How To Set Up An Accent Light

by William Lulow

While on a location shoot the other day, I decided to take some images of how I set up my accent lights. I was doing a corporate portrait and I decided to use just three lights. One main light (bounced into my big umbrella, one accent light and one background light. (Since the subject was a man, I wanted the image to have the same look as others I had done for this company, but I wanted to make it a bit more dramatic)! So, how do accent lights work to make a portrait more dramatic? First, an “accent light” is really just a highlight that attracts the eye to a particular part of the person you are shooting. In order to do that, it must be lighter than the rest of the face because, in an image, anything light tends to attract our attention much more than something dark. The rule is: light stands out, dark recedes! This is the reason for setting up an accent light in the first place. You want to give the portrait some added depth by creating light areas as well as dark ones.

As I have said many times, if you want the accent lights to register as white (and thereby stand out in the image), they should be roughly one f/stop brighter than the main light. So, here is how I set that up:


This is the power “pack” I use. (The slider bars only control the modeling lights not the power).  You will notice that there is one head plugged into the “A” bank on this pack. That is my mainlight umbrella. The umbrella is diffusing the light and softening it. That is the light that I want to be my main exposure. It is set at 125watt/seconds.  My camera meter on that light read f/11 using ISO 100. You will also notice that there are two heads plugged in to the “B” bank. In addition, notice that the switch controlling whether both banks would be used together or separately is on “separate.” Both heads connected to this bank are used without any diffusion. They are “raw.” Note also that the power switch is on 250watt/seconds. My camera meter reading from the subject’s hair and shoulders read f/16. That is how I know that the highlights (accent lights) would register white.

This was my “studio” setup at this company with the positions of the lights I used:

Here is the result:

The accent lighting on the edge of the subject’s face and on the hair are reproduced as white. They are one stop brighter than the mainlight, which is nice and soft, giving the face a very neutral tone.

The background light, which is also one f/stop brighter than my umbrella light is placed on the floor and when aimed up at a gray background, produces a nice gradation from light to dark as the top part of the background actually absorbs the light as it goes from lower to higher.

These power settings are fairly low compared to the capability of this pack. Given the DSLR’s sensitivity to light these days, the same amount of power is just not needed today as in the past.

You can see that the accent light here gives the portrait a bit more interest than simply a head shot against a plain background. There is really no limit to the results  you can obtain by knowing when and where to place your lights.