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Photography Basics—Three And Four Light Set-Ups

Start With The Basics First

I still remember the film days of the old photography books I used to read, almost all recommended a three or four light setup, usually a main (key), fill, back and background light when working with artificial lighting, such as studio strobes or continuous tungsten light sources. These same lighting setups would often discuss lighting ratios, usually targeted at high-key or low-key lighting, from a 1:1 to an 8:1 variation, respectively on ratios, depending on the photographer’s targeted effect.

Playboy Playmate Monica Leigh Photo

Playboy Playmate Monica Leigh is illuminated with many lights during a commercial shoot for Evan Williams liquor.

In these same books, the author would normally include captions with camera settings, lens information, lighting equipment used, specific lighting ratios, specific lighting angles (in degrees) and the distance of the light source to the subject itself. So once, I asked a very prominent photographer and author of photography books from back then, “How did you remember all those specs plus the camera and lens settings when you wrote your books?”

His response, “Are you kidding, I never wrote them down when shooting and I certainly don’t carry a compass nor a tape-measure, and I’m not into calculating ratios, though I’m sure I used a light meter—basically like most photography book authors, I just guessed when it came to photo captions.”

I was shocked, because as an author myself of photography books, all my camera and lens settings mentioned in my captions are exact, as with digital photography today, that data is found in the metadata file of the original image. Obviously something not found on film-produced photos. On the other hand, I’m not a ratio calculating type of photographer, I light my subject/scene, based on my photographic style and I do it because I can see the light based on using the tungsten modeling lamps found in my Hensel monolight systems.

Not to mention, in the film days, I would break out the light meter and check what output each studio strobe head with light modifier would provide and adjust to my personal tastes. I’m not into calculating lighting ratios either, I just knew my main light should meter stronger than my fill light. Today with digital camera LCD screens, we can adjust our lights with an actual visual verification of the image and histogram, thus it’s easier than ever before to make on-the-spot corrections. So all the fancy talk aside, let’s get down to what really matters in this article, understanding what all four lights do, so you can get a great photo in the studio or on location.

First, we’ll start with the main light, as it’s the main light that the other lights are adjusted to based on it’s actual settings. As an example, a sure sign of an amateur photographer when it comes to studio lighting is having their fill light act as a main light too—how can you tell by looking at an image? Real simple, just look for two shadows, one on each side of the nose because a professional only creates one shadow on one side of the nose, from the main light. When the fill light is set about equally to the main light in power output, you wind up with two shadows on each side of the nose.

Three Point Lighting 3-Point Photographic Lighting

Example of a standard three-point photographic lighting setup.

It’s the intensity of the fill light and the type of light modifier on the main light that determines the softness or hardness of that main nose shadow. Now some people prefer no shadows on the nose—especially when they are doing some type of beauty shot, usually a “high-key” photograph. Sometimes I’m against this, unless it’s a beauty shot, because no matter how faint the shadow is, shadows are good because they create the illusion of depth in the form of a more three-dimensional image. Photography is a two-dimensional medium, just like an artist’s canvas and because we see more than two-dimensions, an image will come to life with the illusion of another dimension.

Now the next light is the fill light. As discussed before, it never overpowers the main light and it normally has a similar light modifier than the main light. Similar doesn’t always mean the same size and shape light modifier, but a light modifier just as soft or softer than the main light. This touch of softness is added simply by powering the light down, so it doesn’t overpower the main light, and moving the fill light closer to the subject for added softness. The rule for photographic lighting is the closer the light source, the softer the light qualityto the subject.

The other rule is the larger the light modifier, the softer the light quality too, but we normally use a slightly smaller light modifier than a main light and move it in closer to the subject. This slight touch of softness helps soften the nose shadow and since it’s slightly underpowered to the main light, the shadow is still there but softer than without a fill light. Remember, the fill light isn’t just for softening nose shadows or other shadows, but it’s to illuminate the other side of the subject because usually the main light is at one angle, say to the right of the subject, and the fill light is at an opposite angle of the subject, left in this case.

Main, fill, back and background lights used during the Evan Williams liquor commercial shoot.

Here is the main, fill, back, and background lights used during the Evan Williams liquor commercial shoot.

The adjustment of the fill light depends on the photographer’s intended affect. Obviously in high-key lighting situations the fill is not quite equal to the main light, but strong enough to eliminate any shadows while still not creating shadows of it’s own on the other side of the subject’s face. In low-key lighting, the fill may be turned off or it’s power strongly reduced to create a strong contrast of light falling on the subject.  Traditionally a fill light is set lower, around face level, while a main or key light is set at a much higher angle, downwards toward the subject.

Now we move on to the back light, also known as a hair, rim, edge, accent or shoulder light when it comes to creating portraits. Again, this is a light easily adjusted to the photographer’s preferred photographic style. Normally this light is placed behind the subject, slightly off to one side and out of camera frame, then adjusted to outline the body contours or to accent the hair more broadly. This light usually requires a smaller light modifier to focus the light where needed. My favorite is a 7-inch metal reflector attached to the light with a 10-, 20-, 30- or 40-degree grid placed directly in front of the reflector. Additionally, I often like to add a Rosco CTO gel or a Rosco straw gel for a more warming effect—you see this often in the current Playboy style of lighting.

It’s best to have an assistant adjust this light while the photographer observes the lighting effect it creates. Then the intensity of the light is adjusted to not overexpose the subject where the light actually strikes. This type of light normally does not strike the front of the subject, and if it does, then the light is called spill light. While spill light can add some interesting effects, most professional photographers avoid spill light by using flags, cutters, or V-flats (black foam core boards taped together that stand up as V). The main idea behind a back light is to separate the subject from the background, especially when your subject has dark hair and the background is dark.

The final light is the background light,which is used primarily to illuminate the background for some type of effect. As an example, in high-key lighting many photographers will use one or two background lights to ensure their white seamless background paper stays white—if you use a big octabox, like a Chimera Octa57 in it’s full 7-foot diameter, there is no need for this as it’s all about the distance of the subject to the background and the distance of the octabox to the subject. Not to mention that a white paper background can reflect as much as 90-percent of the light that strikes it. Since every studio varies in size and lighting equipment and I don’t carry a tape measure, play with this in your studio until you find it, it’s there!

4-Point Photographic Lighitng, Four Point Photography Lighting Setup

Example of a basic four-point photography lighting setup..

Background lights are also used for illuminating background elements, such as props of the scene itself. They are also used to illuminate shadows caused by the subject or foreground props too.  Think of the latter scenario as a background light used like a fill light for the actual background itself. Background lights also add some depth to create another three-dimensional illusion of the final photograph on a two-dimensional medium.

Now that is the basics of three or four lighting setups and because I’m not a forensic photographer, I don’t normally carry measuring devices like compasses and tape measures, so when you read the captions in my photography books, you will find the correct camera settings and usually the description of the actual lights used. Though normally I will not give you exact angles and distances of the lights themselves, for if I did, I’d be guessing and not to mention, stopping to measure everything would kill the momentum of the shooting session itself—that alone is why I rely on experience and consistency to get me through my photo shoots. This all comes with practice and the practice starts with the basics of photography.

With that I close, and like in all my photography books I ask that you please don’t forget our men and women in our armed services, for without their sacrifices plus the sacrifices of their friends and families, we would not have our freedoms. God Bless them all, Rolando.

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One Comment

  1. Very informative..


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Welcome to (Lens Diaries™), a hybrid photography blog with social flair. The photoblog provides photo tips, photo tutorials and photo diaries by professional photographer, author, writer, speaker and social media consultant, Rolando Gomez.

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