How To Finesse Your Lighting

by William Lulow

Your studio lighting setups should not be static things. By this I mean that you need to be ready to change your lighting when you decide to make different looking pictures. For instance, if you want to make a general, well-lit portrait for someone’s social media head shot, it should be light-looking with plenty of detail. Here is one example:


There are no shadows on the face and the background is represented as pure white.

You should set up your lights so that you can change lightings quickly. Should you want to make a more dramatic-looking photograph, you can then simply turn off or unplug the fill-in light, for instance. This will quickly make the picture more dramatic. This, of course, presupposes that you have at least four or five lights to begin with. Here is an example:


This was the same subject, but I turned off the background lights and I even turned off the main light which was my large, portrait umbrella. Notice the difference in mood! The pose and expression also contribute to the more dramatic effect.

All the lights in the studio actually remained in the same position as they were in the top image. So, you can see how simply tweaking the power of the lights and whether or not they are on or off greatly affects the overall tone of the image.

As you get to know your studio lights – what the power settings are and how they affect the overall image, you can begin to fine-tune your portrait results. This is what I like to call getting down to the real basics of studio lighting for portraits and how and when to use the lights you have.

I was working with a student last week who basically had a home studio with a small power pack and only two lamp heads. She had learned how to use photographic umbrellas to obtain really soft lighting results, but this time she had a completely different type of portrait in mind. She wanted to shoot a male subject for a resume portrait. She learned through looking at some portraits by some famous portrait photographers, Avedon, Newman, Halsman and Karsh, that you don’t always have to have a soft lighting setup to photograph men. By using one of her lights as an accent light and keeping her main light soft by using her umbrella, she could fill in the subject’s face with the addition of a white card as a reflector. She also learned how she could make the background a bit darker by using a gobo to keep some of the light from the main light off the background, thereby making it appear darker. Here is her setup:


You can see the position of the main light (umbrella), the accent light (in the back), the black flag gobo (just behind the umbrella) and the white card reflector which would lighten any shadows created by the main light. This is a really creative use of just two lights, plus a reflector, to make an interesting portrait. It is what I mean by “finessing” the lighting setup. It’s a way of making your equipment work toward the effects you want to achieve.

Here’s an image created with a similar setup:


This image of my friend, French photographer, Jean Rault, was made with a single light placed to the right of the camera and a white card reflector to the left of the subject.

You can obtain various tones using this kind of setup and it works well for making dramatic images with very little changes to your studio setup.