Hollywood" approaches and the ladies seem to like it.

SO...if you took the time the read the aforementioned stuff, you
now have the theory- NOW comes the NUTS AND BOLTS:

You can suspend the hair light on a light stand equipped with a
BOOM arm. Place the light high and the back of the subject from
the SAME direction of the man light. The beam of light should
SKIM the hair. That's "by the book". I sometimes break this
rule and bring the hair light in from the opposite side if I
feel the hair needs more sparkle or glamour. Sometimes I even
use two hair lights. If you require more precise control, add a
snoot or barndoor set to subtract light from where you do not
want it to strike. You can add a sheet of diffusion material
for more compatibility with softer main lighting or reduce the

If you want to employ a fixed hair. light for groups, you can
rig a strip-light softbox high and to the back of the subjects
but is important to baffle the beam so the light doesn't strike
the lens. I have using lovers to or grids to keep the beam in
tighter control.

Taking exposure meter readings and making tests will aid in
standardizing you setup for exposure, ratio and aesthetic
effects. Once you find the effect you prefer, it should be easy
ro repeat, replicate or vary the effect.

I know this was a VERY long post. I have been in the
portrait/commercial business a competitor and a judge. I have
seen many hundreds of images that were spoiled by bad lighting
and misuse use of accent, kicker and hair lights.

By the way- the diagram in the OP's post is not good- It shows
the main and fill-lights creating "cross light". The fill light
should be close to the camera OR provided by a broad bounced
source, OR on the same side as the main light. That's an issue
for another thread!

Attached images show some of the equipment I have mentioned and
a few examples of the results.

Ed Shapiro is Commercial and Portrait Photographer in Ottawa,
Ontario Canada

-- hide signature --

Images for my previous post.

Ed Shapiro- Commercial and Portrait Photographer. Ottawa, Ontario Canada

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