Guest Post and Photos by Matthew Jordan Smith - Follow Matthew on Twitter

Recently I was asked how I decide which light source to use for photo shoots and which light modifiers are best in certain situations. The determining factors in making my decision on each shoot varies but I will attempt to describe a few situations here.

There are no fast rules that fit every situation on making my lighting decisions but some of the factors I consider before photographing people deal with color’s being used, male or female, subject weight, if they have deep set eyes, or a host of other factors.

When photographing women I always want to make them feel and look as beautiful as possible. Notice the first thing I mention is FEEL beautiful, because if someone doesn’t feel beautiful no light in the world will make them look beautiful, but I digress. In selecting the right light I am looking at a person’s skin texture first, then the symmetry of their face. Few of us have perfect faces and those who do can make a great living as a model. For the rest of us, one eye can be slightly bigger or lower or other features stand out. I don’t believe that only people with perceived perfect features make the best pictures. Actually I believe quite the opposite and no matter how we look we all have a unique beauty all our own. I want to find the most flattering angle and select the light modifier that helps me bring out the best in my subjects. Most models have very flattering features and you can use almost any light and get a great shot. When shooting portraits however I have to take other factors into consideration. Weight, deep eyes, small eyes, wrinkles, etc.

I like using a harder light sources on men at times because it gives a stronger, more masculine look. Sometimes this mean combining light sources, like an umbrella as a main light and a hard light, like the magnum reflector, coming from the side to give more shadow detail and impact to the shot. The image of Gordon Parks is shot in this manner.

On a recent cover shoot for NailPro Magazine, I had the idea of using a hard source, the magnum reflector made my Profoto, as my only light to shoot the cover. The female model had perfect skin so she could handle this type of light. I had my assistants set up and test the light and I was very happy with it. Then I went to check on the model, who was in hair and makeup, and I discovered the makeup was a softer color scheme with very subtle color variations. If I used the hard light I would loose the beauty of the color palette, so I instructed my assistants to change the light source to use the white beauty dish, or softlight reflector, which is also made by Profoto. The beauty dish gave me a softer light that enabled me to keep the beauty of the makeup and the soft colors used for the nails.

I shot a portrait recently of a good friend, Scott Bourne in Las Vegas. The portrait came about at the last moment and I didn’t have my strobe lights with me. I looked around and found an old fashion hot light, which is a hard source. I positioned Scott, with his guitar, in front of the background but turned away from me and toward the main light. I wanted a strong, powerful image so I positioned the light to Scott’s extreme left in profile. This manner of shaping the light helped to give an iconic image that captures the essence of Scott by using the light to enhance the mood . The beauty of using hot lights vs strobe lights is that you can see exactly how the image will look with the light. Using hot lights teaches you how to see light.

For my CreativeLive fashion and beauty class I used the magnum reflector to shoot the fashion shoot. I wanted a strong light source to give more detail in the clothing and the magnum was a great modifier to achieve this look. The light was positioned very high and looks great in this situation. We used four white, standard umbrella’s in the background to make a white background. The background light was 3/4 stronger than the front light to make it white. For example is the light reading on the front was F16.0 @ 1/125 the reading on the white background needed to be F 16.7 @ 1/125 to give me a pure white background. You can see this entire three day shoot including the setup, shoot and concept at CreativeLive.

Another light modifier that I have grown fond of over the years is the Broncolor Para 220 umbrella. It’s a very expensive light but it’s also very beautiful. I don’t own this light but often rent it for assignments in New York or Los Angeles. On the image below I was hired by Brides Magazine to shoot a beauty story and used the Para as my main light source. The Para light is simply beautiful, and because of the size of this light source I can stand directly in front of it and get the feeling I want. This is a very large light source, and the bigger the light the softer the light. The shape and size of this large umbrella gives it its unique quality and it’s my favorite umbrella to use in studio.

Often there are times when I must use several lights to get the image I’m looking for. My most recent shoot required several lights to capture the image and feeling we were going for. To capture this image we used three lights on the set. The main light, used to illuminate the models face was the white beauty dish we discussed earlier. The modifier used to light her hair was the 7 inch Grid reflector made by Profoto, but we used it without a grid. Lastly a standard white umbrella was used on very low power to give a soft light to the background. On this shot we have three different lighting modifiers but all work together to give us the look. I used the grid reflector for the hair to give more detail in the hair. If I used a soft light I would loose the definition of the hair and the shot would loose its elegance.

If you are interested in learning more about lighting check out the following inexpensive, downloadable video’s created to help photographers become better with lighting.

Ten Ways To Use One Light Source

Ten Ways To Create Natural Light Portraits

How To Work With Complex Lighting Situations

Always Dream Big

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