What is a hair light? (and how to use it for dramatic portrait lighting)

Hair lights are a subtle, but important light in portrait photography. While they’re used just as much in studio based portrait photography as they used to be, HOW we use hair lights in photography has relaxed quite a bit from the classical portrait photography style.

These days, it’s often a subtle addition to the lighting set up, rather than the very obvious and strong hair light of a few decades ago.

In fact, it’s often not obvious to the untrained eye, until you see the same image taken without a hair light. That’s not to say that all hair lighting is always subtle these days, only that we’re no longer as rigid in how we light portraits.

Examples of portraits without and with a hair light

I used direct sunlight (front lighting) to light the subject. In the first image there’s no hair light (even though you can actually see my lightstand at the left edge of the image, but the light was turned off). The hair light (a bare bulb studio light) fired for the second image and it lifts the hair slightly and adds a layer of depth to the image.

Why use a hair light in studio photography?

Hair lights are used mostly in studio photography. They can be used when photographing with off camera flash outdoors on location shoots, but not as often as in the studio as part of a two, or more, point lighting set up.

Using hair lighting in portraits creates a dramatic look, which makes a photograph stand out from the crowd.

Advantages of hair lighting:

  • It separates the subject from the background, especially if the subject has dark hair and is photographed against a black background, or even just a dark background
  • The separation adds depth to an image by creating a three dimensional feel
  • Brings out the texture in the hair, especially dark hair, which can easily look like a dark lump if no hair light is used
  • Adds another layer of light to a portrait, which makes it more eye catching

A well executed multi-light set up looks more professional, because of the added skill needed to set up a hair light rather than photographing with just a single light.

Subtle hair light in portrait photography

I added a hair light to this image of a subject with dark hair against a dark background to separate her from the background. It also made the texture of her hair is visible. Because I didn’t want to distract from her face, I set the power low so that it’s just a subtle kiss of light. I also used very soft light, and both the key light and the hair light were feathered.

What is a hair light in portrait photography?

A hair light in photography is an accent light, a small light source, aimed at the top of the head or the top and back of the head. It illuminates the hair and traditionally also lights the top of the shoulders. I say traditionally, because often these days photographers use it to light the hair only.

The quality and quantity of hair lighting depends on the photographer’s taste. It can be:

Further reading: Light quality & quantity of light – essential knowledge

Portrait example of backlight outdoors

The backlight is really obvious in this image as it was created by direct sunlight shining from behind while I lit her with a softbox from the front, slightly to camera left

Hair light vs backlight

So if both a hair light and a backlight are placed behind the subject, what’s the difference?

A hair light is a separate light that lights only the hair and possibly also the shoulders of the subject.

A backlight is a separation light that lights a far greater area of the subject from behind, creating a rim of light which separates them from the background.

Diffused backlight example outdoor portrait

In contrast to the photo above, the backlight is very soft, because the sun went behind the clouds. It’s still backlight, however, and not a hair light as you can see it faintly on the back of her arm.

Hair light vs rim light

A rim light is an edge light also a separation light. It lights only the edge of the subject from behind or behind and to the side. From the front it appears as a thin halo like strip of light along their body.

A hair light lights only the hair, but not just the very edge of the hair. It can wash over the top and side of the head to bring out the texture of the hair – as long as it doesn’t wash over the subject’s face.

Strobe hair lighting portrait with gels

For this studio shot I had two lights with gridded stripboxes set up either side behind the subject. I used a cyan gel on the light to camera left and a magenta gel to camera right for colored lighting. You can see the lens flare to camera left from allowing the light to shine onto the front of my lens for effect

How to set up hair lighting for portraits in studio photography

Let’s start with what NOT to do. When setting up hair lighting it’s important that:

  • The power of the hair light isn’t too high so that the highlights it creates in the subject’s hair aren’t blown out
  • It doesn’t spill over onto the subject’s facial features, particularly the subject’s forehead
  • So don’t position it directly over the subject
  • It also shouldn’t spill onto the background
  • Light from the hair light shouldn’t strike the lens, otherwise it’ll cause lens flare, which will wash out contrast and colors in the image

Also, I know it’s probably stating the obvious, but you shouldn’t use hair lighting on bald subjects – no need and too much reflection.

Now let’s look at how to set up a hair light…

Position of hair light in studio photography

Portrait lighting diagram showing 3 examples of hair light placement, as seen from above

Where to position a hair light

Position hair lighting high and angled down towards the back of the subject to achieve the correct angle of incidence that will create the specularity you want. That’s the level of reflection of the light on your subject’s hair.

The exact position depends on how concentrated your hair light is and what part of the hair you want to light.

You have a choice of three positions, all behind the subject, higher up and angled down:

  • Behind and to the left
  • Behind and in the middle
  • Behind and to the right

Classic hair light position

In the classic portrait style the hair light would be on the same side of the subject as the key light (main light). However, it’s not unusual these days for photographers to place it on the opposite side of the subject from the key light. You might also hear it referred to a cross lighting or sandwich lighting.

How to avoid lens flare

When angling the light down, take care to ensure that it won’t point into the camera lens. If it is pointing at the camera, you’ll have to flag the light – block it with something so that the light doesn’t hit your lens and cause flare. Even a simple piece of cardboard works well as a flag.

A good way to check that no light is falling on your subject’s face is to turn off the key light and take a shot with just the hair light on. The face should be in darkness and only the hair, or hair and shoulders, should be lit.

Power settings for a hair light in photography

When lights are positioned at an angle to the subject, they may appear brighter, even if they’re the same power output as other lights. So you need to be aware of what the light looks like when it hits your subject. If necessary you might need to turn the power down to less than the key light.

Again, this type of hair lighting differs from older style portraits where it was a stop or two brighter than the key light and really obvious.

Now, for a more subtle look, set the hair light equal to or lower than the power of the key light is the general rule. I highly recommend using a light meter so that you can establish your settings quickly, accurately and efficiently. How bright you set the light is up to you and what you like, but it’s best to start subtle and then up the power if you prefer.

Your subject’s hair color also has a big impact on the best power setting for your light. Dark hair requires more light than blond, gray or white hair. In fact if you use the same power on light hair, the highlights will be blown out.

  • Black hair – set hair light one to 2 stops above the key light
  • Brown hair – set hair light equal to the key light
  • Blond / gray / white hair – set hair light one to two stops less than the key light

Power settings for hair light in studio photography

With very light hair you might not need, or want, hair lighting at all.

The flash sync speed of  your camera might have an impact on your light settings. So, to avoid using high speed sync, if you can’t get your hair light power low enough, either move the light further away or feather the light.

Tips for feathering studio lighting

When you feather light, you turn the light so it’s not directly pointed at the subject, which means that they’re not lit by the hot spot at the center of the light. Only the edge light from the light modifier strikes the subject, which is much softer.

Just be extra careful to avoid unwanted lens flare when feathering the light. By turning the light away from the subject you might end up pointing it straight at your lens, which could cause lens flare. Using a lens hood helps to avoid lens flare in this scenario.

What light modifier to use for hair lighting

There’s no hard rule for the quality of the hair light. It comes down the the taste and creative control of the individual photographer. However, the type of light modifier you use should be the same as the key light in that it should produce the same type of light – hard or soft.

So if your key light is fitted with a reflector or you’re using the bare bulb for hard light, the hair light should also produce hard light. You might need to fit a honeycomb grid to the reflector or barn doors to the light to prevent it from spilling onto the background, your subject’s face or into the lens.

Alternatively, if you light your subject with soft light, the hair light should also be soft light, for example when using a softbox or diffused umbrella.

Modify studio lighting with a stripbox

I like to use a stripbox (a long, skinny softbox) as a hair light fitted with a grid for more precise control to prevent light spill onto the background or the subject’s face.

A stripbox is also ideal for photographing groups of two or more people as you can turn it sideways to cover more than just one person. Of course you’ll need a longer strip box for a group of four than you would for a couple.

Different light modifiers and light accessories create different effects. Experiment with all types of light – hard and soft and light modifiers to find a light setup that you like. Then practice it so that it’s easy to repeat whenever you want to achieve a particular look.

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