What is a Hair Light? [Photography Breakdown]


A hair light is an invaluable piece of equipment for many photographers, as it serves a very specific role in the studio.

This is a light that does exactly what you think it would – it highlights and accents the subject’s hair.

A hair light is a type of light commonly used in photography studios for capturing and highlighting the subject’s hair. It’s a useful piece of equipment for shooting portraits and other projects with people as the subjects. It is usually positioned behind and above the subject to create the best results.

A photography studio can be an intimidating place.

There are usually cameras strewn across tables, cables snaking all over the room, and lights precariously positioned around the studio.

As such, if you’ve been in one before, you’d be forgiven for not identifying the hair light.

The hair light is an important part of most photographer’s setups, and it’s crucial for those who take photos of human subjects.

This light will usually sit on an arching frame, which will need to be moved into place behind and above the subject, to add clarity and definition to the subject’s hair and face during a photo shoot.

Who Should Use a Hair Light?

The hair light is an invaluable piece of equipment for many professional photographers, especially if part of their job description is to capture models at their best.

Specifically, hair lights are usually reserved for those with photography studios.

This is because generally-speaking they have little to no use in outdoor photography, due to the inevitable interference of sunlight and glare.

However, there are certain situations in which a well-placed hair light can enhance an outdoor photo shoot, so it’s up to the discretion of the photographer.

One of the most pressing reasons to use a hair light is when taking photos of a model with dark hair indoors.

This is because without some kind of separation or light, you’ll find it difficult to distinguish where their hair ends and where the background begins.

This is even more true if you are using a black screen as the background for the photo shoot, since the model’s hair can easily dissapear or blend into it.

The hair light can create a halo effect around the head of the model, which not only portrays them in their best light, but also adds more intrigue and clarity to the photo.

It can be a good idea to experiment with different angles while playing around with a hair light, since you can create different effects with just a slight rotation or positional movement.

Setting up a Hair Light

The most pressing concern you’re likely to have when you first get your hands on a hair light is how you should set it up.

Setting up a hair light is half the battle, and if you do it right every time, you’ll enjoy consistently great photos during your model shoots.

Unfortunately, the set up for the hair light isn’t as simple as it is with the main light.

To get the positioning just right, you’ll need to make alterations for each individual you photograph.

What works for one model, might not work for another.

This is because to get the best out of a hair light you’ll need it to be both behind and above the subject’s head.

But this isn’t all you’ll want to do.

Depending on your preferences and what you want the photo to look like, you might want the hair light to be on one side of the subject’s head or the other.

As a general rule, most photographers try to keep a distance of 3 feet between the top of the model’s head and the hair light.

It might take some trial-and-error on your first few attempts until you strike the perfect balance, so if you know someone who would be willing to be your subject while you iron out the kinks, this is a good time to call in a favor.

Common Problems

When first starting out with the hair light, it’s normal to run into a few problems.

As with any type of light used for photography, the hair light can be tricky to get just right.

There are two common issues that can often lead to poor results with the hair light, and they are as follows:

Lens Flare

Yes, the first issue isn’t to do with the light itself, but the relationship it has with the lens of the camera you’re using.

Unlike other lights in the photography studio, the hair light will need to be facing you, which means it will also be facing the camera.

As a result, lens flare is a very real possibility.

Fortunately, there is a simple way to address this potential issue.

The best option is to block off extra light by covering up the top of the light with tape, cardboard, or anything else you have handy.

Overpowering Light

The second issue that afflicts many first-time hair light users is having a light that is too powerful.

The hair light is one of the few lights that is all about subtlety and highlights, so it really doesn’t need to be very powerful for you to get the best results from your photo shoots.

All you want to do with a hair light is provide some contrast and clarity to the subject’s hair, you don’t want to cast a strong beam of light over their entire body.

Whether or not the light is too powerful will depend on various factors, such as the light itself, and the model’s hair color.

If you’re dealing with a model who has fair hair, then you won’t need much power at all from your hair light to get the best results.

If they have darker hair, then you can be a bit more generous with the power, though it’s still easy to go overboard and saturate the subject with too much light.

The best way to resolve this issue is to be adaptable and make changes to the light on-the-fly.

That means you need to be ready to adjust the settings on your light, until you get just the right amount to lend definition without overdoing it.

If you’re unsure how much juice to give your hair light, start by setting it up with the same amount of power as your key light.

Frequently Asked Questions About Hair Lights

What is the purpose of hair light?

A hair light is simply a light used by photographers to highlight the subject of the photo’s hair.

This light is placed above the subject to create a top-down lighting effect that provides clarity to the facial features and hair.

It’s traditionally used in photo studios to accentuate the hair against a darker background, and bring it into focus.

How do you use hair light?

To use a hair light, you’ll need to position it above the subject’s head and a little behind.

As a general rule of thumb, try to place the light 3 feet or so above the subject’s head, angling the light downwards and to the front so that it casts over the head and shoulders.

You can also play around with the light, positioning it to either side of the subject’s head, to give different perspectives.

What is the most important aspect of hair lighting?

The most important aspect of hair lighting is knowing how to set it up.

Unlike other lights in a photography studio, the hair light serves a very specific purpose: to highlight and accent the hair of the subject.

As such, it’s critical to the quality of the photo that you position it well above and behind the subject.

A Final Word From Run Gun Shoot

The hair light is a useful piece of equipment for any photography studio.

It’s a light that serves to highlight a subject’s hair, which makes it ideal for model photo shoots and any other photography projects involving human subjects.

With the right setup and know-how, you can use the hair light to great effect and take your photo shoots to the next level.

Article by:

RunGunShoot Team

Our detailed review has been contributed to by multiple members of the Run Gun Shoot Review Team to ensure the best research and highest standard of quality. Have a good or a bad experience with one of the products? Please let us know, we love the feedback!

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