The Portrait Photographer's Notebook: The Hair Light

Inexplicably, though, many photographers shy away from using them based on any or all of the following excuses:
They are difficult to set up;
They require some special equipment;
They are hard to control;
The ceiling isn’t high enough, which finally leads to...
They are an invitation to disaster because they can create lens flare.
To all those who espouse these negative statements, I can only say, "phooey"!

Keep things simple: I lit photo #1 with a single, direct flash unit mounted on my camera. No large source, soft light off to one side, no fill light or fill card on the other side, and no light on the muslin background. The result is a simple, single-light picture. Photo #2 uses the exact same lighting on the subject, but I added a hair light mounted on a boom. Which one do you think is better? Which one looks more professional? Which one do you think the subject will like better?


A hair light is so entrenched as a professional lighting technique (in still, video, and cinema imaging applications) that there are numerous products designed to help, both in placing them where you want them, and controlling the beam of the light so that it doesn’t shine into your lens and create the dreaded lens flare. Let’s look at each:

The boom

A boom is a way of positioning a light directly over your subject without having the supporting structure visible. Usually, a boom is a long thin pole that extends outward from a light stand so that the stand can be out of frame and the light can float in midair above the subject. The boom/light stand joint is often articulated so you can position the light where you want it.

Booms are either sold either as a separate unit called a boom arm that you attach to a stand, or come with their own dedicated, heavy-duty light stand. There are even some units where the boom and its stand are one combined unit in which the four-section light stand can be used as a two-section light stand and a two-section boom, or as a regular four-section light stand.

Keeping that floating light floating!

Hanging a light from the end of a long thin boom arm extending out from a light stand can be a recipe for disaster because the rig can become both top-heavy and unbalanced. To combat this you need a counterweight and, in fact, almost every boom you can buy comes with a stern warning that for safety and stability it requires such a weight. There are sandbags, bags filled with metal pellets, and even empty containers that are to be filled with water once you set up your boom on a location shoot.



Although all of these solutions are worthy of your consideration, I use the power pack from my flash unit as my counterweight. I drill a hole in the end of each of my boom poles and get an S-hook from the hardware store. The S-hook goes in the hole I drilled in the pole’s end, and I use the rope loop on my power pack (see my article, Rope Tricks, to learn how to set one up) to hang my pack from the hook.

Lastly, on this weighty issue, is the fact that almost all booms can be slid to and fro on their pivot point. When setting up your boom, it pays to take a moment, after attaching the flash head at one end and the counterweight at the other end, to slide the boom along the pivot point so that the counterweight and the weight of the flash head at the other end neutralize each other.

While using a counterweight on the end of a boom arm is one technique for insuring stability and preventing your flash unit from crashing to the floor – or even worse onto your subject’s head – there is another stabilizing technique I use. Quite simply, one leg of the three on the light stand that supports the boom arm must always (ALWAYS, no exceptions!) be directly under the long side of the boom (the one with the flash head attached to it).

One of my favorite booms is made by Manfrotto and is called the Combi-Boom Stand (Part # 3398B, or 3397B which includes a sandbag counterweight.) Its claim to fame lies in the fact that it’s a combination light stand and boom. It can be uses as a four-section stand or a two-section stand and a two-section boom, which makes it a nifty addition for the photographer on a tight budget or with limited storage facilities.

In the photo above, you can see one of my Lumedyne packs used as a counterweight and hung by a 45-cent “S” hook. The yellow label on the boom swivel casting says: “WARNING-Add counterweight for boom use”. Obviously, this is an important point! I like this boom because it is only slightly heavier than an equivalent standard light stand but gives me the option of a having a boom with me whenever I need one.

Lowell, a manufacturer specializing in location lighting equipment for the film industry, has a variety of equipment pieces that, as a whole, are called the Lowell Link system. One part, called the Lowell Grip, can be used as a pivot for a boom arm (by using a Lowell pole), or it can be fitted on the top of a door, or even hold a 2X4 piece of lumber that can be used for other lighting or background supports. I have a variety of Lowell Link parts, and by mixing and matching the pieces I can create a light support system for a wide variety of uses.

Controlling the flash unit’s beam

There are three different ways to narrow your flash unit’s beam so there is less chance that the beam will shine into your camera’s lens and create lens flare. You can buy all three and you can even make two of them yourself. In alphabetical order (without particular preference) they are called barn doors (or flags), grids, and snoots.

Barn doors (as the name implies) are door-like flaps that fold over the front of a light so that they block the edge of the light’s beam. They are sold as attachments for some professional flash units but you can just as easily make your own using a Bogen Multi-Clip and a piece of heavy duty aluminum foil. My favorite foil is made by Lee Filters, and instead of being shiny aluminum it is chemically treated so it is matte black. I have a roll of it that is 50 feet long by 12 inches wide. What’s more, it is reusable (I don’t because I don’t use much of it on a shoot) and my roll seems to have lasted for years.

You can even use a small piece of cardstock as a barn door with the ubiquitous Bogen clips, but beware of the possible fire hazard you might create (see my column, Using Umbrellas). While a barn door attaches to the light itself, a“flag”(a cinematographer’s term) does the same thing but it requires its own stand to support it. In this instance a separate support requires a second boom, so I prefer to use the barn door type of light modifier.

Grids are circular disks that fit in front of a flash head, allowing the light to pass through them. Within the circular disk is a metal honeycomb-shaped material. Depending on how big different-sized hexagons (which make up the grid) limit the light beam’s angle. Although they come in 10-, 20-, 30-, and 40-degree angles, they are often sold as a set. On the down side, they also require a grid holder.

From experience I have found that a 20-degree grid works well for one or two subjects, and the 30- and 40-degree ones work well for larger groups. While some may prefer the 10-degree grid for a single subject, I have found that they aren’t as easy to aim as the wider 20-degree grid.

Finally we come to the snoot, which is nothing more than a hollow metal tube. While they are simple, they are also bulkier than a comparable grid, and often in a studio (or spare bedroom) with a low ceiling, their length (which can be up to 12 inches) can be a restriction. As with barn doors, you can make your own by wrapping the flash head in the black foil that I mentioned above.

If you have the ceiling height, you can always forego the boom and put a barn doored, grided, or snooted light on a regular light stand behind the background and have it peek over the top to bathe your subject in the angelic hair light glow.