Three-Light Portrait: More Lights, More Choices

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The more lights you have in your studio, the greater the variety of lighting setups you can achieve. Studio lighting is often improved by subtle positional changes, as well as with additional light modifiers. Making just a small adjustment to the lights usually makes a large impact the resulting picture. The more lights you have on a set, the more changes are possible.

In this lesson, we start with a traditional two light setup and then explore a few variations with a third light added to the mix.

Topics Covered:

  • Basic Strobe Use
  • Portrait Lighting
  • Positioning the Lights for Maximum Effect
  • Working with Power Ratios
  • The Final Image

Before Beginning

To make your setup more convenient and versatile, we have now included The Photoflex® FlashFire™ wireless kit. Using this equipment allows you to move more freely with your camera instead of limiting yourself to within a few feet of your lights.

Even adding just one trigger and one receiver you can set your secondary lights to slave so that they fire through the infrared sensor. Either way you choose to use the FlashFire™, you cannot ignore its ability to provide your “tool bag” with a great amount of flexibility.

We started with a standard approach to lighting a basic portrait. The two images below show two lights, a main light and a fill light, positioned on each side of the camera at about 45 degrees to the model. Both lights were set to the same power setting, giving us f/8 at 1/125 as an exposure on both sides of the model’s face. This type of even lighting is typically referred to as a 1:1 lighting ratio.

Many photographers use this kind of setup as a failsafe starting point and then work on lighting variations to create the specific look that they’re after.

The result shows a clean, natural looking light. This type of image could easily be acceptable as a basic portrait where the goal is simply to document a person’s likeness. This type of lighting works sufficiently with just about any type of model.

To demonstrate how we took our portrait beyond the standard, two-light set-up, we decided to go back and start with just the main light first.

For our main light, we set up the first StarFlash® 650watt strobe with a medium LiteDome® and positioned the light about 3 feet away from the model.

The strobe was set to 1/4 power to maximize the recycle time. This gave us an exposure value of f/11 at 1/125 of a second. We moved the SoftBox in so that it was about 3 feet from the subject, as opposed to the 6 foot distance in the original photo, in order to make the light broader and more natural looking.

(Remember the rule: The closer the SoftBox is to its subject, the larger it becomes. And the larger the SoftBox is, the softer its quality of light will be. SoftBox lighting is similar to indirect window lighting, which tends to wrap light around the subject.)

For the fill light, we used the StarFlash® 300watt Umbrella Kit, which we placed 6 feet away from the subject. We wanted a 2:1 lighting ratio, which meant that we’d need to have a light meter reading of f/8 for this light. In order to get this reading, we ended up setting the strobe to half power.

Here, we see the result of the 2:1 lighting ratio. This ratio gave the subject very soft shadows on the nose, under the chin, and on the neck.

If you wanted to have darker shadows, you could either move the fill light back to 9 feet, or reduce the light output on the strobe to 1/4 power. This would give you a 3:1 lighting ratio. If you didn’t like the shadow on the face from the hair, you could slide the fill towards the camera and put more light into that shadow. However, this would change the shadow on the nose as well.

For the next shot, we left the main light and the fill light in the same position and added a third light to illuminate the background. We placed another StarFlash® 650watt from our dual kit in the back of the set and aimed it at the background.

To expose your background as pure white, you need to power your background light at least 1 stop brighter than your main light. Since our main light was set to expose at f/11, this meant getting a minimum of f/16 from the background light. It’s also important to make sure that the reflected light from the background does not bounce onto your model and affect the foreground lighting.

As you can see in the side-by-side comparison below, the light on the subject stays the same, while adding the light on the background makes a big difference in the overall feel of the shot.

Next, we moved the background light to the other side of the set and aimed it at the subject, instead of the background, to create a “backlight” or “rim light”. We dialed down the power on this strobe until we got a reading of f/8.

Note: Taking test shots with each light individually is a good habit to get into when you’re using more than one light, as it can otherwise be difficult to know which light is doing what.

Next, we powered up all the lights and took another shot. Notice how the hair light helps to add a sense of dimension to the shot and separates the model from the background.


Here’s a side-by-side look at our results so far:

  1. The first was with a 2 light set with a main and fill. The main was set for f/11 and the fill was set for f/8.
  2. In the second, we added a third light to blow out the background to expose as completely white.
  3. In the third, we moved the background light to the right side of the set and aimed it to light the back of our subject.

Next, we took the StarFlash® 650watt with the medium LiteDome® and put it on a boom to create a combination hair/back light. Once again, we wanted the hair light to be 1 stop less than the main light, so we adjusted the power on the 650watt strobe down to get an f/8 reading on our light meter.

We positioned the boom above the subject where we thought it would illuminate just the hair and shoulders.

Before we took the shot with all the lights powered, we decided to once again disable the main and fill lights and check the effects of just the hair light. Next, we angled the light slightly back to prevent it from illuminating any part of the face.

Once we had the hair light where we wanted it, we powered up the other lights and took a shot. The result was fantastic. A subtle hair light that helped to create a more dynamic look to the overall portrait.

Next, we decided to do a completely different lighting setup to illustrate how multiple lights can allow you to have creative freedom in your lighting strategies.

A Different Lighting Approach

For this next lighting setup, we left the StarFlash® 650watt with the medium LiteDome® on the Boom, brought it toward the front, and angled it back towards the model.

We then put the other 650watt and medium SoftBox on an extra small LiteStand, which allows you to place the light very close to the floor and shoot over it. The lower light would serve as the fill light to the main light above.

To get the main light aimed and exposed correctly, we first turned off the bottom light and decided to measure the light output of the overhead light. We got a meter reading of f/11 with a sync speed of 125th of a second. With our StarFlash® set at a little over 1/2 power, we took another shot.

Next, we turned off the top light and powered up just the fill light. We adjusted the power until it metered at the same level as the main light — f/11 with a sync speed of 125th of a second. Then, we powered up the overhead light and took another shot, Notice how the soft shadows cast from the overhead light have been greatly minimized.

Note: Once you set your main and fill in this position and get a 1:1 ratio, it’s easy to modify the ratio to 2:1 or 3:1 without having to move either of the lights. Simply turn the power on the fill light to 1/4th power, and take a reading. Now your meter should read f/8, for a 2:1 ratio. If you want slightly darker shadows turn the power on the fill down even more and take a reading to get f/5.6 for a 3:1 ratio.

Next, we set up the StarFlash® 300watt with an Umbrella as a rim light to give the subject a little more of a three-dimensional shape, and to bring more life to her beautiful hair. We positioned this second fill up high aiming down to light more of the top of the head.

We wanted this rim light to be a stop or so less powerful than our main, so after we positioned the light, we adjusted the power until our meter read f/8. The StarFlash® 300watt was set at 1/4 power. Once again, it’s important to turn off your other lights to check the light position and exposure of any new light you add to the set. Here’s what can happen if you don’t.

Do you see how the rim light is slightly too far forward and is illuminating the side of the forehead above her eyebrow and the left of the nose?

If you’re shooting with a digital camera, you may be able to notice this when you review the image on the LCD. But then again, you might not. The risk for not checking your lights individually is that you may have to spend considerable time in a photo-editing application trying to edit out these distracting highlights. And such editing will definitely take you longer to do than taking a moment to check a light with the others turned off.

If you’re using a film camera, however, and the shoot is long over, you may find yourself in the position of having to call the model up again to see if they can come back in for a reshoot. And at your expense!

So the basic idea here is simple: When working with strobes, check each light individually!

Here’s a photo summary of our lighting set-ups in this lesson.

  • Two lights approximately 3 feet from the subject, which can give you a 1:1, 2:1, 3:1 ratio, etc. Here, we demonstrated a 2:1 ratio.
  • We substituted a third light for our front fill and moved it to the back of the set for a rim light.
  • We turned the back fill strobe towards the background to “blow out” the shadows, by increasing the power to give us a clean white.
  • We rearranged the lights to create a top-to-bottom position for a different look.
  • We added our third strobe to serve as a rim light in order to bring out the beauty of the hair.

During this lesson we asked Erica, our model, to remain in the same relative position so that our viewers would be able to see the differences in the lighting configurations easier. So don’t blame her if all of her poses all “look the same.”

Also, we kept mentioning the power setting on our strobe during this lesson for two reasons. First, so that you would get the information that you have asked us to include. Second, because we recommend that you invest in a more powerful strobe system when thinking of purchases for your studio.

Our Final Shot

Using a fan we added some “action” for our final image. We think this adds some dynamic to the overall feel we were going for.

With just one subject, as in this lesson we were mainly using around 1/4 power on our 650watt main light. This takes the strain off the strobe by reducing the heat build-up during recharging, and therefore lengthens the life of the electronics up to 30% or more. Also, if you have more power in the beginning, then you can do more types of photos as you go. If you are using your strobe at full power when you are taking photos of just one person, what will you do when you want to take a photo of a group?

At Photoflex, when you buy a lighting kit you can go from a 300watt strobe to a 650watt strobe, which is a 100% power increase for about 26% more money. We think that when you are designing your lighting setups in the future, you’ll agree that’s a great investment.

Indoor Portraits,


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