Studio Lighting Basics – Three Point Lighting

This is the first installment of a long series of articles shot and composed with the help of professional photographer Karl Leopold at in Melbourne Beach, Florida. Karl is one of the top photographers in the area and president of the Atlantic Professional Photographers Association and graciously opened his studio up and lent his expertise to us for this series.

the basic three point lighting setup

The basic three-point lighting setup

While we’re going to start with an overview of basic three point studio lighting, this series may jump around a bit as basic lighting touches on several peripheral topics that are key to understanding how good portraits are composed along with studio lighting.

First, the equipment we had to work with:

key and fill spacing

The Key is the black Fomex on the right and the fill is the Octodome on the left. Please note that flower leis are not stock equipment on Alien Bees

Our key light is an Alien Bees 800 in a Fomex rectangular soft box

Our fill is an Alien Bees 800 in a 48 inch Octodome

The hair light is an Ultra 1800 fitted with a grid screen on a boom

Throughout the shoot we used only a single modeling light on the Fomex soft box.

We maintained a consistent distance to the subject the old-fashioned way, with a string to the center of the key soft box.

meter check

Start off with a meter check to make sure we're in the ballpark

All the lights are on PocketWizard Plus remotes and the transmitter on my Canon 7D was a PocketWizard MiniTTL. The lens was a stock Canon 28-135mm zoom set to my closest eyeball approximation to 85mm.

All camera settings were manual unless otherwise stated, we used 1/125 of second for a shutter speed through the entire series. The f stop varied as I’ll explain in the article.

check distance

Karl checking distance the old fashioned way - So we didn't have to do meter checks constantly

I did minimal post processing adjustments on the pictures so you can see the difference in the lighting. Standard color correction and cropping is all that was done.

The Setup

While the layout of a basic three point setup is fairly straightforward, it’s actually a little tricky to get everything working together properly.

First we moved the key 10 degrees off the camera axis and shot a key only test. That’s actually not bad, if a little flat.

front key only

This is the key only, about 10 degrees off the camera axis - A little flat but not bad

Next we added in the fill and you can see that gave us much more natural looking lighting and skin tones, but our subject’s hair looks a little flat. That’s where the hair light comes in.

As you can see the hair light really helps separate the subject from the background. It highlights her hair, but also her back shoulder, which changes the entire character of the photo and makes the background more distant.


fill plus key

This is adding the fill - As you can see it yields a much more natural looking light

key, fill, plus hair light

What a difference the hair light makes! See how it separates the subject from the background

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