Lighting setup: bounced top light

Feb 20, 2020

Jake Hicks

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

Lighting setup: bounced top light

Feb 20, 2020

Jake Hicks

We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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Studio lighting can be tricky, but in reality shooting, in a big open studio space with all the fancy modifiers and stands is a damn sight easier than shooting in a small, cramped on-location space.

“But Jake, surely all professional photographers get to shoot in nice big, bright, airy studios all the time right?”

Wrong. In fact part of the job is having the ability to shoot almost anywhere and for those of us who end up shooting fashion and editorial style work, we need to shoot in some very awkward spaces. From underground nightclubs, fancy bathrooms, or even smaller European homes, all of these small spaces present a multitude of problems and if the client wants to shoot there, it’s your job to make it happen.

Even impressive looking lighting like this can be achieved in spaces as small as 2.4m wide, 3.3m long and 2.4m high.

Eurasians shooting from home

But what if you’re not shooting commercially? What if you just love taking pictures of people and you’re limited to shooting from a home-studio space? To many of my U.S. readers, this is not always an issue, many of you are blessed with a little extra space at home compared to those of us in Europe and Asia. In fact, during one workshop in the U.S., one attendee was concerned about how little space they had to shoot in….. it turned out they only had a double-garage as a home-studio! That’s an American double-garage too, so it was likely bigger than my entire home! ;)

So to my Eurasian readers, the following tips for shooting in small spaces may be of more use to you than others. (Of course I only partly jest, I am fully aware that many Americans living in big cities are still in ‘cramped’ apartments, so I’m sure the following will be of use to you too ;) )

Awkwardly Small

The following lighting setup is the result of me trying to make the best of an awkwardly small space to shoot in. I knew my subject had some beautiful long, blonde hair and I knew that I wanted to shine a vivid colour onto it with some wind blowing the hair to get some fiery coloured hair effects.

The problem was the space we had to work in…

The space measured 2.4m wide, 3.3m long and 2.4m high.

Adding Top Lights

The space measured around 2.4m wide, 3.3m long and 2.4m high. Don’t get me wrong, that is very small and yes it’s very rare that you’d have to contend with space constraints like this, but this setup does prove what’s possible with a little ingenuity, even in spaces a tight as these.

This is what it looks like, had we tried to top-light the shot the normal way.

To illustrate the issue further, here’s what a top-light looks like in this space. And this is just a 60cm softbox.

Of course the simplest solution is to get the model to sit down. Lowering them in the shot will give you a little more space to work with above them. But even with them sat down, it still deosn’t give me enough space to use a large enough modifier, after all, I want the light to be big enough so that it can spread over a larger area. Having a spot or even a small soft box up there isn’t going to spread the light anywhere near enough in the space we have.

Using a large modifier above your subject ensures that the light spreads very evenly over a large area. But a large modifier simply isn’t possible in a small space like this.

So the problems we’re facing so far are as follows:

  • Very low ceilings
  • No space to use a boom
  • No way of getting a large enough modifier above our subject without that boom and higher ceilings.

The Solution

The solution I came up with miraculously fixes all of these issues perfectly and thankfully, the solution doesn’t require any fancy kit, pulley systems or holes in the ceiling!

The solution came from adding a false background behind the subject, and then placing (hiding) a hair light behind that. That hair light is actually placed low, but it’s angled up to the ceiling above the model.

In turn, the ceiling now has a large silver reflector pinned up against it via two light stands. These stands keep the reflector in place above the model thereby allowing the hair light to bounce its light off of it, over the background and then back down onto the model.

This shot above shows the introduction of a false background that we hide a light behind. Of course this false background makes are room even smaller, but the trade-off is worth it to have that beautifully big top light.

One of the key factors for this lighting setup to work is that top-light. We want that light above the model to be pretty big, big enough in fact that it not only lights the hair, but the whole top of the body when they are sat down.

By placing a large silver reflector up there, we are effectively making that reflector the light source and it’s now a huge light source if we place our light correctly.

In the BTS image above, we see the large reflector pinned to the ceiling and we can also see the gap between the ceiling and backdrop. Note how flooded with colour that reflector is too. For context you can even see the stool at the bottom of frame too.

For that reflector to do its job properly, it needs to be bouncing as much light as possible. For that to happen, you need to ensure you’ve placed that pink light behind the subject low enough so that the light has space to spread before it hits the reflector. Look at the image above again and you’ll see that the pink light is completely covering that reflector, that is the only way this will work properly.

In terms of the modifier on the actual light itself, I’d recommend an open dish of some kind, but really any dish that will cover the reflector above.

Note: I’d be wary of using grids or honeycombs on that dish behind the background. Focusing the light too much will ruin the effect. Just use an open dish and if you’re concerned about the light spreading too much, just raise the light so that it’s closer to the reflector.

The Easy Part

Thankfully, now that we’ve set that pink light up, the actual key light for this setup is pretty straight forward. All we really need to do is get a large softbox behind or above us when we’re shooting and that’s it.

For this setup I did also add a blue gel to the interior of my softbox for that contrast in colour to the pink top light.

Rather than trying to gel an entire softbox, simple open it up and place a gel over the flashbulb instead.

Note: When gelling a softbox; remember that you don’t need huge sheets of gel to make this happen. Rather than adding a large sheet of gel to the exterior of my softbox, I instead prefer to open up the softbox and place a smaller piece of gel over the flashbulb. This method is just as effective and will ensure all light leaving the softbox is gelled. This is certainly far easier and far cheaper than trying to gel the entire outside. Just be careful the gel inside is not sat on a hit tungsten bulb. Turn off the modelling lamp if that is the case.

Once your softbox is gelled, position it as far back as you can and get it up nice and high so that you are able to shoot underneath it.

Even in tiny, tiny spaces like this, great looking lighting is possible with a few clever tricks.

My advice in terms of modifier here is going to be a softbox over anything else and I’d also recommend as large of a softbox as you can stand in this space. I ended up using a 100cm Octa here, but 100+cm wide rectangular softbox is just as suitable.

The trick here is to use your understanding of light to your advantage. Having your big softbox super-close to the subject like this means that you need to have the power of it turned right down. As a result of this low power and closeness to the subject, the light drops-off to shadow VERY quickly, which in turn adds shadows to the edges of the model that can be coloured pink by the top light.

Try to think of it like your subject is just reflecting the light rather than you actually lighting them (yes I know all light is reflected, but I’m just trying to labour how low you want the power of that light to be). This very low powered blue light gives you far more control than you might think and as a result you are able to craft shape and form with just a single large modifier in the front.

Take a look at the shots below to see what we created from the shoot and this setup.

Closing Comments

Let’s not kid ourselves here, this is a cramped shooting space. But even with limited space like this, with a little ingenuity and refined light control, great lighting and great results are more than possible.

Look again at the shots included here and pay close attention to where the pink light is actually falling. See how it’s actually covering the entirety of the body from above? This is far more than a simple hair light and this is due to the sheer size of the light above our subject.

The reason I’ve pointed that out to you again, is because this is only a 2 light setup, yet it feels like it has the drama of more, thanks to how much that pink light is actually doing.

Note: Check the pink highlight on the underside of the right leg – I think that’s the light also bouncing underneath the background and coming up from below. -An unintended bonus.

Final Points to Remember:

  • Use a big enough silver reflector above. It should be as wide as your background and you can see the size of mine in the BTS shot above.
  • Get your pink light low in height. You want that light to be low so as to allow for the light to spread wide enough before it hits the reflector above.
  • Don’t use a grid or honeycomb on that reflector dish behind the background. If you’re worried about light-spill, move the light higher and control the spill via the height of the light. Using a grid will likely reduce too much light from hitting the reflector.
  • Use a big key light even though it seems like it’s not needed in that small space. By using a large key light, you can actually have more control of your light than you think. Bring it in close and turn it right down.
  • Get you subject sat-down – This does a couple of things. 1. It allows for the light to not be so intense on the head compared to the body when standing. 2. It allows for more of the body to be hit by the pink light when sat down. None of that pink light on the legs would be visible if she was standing.
  • Using a dark background is pretty mandatory. There is a huge amount of coloured light bouncing around in this small space and anything but black or dark grey back there results in a very messy background.


I appreciate that there are probably a couple of people out there who don’t like to use gels in every shoot they do. I’m personally not too sure what that’s all about, but for the two people out there who aren’t fans of gels, yet still managed to read all the way down here….. here’s an idea for you to try instead.

For those of you who aren’t interested in taking incredible looking photos, you can also try this setup without gels too.

As you can see in the example above, you could also try this setup without gels too. Obviously it wont look as good, but you already knew that. In this example I’ve just added a coloured backdrop to add a little contrast between the subject and that brighter top light, but any background could be used here instead.

Thank You

Thanks for checking out this article and spending a little bit of your day with me here. I hope you found it useful and that you get a chance to give it a try yourself. If you do and you have any questions, then all means fire-away in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer what I can. Thanks again and I’ll see you in the next one.

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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. Jake currently has a workshop available on colour and exposure. For more of his work and tutorials, check out his website. Don’t forget to like his Facebook page, follow him on Instagram and sign up to the Jake Hicks Photography newsletter to receive Jake’s free Top Ten Studio Lighting Tips and Techniques PDF. This article was also published here and shared with permission.

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We love it when our readers get in touch with us to share their stories. This article was contributed to DIYP by a member of our community. If you would like to contribute an article, please contact us here.

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