Controlling Light

Controlling Light

Now that we have discussed light modifiers above, it's time to discuss how to control the lights. Light modifiers are tools of controlling light, where you can get softer flattering light, or you can direct the light to fall on to specified places on the subject or near the subject, depending on the effect you are going after.

Shutter speed, aperture and ASA/ISO; each setting affects the exposure of the film or sensor. Shutter speed dictates the duration of the film or sensor's exposure to light. Aperture is the opening of the lens that allows how much light comes in. ISO or ASA is the sensitivity of the film or the digital sensor to the light.

Now we'll be adding a few more variables into the exposure triangle. Power output for flash/light. Each type of lighting equipment that we have elaborated here, has a switch or toggle that allows you to increase or decrease the power output from your steady light or strobe. This is where studying the manual of each piece of equipment will come in to play, in order to maximize full control of your lighting equipment.

If you have a limited way of controlling your lighting equipment, another way to intensify or weaken the light on your subject is distance. Moving your light or strobe closer increases the light on your subject, moving it further away from your subject will decrease the light falling on your subject.

Background and Backdrops

We should also look into using background and backdrops. Aside from just getting backgrounds you should also consider a support system on how to support or hold up those backdrops.

Aside from using paper as material for your backdrops you can consider using vinyl backgrounds that can be cleaned up after a shoot. Some shoots can get really dirty and messy, thus having the option to be able to wipe it clean can be a big advantage for you in the long run.

You might also want to consider looking into hooks to hang your backdrops to the wall of your home studio.

Aside from paper and vinyl you can also consider fabric backgrounds, muslin being a popular choice. There are many creative and beautiful options out there. When choosing however, keep in mind your subject, you don't want a backdrop that will be so busy that is distracts from your subject.

Putting it Together - Setting your Lights/Flash

Now that all has been said and done, it’s time to start setting up your lights and taking photos! You may be overwhelmed with how to get your photography lights set up, but there are some surprisingly easy techniques to try out before experimenting on your own, which we'll cover shortly.

Keep in mind that this process is a bit of trial and error. You'll need to experiment with both the distance your subject is from the background, as well as the distance of the lights to your subject. Moving either the subject, or the lights closer or further apart will change the lighting effects. Another factor that can be tested, is when using flash lighting to try different power settings (such as 25, 50, 75 or 100% power) to see how that effects your results.

You'll also want to gain experience with your camera and the settings as well, as what you choose will impact your images. A rough starting point to try is on manual mode, setting the ISO to 100, the shutterspeed to 1/125th of a second, and aperture at F11.

You'll want to set up your backdrop, or whatever you choose to use as a background. Place your subject about 3 feet in front of your background. After you've taken a sample or two pictures, if you find you are getting unwanted shadows of the subject on the background, try moving your subject even further away from the background, until that shadow disappears.

The Rembrandt

What you will need:

One Flash Head /continuous light

One Reflector

Two Light Stands

Rembrandt Lighting

The Rembrandt is excellent for artsy shots with depth, it tends to have a more dramatic effect. The famous artist used this type of lighting for many of his paintings. The main characteristic of this lighting set up is an inverted, small triangle of light on the person's cheek that is on the opposite side of the light source. This triangular shadow created should not be wider than the eye, nor longer than the nose.

Try to get 'catch lights' (that is a reflection in your subject's eyes of the light source), so the eyes look alive. This lighting is flattering for people with round faces because its slimming and adds dimension. At the same time, it's not a good choice for someone with a narrow, angular face shape.

The basic set up for Rembrandt lighting is to place your main light source 45 degrees from the subject and slightly higher than eye level. You want to be lighting the side of your subject's face that is furthest away from the camera. Place a reflector (sometimes a smaller fill light is used instead, at 50% power of the main light), 45 degrees from the side of the face that is in shadow. This lights areas of hard light for a softer effect.

Here is a portrait done of Rembrandt lighting.

Clamshell setup (one light)

What you will need:

One flash head /continuous light

One reflector

One softbox

One light stand

One Light Clamshell Set Up

Similar with the Rembrandt set up, but this time your key light will be placed in front and above your subject. Tilt the softbox to face your subject and position it about 4-6 feet from your subject. This will be lighting up your subject from the top of his head and will be casting strong shadows under the nose, lips, and chin. To minimize the hard shadow, place the reflector below the face.

Clamshell 1 Portrait

The Clamshell (2 lights/strobe)

From a one light set up, we will now move on to a two light set up.

What you will need:

Two softboxes & stands (one larger than the other)

Clamshell 2 Light Set Up

The Clamshell lighting technique is used to capture every detail in your subject using even light.

The Clamshell lighting technique is sometimes used for glamour images due to flat and even lighting it provides.

Place a large softbox light to the front of your subject and somewhat higher in height. The second softbox light should be smaller and placed underneath the first softbox. Consider this one your fill light and it should be tilted slightly upwards. The goal is to light up the shadows the top light will produce, in order to give very even lighting.

The tricky part of this setup is getting your lights in proper proportion to each other. The smaller fill light should be on at considerably less power output than the main light. Experiment starting at about 1/4 the light power as the large softbox, then adjusting from there until you get the effect you are looking for. You will also need to try different options concerning how close the lights are to your subject.

Clamshell 2 Portrait

Rim Lighting

The Rim Lighting technique (sometimes also called Profile lighting, Backlighting, Edge, or classic 3 point lighting) is used to create an exciting style with good definition of the sides of your subject. This lighting technique separates your subject from the background while giving the silhouette a gleaming light.

What you will need:

2 Flash heads or continuous lights

1 Background light

1 Reflector

1 Hairlight or Snoot

Rim Lighting

You'll first want to set up your back light. It shines behind your subject toward the camera. Most often there's a 90 degree range where this light can be set, depending on where in the silhouette you want the lighted edge to appear. You'll most likely need to adjust this, until you get it right for the effect you are going for. Keep in mind height when setting this light, many times this light should be set slightly higher than the rest.

Lens flare could be an issue with this method, so using a lens hood or a shield is an easy fix. Your subject should block this light with their body.

Next you will set up your key light. Essentially, this is your main light and should have the most intense light of all of them. It is set up usually to the right of the camera at a 45 degree angle.

When the main key light has been set up, then add a smaller fill light on the opposite side of the subject. The purpose of this light is to slightly add soft light to the deep shadow areas.

Optional if needed, is a reflector behind the subject across from the main keylight if that area needs a bit of a boost.

If you want to use a separate hair light, or snoot; now is the time to set it up behind your subject to light their hair. Play with the height on this.

A couple of things to keep in mind, if your subject is bald, you will want the back light to be lower in height. Watch to see how much edge lighting you are getting, whether it is just a side gleam, or a full blown body halo. Adjust the back light in either intensity (if it is adjustable), or distance in relation to your subject to get the desired look.

Rim Lighting Portrait

Paramount or Butterfly Lighting

What you'll need:


Background light

Key light

Fill light

Hair light or snoot


Paramount or Butterfly Lighting Set Up

Paramount lighting is sometimes also called butterfly, or glamour lighting. It is considered mostly a feminine lighting pattern. It creates a butterfly type shadow underneath the model's nose and emphasizes good skin and high cheekbones. It should not be used for people with deep set eyes as it will not be flattering in those cases.

One you have setup your background, you'll need to shine a light towards the background. This is placed low. This will help create a separation between the background and your subject.

Seat or allow your subject to stand, at least 3 feet away from the background. You may need to adjust this distance later.

The key light is set up next. It is placed directly in front of your subject's face and is placed high and fairly close to the subject.

The fill light is then put in place. It is placed directly under the key light (at less power output), pointing at the subject's face.

A reflector will need to be used opposite of these lights, and close to your subject, so the bounced light can lighten and fill deep shadows that are produced on the shaded cheek and neck areas.

Place the hair light in an opposite position as the key light. It should only light the hair and not spill onto your subject's facial area.

As with all the set ups, test and re-adjust to get the lighting just right.

Paramount Lighting Portrait

Loop Lighting

What you'll need:

Background and background light

Key Light

Fill Light

Hair Light


Loop Lighting Set Up

The lighting technique known as loop lighting, is a small variation of the paramount set up. It is widely used, due to its being flattering for people with oval shaped, or average faces.

First set up your background and point a light to your background, set low.

Your subject should be placed at least 3 feet away from your background. This distance might need to be adjusted later.

Set your key (main) light slightly lower and more to one side of your subject than that of the paramount. The shadow produced under the nose looks more like a small loop than a butterfly, on the shadow side of the subject's face.

Next place your fill light (lower power output), on the opposite side of the camera from the key light. Ensure that this fill light is not casting its own shadow, as the overall effect should still have the characteristics of a one-light portrait. The place to check this is in the camera. The fill light should only be softening and lighting up the darkest shadow areas.

Place the hair light in the opposite position as the key light. It should only light the hair and not spill onto your subject's facial area.

Test, test and re-test. You may need to adjust distance of light to subject, subject to background, and height of light to get the desired effect.

All lighting set ups are a creative process, so don't be afraid to make adjustments and try new things. It all boils down to the visual appearance that is pleasing to you as a photographer, and that of the person you are photographing.

Loop lighting portrait