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Three Shots, Three Lights: Bare Bulbs Edition


Time for another round of three shots, three lights! This time, I'm not just looking at three lights in general, but specifically what's achievable with only three lights, with no expensive modifiers that interfere with the light path.

That limits me to snoots, grids, gobos. Arguably, they interfere with the light path, but they do allow unadulterated light to travel in certain places, and they're cheap/free, so they get a pass. Gels are debatable, but cheap. The only options for diffusion are bounce and DIY silks, in other words, bed sheets and tablecloths. Technically not allowed since they go in the way of the light path, but everyone has at least one lying around already for free.

No particular reasoning for which set I used, just whichever was convenient to set up. Not pictured: V-flat, stands, etc.
No particular reasoning for which set I used, just whichever was convenient to set up. Not pictured: V-flat, stands, etc. I just used the barn doors instead of foil for flagging.

If this seems limited, just remember that some photojournalists would probably consider it a luxury! Let's get started.

1. Crosslight on a Patterned Background

I'm using white seamless as the background, unrolled just enough for a medium-close portrait, so I can project a patterned background onto it using a gobo. Instead of cutting random holes in paper for the gobo, I'm using a Pothos plant. It's nearby and convenient, and at the outside the foliage gradually reduces in density. With careful light placement, this allows me to create a gradient on the background.

The darker side of this gradient will be on camera right, so I'm placing a rimlight on the right side of my head to separate it from the darker background.

The key will be on the left, softened by firing the Einstein at the white side of a V-flat. This should throw soft shadow over the side of my face that'll be rimlit, and the variation in the background will provide separation on this left side.

Here's the final setup.


The Shot

I like to experiment with different looks and styles for headshots, and I'm almost always the guinea pig.

The shadow-cast background pattern looks more interesting and organic than those pre-painted ones.
The shadow-cast background pattern looks more interesting and organic than those pre-painted ones. Any plant or cut-out gobo could be used.

What's It For?

Crosslight is a frequent flyer in the run-and-gunner's bag of tricks, as it's a simple two-light setup that easily lifts the subject from the background, particularly ones that are graduated or contain detail. It does this by lighting one side of the subject softly, which is put against a dark area of background. As the shadow wraps around the opposite side, the rim is lit up to stop this side of the subject from disappearing into the (generally a stop or two dimmer) background.

It provides modeling thanks to the single soft key, and it pops the subject since they're graduated in the opposite direction to the background, or in the case of uniform, but busy backgrounds, the shaded edge is defined by the rimlight. Simple, but bold, without overtly calling attention to itself.

Adding interest to backgrounds is also a useful trick. Plain walls are handy to have, but depending on the subject, can make for a boring image. Just a hint of something going on outside of the frame is enough to ground the subject in reality rather than a sterile studio space.

Ultimately, this technique isn't about telling a story with light, or making a statement with lighting wizardry. It's about getting out of the way and allowing the subject to take centre stage, whilst still retaining the high-production-quality "lit" look.

2. Flare and Bounce

First, I exposed for the ambient light, then dropped the exposure a couple of stops to hold the sky. I wanted this to have a cinematic quality, so I decided to stick with the old cinematographer's maxim of "hold the highlights, let the shadows fall where they may."

Originally, I was intending to have flare from straight backlighting, but the nature of the location dictated a different approach. This was a decision in post, however, so the setup consisted of one rimlight directly behind the subject, flaring straight into the lens, and a second light off-camera-right, casting a flare washing over the right of the image.

The key-fill was provided by the Einstein monolight bouncing off the white side of a V-flat, just enough to provide subject detail, but not enough to start overpowering the backlighting.


The Shot

Making good use of a fallen tree in the back yard before I cut it up.

I ended up removing the backlight for better balance, it was a little too distracting.
I ended up removing the back light for better balance, it was a little too distracting.

What's it for?

Flare and backlighting are relatively easy ways of adding visual interest to an image whilst simultaneously reducing background clutter and providing subject separation. The main issue when using this is to ensure there's enough foreground exposure to provide subject detail and prevent underexposure.

The way I've aimed with this is to go for a glamourous, artsy look. The other option is to go for a soft, magical look, but this is easier to achieve with natural light than strobe, and only requires a little fill. So "lit" it is!

In the end, I've chosen here not to leave the backlight in, because I think it was overpowering the subject, but backlight flare and bokeh are always an option here. I did leave the milder flare coming in on the left to try to maintain the mood of the image.

3. "Natural Light" Portrait

For this shot, I wanted to emulate the natural light coming in through the window as much as possible. Because this would leave the subject quite strongly backlit, I had to invent a second "window" to act as a key.

The backlights were two speedlights; one on the floor, zoomed in to around 80mm, pointed at the ceiling to give some shine on the hair, and one on top of the fridge pointing left, bounced back into the subject to provide some naturalistic backlight-wrap.

The second "window" was provided by bouncing a speedlight into a large white wall, or in this case, in a house with no white walls, the white sides of a V-flat flattened out against the wall.

The breakfast bar and the fridge are the less-recognisable objects in this diagram.
The breakfast bar and the fridge are the less-recognisable objects in this diagram.

The Shot

For post, it's just some minor tonal tweaks to keep the face clear and ensure enough "light" is coming from the rear window, and distraction cloning, nothing heavy. The point is to keep it light and airy, avoid getting bogged down in Photoshop.

The shadows could use some massaging, but overall it works, I think.
The shadows could use some massaging, but overall it works, I think.

What's It For?

This is another biggie in the run-and-gunner's toolkit. If you're shooting some kind of environment that's nicely ambiently lit, you generally don't want to change that. Nice, bright open offices, kitchens, foyers and the like should generally remain that way to retain their natural character.

At the same time, you've got to provide some kind of definition for your subject. While the lighting on them shouldn't appear artificial, it does need to provide a good clean exposure and separate them (just a little) from the background. To do this, I'm using entirely soft light, even for the rim, so it looks like light that's bounced around the room a a few times.

With a little bit of depth of field, this technique gives a nice solid image that doesn't call attention to itself in any way and allows the subject (and their environment) to do all the storytelling.

Wrapping up

Hope you enjoyed the second outing of this "three shots, three lights" concept. The idea here was to demonstrate that you don't necessarily need the big, expensive modifiers to create good images. You also don't need to be afraid of hard lighting. I've only used it as rim here, where it really shines, but it's possible in many situations to use hard lighting as a key.

The final image shows that you don't even need the studio strobes. Cheap manual speedlights (two YN-560IIs and a YN-560III in my case) will suffice for a lot of situations, even when dealing with ambient light. Perhaps the third outing of this series will be speedlights-only, so if that's all you have, keep an eye out for that.

Happy shooting with three lights! Questions? Comments? Hit up the comments below!

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