The Classic Three-Light Set-up

PHOTO Techniques: Mastering Digital Techniques, 2003

By Bobbi Lane Back to

bobbi lane, 3 light setup, photo technique

We live in a world with one light source—the sun. It’s normal for us to see directional light that creates a specific set of highlights and shadows. But the surroundings—both natural and man-made—create additional highlights with light bouncing off buildings, or landscapes, sidewalks, etc. The sky acts as a fill light. However, when we’re in the studio, we need to create everything very carefully. It’s up to us to decide the effect or mood, as well as the direction, quality and depth of the light.

We truly only need one light, but one light alone may not fit all the requirements of the set. For example, if the subject has dark hair against a dark background, detail will be lost in the shadow areas.The classic three-light set-up consists of a main light, a hair light and a background light. Deciding where to place the lights and what ratios to use is the key to making an effective photo. The examples shown here are for a lowkey set with a dark-haired woman wearing dark-colored clothes against a rich brown muslin background.The desired mood is like a Rembrandt painting—soft window light, yet with detail in the textures.The woman has a Mona Lisa smile that is subtle, friendly and evocative. This set is neither for a bright, happy look, nor for an overly dramatic one. It is just somewhat subdued and noble. Since “everything depends upon everything,” the choices of tools and ratios would change for a different mood.

Mood, clothes, background and posing

The first decision in any photograph is what mood you want to create. Is it light and happy? Soft and warm? Graphic? Hard and dramatic? The more you define, the easier it is to choose the appropriate tools. In this case,my subject, Becka, dictated all the choices. Her dark,curly tresses,smooth skin, slight smile and almond-shaped brown eyes evoked a Renaissance or Elizabethan period. Her appearance is serene and dignified. From her wardrobe, we chose the burgundy velvet dress with the ribbon-bodice and bell sleeves.We pulled her hair back so her face is open, letting the curls fall around her shoulders.

For the background, I chose a handpainted mottled brown muslin with an occasional spot of purple that was commissioned for a job many years ago. It has become one of my favorite backgrounds, and sometimes photographs like suede. It is darker than Zone V and can absorb light, so finding the right density is tricky. If it is over-lit, it becomes too “busy” and graphic. However, its wonderful quality of warmth made it perfect for this shot.

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The classic three-light set-up

I wanted the model to appear regal-looking, so I asked her to stand (Figure 1). Subjects can get weary while sitting and begin to slump their shoulders. I wanted her back straight, body turned three-quarters towards the light, with her head high for poise and dignity. This pose also allowed me to shoot either a medium length shot or a headshot without having to readjust the lights or the pose.

The main light

For this shot, the best-suited light modifier is a soft box.Boxes provide soft, even light, with quick fall off and a light spread of about 50°.This prevents too much of the main light from falling on the background, so it can be lit separately. Manufacturers make a large variety of box sizes, shapes and interiors. Small and medium boxes simulate window light, while larger ones are more like door light. Some manufacturers, such as Photoflex, make removable silver or gold panels that attach to the interior. The silver panels increase contrast and color saturation, while the gold ones add warmth. I chose the Calumet white, 26×32-inch soft box, because I wanted a small source, which makes the light more directional. I used Kodak’s new E-100 GX film, which is warm.

The subject’s face was turned slightly towards the light.The main lighting pattern is the “Loop.” Since the face is turned, it is also a “short”light. A short light is when the face is turned away from the camera, with the shadow side towards the camera; a broad light is when the lit side of the face is towards the camera. A short light is more dramatic since the viewer sees more shadow. It also thins the face slightly. I’ve included two versions of the final shot— one with no fill for more drama; the other with fill bounced off white foamcore board for a softer feeling and smoother skin tones.

The main light reading was ƒ/5.6. Because the background is heavily textured, it’s necessary to have a small depth of field. Painted backgrounds are beautiful, but are designed to create an impression. If they’re too sharp, it detracts from the subject. If this were a plain paper background, depth of field wouldn’t matter because there would be nothing to come into focus. Figure 1 is made with only the one box light. It’s very subdued,and there’s no detail in the hair. The spill on the background is minimal.You can make out detail, but just barely. This is perfectly acceptable, and many people would love the feeling of drama. I didn’t want my model to fade into the background, so I decided to add the other lights.

Hair light

Traditionally, hair lights are high and slightly behind the subject. They are always on the opposite side of the main light. Why? Because that side is already lit! The purpose of a hair light is to provide separation from the background and detail in the hair texture. A hair light can be a box,grid spot,a dish light,bounced off a card, or just about any kind of light modifier. Normally, umbrellas aren’t used because they spread the light over a large area, which can be difficult to control. If the hair light must be directly behind or just off to the side, it must be placed on a boom so the stand isn’t visible in the shot.

Here, the hair light is a 30° grid spot. I wanted enough coverage to hit the top of her head and still get the top of her shoulder. I chose a harder light—a grid spot— for texture. Dark hair absorbs light; using a hard light pulls out more detail. In Figure 2, you can see the coverage.

I always place my head at the subject’s level, and look at the lights to make sure they are pointed where I want them. Our eyes have the ability to perceive about 25 stops of light, while slide film discerns detail in three stops (and negative film in five). So, the light can just skim the head and we still think it looks bright. I place one light at a time. I turn off the modeling lamps on the main and background light, so I can concentrate on each individual light. It’s too confusing otherwise. Once the hair light is placed (Figure 3), you can see it’s shining directly into the camera. Notice the small black card,or flag, that is clamped to a stand. This blocks the light from the camera without blocking it on the subject. In Figure 3, I’ve moved the flag so you can see where the light is positioned.

I use Calumet Elite strobe lights in the studio. Strobe light heads have a tungsten modeling light that is used for placement. At this point in the set-up, I’m working on getting the correct direction and quality of light. Once all lights are in place, I take readings and make exposure adjustments. The Calumet strobe lights have controls that split the A and B side lights so they can be controlled separately with a continuous variator switch.It’s possible to have a threestop difference between the sides. It’s a great feature, and makes controlling the light easy. Otherwise, the only control you have over the exposure is to change the distance of the light to the subject, which also changes the quality and coverage.

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Background light

In Figure 3 of the set-up, you can see the background light is on a small lightstand. This allows the light to be placed directly behind the person without the stand being visible. I have a 40° grid spot on the background. In Figure 4, you can see that the light is centered just below her shoulders. If it were higher, it would look like a halo. (Yes, she is a kind woman, but she’s not a saint!) This is a mistake some photographers make. The light falls off as it goes up, but there’s still separation at the top of the head. Make sure your camera is on a tripod with your subject in the correct pose when you place the background light. If the camera moves slightly to one side, the position of the light will be different.

Ratios and readings

This is the tricky part, because, as previously stated, “Everything depends upon everything.” There are some general formulas, but everything depends on the nature of the shot. For a three-light set-up,a good place to start is with the hair and background lights one stop less than the main light. If the main light is ƒ/5.6, the other lights should each read ƒ/4.

However,in this case,we have two other factors—her hair is very dark and the background is also dark. The readings were: main light, ƒ/5.6; hair light, ƒ/4.5, and background light, ƒ/5.6. Becka’s hair is dark brown, not black. If it were black, I would have the hair light be equal to or greater than the main light. Similarly, if she had blonde hair, I might have the hair light be 112⁄ stops less than the main light.The background is dark and textured. But if the reading were one stop down from the main, there would be very little detail or separation. If the background were a light gray, an equal reading would be very bright.

How do I take the readings? I use a Minolta IV F flash meter for all my work. I use the incident meter reading for almost everything I do. For the main light reading, the meter is placed directly in front of the model’s face, touching just under the nose. Sometimes I’ll ask the model to move their head back slightly so I can place the bulb exactly where the skin would be.Then I angle the bulb so that it’s lit just like the subject. If the subject is half-lit, the bulb is halflit, if the subject is three-quarters lit, than the bulb is three quarters lit. It requires being acutely aware of the position of the light.

For the hair light, I place the meter’s back flat on the side of the head so that the light skims across it.The body of the meter will block the light if it points at the main light. If the meter points back towards the hair light, that reading is for what it looks like from the back of the head. A hair light skims across the head, so place the meter accordingly.

For the background reading, place the meter on the background, so that you see the meter just above the model’s shoulder next to the head when you look through the camera. Be careful not to block the light with your body or hand when taking the reading.

I take the readings with all the lights firing. I may shade the main light from the meter when I take the hair light reading,but I don’t turn off the lights. When I take the final photo, all the lights will be firing at the same time. Figure 5 is the result of all three lights, with no fill, so the shadows are dramatic.

For the opening photo, I placed a white card that provides a soft, even fill about 18 inches from the subject. You can see this in Figure 6.When using strobes, I rarely use a fill light since it alters the quality of my main light and creates another set of highlights. Bounce cards look the most natural; the amount of fill with vary with the distance of the card to the subject. 

About the Author

Bobbi Lane
Bobbi Lane is an award-winning commercial photographer specializing in creative portraits on location and in the studio. Lane's multi-faceted approach to photography incorporates over 30 years of technical experience with innovative artistic interpretation. Lane shoots primarily people on location for editorial, corporate, and advertising accounts as well as photographing "real people" and travel for stock. Her stock photography has sold worldwide for ads, posters, and billboards. Bobbi teaches workshops for the Santa Fe Workshops, the Maine Workshops, and the International Center of Photography in New York City. Bobbi is author of the book, Creative Techniques for Color Photography, published by Amherst Media. Her latest book, co-authored with fashion photographer Lou Lesko, is “Advertising Photography; A Straightforward Guide to a Complex Industry. She developed the content and filmed two instructional DVDs,Portrait Lighting Techniques and Portraits Unplugged, which are available through Calumet Photographic.