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

Beginning Strobes On a Budget

Using external flash in an umbrella
Starting out with an external flash in an umbrella is okay - by Wesley Oostvogels

To put together a decent strobe lighting setup it is not necessary to spend a huge amount of money. You can, if you have the cash, but it’s not necessary to get good results.

There are three basic types of strobes: Monolights, Pack & Head systems, and external flashes.

Monolights, which have the plug and all the circuitry built in to the flash unit. Monolights have the disadvantage of needing to be plugged in all the time and are primarily for indoor use.

Pack and Head sets are lights that come with a separate battery pack and can be used outside. They’re not conveniently portable, but they’ll move.

The other option are external flashes, which run on batteries. If you’re just starting out, external flashes are okay. You can mount them in a softbox or umbrella and get good results, though you may be limited at the distances you can use them. You’ll burn through more batteries, but they’re a lot easier to pack around and very versatile. The only downside to external flashes are the lack of a built-in modeling light. You have to take a picture to pre-view the results. Less of a problem in these days of digital cameras.

What you’re giving up with low end equipment is build quality, recycle times, and fine tuning. High end studio flash units can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars and are color balanced to incredibly fine tolerances. In these days of RAW image management and the available fine tuning and batch processing available in post-processing, I’m not sure how important that is anymore.

There are mid-range professional lights like Paul C Buff’s AlienBees that are more than adequate for most professional applications these days.

AlienBees B400 in an umbrella
AlienBees B400 studio flash in an umbrella - by Paul C. Buff

If you’re new and piecing together an external flash setup on a budget, you can pull it all together for around $300. This is all equipment I’ve tested personally.

YN-467    $70

Can be used on camera for with compatible TTL with Canon cameras and is a surprisingly good flash unit. My only niggle with the design is the battery door feels a little flimsy. Power can be an issue with external flash units, but the YN-467 would light up the night in my testing.

YN-460   $45

Has a setting to operate as an optical slave, easy to change power settings.  These make fine slave units.

Light stand w/ umbrella   $39 x2 = $78

I’ve found ring lights and umbrellas to be my preferred way to light portraits over the years.

Background paper  $20

I’d start with white and decide if you need a pattern later.

Reflector  $13

Clamp it to a light stand if you don’t have an extra set of hands to hold it.

Flash trigger  $34

You’ll want to upgrade this eventually, but all you need starting out is to trigger the key light and the slave will trigger the fill.

A highlight light, which can be any kind of spotlight or an extra flash on a snoot.

Or you can buy a low end introductory studio kit for about the same money.  The disadvantage is you can’t move those outside without running extension cords all over.   This is not equipment you’d want to build your business on, but it will get you through the learning stage without breaking your budget.

Beyond the introductory kits, then you’re into piecing together your studio lighting from higher end suppliers. I would recommend starting with a lower-cost system to gain experience before going out and dropping a bundle on equipment that you’ll want to keep for years.

The next investment I’d make after the flash units is a digital light meter. I’ll talk more about that and how to use it in another blog.