Each Light In Your Studio Setup Has Its Own Job!

by William Lulow

When I teach lighting for photography, I always do so by introducing one light at a time. The reason for this is that beginning photographers and sometimes even pros who have been doing it for a while, have to learn and remember that each light has its own job to do when photographing anything or anyone in the studio. The basic kinds of light we use are:

  • Main light: This is the light that basically lights the subject so it can be seen by the camera
  • Fill-in light: This light adds detail to the scene where the main light casts some shadows
  • Accent light: helps to add “pop” to the photograph because accents or highlights are usually white. They can separate the subject from the background making it more attractive and stand out more
  • Background light: These lights give tone to the background and let the photographer reproduce them in the photograph. They are also used to add detail to the background.

The normal application of studio lights for photography begins with the main light and proceeds to the fill-in, the accents and the background, in that order. The reason for this is basically, logic! Once the photographer decides on what kind of picture she wants to make, much of the lighting will have been dictated by the overall “message” of the picture. If the mood of the picture is upbeat, the lighting should be bright. If it’s moody, then the opposite. It even works if your using natural light.


This is a shot that I was thinking about as a black&white image. I wanted to give it some drama. Because this was daylight and I couldn’t arrange any studio lighting, I decided to filter the daylight to make the sky appear dark, thereby giving some importance and drama to the subject. There are still things you can do even if you can’t control the lighting itself.


This image is one I love to use as an example of how to light a scene selectively. I wanted to frame the action of this ceremony with the tables and people in the foreground, keeping them dark, while lighting up the scene. This was accomplished with just a portable speedlight placed off camera-left and no light on the camera. It served the purpose of attracting the viewer’s attention to the action. Here, the absence of light in the foreground did the trick.


This is an outtake from a recent magazine shoot. I wanted to emphasize that this woman had some difficult experiences in her life that she had to deal with, so I wanted to make a very serious picture. I wanted to keep the background dark, so I turned off the background lights. I wanted her hair to separate from the background though, so I kept the accent lights on. The main light was a large umbrella, camera left and the fill-in light was another umbrella, camera right, almost in a cross-light position to add some drama. I then asked her to fold her arms, creating a kind of very serious image.

Each light in this last setup did its own job, as it should. When your lighting setup is properly thought out, you can create various effects however you choose.