Two Zone/Mixed Lighting

By John Welzenbach Back to


A two zone/mixed lighting set up is one of the simplest to design and create. It’s visually captivating with infinitely diverse applications. Easily controllable, yet unpredictable, it can add drama, whimsy, or elusive sensuality to a photograph.

Two zone/mixed lighting refers to two different lighting sources, isolated in two distinct zones to create a single photograph. Zone 1 affects only foreground subject and Zone 2 only affects the background. It’s the combination of the light sources and your creativity that gives you a unique result in the final image.

The Basics:

• Physical separation isolates one light zone from the other

• Aperture controls your flash

• Shutter controls your blur

• Your creative vision controls it all

The more distance between the subject and the background, the easier it is to isolate the light zones and achieve optimum results. When necessary, some 4×8 foam board panels or black curtains are used to help contain the light in each zone. The advantage is that each zone’s lighting is 100% independent from the other, giving the photographer unlimited options, for example, Mixed Lighting.

Mixed Lighting

The light on the subject zone can be completely different than the background zone in quality, intensity, color, color temperature, or source (constant vs. flash).

The most common arrangement is studio flash on the foreground subject with a continuous light source (such as tungsten or LED) on the background.

Zone 1 Flash/Zone 2 Tungsten

The shot of Anika and her children introduce the fun element of a different type of light on the background. While the people were exposed with the studio 5000K Speedotron 2400 flash to freeze them, the background was lit with a 3200K Arri 650 W tungsten constant source light. Here is the beauty of how this all works:

• The flash freezes the subject and its exposure is controlled entirely by aperture setting.

• The tungsten constant light source illuminates the background and its exposure is the classic aperture and shutter speed combo. However, the aperture has previously been determined by the subject flash ex- posure so the only remaining control is shutter speed. This determines the blur.

At an exposure of f/11 at 1/450th flash duration, Anika’s brood is captured still and sharp. The background now requires f/11 @ 1⁄2 second. During that time all the people have moved varying degrees creating residual blurs against the illuminated background. But the blurry areas and edges are all dark.

The soft fuzzy edges are dark because there is no light shining on the subjects except for the flash. Yes, I am shooting “blind.” Before and after the flash, the family is a solid black silhouette. The blur is the result of the silhouettes moving out their original position, allowing partial exposure of the background. The more the silhouettes move, the more area of blur there will be. The farther away or faster they move, the softer the edges will be. In the studio or on location, I almost always use the capture histogram as my exposure guide. I rarely use a light meter and, even though it sounds backwards, I find it more reliable for the final digital capture.

I focus with the modeling light on and at the last moment, my assistant turns it off. Shooting in the dark means I have no pinpoint control at the instant of exposure. To safely compensate for this, I tend to close down 1/3 stop giving me more depth-of-field than I might otherwise select.

Finally, I anticipated where the subject movement would likely occur and added a background highlight streak by aiming an Arri 350 Spotlight through closed down barn doors diagonally across the background to create more contrast against the dark blur.

The motto “always shoot the rehearsal” is never truer than with kids or animals on set. While I’m a firm believer that there are no rules in art, I never break this one. Many times in my career that magic initial moment of curiosity, wonderment or exploration has been the best and only shot from the session. Once boredom, fear or tears set in, you’re toast!

Zone 1 Flash/Zone 2 Flash

The shot of racquet ball pro, Malia Bailey shows two zone lighting in the simplest form. The faces and torso are lit by an Elinchrom RX 1200 studio flash in a me- dium Chimera soft box affording me total control over the placement, edge definition and density of the highlights and shadows. The inclusion, exclusion, placement, size and brightness of the eye catchlights, a mere handful of pixels, can have a terabyte size impact on the focal point and statement of the image. There is no right or wrong, but there is consequence to every decision you make. Try the same shot with and without the catchlight, enhance it in Photoshop and see for yourself the irresistible attraction to the eyes of the person within. The lens on my Canon EOS 5D Mark II was a Canon EF 200 mm f /2.8 telephoto selected for its visual compression. I wanted a sharp, crisp image all around the edges with no residual motion or blur and no influence of background light on the subject’s face. Both flash color temps were 5000K.

Mixing It Up

The look of the Maui Jim ad campaign literally evolved from the style of the two zone/mixed lighting arrangement. The challenges were to keep the product crisp and sharp, front to back. We wanted a soft focus, limited depth of field appearance and a warm, tropical glow around the model. While some of these seem mutually exclusive, we started simple and innovated along the way.

The subject was lit with the studio flash at f/11 to ensure product sharpness as required by the client. The background was lit with a tungsten Lowell Omni-light, color shifted to 5000K with a full CTB Roscoe Cinegel. So the whole scene had a daylight balance but at f/11 was overall sharper than we wanted. So after the flash, during the time exposure of .8 second, I immediately began to rack focus so the model’s silhouette was no longer sharp. While not really shallow depth of field, it began to mimic the look of it.

Next, an assistant quickly inserted a Lee Fog #3 filter in front of the lens, while I was changing focus, and that created the glow. This increased the soft effect of defocusing and produced a high key glow wrapping around the model instead of the dark blurry edges like the previous examples. This initial ad was approved and we created four more in the series. Another result of “How can we achieve this” imagination applied to a basic technique.

Physically, the set up for Danielle was similar to the photo of Anika and her children. The subject was lit by daylight flash. Background was lit by constant tungsten. But there are two new elements: wind and a moving background.

With Danielle positioned and the Mole–Richardson studio fan on, the flash (at f/9) captured Danielle. Modeling lights were off. The shutter remained open for 1/3 second and the rapidly blowing hair created fuzzy edged, wispy areas imparting movement and an allure of mystery. You’ll notice that Danielle moved ever so slightly during the exposure creating the thin dark edge along her left arm. While not planned in my original vision, it enhances the “something’s different about this shot” appearance. I also wanted the background to reinforce the sense of movement but at f/9 at 1/3 second it was too static. So, simplicity triumphed again and we physically rolled the background sideways during the time exposure. The two zone/mixed lighting tech- nique by itself is simplicity. Your imagination gives it life and power.

Resources: Elinchrom Flash-; Lee Filters-; Roscoe Gels-; Canon Cameras-; Speedotron Lighting-; Lowell Lighting-; Chimera Lighting-; Arri Lighting-; Mole-Richardson Studio Fan-; Tamara Morrison backgrounds-

About the Author

John Welzenbach
John Welzenbach has been a commercial, advertising and editorial photographer for his entire career. His specialty is capturing people living and loving life on location and in the studio. Some fun client’s have included Wilson Sports, Coca Cola, McDonald’s, Lands’ End and the Indy 500. He writes and gives seminars, and served as Guest Artist at Brooks Institute of Photography and Artist in Residence at the Disney Institute.