How To Add A Third Light

by William Lulow

Now that you have the beginnings of a basic studio lighting set up with two lights (Main light plus fill-in), it’s time to add a third light. The basic studio lighting setup consists of a MAIN LIGHT with a FILL-IN light to lighten any shadows. The next step involves adding a third light which will give the subject some three-dimensional qualities. One way to do this is by adding a light which we’ve already used – an EDGE LIGHT. What the EDGE LIGHT does is to add a highlight to the person’s hair or face. Here is a diagram of the positions of all lights so far:

3-Light Set Up The subject is in the middle. I use a big umbrella main light to the left. A softbox fill-in light is to the right and the edge light is set up behind a black card to shade it from the camera. There can be a few variations of this basic setup. The third light can be a “HAIR LIGHT” placed on a boom or suspended from the studio’s ceiling. If functions much the same as a highlight, or somewhat like a HALO light (spoken about in a previous article).

The thing to remember about all third light additions (as highlights) is that they must be about one-stop brighter than the main light because you want them to register as white light against whatever background you have. If they are not at least one stop brighter, they will simply blend in to the image and the effect will be lost.

Here is an example of the third light added correctly:


You can easily see the effects of the third light. Notice the highlights on the subject’s shoulder, hair and side of the face. You can also see that they register as white. This serves to separate the subject from the background a bit thereby adding some dimension to the photograph. Some people think that they can simply use reflector cards for highlights. This is not true. Reflectors only open up shadow areas. They do not add highlights (maybe a mirror or other shiny surface will add a highlight, but that is because it is actually reflecting an existing light). The right way to achieve the effect of a highlight is by adding a light to your setup.