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What is hair light for photography?

Hair light for photography is a lighting setup that shines a light source specially on the subject’s hair. Its main goal is to ensure the hair appears glossier and more defined. In this article, we will focus on this setup, talking about what it is, when to use it, how to achieve it, and what lighting equipment is needed.

What is hair light in photography?

A hair light is a photography lighting technique that focuses a single light source on the model's hair. Its main goal is to make the hair appear glossier and more defined.

Another goal is to distinguish the hair from the background by producing a halo appearance. A hair light is commonly utilized when both the model's hair and the backdrop are dark and difficult to identify. The effect is akin to the chiaroscuro painting technique, which employs bright accents to distinguish essential details against a dark backdrop. In this situation, one of the main elements is the model’s hair.

What are its benefits?

What is the benefit of hair light in photography? By isolating the hair from the backdrop, you may make the model stand out. You also create depth in the portrait, making it appear three-dimensional and captivating.

At the same time, a hair light gives texture to the person's hair, which looks good. This is essential for fashion and beauty photographs since time and effort are invested in creating the model's hairstyle. In the absence of hair light, the hair will lose its luster and seem flat. Shampoo or hair color advertisements are an excellent illustration of how to use a hair light.

When to use it?

Hair lights are ideal for studio portrait photographers. This does not imply that you may only use hair light for studio photography, but it is the most usual place to find one. A hair light may be an excellent complement to any image of a person (even one taken outdoors).

It is especially critical when photographing a model with dark hair against a backdrop that is dark. Without a hair light, it is easy to lose track of the figure in the backdrop. Even if you don't capture photos of a dark-haired model against a dark backdrop, hair lights may make a significant impact in a shot by adding attention and highlights to the model's hair.

How to position the hair light in photography?

Typically, hair light for photography is positioned around three feet above the subject's head and behind them, with the light angled downwards and forwards to illuminate the top of their head and shoulders. While it is common for the light to be placed to one side, it can also be placed directly behind the subject, with each placement providing a slightly different visual effect in the photograph.

Take note that when utilizing a hair light, there is a possibility of the light reaching the camera lens and causing lens flare since it is directed toward the general direction of the camera. To prevent this, a simple solution is to attach a piece of cardboard to the top of the light, effectively blocking the excess light from reaching the lens. While you can purchase accessories like a "snoot" or "barn doors" for this purpose, a piece of cardboard serves the same function and is a more cost-effective option.

It's important to avoid excessively bright hair light, which can overpower the photo and wash out the hair. The goal is to add texture and visual interest to the image, not to blow out the hair. This can be especially problematic when shooting a blonde model since their hair is already very light in color. To avoid this issue, begin by setting its power to approximately the same level as the key light, and make adjustments as needed. The aim is to create interest without drawing attention to the light itself.

What hair light photography equipment do you need?

As aforementioned, you need the light source and some modifiers to help you achieve hair photography lighting setup. Here we will talk about the equipment in detail.

Light source to illuminate the hair

There are three types of light sources that you can use to create hair light for photography.

One option is to utilize an off-camera speedlight, which is an external flash that emits a strong burst of light. It is compact, effortless to set up, and adaptable. Despite producing a harsh light, you can use a diffuser or softbox to soften the illumination.

If you don't mind the weight and size of the lighting equipment, you can utilize a strobe. It is also a flash, however, it produces a shorter and more intense burst of light than the speedlight. Therefore, you may position the hair light further away from the model. The strobe's power provides an additional benefit. It captures even the tiniest movement of the model and creates crisp photographs.

Furthermore, strobes are equipped with a modeling light that provides a constant source of light, replicating the effect of the strobe. This feature can assist in evaluating how the final image will appear and enable informed decision making. If opting for this method, it's important to consider wireless flash triggers and batteries.

Hair light for photography can also be a continuous light source, such as a CFL or LED constant light for photography. This allows you to view how the light falls on the subject before shooting a photograph. As a consequence, you can observe the precise location of highlights and shadows.

It is also softer on the model, does not become too hot, and is energy-efficient. You can precisely alter the lighting intensity and its color temperature. The downside is that it has a lower power output than flashes. If you utilize a diffuser, you may further minimize the quantity of light.

Light modifiers to direct the hair lighting in photography

Aside from the light source, you will need a stand or light pole to secure the hair light in place. Make sure you obtain a tall stand because the light must be above the model.

Photographers utilize lighting modifiers because the hair light just needs to reach the model's hair. The commonly used types are grids and barn doors.

A honeycomb grid, for example, gives great directionality while preventing light from extending beyond the model's hair. Similarly, a barn door prevents light from reaching the lens and causing flares.