Portrait Studio Lighting Setup

by William Lulow

I thought I’d go over, once again, my portrait studio setup with the basic lighting. I’ve been using this setup for most of my studio portrait work and it is a very adjustable setup for most every portrait I would do in the studio. The lighting can be varied to give many different looks and really deliver some creative images with very little change in the positions of the lights.

First of all, the basic setup looks like this:

Here you can see my umbrella mainlight to the left, a small fill-in softbox on the right, a background light in the center and the black shades are hiding the two accent lights that I use. So, this is a five-light setup. I can use any or all of them to create the type of portrait I want. In the photograph below, I used only one accent light, the background light and the mainlight:

The background light made the gray no-seam look a bit lighter, the accent light added the highlight on the man’s hair (on his left side – camera-right) and the umbrella provided the main light. It was set up in the “Hollywood Light” position, so you can still see a slight shadow under the man’s nose. But the shadow is transparent due to the overall softness of the large umbrella main light. I find that men can take this kind of lighting better than women can. The slight shadow produced from the main light only, gives a man a bit more character. When you are photographing women, you would usually want to try to hide most shadows on the face. This isn’t true ALL the time, but it is a rule to which I usually adhere. Here’s a similar portrait of a woman, but with the addition of the small fill-in softbox on the right:

Actually, this fill-in position is more in the center, but below the subject. The background was a white no-seam, that was lit from behind the subject.  Note that there are absolutely no shadows on the subject’s face. Here’s another portrait of a woman utilizing both accent lights and just my large umbrella. The background light was turned off. The effect is soft because the main light is placed almost directly above the camera:

This image was done on location, but the setup was the same. There is one accent light, a main light (large umbrella) and my fill-in softbox. The background reproduced lighter than the previous image because the subject was closer to it.

This portrait of a man was made with both accent lights, a carefully placed background light just lighting up the lower half of the background, and my large, main light umbrella.

So, with this basic setup, you can achieve a number of different effects by simply turning one or more lights on or off. You can vary background tones by the color of the no-seam paper you use and how you light it. Even in my small studio I can manage to change lightings quickly and easily by understanding their positions and what each light does. Then, depending on the kind of portrait wanted, I can make small adjustments to produce that effect.