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Lighting Essentials 3: Hair Light

A thorough understanding of lighting fundamentals is vital to your growth as an artist. Learn how to add dimension to your images with hair lights.

By Don Chick, M.Photog.Cr., CPP

[Editor's note: To our regret, the last sentence of this article was truncated in the September issue of Professional Photographer. This is the article in full.]

Third in a series on the fundamentals of studio portrait lighting.

We’ve discussed the use of foundational lighting in creating a portrait; now we’ll cover the use of additional lights to add impact to your images.

A hair light in a portrait setup adds dimension and drama to the image by accenting the shoulders and crown of the subject. Like adding spice to a dish, adding a disproportionate amount of hair light can overpower the other lighting and ruin the final image. The brightness of the hair light should never be the first thing you notice about a portrait (Figure 1).


Figure 1: The inset shows excessive hair light. The larger version shows hair light that complements rather than diverting attention. ©Don Chick

The hair light should complement the rest of the image, not divert the viewer’s attention from the center of interest. Notice in Figure 2 how the hair light adds a nice bit of separation for the hat, as well as the subject’s shoulder. Imagine how bland the image would be without it.


Figure 2

©Don Chick

Because the hair light is positioned above and behind the subject, its output should generally be less than the main light—one stop less is a good starting place. For example, if the main light at the subject’s position meters at f/8, you’d adjust the hair light to read f/5.6, one stop less. For the most accurate light measurement, turn off or block out all other light sources. Point the dome of your meter at the light source you’re measuring and take the reading. If the results aren’t to your liking, adjust the hair light output accordingly.

Position your subject far enough in front of the hair light so that none of the light strikes the tip of his or her nose (Figure 3). If it does, increase distance A as shown in Figure 4.


Figure 3: If the hair light hits the
tip of the nose, as it does here,
increase the distance between the
subject and the light (Distance A
in Figure 4, below).
©Don Chick


Figure 4

Many types of lights and modifiers can be used for hair light. I’ve seen photographers use portable strobe units that are usually mounted on a camera, as well as flash units with digital power readouts and wireless remote control capability. Before choosing a hair light, consider how you’ll trigger the flash. If you use a portable strobe that’s normally camera-mounted and triggered, you may have to incorporate an external triggering unit. Depending on the flash unit, you might be able to trigger the flash with something as simple as a Wein HS Hot Shoe Slave (about $35). Consult your flash unit’s instruction manual to see if it requires an external trigger.

The quality of light is an important factor in hair light. I know one photographer who attaches a honeycomb grid to his hair light, which provides a nice quality of light for an individual subject; however, the light doesn’t spread enough to illuminate the individual members in a group portrait. Another photographer positions a 4x6-foot panel over subjects to bounce the hair light off the ceiling and the white back wall. The combination of the bounced light and the panel gives the lighting a soft quality, and provides adequate illumination for an individual subject or group of subjects.

I use a 10x36-inch Larson Soft Strip ($258) with a set of louvers ($119). Fastened high up against the ceiling of my studio, this particular model soft strip is large enough to spread light across a group of subjects. The louvers are key to the setup because they allow the light to strike the subject, yet prevent it from striking the lens and causing lens flare (Figure 5).    


Figure 5: (left) The effect of a Larson 10x36 Soft Strip with louvers. (right) The same soft strip without louvers. ©Don Chick

Adjusting the power setting on a ceiling-mounted hair light often requires climbing a ladder. One handy trick I’ve found is to use the louvers to control the intensity of the light. If the hair light’s too bright, rather than climbing up to change the power setting, I close down the louvers to decrease the amount of light striking the subject.

There are easier methods of controlling flash unit power output, such as using an Alien Bees remote control jack. All you need besides the flash unit is the Four-Channel Wired Remote Control ($99) and telephone wire. Photogenic has a wireless remote kit ($364) that’s compatible with any of the Photogenic DR lights.

If your current lighting setup doesn’t include a hair light, consider adding one. Added in the right amount at the right position, this accent light adds dimension and drama to your images.