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Photography

Three Different Portraits Shot with Three Lights

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Wondering why you should add more lights when you like the images you get with one or two? Are you trying to figure out if you can justify the expense of more lights? In this article, I should hopefully be able to help you with those questions; I'm going over three of my shots, shot with three lights.


Why Three Lights?

Three lights is the standard middle ground for studio photography. It's generally considered the most basic "full" setup to properly light a subject (key, fill, rim/hair), but it can be overkill, or it can be not enough, depending on your target look and subject. One and two light setups tend to be, at the advanced level, either run-and-gun kits or artistic choices. Three lights requires some setup.

It's also pretty cheap to put together a three-light kit. So far, even with around 12 modifiers and an Einstein in the mix, I'm still on under $1000 all-in on my lighting gear, thanks to Craigslist. The Impact kits from B&H represent a convenient, affordable way of getting into studio strobe, starting at $140 for a head, stand, bag, reflector and 2' softbox. They have some two- and three-light kits too. You could also go with speedlights. Yongnuo YN-560 IIs are $60 on Amazon now, and the MkIIIs with the built-in radio triggers are only about $80. Lumopros go for nearly $200, but come with a warranty as heavy-duty as the construction.

What I'll be using: two 160Ws StudioMaxes, a 640Ws Einstein, a 5' octa, two 1x4' strips and a beauty dish with grid.
What I'll be using: two 160Ws StudioMaxes, a 640Ws Einstein, a 5' octa, two 1x4' strips and a beauty dish with grid.

The three-light setup is very versatile and can be adapted to just about any environment or shooting style. Let's get started!


Portrait One Clamshell on White

For this shot, I used a 5' octa as a background, as its size makes it convenient. I've used 2' softboxes as white backdrops before, but it's difficult keeping people within the sides. The octa allows for some flexibility of subject movement. The internal baffle spreads the light across the surface effectively, and the power level is around a stop or two under the key light.

Nice and simple. I did move the strips a few inches higher after this.
Nice and simple. I did move the strips a few inches higher after this.

For the clamshell lights, I used two 1x4 stripboxes for a full wrap. This gives a more even, flatter light than softboxes or a beauty dish. I used the top light as the key, setting the power a stop higher than the bottom one, which should improve modeling and shading for a beauty-type shot, where you want even lighting but don't want your subject to look flat.

The Shot

The shot is a fairly straightforward headshot, clean, no makeup:

Classic clamshell. Crisp and three-dimensional, but flattering.
Classic clamshell. Crisp and three-dimensional, but flattering.

Minimal post work, as I prefer for headshots, just a bit of Spot Healing and Curves.

What's It For?

This is a very clean light for headshots or tight beauty shots. For headshots, I tend to use clamshell (horizontal strips) on women, horizontal clamshell (vertical strips) on men. The regular clamshell is more flattering to the skin while retaining bone structure, whereas horizontal clamshell tends to give a slightly more gritty appearance with a shaded line running down the centre of the face, which lends masculinity and flatters men more. If you overlap the lights by moving them closer in toward the camera though, the light can soften and clean up since the ratio changes.

I've used equal power before too, which creates more of a ringlight effect; it looks flat out of camera, but comes up nicely in Photoshop with dodge and burn. It's generally a little too flat for the minimal-post I like on headshots, though.

Clamshell is frequently used with a beauty dish on top and a two-foot softbox or similar below, for a punchier look in hair and makeup marketing. I've also done it as a two-light setup with two 2' softboxes firing into a V-flat enclosure to bring up the background. It's a very flexible setup, with many different possible looks.


Portrait Two Dramatic Edge Lighting

Since it would be very difficult to do this shot on white without five lights, I'm doing it on a black background. The two striplights are my rim lights, illuminating the edges and sides of the subject, and my key is a gridded beauty dish boomed up about eight feet, more or less directly in front of the subject, pointing slightly below the face. I can use the directionality of this to illuminate the subject in a tightly controlled area, without worrying about spill onto the background.

My mark is about 1.5 feet in front of the seamless edge.
My mark is about 1.5 feet in front of the seamless edge.

The edge lights are set about 1.5 stops higher than my key; I added half a stop to the Einstein to make up for the grid eating light. Usually I'd go two stops under on the key, which simulates the behaviour of a sensor when exposing for a sky backlighting the subject, while still retaining detail. The beauty dish provides a semi-hard light source with a nice constrained feathering from the grid, so it's gritty and directional, but not unattractively harsh.

The Shot

I had originally intended to get an American football player in for this shoot, but I couldn't organise that in time for publication, so I worked with what I have lying around (myself!).

Everyone has these things lying around their house, right? Right?
Everyone has these things lying around their house, right?

The post work is reasonably heavy, but quite clean. It's mainly dodging and burning and curves, working with the lighting and adding drama. So the shape of the lighting you see is what's actually there, just turned up to 11.

What's It For?

For commercial advertising, this is "the look." Particularly for brands looking to appear edgy, or intense. The intensity is why this look is so popular in sports advertising. The lighting itself isn't generally all that flattering (though you can pull a Joel Grimes and replace the beauty dish with a 5' octa for women), but is highly modeling, which gives it a masculine look. This is why you'll see a similar setup in advertising for vehicles, tools and other products aimed at men.


Portrait Three Big Light on a White Seamless

This is fairly similar to the last one, but we're going to rotate the two strip lights 90 degrees to light up the background evenly. First I set both strobes to full power and dial in my aperture until the seamless is just clipping, the blinkies on the LCD fairly well defined. Then I set my key to an appropriate power based on that. I believe for this shot it was around 1/16th-1/32nd.

Using an Einstein for the key allows for much more variability than the two old 160Ws strobes. I can completely overpower them or barely touch them, as an image requires.

Brittani is slightly in front of the strips, but can still receive just a tiny bit of rim from them.
Brittani is slightly in front of the strips, but can still receive just a tiny bit of rim from them.

The Einstein has a 5' octa on it, boomed to about 3 feet off the ground, for broad, beautiful, soft lighting that still has a dimensionality and directionality to it. A 3' octa would start introducing too much shadow around the edges of the subject, needing a rearrangement and an added fill light, where a 7' one would be too flat and start losing the "presence" of the subject.

The Shot

This is a sort of catalogue fashion look, perhaps even magazine for certain segments. It's clean, but vibrant; flat, but dimensional. Difficult to get this look from anything but a huge modifier:

Sort of a high street editorial fashion look.
Sort of a high street editorial fashion look.

I did a little dodge and burn, then cleaned up the skin a bit. Finally I did some cloning to fill in the edges of the frame that my backdrop didn't cover. Done and done.

What's It For?

Because it uniformly lights the entire subject, this is ideal for clean catalogue or editorial shots. By directing the key less fully at the subject and just catching them with the edge of the fall-off, it can become an art, portrait or beauty setup. With a smaller key, say, a beauty dish, it becomes a fashion or commercial music setup. I like these simple, but versatile layouts as you can get a number of options in a short space of time, based mostly on what modifiers you decide to use.

Another option for this is to take the stripboxes off the back lights and shoot them bare or through shallow reflectors, and use V-flats to corral the light onto the backdrop and off the subject. This is generally my preferred way of doing it, just not the way I was set up for this shot in the time I had available to take it.

Same setup, but with V-flats in place. Note the bounce on the panels coming off the background, which would add wrap.
Same setup, but with V-flats in place. Note the bounce on the panels coming off the background, which would add wrap.

Think about Adding Third Light

If you have a traditional two-light set up, you should really think about adding a third light, especially since you now have a few basics setups you can use with them. Remember that the "why" is just as important as the "how", so whatever images you want to make should dictate the equipment you get.

You may have noticed that I've actually talked very little about lights, but a lot about modifiers. Just like it's about the glass in front of your sensor, it's about what you put in front of your light, not the light itself.

Also, it's not all about creating naturalistic lighting. Clamshell lighting makes no real physical sense, it just looks good. The same goes for gridded beauty dishes, unless you live somewhere with really small, dirty windows. Lighting is a paintbrush, your subject is the canvas. The camera is just a recorder. These are the main lessons I was trying to drive home here today.

I hope you liked this little roundup! Given how versatile the three light system can be, I'm considering doing more tutorials like this in the future. Iff you have any ideas you'd like to see done or tested, comment or tweet at me (@robtaylorcase).

Any questions or thoughts? Hit up the comments below!

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