Simplified Studio Lighting for Elegant Portraits

When you are new to studio portrait photography, studio lighting can seem difficult, mysterious, and perhaps even ominous at times. You may read ten different books on lighting by the “experts”, and quite likely you will get ten totally different opinions about what constitutes proper lighting. Maybe this is because “proper” lighting for studio portraits is just that; a matter of opinion. Yes, there are classic styles of lighting such as: open loop, closed loop, butterfly or Paramount, broad lighting, short lighting, and so forth.


But, ninety nine times out of a hundred, clients who come into your studio do not care about the technical aspects of lighting, or even the classical styles of lighting. They simply want to look great in their portraits, and it’s your job as a professional portrait photographer to help them do just that. The system of lighting used in my portrait studio is simple to understand, easy to work with, and it helps our clients look their best.

Our typical lighting scheme consists of three strobe lights with a forth strobe “hair light” used as needed. First, the key light is the main light source in the lighting scheme and is used to contour the face and add depth and interest to the subject. The key light is what enables the three dimensional subject to be rendered in a two dimensional plane, yet perceived as a three dimensional image. The key light in our studio’s light setup is mounted on a Studio Titan Side Kick stand. The beauty of this stand is that it is very stable, has lockable casters so it is easily repositioned, and the height of the key light is very easily adjustable with the “single touch” adjustable arm. The key light is usually the only strobe in our setup that is repositioned during the course of a photo shoot.

The key light is modified using a parabolic reflector, a shoot through umbrella or a reflecting umbrella, a soft box (several sizes may be used), or by other means, thereby achieving in each portrait the desired effect. A guideline to remember is: at a given distance between light source and subject, the smaller the light source, the harsher the incident light and the sharper (more contrast) the shadows. Choose the modifier accordingly to achieve the desired effect for your portrait (i.e. light modifiers in order of decreasing contrast: 6” parabolic reflector, 16” parabolic reflector, 40” reflecting umbrella, 40” shoot through umbrella, 3’x4’ softbox, 4’x6’ softbox). The key light is then metered (independently) to f11. This may be accomplished by adjusting the power to the strobe, and/or the distance between key light and subject.

During the photo shoot, the illumination of the subject will remain constant when you reposition the key light, as long as the distance between the key light and the subject remains constant. This simple fact is useful to keep in mind for one reason. It enables you to quickly relocate your key light for different desired effects without re-metering everything. Visualize your subject being at the hub of a wheel, the radius of the wheel being equal to the distance (between the key light and your subject) that gave you f11. The key light may be relocated to any position around the perimeter of the imaginary wheel, with the illumination on your subject remaining a constant f11.

Second, the fill light serves as contrast control by filling in the “sockets and pockets” of your subject. The fill light in our light set up is permanently positioned about 15 feet from the subject, directly out in front of the set. It is elevated to a height of about ten to eleven feet above the floor, so we are able to shoot from directly underneath the fill light if necessary. The fill light is diffused by a large soft box, and oriented (angled) to directly face the subject. It is typically metered (independently) to f5.6, by adjusting the power to the strobe. This gives a light ratio on your subject of about 1:4.

The third strobe in our studio light setup serves as the background light. The background light may be mounted on a short stand positioned directly behind the subject, and angled upward to illuminate the backdrop and eliminate any shadows behind the subject. Positioning the subject at least six feet from the background also helps to eliminate shadows on the background. For a vignette effect on a low key back ground use a small parabolic reflector and possibly a grid spot or barn doors to direct and focus the light where you want it. For a more evenly lit mid key backdrop substitute a soft box strip mounted on a boom stand, high and angled downward and toward the back drop. Typically for low key to mid key portraits we meter the background light to f5.6 or f8. This is a matter of preference depending on the desired effect. You can easily create elegant low to mid key portraits using this setup.

For super hi key shots, to get the snow white seamless background look, you must overexpose the background relative to the subject by two stops. For example, if you meter your key to f8 you should meter the background to f16 to achieve the desired effect. The trick is to get your subject far enough out from the background so they don’t pick up too much reflected light and you are able to blow out the background while maintaining proper exposure on your subject. The fill is still metered one or two stops below the key to maintain a nice contrast ratio on your subject. Super hi key portraits may best be accomplished using two background lights, angled in on each side of the background. This gives a more evenly distributed background light.

The forth strobe often used in our studio light setup, is the hair light. It is used to separate the subject from the background and to accentuate the subject’s hair and shoulders. The hair light may be positioned low or high behind the subject depending on the desired effect, and modifiers such as a snoot or a grid spot may be used to direct and focus the light as desired. Whether or not the hair light is used depends on the subject’s hair color relative to the backdrop and on the desired effect for the portrait (e.g. dark hair disappears on a dark backdrop and requires the hair light as a separator)

Beyond posing your subject in a flattering way, lighting your subject is the single greatest skill you must master in order to create exceptional portraiture. Your lighting scheme does not have to be overly complex, and your equipment need not be the latest and greatest. However, you must develop a basic understanding of light contrast ratio and how to control the light, in order to masterfully create elegant and beautiful portraits. The lighting setup described above may be a good starting point. It is very simple to understand and easy to use, generally, only the key light is repositioned during the course of a photo shoot. From there, experiment and practice to achieve the results that you imagine. As always, good day and happy clicking.

About the Author
Steve Barnes is a professional portrait photography, a free lance writer, and co-owner of Hayley Barnes Photography, in League City, Texas. Please visit his website at,

Originally posted: 11 September’06

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