Studio Lighting Series – Basic Five Point Lighting

The basic five point lighting setup adds two kickers at 45 degree angles to the subject

This is another 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 to us and lent his expertise for this series.

So far in this series we’ve covered basic three point lighting, lighting ratios, and lighting styles. Today it’s time to look at a basic five point lighting setup.

Just to review the equipment we used in this series:

The camera was a Canon 7D with a 28-135mm zoom set at my best approximation to 85mm.

We used 1/125th of a second throughout and either f/11 with a dark background or f/13 with the light background.

Our key is an Alien Bees 800 in a Fomex rectangular softbox.

Our fill is an identical Alien Bees 800 in an Octodome.

Our hair light is an Ultra 1800.

the kickers
These are the kickers set to light the white background

This time we’re going to two Alien Bees 400’s in homemade softboxes with diffusion gratings as “kickers”. We’ll have the kickers set out of frame at 45 degree angles to the subject with the power set at -2 stops from the fill, roughly the same as the hair light. The kickers and hair light were set in slave mode, only the key and fill were on PocketWizard radio triggers.

We’ll use the kickers two different ways: One to help separate the subject from the background by providing some extra back light around the shoulders. The other way we’ll use them is we turn the kickers around, away from the subject, to blow out a white background.

In the two photos the difference the kickers make is readily apparent. The hair really pops with uniform highlights and the back shoulder achieves better separation from the background. We also got a little blow back from the white jacket, which shows up in the light areas of the background pattern. It’s a subtle but significant difference. I like the photo with the kickers much better.

before and after
The kickers make a big difference separating the subject from the background

Finally we turned the kickers around and used them to blow out a white background. In the last picture it’s obvious we could have bumped the power even more, there’s still some gray in the background. Next time I’d go +2 full stops on the kickers and raise them up a little higher to really swat the background and prevent the gradient effect that’s still visible. We also lost the hair highlights, but they would have been largely lost on white background anyway.

five point lighting
This was taken with the kickers turned toward the background

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

Lighting a White Background

photography studio
The advantage to this background is it will never tear - By Missvain

For portraits, it’s not unusual for photographers to employ a white background. After getting their Canon 5D MK II, it’s inevitably one of the first one or two backgrounds most photographers purchase.

You might think it’s easy to light a white background, or wonder if you need to light it at all. You will need to light it and it may be harder than you imagine. Once your subject gets four to six feet from the background, the light from the key falls off in a hurry. At six feet there can be a whole stop difference between your subject and the background. At a stop under the background is not going to be white, it’s going to be a flat gray “vampire background” that sucks the life right out of your portrait.

Situations like these are why incident light meters and flash slaves were made. You’ll want a softbox or umbrella on each side, positioned four to five feet off each side of your background, usually off camera behind the subject. Use a flag or white panel to keep the background flash from highlighting and outlining your subject. That will not be a pleasing look.

Adjust your flash power until the background is a stop lighter than your subject. That will give you that nice pure white glow without blowing back on your subject. In the video Gavin Hoey suggests two stops, but in my experience one is enough unless you have a lot of flaws and wrinkles in the background you’re trying to hide.

Take your light meter and check the back of the subject, just to make sure you’re not getting highlight from the background. The meter check behind the subject should not be any higher than in front. If it is, move the lights or your subject farther away.

Getting Great Pictures From Average Cameras

studio lighting
An example of high key portrait lighting - by Kohlenbergvisual

In my experience what separates the real pro photographers from the wannabes is lighting.  Light is to photographers what paint is to an artist.

I have a friend who shoots weddings for a living and I asked him what kind of camera he used, imagine my surprise when he pulled out a Canon T2i.  It was a head-scratcher at first, until he dragged out his Quantum flash unit.  He put his money into the lenses and higher end lighting.  He’s booked for the summer months in advance, brides schedule their weddings around his availability, so he must be doing something right.

The secret for getting good results out of any camera is to start with the lighting.

Lee Morris demonstrated how true that is with a series of shots with studio lighting, a professional model and an iPhone 3G for a camera.  The results speak for themselves.

I realize lighting isn’t the most exciting subject, but it’s critical for getting the best pictures. Not surprisingly, you’ll reach the same conclusion in the video world.

Amateurs argue incessantly about the “right” camera, the best chip, and judge each other on the number of megapixels their cameras sport.  It’s all nonsense.  A big chip behind good glass with the proper lighting will yield good results in the hands of a pro.

Some lighting resources that are worth reading: