If you have just started studio photography and find that in most of the portraits you take the heads of your models appear to be stuck on to the background or worse you can’t see the differentiation between the model and your backdrop the chances are – you are missing the hair light!
Hair light as the name indicates is used to give some highlights to the hair and thus separate them from the background. Many photographers avoid using a hair light on pretext of difficult setup, lens flare or plain laziness. I would say the point to remember would be that almost all viewers of photographs are partial to models with healthy glossy head halo as compared to models with a dull lifeless crown. Those shampoos which sell by millions thanks to shiny looking hair? The real credit goes to well placed hair lights!!
So how does one go about hair lighting?
First you need a light! A reflector just won’t cut it because you want the hair light to be 1 or 1.5 stops higher than your main / key light.
You place the hair light above and behind your subject on the same side as your key light. This is to give an impression that the same light source is creating the hair highlights and lighting up the face. The ideal way, it is written, to place a hair light is to use a boom, but honestly, I don’t have a boom and nor is the ceiling in my makeshift studio high enough.
Sometimes people refer to the accent lights as hair lights – an accent light represents a separate light source and can be directed from any angle with very pleasing effects. I have used accents from opposite side of key in this picture.
Since the hair light is essentially pointed directly in the camera lens it can give rise to the dreaded lens flare but fear not you can eliminate lens flare by several methods
- Grids – these are circular metal disk fitted in front of your light and it has a honey comb like structure – they come in various sizes which determine at angle of the beam and indicated as degrees on the grid – I have found a 20° grid as optimal. If you are from the strobist camp you can make one yourself (Another example here )
- Snoots – are metal tubes which direct light to a narrow portion they can give intense specular highlights, like grid you can make a hair light with a snoot for yourself
- Barn doors – as the name implies these are metal flaps which attach to the edge of the lights and restrict spill out on to the lens.
So next time you shoot use a hair light, even if you have just two light I would suggest use a reflector as a fill-in and use your second light as a hair light or accent light. One trick which you can try out is using the sunlight streaming through a window as hair light and use your key light to light up the model.
As with every photographic technique you need to experiment with this one as well, perhaps a bit more as the WYSIWYG factor of this is a bit less and each setting you encounter will be subtlety different.