How to understand all types of light and use this knowledge in creation of lighting setups

May 5, 2016   2545 views

Let's recall the simple statement, which says that every lighting pattern is only a sum of several lighting spots. I am working on an article where I describe all characteristics of the lighting spot. But now, in this tutorial I will tell you how to operate with several lighting units: how to “see and feel” every lighting unit in setup, how to correctly position them, how to find solutions for improving lighting setups, how to create your own algorithms of working in the studio.

This simple formula determines our skill. Yes, it's simple. Put the right lighting unit with the right lighting modifier into the right place with the right angle and the right power. And do it multiple times with the right amount of lighting units. And you will get the perfect result!

But you know how much time you have to spend in the studio to solve this “simple” task. All those “right” terms determine your professionalism. So many photographers starting to learn lighting try to find out every nuance in working with light, but facing plenty of information, plenty of modifiers, plenty of details, just give up in their desire to totally understand the light. And they start to copy setups from YourTube unreasonably adding lighting units without understanding which role every of them plays. But let’s sort out with those roles, let’s again step-by-step build that algorithm we need so much for successful working in the studio. Thus, There are only 4 types of light: key, fill, background and shaping (as I call it) lights. This does not mean that we should always use 4 sources. Every source of light performs several functions, and sometimes the opposite happens when one function is performed by multiple light sources. However, there are 4 types of light and understanding their functions and features affects on how you are going to be confident to create your masterpiece lighting setup in the studio. Let’s discuss step by step every type of light revealing what each of them brings in the final lighting picture.


The cornerstone. This is where the creation of the lighting setup begins and this is what creates the main lighting pattern. It is possible to neglect the rest of the lighting sources understanding that we can change background in Photoshop, we can make shadows fill in RAW converter (a lot of other things) but one thing we can’t do is to redraw the key light.

Every photographer makes his own demands to every type of light but for me I pay attention to the following (of course, I am not talking about 100% cases, but about the overwhelming majority, there are exceptions everywhere): the key light must be sole, it must be above model’s eye level, it should create a complete picture of the light.

Let’s look at these requirements for the key light in details.

The key light must be sole. A phrase “There is just one sun" concisely and accurately defines the source of this claim. Although in real life we often faces the fact that the light is performed by several lighting sources (several lamps in the room, for example), though one of them (or a group creating one direction of the light) is dominant. Therefore, to create a holistic picture of light in the studio, it is necessary to use a sole lighting source as a key light. Otherwise, the lighting pattern will lose its integrity, turning from a single, strong, intelligible, logical pattern into chaotic set of lighting spots over the model and into a heap of shadows around her.

Above the model’s eye level.Although the real-world light is not always comes form above the model’s eye level (eg the model stands very close to huge strong reflector, or a lamp in the room is located on the desktop level etc), in the studio we shouldn’t move the lighting unit down lower than model’s eyes-level. Such light (lower this level) would distort her face, her beauty, her body, everything. Moreover, it would create high visible shadows around the model. Sure, there are maybe 0.5% when we should move the key light down but the only reason can force to do it: some models look better in lower key light. When I work with models I try to check every position of key light, looking at her face and thinking what position works better. And sometimes it happens I see that the key light works better in position lower than her eye level. It happens but another 99.5% - higher! Definitely higher!

Why did I pay attention to it - because photographers willing to distribute light evenly over the model move the key light very low, almost at chest level. They achieve their local objectives, but lose strategically - the beauty of the lighting pattern on her face. In addition, get more uncontrolled shadows on the background and surrounding objects.

Sometimes a photographer has a task to distribute the light all over the model, and sometimes vice versa - creating a bright spot in a certain place, usually on the head. If the second task is fairly easy to perform just moving the key light closer to the model or using some “narrow” lighting modifier. I have dedicated a big article on how to do it and I think that reading it and working it out, you will solve this problem more confidently.

Now after performing basic conditions we need to choose the hardness of the lighting source. It is all determined by the task. If we create a bright, sun-style image, we will choose a hard, even superhard key light. If you want to get a soft, gentle picture you will use soft, even supersoft light. (you can read about hardness of light here). If we have a model with great beauty, if we can enjoy a crisp, clear picture - choose hard light. If we have let's say “an ordinary person” who does not have a top-model beauty, we should choose soft light - it will smooth some features, make it less expressive and therefore conspicuous.

However the choice of the hardness of light is a matter of aesthetics. I love to take pictures with the hard light, that is my aesthetic, so in my studio I always should have a set of standard reflectors, and not only reflectors but also a set of honeycomb grids, barndoors, diffusion gels, masks, all stuff that helps me create a contrast, hard light portrait. But I know that there are many photographers who create their work without them at all, and create fine portraits.

The main thing is to feel and understand the light and for this the creating lighting setups with hard lighting units is the way to understand the light. The shadows are harsh and contrast, you see every shadow and you see and understand how it works, you see all your mistakes, you see what happens if you move the lighting unit. That is the best way to train yourself to work in the studio. On my workshops and classes LINK I always recommend to remove all lighting modifiers but standard reflector for a month. At the first time it will be so hard to work with this set of lighting equipment, but this action will give you a lot of knowledge and skills that will raise your ability to work with light to the new level.

I want to add that the choice of the harness of key light does not definite the contrast of the picture, it is given completely by the work of the fill light or by the presence of bouncing surfaces around the model. You can find a bright high-key portrait where there are no shadow and that is done with only standard reflectors. On the other hand you can see a very contrast picture, which is made only with a large softbox.

However let's go to the next point in the key light discussing - its position. There are only 3 positions of the key light: front position, side position and back position. That’s it. No more. In each of them there are several levels, heights of the lighting source: a high position above the eye level of the model, the middle position on the level of the model eye and below the eye level. And no more!

Between these 3 positions (front, side, the backlight), the boundary is generally conventional. If we are talking about the full body picture it is more clear but in portraits it depends on the set of some conditions, details, position of the model head, her pose etc. Nevertheless in portrait photography if the model looks at us directly, the definition of the position of light is determined by this condition: put a lighting source in front of the model frontally at the level when I get a visible shadow under her nose. The most typical level of the key light in portrait photography is the level when the edge of this shadow is located on the middle distance between her nose and her upper lip. Move the lighting source to the side and as soon as you see a visible shadow, especially after it merged with the shadow on his cheek, we say that we got the side position of light. Moving on, as soon as the shadow side of the face has become completely dark - we got the back position.

Return the lighting source to its original position and now tried to change the level. As I said the best way to determine the level is the position go the shadow of the model’s nose. Now the shadow lies on the center between the nose and the lip. Move the light upper to position when the shadow of her nose touches the upper lip - we got extremely high position, it is very rarely when photographers move the key light on this position or upper. Now lower the key lighting unit to the level where the shadow disappears completely, we got the middle position. Move the key light lower to the level when lighting pattern on the nasolabial folds overturns (the shadow of the nose can not be an indicator now, the shadow from the nose is invisible in this case) - we got the lower, under her eye level position Everyone has their own habits, their own priorities but in my work I would define the ratio of using of positions of the key light like this. 70% frontal, 25% side, the backlight 5%. As for the height of the 75% middle high, 20% upper high position, 4% at eye level and 1% at the lower level.

Your choice of those characteristics - position, hardness, level etc is a level your photography skills. It forms your unique style, creates your ideal pictures, shows your unique photography taste. And nuances in these characteristics make us leaders. So think when you work with the key light. Stop for a minute and ask just 2 questions to yourself. Which characteristics of the scene I consider when I put this lighting unit in this position? And, what would happen if I move the key light in different position? Ask it every time. And the more characteristics you consider, you see, you understand, the better result you are ready to get.


Discussing the key light I specifically did not talk about the contrast. Most often, this problem is solved separately. If we need very contrast picture we often put black flags around the model removing all possible reflexes from studio walls, reduce the size of the lighting spot to have it only on the model without affecting any of the surrounding objects. However, most often there is a need to reduce the contrast and here are the second player in our game - the fill light.

What are its functions? Just one. Being as inconspicuous as possible to reduce the difference between the lit and unlit areas created by the key light. Why as inconspicuous as possible? Because we do not need an another lighting picture with additional shadows. We need just to reduce the contrast. That’s it.

And for this task the fill light should be as soft as possible. We don't need any shadows created by the fill light and soft light solution will be the best for this goal. The second, the fill light should wrap, surround model. We need to light all shadows not only some part. And the third, it should come from the axis of the photographer’s lens. It will help us again to reduce the shadows from the fill light and make its lighting pattern the most inconspicuous.

How can we get it? For me, the most simple, quick solution is to use bouncing light from the wall standing behind my back. It will help me to get very soft light. Together with reflections from the floor, ceiling and other walls it creates really supersoft light. This solution allows me to change point of light, just changing the angle of this unit (i.e. position of the lighting spot) I can perform another task - to get the fill light coming from axis of the camera.

However there are two limitations. It requires a really powerful lighting source and most importantly - the white walls and ceiling in the studio. If you do not have neither the one nor the another one you can use two large softboxes standing behind your back and aimed at the model could meet the challenge.

What the power should we use for fill light? It depends on the style of picture we need. Do not try to memorize any values of power you used before or you saw somewhere. Every lighting setup is unique and in situation when you use bouncing light the portion of the fill light will be different. So only your eyes and the flash meter could help you to choose the right power. Usually I take several pictures changing the power of the fill light for one stop every time and them come through those pictures selecting one image that fits my concept of the picture. It takes a minute but helps me to select exact amount of the fill light I need.


In the creation of any lighting setup one of the main questions is how the model is associated with a background shadow. The way the model is associated with a background shadow is a question of totally different types of background lighting. if you place the model close to the background you will see shadow behind the model on the background. If you move the model a few feet away from the background the shadows will not affect the background. This difference is the cornerstone in creating the background light. Why?

Because in the first case you will handle with this shadow. You can “play” with it. You can hide it. But in any case you have the shadow. That is the fact. In your every step you have to consider the presence of shadow.

In second case if you need some light over the background you will create your setup excluding thinking about shadows on the background. You separately light the model with a key light, and light the background with a background light. And that is a huge difference.

In the second case you can paint anything you want over the background. But before we start to discuss what we can paint there I wanted to talk about an influence of the fill light. If you don't use fill light even white background could be black. For that you should move the model to big distance from the background or use a light modifier with narrow spot of light. But using a fill light source in your lighting setup you give a certain amount of light to the background. As in the painting where teachers do not recommend the use of totally white and black paint in photography the fact is we don't need 100% black background. Even a black background should bring information, have some gradients and to be dark-dark grey, but not completely black.

So when you start to setup the background light you have to remember, and you have to see that you have already some portion of the fill light and the key light on the background.

And what can we paint there with background light? Not a lot of things! Of course we can do nothing to paint there leaving the background black (or with some portion of fill light if you used it). But if to paint you can make several shapes. Just a few. Gradient, circle, oval, line, multiple spots. And no more. No more in real practice.

It is extremely rare when we need a sharp, crispy image on the background. We need some lighting pattern on the background to create volume, to complete the composition, to create contrasts with the key light pattern, but not to attract attention to it moving it from the mainobject. Therefore, usually it is a lighting spot with broad, smooth, well-feathered edges.

This lighting spot should not be asymmetrical. It means we shouldn’t put the background light with acute angle to the background. It could make the spot asymmetrical. If the left and right parts of background light are not similar and if we have model in the center of picture it will be so visible. So the best position of the background lighting source - exactly behind the model. If we are shooting portrait it is very easy to achieve - the model will hide the lighting unit by her body. But if we are shooting full body picture we should put the background light a little above her head, exactly outside the picture border.

If we use background light with flat surface (seamless paper background, flat wall or something like that) we can’t see the hardness of light (because we don't have an object in front of the background, the background is an object itself) and thereafter it doesn’t matter what hardness the lighting unit has. It matters how easy we can operate with that lighting unit. And the best modifier for that is standard reflector. It helps us to do everything with the light - to make it more focused or vice versa to make it more wide, to use gels, masks etc. Here are just several solutions:

If I need a small spot behind the model I use honeycomb grid or move the lighting unit close to background. If I need wide spot I use wide reflector or diffusion gel. If I need sharp edge of the spot I put a round mask between the reflector and the background. If vice versa I need smooth, feathered edges of the background spot I use diffusion gel, sometimes several pieces. If I need gradient I just turn the reflector down and use the edge of the lighting spot. If I need flat background I can remove the reflector from the lighting unit at all. For multiple spots I would use mask with multiple holes. For oval shape I would use barn doors over the reflector. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. You know on my workshops and classes I can talk about background light (as well as any other type) hours and hours. But we have the fourth party in our orchestra.


That is how I call it. This type of light helps us to show the shape of the object or the model or to emphasize some part of it. There is the main rule: this is not a key light, not a fill light and not a background light. We have already discussed it: every type of light we talked before could be multiple. Sometimes we need two or three colors on background - we use two or three lighting units with gels, sometimes we need to make the key light more softer and we use two softboxes, sometimes we need to make the fill light more wrapping and we use two lighting units or more. But those lighting units are still classified as a key, fill or background lights.

But if we need add something to picture (not to correct a mistake with the key or fill light) we use shaping light.

When we put a softbox behind the model to draw a thin line that shows her shape and separate her from the background - this is the shaping light. When we need to put very narrow lighting spot to model’s jewelry - this is also the shaping light. To hang the reflector above the model's head trying to get light flares on her hair - and this is too.

This is such a boundless light group that describe all the cases of the shaping light is simply meaningless: I still can not enumerate all of these cases, every photographer has dozens solutions in his arsenal, hundreds are still waiting to be revealed. Every solution is usually a small invention. You have to come through several solutions before you find that only one you need. And you should search your own solutions.

In the next article I will show my picture of lighting setups with short description of key, fill, background and shaping light. It will help you to have deep understanding of every type of light.