Sometimes you just want a clean and quick setup to start a shoot off the right way. Sure, you may have a ton of creative ideas in store for later on in the day, but they may be new ideas you’ve never tried before or they may be more experimental. If that’s the case, I always find it smart to start a shoot with a tried and true setup that’s not too tricky to do, quick to set up and provides great shots each and every time.
That way, the team knows that whatever happens from here on out with the more experimental work, we’ve already bagged some killer images and everybody is positive about the setups to come.
What constitutes a ‘simple’ setup?
For me, a simple setup is often 2 or 3 lights that have a lot of flexibility when it comes to light placement and model movement within those lights. Many of my setups require several lights and those lights are often placed in a way that is quite restrictive for model posing. A simple setup uses lights that don’t have to be placed with laser-guided accuracy and it often leaves flexibility for headshots, 3/4 length shots and even lens changes as well if needed.
Space and Kit
Another factor of a simple setup for me is the kit and space needed. A simple setup shouldn’t need a lot of room to set it up and ideally, it shouldn’t need any super technical or niche kit. You can very comfortably achieve the look I’m sharing here today in your living room and with simple kit too, and by simple kit, I mean basic essentials that all portrait photographers should already own.
Keeping it simple, whilst maintaining your personal style
I think if you’re on my site, you know by now that I prefer to add some colour to my shots wherever I can. For the setup I’m sharing today, I’m adding colour to the fill light. Obviously, you don’t need to add that coloured light if it doesn’t fit the look you’re going for and you could even swop that fill light out to just a reflector if you wanted.
What you’ll need…
- 3 lights – You could do this with 2 lights. Just swap the fill light out for a reflector if you weren’t going to add a coloured fill.
- 22” Beauty Dish – This could be substituted for a softbox, but it won’t have the directionality of a beauty dish, nor will it give the same final quality of light on the subject’s face.
- Large Umbrella + Scrim – This is my new favourite combo and I really have fallen in love with how clean this light is as a soft fill-light. Alternatives include a very large softbox, but this will not give the same quality of light in a small space.
- Small/Medium Strip Softbox – The only reason I’m recommending a strip softbox here is space restraints. If you’re shooting this setup at home, chances are you’re dealing with low ceilings and this strip-box is a great solution to that problem, as you’ll see later on.
- Simple Backdrop – For lighting like this and in a small space like this, a hand-painted backdrop is such a great solution. It provides a sense of depth to a shot when you have little room to step back and it provides some much-needed separation from subject to background too. You can of course use any backdrop here and you can even make one yourself as explained here: DIY Mottled Backdrop.
As always, let’s look at the setup itself and then I’ll explain what’s going on.
- Camera – Nikon D850
- Lens – AF DC Nikkor 105 F2
- Shutter Speed – 1/250th
- Aperture – f2.8
- ISO – 40
- Kelvin – 5900K
- Focal Length – 105mm
Breaking it Down
As I mentioned, this is fairly simple to set up, but you should still bear a couple of key things in mind before jumping in.
The Key Light
This is our beauty dish and although I used mine with a grid, you can still make this work without one. The trick here is to bring the beauty dish in nice and close to the model, this will keep the white light controlled and will reduce the amount of white light that will spill around the set and contaminate the coloured fill. I did use a mini-boom setup with a C-stand to avoid the light stand appearing in the shot, but again this isn’t always necessary as long as the beauty dish is positioned directly in front of the model as much as possible.
The Fill Light
This is our big soft light that is positioned almost behind us and is flooding the room in that soft colour. I’m using a very large 160cm diameter umbrella here, but a slightly smaller one could still work as long as it’s being diffused enough. My large umbrella is being shone through a large scrim as well and this produces incredibly soft light as a result. The reason for this is that the light is undergoing double-diffusion. The first diffusion happens as the light bounces off the interior of the umbrella and the second level of diffusion happens as that light then passes through the scrim. This level of softness is very hard to recreate with softboxes, especially in small locations like this. The core reason for this is the inherent hot spots that all softboxes produce thanks to the light being positioned directly towards the subject. Again, this is even more apparent the closer the softbox is to the subject and that isn’t ideal for shooting in small spaces.
The Coloured Fill
As I mentioned at the top, the coloured gel isn’t strictly mandatory, more strongly advised. Yes, this setup works adequately with just a simple white light, but some element of colour is not only advised but highly encouraged! If the key light is positioned correctly, then the blue fill shouldn’t be noticeable on the subject’s face due to the white light from the key simply overpowering it and burning it away. Where the key light creates shadows, the coloured fill light will bathe them in that beautiful steely blue colour. If you’re interested in what coloured gel I used, then its the ‘teal’ gel from my Definitive Colour Pack.
The Separation Light
This final light is the strip-box behind the subject. I’m referring to it as a separation light here, but it could just as easily be called a hair light. Its key job is to add a little dimension to the subject and we’re doing that by including that beautiful bead of highlight across the top of the model. Look again at the images and see how that highlight adds that simple, yet clean separation without dominating the shot with distracting highlights. This is a great example of a separation light as it adds light to the subject just as the shadow from the key starts to creep in on the edge of the body, resulting in a beautiful layer of dimensional light that separates the subject from the darker background behind.
Note: I’m actually hanging this strip box over the top of the background, but the light-stand is just hidden by the background itself. This is a clever trick to essentially have a top light in your image without the need for a boom that might ordinarily be a pain to use in tight spaces. Just bring the backdrop forward slightly and place the strip-box light stand right up against it and hang the head and strip-box over the top so that it’s pointing at the model below.
This is arguably my favourite modifier for portraits and I find it hard to believe that once you try one yourself that you won’t immediately agree. There are a couple of things to keep in mind when purchasing a beauty dish though and the first among them is the size. I use a 22” (~160cm) and I really can’t recommend anything smaller than this for portraits and fashion. There are smaller beauty dishes available, but I would urge you to avoid those if you’re using them for portraits alone. The Bowens beauty dish I use is sadly no longer made, but this one here is the closest alternative I could find size-wise at 21.6”.
Secondly; many beauty dishes come in either white or silver interiors. The white interior produces a slightly softer look compared to the silver which is a slightly colder, more contrasty look. I’d probably recommend the silver for fashion and editorial and the white for more traditional portraits of corporate or family headshots.
Large Umbrella & Scrim
I appreciate this may seem like overkill, but this second light does need to be very soft so as to not cast shadows on my background from the model. The further I move the subject from the background to reduce shadows, the greater the difference in exposure between subject and background becomes and I really want to limit that whilst only using two lights in a small space. This large umbrella and scrim combo produces very soft light with almost no hotspot, even in tight spaces.
You could get pretty close to this soft look with simply the large umbrella with a diffusion cover, failing that (and I’m loathed to say this as it really won’t look the same), you could use a large softbox. Just be mindful that you will cast shadows from that and you’ll have a hotspot, especially when used in tight quarters and close to the subject. I really would urge you to consider buying a large umbrella over a large softbox to see the difference for yourself.
I rarely recommend softboxes (strip-boxes included), due to the almost unavoidable hotspot they produce. Strip-boxes do have their uses though and that includes providing directional soft light in small spaces. I often use a strip-box overhead in a horizontal orientation like you see me doing here when I have very low ceilings. Maybe I can’t get the light far enough back to spread the light or maybe I can’t get the light high enough to spread it. A strip box is the next best thing and it’s worth having a couple of small/mediums ones in your kit for that reason.
One of the key features of this setup was the addition of colour. The colour adds another dimension to this look and whether that’s with this teal blue or another colour, the extra layer of interest is a great way to add more interest to your image.
Hand Painted Backdrop
If you’re taking portraiture seriously, you’ll likely already own at least one of these, but the hand-painted backdrops are a phenomenal addition to your portrait setups. I’ll be honest, I was sceptical myself until I tried them and they really do enable you to produce truly gorgeous backgrounds when used in conjunction with a shallow depth of field lens. I’m using a 2m x 3m blue one from Essential Photo here and if you’ve ever looked at prices for hand-painted backdrops before, these ones from Essential Photo aren’t as pricey as many others out there.
Beyond actually making one yourself, there really isn’t an alternative to this…. but again if you’ve ever tried to make one of these yourself, you’ll know it isn’t quite as easy as it looks. If you want to give it a go though, I did write an article on how to make a pretty simple DIY mottled backdrop alternative here.
One Tip to Try – Lens Flare
There is one obvious area that I need to address and that’s the fact that the backlight (the strip-box), is clearly pointed directly back to the camera. For the most part, this is fine, but I should warn you that lens flare may be an issue unless you’re careful.
With that being said, you may, like me, want to ‘play with fire’ a little and try and coax more flare out of that light and into your lens.
Most modern lenses do a very good job of eliminating nearly all flare due to their superior lens coatings, but we can undo some of that by placing certain lens filters in front of our lens.
In the shot you see here, I’m using a low contrast lens filter from LEE in front of my lens and you can clearly see that the top of the image has that gorgeous light glow to it. This look wont be for everyone, but with a light positioned so perfectly straight into the camera like this, it’s worth having a play with any lens filters you may have to see what you can produce.
As I’ve stated throughout, this is a fairly simple setup and one that can be easily recreated and set up in almost any sized space, including home studios. It doesn’t require any specialist kit either, but if there are items in this setup that you don’t already have in your kit, I’d encourage you to consider them as you’ll no doubt use them an awful lot in a variety of situations in any number of shoots for many years to come.
The one trick that may be new to you here is the strip box hanging over the backdrop behind the model. This is a clever workaround that I use a lot, especially when in tight spaces, as it enables me to get a light almost overhead the subject without needing a boom or additional rigging. If you haven’t tried this, then definitely give it a go as it’s a very quick and easy way to add some much-needed dimension to otherwise flat lighting from the front.
Give this setup a go and have fun trying a variety of fill-light colours, as well as playing with some in-camera flare when using lens filters. Let me know how you get on.
Featured Model: Sophie Baines
About the Author
Jake Hicks is an editorial and fashion photographer who specializes in keeping the skill in the camera, not just on the screen. For more of his work and tutorials, check out his website. Don’t forget to like his Facebook page and follow him on Instagram, too. You can also sign up for the Jake Hicks Photography newsletter to receive Jake’s free Top Ten Studio Lighting Tips and Techniques PDF and be sure to download his free 50-page studio lighting book. This article was also published here and shared with permission.