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How to Use a Three-Light Setup for Portrait Photos

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In this studio portrait lighting tutorial, you're going to learn how to use three flashes in your images. The three-light setup is so important in portrait photography—learning it is often the point where hobbyist photos start looking more professional.

Of course, you can always add more lights to a setup, and sometimes you might need to, but I would say that three lights are enough for 90% of the photos that most photographers are making.

Starting With a Third Light

In previous tutorials, you learned how to use a flash to produce a key light and a fill light. So what are we going to do with this third light? Well, there are several things that we can do with the third light. It can be used as a hair light, a rim light, or a kicker light!

Many photographers use the terms hair light, rim light, and kicker light interchangeably, but I consider them to be three different kinds of light. So I'm going to give you three different definitions.

Let's start with hair light, since this is the one I most often use in portrait photography.

Hair Light

Hair light is a very subtle way to add a highlight to your subject's hair, giving some separation and a bit of depth to the portrait. Let me show you what it looks like in practice.

Here's an image that has two flashes firing. The key light is up and to the right of the camera, and then the fill light is on camera left, a little bit lower than our key light.

image that has two flashes firing.image that has two flashes firing.image that has two flashes firing.

If we were to stop there, I would say that we have a pretty good image, but look what happens to the same image with the addition of a hair light.

addition of a hair light.addition of a hair light.addition of a hair light.

It's a very subtle difference, but it helps to give your photo a really polished and professional feel. A hair light will also spill a little bit of light onto the shoulders of your subject, and it'll help define the shape of your subject.

This kind of light is especially useful if your subject has dark hair or a dark shirt, and they're on a dark background. It provides some definition that separates the subject from the background and keeps them from blending into the background. This style of lighting is one of the most commonly used lighting setups by professionals in both still photography and in film. Now that you've seen it, you'll start to notice it everywhere you look.

Another way to create separation between your subject and the background is to use rim lighting.

Rim Lighting

Rim lighting creates a thin outline of light that traces around your subject and separates them from the background.

Here's a quick example of two images. They're the same except that the first image has two lights (a key light and a fill light), and the second image has the same two lights plus a rim light.

comparison of two images with different lightingcomparison of two images with different lightingcomparison of two images with different lighting

Do you see how subtle the difference is, but how much it adds to the photo?

The final way that I like to use my third light is as a kick or kicker light.

Kicker Light

Like the other kinds of backlight we've been using, a kicker light provides separation of our subject from the background, and it brings a bunch of dimension to your photos.

Let's see what a kicker looks like in a photo. Once again, here's a simple two-light setup with a key light and a fill light, and what it looks like when we add a kicker light.

adding a kicker lightadding a kicker lightadding a kicker light

The kicker adds a highlight to the shadow side of the face, and does just what the name implies; it kicks up the impact of your photos. I love using a kicker light, especially for portraits of men.

If you want to see the master of kicker light, in my opinion, you should look up the portraits of Yousuf Karsh. He was amazing, and he really knew how to take a portrait that had a lot of depth and emotion.

So now that you know what these three different lights look like in a photo, let's bring back our subject and show you how to set them up and get them going on a real shoot.

How to Set Up a Hair Light

Let's start with a similar setup to what we had in the previous tutorial.

studio setup for portrait photographystudio setup for portrait photographystudio setup for portrait photography

We've got our key light modified with the 18-inch softbox in a loop position. For our fill light, I've replaced the umbrella with a scrim. A scrim is a piece of silk that will soften the light, so our fill flash is going to be firing through the scrim, which gives us a really big, round, soft light.

Let's take a quick picture and see what we're getting here.

portrait with standard loop lightingportrait with standard loop lightingportrait with standard loop lighting

Great. So that's our standard loop lighting. We've got a pretty good fill, and we're at around a 2:1 ratio. One of the things I think really kicks up your photo is to create some splashes of light around the form of your subject.

We're going to start with hair light. I'm going to start off with this third flash set to the lowest power that it'll go, because we want to make sure that we're not overwhelming the other flashes in the scene. This is a very subtle light, and we're going to aim it at the top of her head.

image with hair lightimage with hair lightimage with hair light

The light will splash off the top of her head and her shoulders, and it's going to create a nice cascade of light that comes down over her hair and shoulders. Let's see how that looks. 

portrait with hair light addedportrait with hair light addedportrait with hair light added

I think my hair light is aimed a little bit too high. I want to tilt it down a bit closer to her shoulders because it's not quite highlighting her shoulders yet. And let's give that another try.

portrait with hair light aimed lowerportrait with hair light aimed lowerportrait with hair light aimed lower

The hair light has added a really subtle glow on her shoulders. Perfect. That's how I approach hair lighting in portrait photography.

How to Set Up a Rim Light

Let's continue this studio portait lighting tutorial by looking at how to set up a rim light.

In order to turn our hair light into a rim light, let's start by lowering the flash. We don't want it coming from above anymore—instead, we want to sneak the flash in behind our subject, aiming at their back. That's going to create a silver lining around them, separating them from the background.

setting up a rim lightsetting up a rim lightsetting up a rim light

Finally, we want to increase the power output quite a bit. In our hair light setup, the flash was at the lowest power output, 1/128th power. For a rim light, we're going to bring that power up, starting at 1/4 power.

Let's take a photo and see how this looks.

portrait with rim lightportrait with rim lightportrait with rim light

So now we're getting that nice kind of silver lining around the left side of her shoulder. It's definitely giving us some separation from the background. Let's turn off our key light and take another photo to show you what that light is going to look like.

portrait with key light turned offportrait with key light turned offportrait with key light turned off

You can see that we're getting a subtle halo effect. When you have your other lights on, it's not going to be something that a lot of people notice right away, but it is something that they will miss if it's not in your images. I think it really adds a polished look to an image. I love it.

How to Set Up a Kicker Light

The final setup with our third flash is a kicker light. We're going to place our flash opposite our key light. The way I like to think of using a kicker light is to skip light off the side of the subject's face and into the camera lens. It'll give us some lovely definition on the shadow side of the face.

The position of this kicker light will take a bit of trial and error as you want to aim it just onto the cheek. We're also going to bring our flash back down to a really low power output because we're going to be seeing the reflected light.

setting up a kicker lightsetting up a kicker lightsetting up a kicker light

Finally, I like to zoom in the flash head pretty far. I don't want the light spilling all over, and I definitely don't want it going into my camera lens, creating lens flare.

Let's see how that's looking.

portrait with kicker lightportrait with kicker lightportrait with kicker light

Because the kicker light is on the subject's shadow side, one of the things I think I'd like to do in this situation is lower the power of my fill light. This creates a little more drama on that side, and you'll see that kicker light a little bit more.

So I'm going to bring down the fill light even further than it was, and see how that looks.

portrait with fill light lowerportrait with fill light lowerportrait with fill light lower

That's perfect. Now we have a little bit more drama, we have more shadows because our fill light power is lower, and we're getting that really cool modeling effect on the side of her face from the kicker light.

So that's pretty much it! These are the most common uses of a three-light setup.

Three-Light Summary

Here's a quick summary of three-point lighting:

  • Light 1 (Key Light) does most of the work.
  • Light 2 (Fill Light) softens the shadows opposite the key light.
  • Light 3 (Hair light / Rim Light / Kicker Light) accentuates the subject.

Basically, the difference between the three options for your third light is:

  • Hair Light is on the same side as the key light.
  • Rim Light is behind your subject, illuminating all around them.
  • Kicker Light is opposite your key light, skipping across the side of the face.

Homework

So now you have a solid understanding of the three different ways that you can use a third flash. Now it's time for some homework. I want you to practice setting up your third flash in these different ways and experimenting until it looks just right.

Then I want you to forget all about what I've taught you, and I want you to play around with different setups. I want you to have the freedom to move any of the lights in any places that you want and try to get something really interesting.

As a bit of inspiration, here's a setup that I really like to use, and I call it the double kicker setup.

double kicker setup.double kicker setup.double kicker setup.

You're looking at a single key light in the loop position and no fill light. Instead, I put my other two lights in the kicker position on either side of my subject. As you can see, we get a great light that really accentuates form. I've really loved using this kind of light for any fitness shoots.

So now it's your turn. I want you to go do something really interesting and exciting! Don't worry about messing up or taking bad photos. Just play with the lighting until you get something that you like.

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