How to Shoot Stunning Portraits with Hot Lights

May 07, 2020 0 Comments

How to Shoot Stunning Portraits with Hot Lights

To understand my love affair with continuous lights is to discuss the iconic work of Old Hollywood’s favorite photographer, George Hurrell. In the 1930s and 40s, major Hollywood movie studios hired Hurrell to shoot promotional images for their A-list actors. Hurrell created glamorous and dramatic portraits that idealized his subjects while eliciting a cinematic feel – and he did it by using hot lights.

Images by George Hurrell

Of course continuous lights can be used to create any style of lighting you choose, but Hurrell’s work greatly inspired my CHOCOLAT project, a B&W series I shot at the very beginning of my career with a variety of women. Although my technical skills have grown significantly since then, I still adore those dramatic highlights and shadows that Hurrell celebrated so lovingly.

CHOCOLAT by Jai Mayhew (2011) A throwback to the very first series I created when I started in photography, all shot with a single constant light.

Using Continuous Lighting for Portraits

Constant lights are exactly as they sound, a light that is on constantly (also called hot lights, since a light that stays on for a long time gets hot). Alternatively, flash driven lighting is when a light source is triggered, releasing a short but powerful burst of light.

Both forms of light are in use today, so which is best? It depends entirely on how you plan to use your lights.

It’s important to note that most constant lights are low power sources. You can absolutely purchase crazy powerful ones that would light up a movie set, but you are going to pay crazy high prices for that power. For the purposes of this article, I’ll be referring to the more commonly used constant light options and going through the pros and cons of each.

Please note, I will be referring to constant lights in broad terms (examples of such lights would be a Kino Flo, Spekular, Stella, or LED), but whatever lights you have to work with, let’s work them.

One constant light softbox was used to light this session. Model: Sienna Feher, MUAH: Jai Mayhew

One constant light softbox was used to light this session. Model: Sienna Feher, MUAH: Jai Mayhew

Pros Of Continuous Lights

There are many benefits to using continuous lighting, from a lack of disruptive flash to a lower price tag, let’s look at some of the best merits.

Easier To Use

A huge benefit of continuous lighting is that you can SEE in real-time, as you move the lights, exactly how the lighting will fall. With flash photography you can’t see until the light fires what kind of lighting you’re creating, so for beginners, constant lights can be a more predictable, frustration-free way to learn the principles of lighting.

Less Expensive

If you’re getting into photography on a budget, continuous lights are your friend. Significantly cheaper than strobes, they can be used in any combination you can afford (just try to keep the color temperature similar).

No Flash

This may seem obvious but it’s important to point on that continuous lights do not flash. This means that if you’re in a place where the flash would be disruptive, you don’t have a problem. The benefits of no flash can apply to event photographers, videographers, baby photographers, animal photographers, etc… No flash means no disruption, no surprise, no pop, nothing but silence and light.

Cinematic Quality 

Constant lights can give your images a beautiful cinematic quality because constant lights ARE what videographers use to light movie sets, TV shows, and music videos. Whether you’re looking to create vintage glamour (a la George Hurrell) or light a modern and sleek scene, constant lights will give you that film-Esque look we’re so used to in cinema.

Mimics Sun

A wonderful property of constant light is its similarity to the sun. A constant light with hard shadows, you can rotate a constant light around your subject and see similarities to the way shadows move around a sundial.

Pull the light closer to your subject to soften it (meaning the gradient between highlights and shadows is softer) or pull it farther away to harden the light.

Replicates Window Light

I have found constant lights (in rectangular shaped modifiers) to be an excellent substitution for/or addition to natural light. I keep a Kino Flo in my studio for that very purpose and I’ve found it to be wonderfully helpful.

First, I can use it alone to create soft light on my subject with a quick fall off (much like the kind of light you get when placing a subject next to a window). Second, it’s a wonderful way to add light to an underlit natural light situation (or add a hair light for dimensionality). 

For instance, let’s say you’ve put your subject close to a window, but the sun is setting and you’re just not getting enough light on the subject’s face. Pop that Kino in and have it facing the subject from the same direction as the windows and suddenly you have soft, easily controlled light that will match the daylight well.

If you work in indoor situations like this I highly recommend the Kino. It’s the easiest way I’ve found to successfully mix daylight and artificial light.  

Video Capability

Even if you’re not a videographer, video is increasingly becoming part of our industry. IGTV, YouTube, behind the scenes videos… Having multiuse lighting at your disposal is always a great thing.

A Spekular LED light was used to light this family portrait.

Cons Of Continuous Lights

So we’ve discussed the benefits, but continuous lighting also has its drawbacks. To understand if hot lights are the best solution for you, let’s look through the cons as well.

Not As Strong

As I mentioned before, the biggest drawback to most photography constant lights is their power limitation. The LED lighting used on video and commercial sets can light up the sky, but you are going to pay big bucks for that extra power. Why? That strong flash of light you get from a strobe is extremely powerful, but it’s limited duration.

For a constant light to maintain that same level of output the entire time the unit is on would require an insane amount of power. It’s doable, absolutely (think the lighting on a blockbuster movie set), but you’re going to pay for it.

For this article, I’ll be referring to the lower-powered lights, those the average photographer would use. Most continuous lights don’t offer this kind of power, which leads us to drawback number 2.

Can’t Overpower Ambient Light

Ambient light is the light in your frame that isn’t created by your lights. Natural light, overhead lights, artificial lights… Anything that isn’t your created lighting. 

If you’re shooting with a flash or HSS (high sync speed), you can easily increase your shutter speed or close your aperture to reduce the ambient light, but with constant lights, it’s a little different.

The watt output of constant light is significantly lower than flash, meaning if you close your aperture or raise your shutter speed significantly, you’d have to jack up your ISO (which most photographers are hesitant to do).

So if your style requires HSS, constant lights may not be for you. But if you can work that natural light to your advantage, you’ll be just fine.

It Cannot Freeze Action

This limitation also refers to High Sync Speed. If you’re shooting athletes (or any other motion) you’ll need a sync speed that will freeze your subject in motion (typically this is 1/200 or faster). 

As we discussed, constant lights are much less powerful and therefore you’d need a slower shutter speed, that’s no problem for portraits, but not so great for sports photography. 

Storage Considerations

Constant lights are physically larger than strobes or speedlights and don’t break down the same way. If you have a small studio or have to store your gear at home, this might be something to take into consideration and as they’re larger, they’re also less portable (ie, my Kino isn’t something I’d take to a location shoot, while my strobes are easy to travel with).

There are, however, fewer modifiers available for constant lights, so while the light unit itself may take up more space, you won’t need to store as many softboxes and accessories.

Color Temperature

The technology behind constant lights has come a long way. No longer do they get as “hot” as their namesake models did and the light output has become more consistent. One thing to note though is that the color temperature of constant lights is typically warmer than that of flash. Does that matter? Not necessary, but it will add a subtle warm color cast to your images (so white balance appropriately).

This soft light self-portrait was lit by a diffused Kino. Constant lights can be used to create all styles of lighting.

I believe that the ability to use continuous lights for portraits is a skill worth mastering. I started my photography journey with a very inexpensive constant light and it was a great way to begin learning before investing in expensive equipment.

Today I most often use strobes, but I still love and enjoy my Kino. There’s something quite unique and beautiful about lighting in such a classic way.

So while constant lights don’t give you the control that strobes do, I invite you to try creating with them. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the beauty you can create. If this inspires you to give constant lights a try, I’d love to see what you do! Tag me (@jaimayhew) when you post, happy creating!

Jai is an editorial portrait and fashion photographer currently based in St. Louis. 

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