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  • Writer's pictureRuss Tierney

Up lighting, or the 'horror' lighting pattern for portrait photography.

Updated: Jul 30, 2022

Episode 14 of 1 minute 101's v2

What is... the Horror lighting pattern for portrait photography?

Picture the scene. You're sitting around a campfire and about to tell a scary story, and you put a torchlight under your chin to emphasise that creepy vibe and give everyone the willies.. in fairness, if you're sitting around a campfire, you've probably got a certain amount of uplighting already! It's an old cliché, and it's unflattering as hell, and this is why it's often referred to as horror lighting. It's horror by narrative, and horror by nature, because you're doing someone dirty while using it as a key light. Yesterday alone, however, I had some regulars in the studio doing a gothic creepy doll look, so I suggested this, and they loved it! If narcissism is less important than narrative, then it's not something to be dismissed, but it's probably one to be used sparingly!


I think I've mentioned them previously in terms of Jargon, but they're worth a paragraph or two in context of these images too!

If you want to soften this harsh light effect a little, you can use it at a less shallow angle, use it with a fill light, or just use a much bigger light source than a 16" beauty dish while still achieving an eerie effect. With the example below of Nina our killer clown, you can see by the catchlight (the direct reflection of the light source in the eyes) that I am indeed using a small beauty dish (donut shaped with a black dot in the middle is a dead giveaway that it's a beauty dish), however, it's probably less effective given there's already contouring painted in to that awesome MUA work. If I had to hazard a guess, and due in part to the ducked chin, I'm also using it at a far less shallow angle too than the example on the mannequin, whereas that catchlight is right at the bottom of the eye in that example. This is also why I used my broken mannequin head with glass eyes over my not broken one with painted eyes for this set of 101's!

The catchlight is one way that we can help ourselves reverse engineer other people's lighting set-ups that we may like, however, when there's more than one catchlight in the eye, some photographers for some reason find them really distracting and are known to photoshop them out. Unless you're going for a really moody vibe, then the catchlight is a huge part of the image because it adds life and sparkle to an eye. Sometimes a white floor, a reflector, or even white clothing can be just enough to lift and gloss the eye into not looking like a dead void, but nine times out of ten, you'll be far thankful you have a catchlight than not. Now having said that, it's also not unusual for photographers to go the other way and add catchlights in in post editing either, especially if there's one in one eye and not the other, which can happen; especially with long eyelashes and tilted head.

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