Close-up portrait photography: using light and shadow
If you’re shooting body parts other than faces, there’s less need to worry about expressions and emotional content.
Some body parts still carry a strong impact, such as the traditional health and beauty magazine close-up of a pregnant woman with a hand on her stomach.
But other subjects are less emotionally direct. Loosen the rules a little and start playing with lighting and geometry again.
Here we’ve shot the same subject – a hand – in two very different ways. Both shots are heavily stylised.
You won’t see hands looking like this in real life, but they demonstrate how it’s possible to take a subject and work with it to highlight different aspects and create two very different emotional effects.
The main shot exaggerates the skin texture and the curves and shapes in the hand with intense top lighting.
The upward-looking angle exaggerates its height and makes it appear more imposing.
The other shot places a hand among shadows to create an unusual composition. While the two shots don’t have much in common, they both use unconventional lighting as a deliberate effect.
The secret of the main hand shot is that it uses a bright source of angled light to create intense shadows.
For extra effect, the colour saturation has been toned down to create a bronzed look. When a shot is abstracted from reality, it’s possible to play with the orientation.
Here it’s been flipped by 180 degrees – the light was really lying flat on the ground shooting upwards and the hand was held above it.
Rotate the page and you’ll see that the original orientation lacks the impact of the flipped version.
Every part of the human body is naturally sculptural, and it’s easy to find shapes and curves that can be enhanced with creative lighting.
Extreme side and top lighting is a standard tool in artistic nude photography. The goal here is to reveal and highlight natural curves.
One of the best ways to do this is with intense, high-contrast lighting.
But that’s not its only application. Creative lighting control will improve any macro image at every level of magnification.
Experiment with these lighting angles and shadow-based shots for yourself.
Using suggestive shadows
Shooting indirectly with shadows is an interesting and unusual way to use bodies and faces. Shadows work well because they show but don’t tell.
The viewer has to do some work to make sense of the photo, because shadows are ambiguous.
Creatively, this is a good thing – viewers are forced to add details for themselves and make up a story about what they’re seeing.
From a viewer’s point of view, this can create a more interesting experience than a photo that spells everything out for them. Using black-and-white instead of colour can emphasise this even further.
It’s traditional to sharpen black-and-white to enhance textures and make up for the lost colour.
This makes the result even less natural. Taken together, these features create an unusual but interesting photo experience.
PAGE 1 – Close-up portrait photography: capturing colour and detail
PAGE 2 – Close-up portrait photography: Getting accurate flesh tones
PAGE 3 – Close-up portrait photography: capturing textures
PAGE 4 – Close-up portrait photography: how to compose faces
PAGE 5 – Close-up portrait photography: using light and shadow
PAGE 6 – Close-up portrait photography: using props
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