Shooting portraits in the studio with flash can be daunting to newer photographers. They look at the setups like the one above and have no idea what each of the lights is doing, how or why. This video from photographer Mark Wallace is a primer to flash-lit portraits in the studio.
Mark explains what each light is, its purpose, and how each of them contribute toward the final shot. It’s a great breakdown showing you exactly what everything does. No matter how many lights or what lighting setup you’re using, the same principles apply.
The basic studio lighting setup is comprised of 1 to 4 lights. There’s the key light, fill light, rim/hair light and the background light.
In Mark’s example, four lights are used, and each of them contributes to the shot in a different way.
The key light is the main light in your shot. Is the light against which all of the others are balanced. It’s often, but not always, the brightest light in the shot, as you want your subject to stand out. Sometimes, though, you might find that your rim or background light requires more power depending on the final look you’re after.
The fill light is there to help give the shadows a bit of a lift and prevent them fading to pure blackness. As you can see, the fill light doesn’t need to be very bright at all, in order to do its job. You can see in the video that Mark uses a much larger softbox for his fill than he does for his key light. This is quite typical and the way I work, too. As the fill light is, as the name suggests, simply to fill in the shadows, you don’t really want it casting noticeable shadows of its own.
A hair/rim light adds specular highlights along the shadow edge of the subject. It adds shine to the hair, or creates a highlight separation to stop your subject from blending into the darker background.
The background light is pretty much as it sounds. It’s a light that you point at the background to light it up. Here, Mark gets a nice gradient with the brightest spot right behind his subject, fading out as it gets further away from the centre.
When everything is turned on and put together in a single shot, you get something that looks like this.
When you see how each light contributes to the shot individually and then the final shot, you quickly see how each of the lights works in concert. Knowing what each type of light does also allows you to work more effectively on location with flash, too. The bright sun can suddenly be your rim/hair light. Or a cloudy sky can become your subtle fill light, with a flash as your key.
Mark also talks about how he draws out his lighting diagrams, and how he labels each of the lights against the others. Some photographers will list the exact power output as an f-stop value for each light. Mark prefers to keep things a little more relative, marking it out in stop increments of difference from the key light.
This makes a lot of sense, and allows you to more easily balance the lights out again in the future for a different combination of camera settings.