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How to Use a Two-Light Setup and Lighting Ratios for Portrait Photos

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Read Time: 6 mins

In this tutorial from the Intermediate Flash Photography course, you'll learn about the two-light setup. In earlier parts of the course, we used a single flash to light our subject, with the addition of a reflector occasionally. Now you're going to learn how to add a second flash to your images.

I remember when I first learned off-camera flash, it was only a matter of days until I was bored and chomping at the bit to learn how to add more flashes into the frame. By adding the extra flashes, I opened up a whole new world of control and creativity to my photography. I haven't looked back since then.

Equipment

First things first, in order to use a second light in your setup, you might need to add some equipment to your camera bag. The first and most obvious thing that you will need is a second flash. Most likely you'll want to get the same kind of flash that you are already using to make things simpler and to make sure that everything works together. You'll also want to get a second light stand and umbrella holder for your second flash.

If you're using a trigger system that requires a receiver for your slave flash, you'll also need to get another receiver to trigger your second flash. Of course, if you've got the Yongnuo setup from the Introduction to Flash Photography course, you won't need a second receiver since the flashes have the receivers built into them.

yongnuo flashyongnuo flashyongnuo flash

How to Use a Second Flash for Fill Light

Once you have all of this equipment together, it's time to get started. The most common way to use your second flash is as a fill light. Up to this point, we've been using a reflector as a fill light, so, what's the difference? In my experience, a reflector is the cheaper option, and it's also usually quicker to set up, so I think it's a guerilla type of lighting tool.

The advantage of using a second flash for fill light is that you have so much more control over the light. You can finely tune the brightness of the flash by adjusting the power up or down, and with some flash systems, you can even control the power of your lights without having to leave your shooting position. This helps to avoid the constant walking back and forth between your camera and your light to adjust the settings. You can also attach any lighting modifier if you want to change the texture, size, or colour of the light that you're producing.

The Two-Light Setup in Practice

So now that I've convinced you how awesome using a second flash is, we're going to bring back our model and show you how to get started.

We're going to start with a very simple loop lighting. On my main flash, or my key light, I'm using an 18-inch softbox.

using simple loop lightingusing simple loop lightingusing simple loop lighting

Let's take a photo with just this one light and see what this looks like.

photo taken with simple loop lightingphoto taken with simple loop lightingphoto taken with simple loop lighting

That looks great. It's pretty standard loop lighting. It's a little bit hard, and that makes me want to bring back a bit of light into the shadows. That's okay because we're going to do something about that with our second flash, our fill light.

So we're going to use some fill light again, but instead of using a reflector, we're going to use a second flash with an umbrella. I prefer to use a really soft fill light because you typically don't want to create more shadows with your fill light—you want to fill in shadows. If you use a hard fill light, it'll give double shadows, which can look really unnatural.

We'll bring in our fill light opposite our key light.

add a fill light opposite our key light.add a fill light opposite our key light.add a fill light opposite our key light.

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

photo taken with fill light opposite our key light.photo taken with fill light opposite our key light.photo taken with fill light opposite our key light.

All right. It's a little bit under-lit, which I don't love, so I'm going to bring my fill light up a bit higher and point the umbrella down just a little bit. The two lights are about the same distance away from our subject.

 bring fill light up a bit higher and point the umbrella down  bring fill light up a bit higher and point the umbrella down  bring fill light up a bit higher and point the umbrella down

Okay. Let's see how that adjustment looks.

photo taken with fill light up a bit higher and pointing the umbrella down photo taken with fill light up a bit higher and pointing the umbrella down photo taken with fill light up a bit higher and pointing the umbrella down

That looks really cool. So what we've done here is completely obliterate the shadows in her face. The only problem with this is that it's made her face a little bit flat—it's missing some of the dimension now. The reason for that is that both of our lights are set at the same power output. Currently, they're both set at 1/8th power.

In order to create some depth, we'll need to bring back some shadows. The easiest way we do that is to lower the power of the fill light.

I'm going to adjust my fill light all the way down, as low as it goes, to 1/128th power. Let's take a photo and see how that looks.

photo with fill light at 1/128th powerphoto with fill light at 1/128th powerphoto with fill light at 1/128th power

All right, the shadows are definitely back. In fact, I can barely tell that there's a fill light at all. So let's go back up to 1/16th power. So now, our key light is at 1/8th power and our fill light is at 1/16th power. Another way to say this is our fill light is half as powerful as our key light, which gives us a lighting ratio of 2:1. This is a pretty common lighting ratio. 

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

photo with fill light at 1/16th powerphoto with fill light at 1/16th powerphoto with fill light at 1/16th power

Perfect. Now we're starting to bring those shadows back a little bit more. So let's take that even a little bit further. Let's bring our fill light down to 1/32nd power, and take a photo.

photo with fill light at 1/32 powerphoto with fill light at 1/32 powerphoto with fill light at 1/32 power

Perfect. A little bit more shadow. Our key light didn't change at all. It stayed at 1/8th power the whole time.

I like to get my key light set, and then bring in the fill light and play with the positioning and power output until I get it just to where I want it. I really liked the look of the fill light at around 1/16th power. That gave us that lighting ratio of 2:1, which I think is a really beautiful lighting ratio, especially for portraits of women.

Conclusion

So that's how to use a flash as a fill light. As you can see, using a flash as a fill light is so much better than using a bounce card because you get so much more control.

Of course, we could use a different modifier on our fill light if we wanted to. You have lots of creative freedom when you're using two flashes, rather than one flash and a bounce card.

If you thought that this two-light setup was really fun to learn, just wait until you get to our next tutorial. We're going to be adding one more flash for a total of three lights, and what I consider the most important lighting setup of all.

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