Saturday, November 27, 2010

Analyzing Highlights & Shadows

One of my friends is getting into portraiture and wrote the following email

Hey charles: here are a couple of pictures that I was hoping you can give me some feedback on.

The first picture is a straightforward headshot against a white background with a borrowed lighting setup. Im asking for feedback on this picture in particular because I feel like it’s a straightforward headshot, so there should be fewer variables for me to screw up, so hopefully you can point out basic mistakes that I am making.

The second picture is of this girl in a trenchcoat in a dark hallway. My question here is really about retouching; I cant figure out how to contour her face because of the way the light is falling. I guess my question really boils down to: how do you analyze lighting and bone structure to know where to dodge and burn?

My response follows:

So here's the thing with faces. As a disclaimer, there's no wrong answer. So long as you're intent is to produce something specific, anything
could work.

Let's start at the beginning so that we don't confuse ourselves with complicated light setups that include multiple light sources.

Below is a picture of Amanda that includes 1 light source from mostly the angle of the camera from slightly above Amanda's head (maybe a couple feet? I can't remember exactly).

Starting counter-clockwise from "under-eye shadow":

1. under-eye shadow - aka "bags". You get these whenever the light source is above the head as it usually. Humans stand upright and the because the sun is always above us, we're accustomed to seeing light directionally from hight-to-low. The other reason is because if we put our lights on the ground, we wouldn't be able to see higher surfaces including tables, beds, chairs, etc. So it makes sense on multiple levels that manmade light sources originate from high-to-low. The purpose of makeup is to conceal this shadow for 2 reasons IMHO, 1) so you don't look like a tired hag 2) so your face doesn't look like the eyball is falling out of the socket. The more pronounced this under-eye shadow is, the more protruded your eyeball seems. Makeup conceals this shadow. Retouching reduce/remove this shadow.

2. cheekbone highlight - now we get to the cheekbone which is what I consider the hallmark definition of the face. High cheekbones are attractive. They make you look skinny. They make you better looking supposedly. Makeup serves to increase the cheekbone highlight by allowing light to reflect happily and easily back into the eye of the observer (in this case the camera). The cheekbone highlight also serves to "place" and "define" the cheekbone shadow. Before I move onto the shadow, I should mention that sometimes this highlight is capable of reflecting a specular highlight. That is to say that it's so shiny, that it could be a blown highlight with hard light sources and the right makeup. That is to say if you feel your own face, just below the eye socket you'll feel the top of your cheekbone, this top of the cheekbone can sometimes reflect lots of light because the skin is stretched around this area and because of round angle of the bone itself. With that said, the above picture of Amanda does not reflect this specular highlight, it only reflects a matted soft highlight. Check other images, you'll see some with specular highlights.

3. cheekbone shadow - this is the shadow I love and manipulate most in my pictures. The shadow is the complement to the highlight and serves to define the face further. "Blush" or "contouring" in makeup terms serves to accent this area. Basically by making this area applying darker powder/cream you can create the illusion that there's a constant shadow underneath the cheekbone. With the right light as seen above, you bring this feature out even more. Retouchers like myself can further shape the cheekbones by manipulating the shadow with more darkness or sometimes less.

4. nose shadow - this shadow is useless. I only use it to identify the angle of the source of light. The thing you don't want is well lit under-nostrils because it looks retarded IMHO and you get large nostrils on your model. That lighting is what I call "upside-down flashlight for ghost-story-telling-around-the-campfire" lighting. Useless for fashion/beauty.

5. cheekbone shadow - see above

6. edge highlight - this is a cool little highlight that typically defines the edge of the face. The light bouncing off of the hair or the wall (or from a direct light source e.g. a rim light) hits the side of the face and creates an edge highlight that marks the end of the face and the beginning of the background/hair/etc. This highlight can "move" (be thinner/thicker) depending on the angle of the rim light and/or the angle of the light bouncing off the background/hair. It can extend so far "in" towards the middle of the face that it touches the lower part of the cheekbone. Sometimes it even fills in the cheekbone shadow but usually just barely. The great thing about the edge highlight is that it defines the jawbones/face even more. It almost always exists even when you'd think there'd be no light leftover, but somehow light always finds a way to create that edge even when you only use a single light source. *edit: the edge highlight doesn't always exist. It's just that I shoot so much against white backgrounds that it appears so often in my images. Also I shoot a lot of blondes and blonde hair reflects a ton of light

7. eyeshadow - a favorite of MUA's the eyeshadow above the eye, below the brow serves to create dimensionality in the eye. Often using complementary colors (depending on the eye color), the eye shadow creates depth to make the eyes seem like they're set farther in to "frame" the eye. No I'm not a certified makeup artist. But everything that I say is 100% true. I'm serious. I've learned this stuff through my own retouching and/or speaking with makeup artists. The good thing is it's really based upon fundamental physics. Light serves as a great "teacher" because it's predictable. Anyway, the eyeshadow exists because the light source usually originates from above. Makeup artists accentuate that shadow and retouchers it darker (sometimes) to build on that darkness. It's the backbone of the "smokey eye" look.

There are actually many more highlights and shadows on the face I could point out like the "upper lip highlight", "upper brow highlight", "lower lip shadow" but the above ones are the main ones I look at and think about.

My main criticism of your picture (below) is that the makeup doesn't play nicely with the lighting. The reason? The lighting is too flat. The octabox is coming in too flat as a main light and that reflector is reflecting too much light back into the dark side of the face ruining what I consider perfectly good shadows. Lastly, you have a 3rd light source coming from behind her, edge lighting her left (our right) side of her face. Actually the edge light is the only condone-able light that doesn't create problems for this makeup. That being said, you don't need it. Not now. It causes too much confusion for what you're trying to accomplish which is to "see and understand light". Screw his setup. I'm not sure if he knows what he's doing :) Sure I'm being a little harsh. There are plenty of flat-lit images that use exactly this setup but I don't think it accentuates the features of your model's face. Bleh, I'm just not feeling this lighting.

Below I've edited your image about 5 minutes. Primarily I've contoured the cheekbones in a manner that I feel makes more "sense" to my brain. It "assumes" a higher (more angular) light source thus producing different shadows around the cheekbones. Admittedly, I've somewhat restructured her face more than really moved the shadows around. Admittedly it's really hard to "relight" in post-process. At best you can make little adjustments... which is why I suppose lighting is still critical. Oh and I filled in the eyeshadow a little more too. Anyway, this the direction I would go with the retouching for this image. Also I should point out that as far as makeup goes, there's something odd going on with her lipstick. I think it's overdrawn particularly the bottom lip. The edges are also quite fuzzy indicating a bit of carelessness. Then again I expect the best from my makeup artists. Argh, way too low of an angle with that octa/umbrella thingy. The more I look at it, the more I hate it. Sorry. Next time you'd be better off moving the light around to a position that makes good sense to you and "feels" right too.

Click on this image to see it move (it's a animated .gif)

The problem with the trenchcoat image (see below) is that your model is taller than the light source (the windows). As a result, the shadows/highlights are starting to "reverse". Normally highlights/shadows like we've discussed above are created when the light source is taller than your subject. When the subject is taller than the light source, most of the shadows become highlights and most of the highlights become shadows. The face starts to reflect that "upside-down flashlight for ghost-story-telling-around-the-campfire" lighting. You can resolve this by moving the windows higher or make your model shorter. Often when I'm using a reflector, I place it high and angle it downwards to keep the lighting "consistent" thus creating the same highlights and shadows I would create if I were using a strobe or the sun. Although I said "the shadows/highlights are starting to reverse" they don't 100% completely reverse. That's because your model is only slightly taller than the windows and furthermore the windows are offering very diffuse light from each side of your model. As a result, the lighting is not horrifically ghoulish, but it's starting to go that direction with the lack of the nose shadow and the highlight where the under-eye shadows are supposed to be.

Which explains exactly why you can't figure out how to contour her face. The shadows and highlights aren't in the right places. If you have to retouch this image, you have 2 options. 1) Just go along with what you have and just brighten the highlights (where the current highlights) are and you darken the shadows (where the current shadows are) but it won't look good. ORRRRRRRR 2) You erase all highlights and make them shadows and vice versa so it resembles a more conventionally lit (from top-down) face.

Essentially for learning purposes I would keep your light always higher... preferably 45º higher (there's a reason it's a "magic" angle) and 45º from one side (either left or right). You'll start to understand highlights and shadows better because you'll better understand how light interacts with bone structure. Then later you can do whatever you want.

End of message

Admittedly, I've never thought to really verbalize my thinking process when evaluating highlights/shadows. But this is a snippet of the thinking involved.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. I loved reading this! Kudos to the person who was brave enough to send it in for a critique!

    I hope you had a nice Thanksgiving Charles :)

  3. Hello Charles :)

    Decided to ask You here instead of flickr mail:

    - but what if the photog wanted to make a beauty light on the first shot? The reason why his lighting is flat is because he put main light almost on axis with the camera (which u can tell from eye reflection)and almost at the height of the face which is, again ALMOST, a beauty setup. When we add a reflector beneath her chin (which he did I believe), it creates a beauty setup.

    So, if You want to create a beauty lighting, should You tell your makeup artist to accent cheekbones even more?

  4. I think it's "almost" a beauty setup but again that's why I don't light with my ringflash. I feel like it really needs to have a little more angle.

    The other possibility is as you've mentioned that the makeup is just wrong. Perhaps my gripe isn't so much with the lighting as much as it is with the makeup not being "correct". That's why I retouched the image to push the shadows to accentuate her cheekbones. At the end of the day, I think the makeup artist needs to communicate with the photographer and vice versa so that as a team you can create a cohesive "product"!

  5. Heh, looked at that bottom pic and thought "huh, I I've shot that model" and then realized I know the location.
    Looking at the logo, I know your friend who submitted this.
    Hot damn.

  6. He's a very good friend of mine from way back in the day :) Cheers!

  7. A brave man elects to endure the Wrath of Charles!

    Now, I can't profess to have more than 5% of Charles's awesomeness but "45º-high" placement is one of the first things I 'got' in lighting. It was just so fundamentally obvious as to why this looks good, and the results don't lie.

    My local Copenhagen Strobist group is quite active and it pains me to see the same people again and again and again, sticking a pair of umbrellas at 1:1 right next to their models at chest level.

    Their pictures never change and they wonder why, years later, it's just not getting any better.

    I'm going to petition for warning stickers or patronising advice labls to be put on all light modifiers.

  8. Hahaha I don't have anything nice to say about those people so I'm just going to say "LOL!" ;P