Multiple Light Portrait Setups and Effects

We have previously discussed single light sources, and single lights with fill. In another session we will discuss fill lighting and fill lighting ratios.

The types of single light source lightning that we discussed were overhead (or top), side, front, back, and theater.

Understanding single source lighting is basic to understanding multiple light studio portrait setups. Beginning portrait shooters need to have a good understanding of single source lighting before jumping in to multiple light portraits, or risk getting lost in the complexities of multiple light adjustments.

The techniques we are covering here are mainly for 35mm cameras, although many of the techniques can be used with point and shoot cameras (including multiple flash setups) if you really want to do them.

First, a review of some flash basics:

There should be one number on the shutter speed dial of your camera that is a different color or that has an "x" beside it.

This designates the fastest speed at which the camera will synchronize properly with electronic flash. Do not use a faster shutter speed, or you will get photos that are partially exposed and partially black.

Second, after firing the flash, wait for the "ready light" to come back on before using the flash again. Failing to wait long enough can result in underexposure due to insufficient electrical charge for the flash.

And third, many 35 mm SLRs and most point and shoot cameras have built-in electronic flash units.

In multiple flash portrait photography that built-in flash unit is good for two things:

1. It can be used to trigger more powerful external flash units (slave units), which provide the lighting for the portraits.

2. If it is powerful enough, it can be used as fill light in a multiple flash arrangement.

Never depend on the built-in flash as the main light in a multiple flash setup. It simply does not have enough power.

Now, on to multiple lighting. Some tips and hints:

As a general rule, the exposure for your portraits should be based upon the main light, with fill light contributing little significant overall exposure.

(An exception to this is "high key" lighting, where the fill and background lighting are comparable in subject lighting to the main light.)

Since cameras and flash units vary so widely, we are not going to cover exposure calculations in this session.

We are going to concentrate on light placement and the resulting light and shadow patterns on the subject.

Note that, even though I am going to be saying "flash units", the same effects can be gotten from photoflood lighting units, and even sunlight and reflectors. Just mentally substitute "flood" or "reflector" for "flash."

Keep in mind that the flash units will have effects on any nearby objects such as props or background, and these effects may be different than that on the main subject, due to differing relative distances and angles.

Preplan your setups and do test shots with stand-in subjects before your first few important portrait shoots.

A caution: Bounce light changes the lighting direction from frontal to overhead (or side). Be sure you keep this in mind when setting up bounce flash with one o rmore of your flash units.

Don't use bounce flash if the desired lighting effect does not accommodate this lighting. Be sure you plan your lighting setups in advance to avoid surprises and other-than-desired shadow effects.


Attractive portraits often require at least two light sources: one at the camera or to one side, and a second (often on the other side of the camera) for filling in shadows and making the lighting on the subject more even.

The distance or angle between the camera and the flash units is dictated by the light and shadow effect the photographer desires.

A very pleasing arrangement is to have the main flash to one side and above the camera, and to have the fill on the other side of the camera, and about one-half as far above the camera as the main light.

A 30 to 60 degree angle between the flash units works well in most cases.

To analyze facial lighting in a portrait, look at the light/shadows on each side and under the nose. Then look at the shadows under the chin and cheeks. Finally, look at other areas to see if shadows show more information about the lighting setup.

Hair highlights and background shading will give you information on auxillary lights. The complete absence of shadows on the background usually indicates that one or more separate background lights were used.

Here is a page with some good examples of this type of lighting setup:

Look at the two photos on the right ends of the two rows.

The upper one used two lights (a main and a fill) at nearly the same intensity on the subject, the lower one used a main light and a lesser fill light.

Note that this effect can be done with lights with the same output by putting one closer to the subject than the other.

Outstanding portraits often require three or more lights. Main, fill, highlight, and background. For some desired effects, more than one flash unit may be needed for some of these.

For an example, look at the second photo from the right on the bottom row.

This portrait setup used at least three lights, a main, a fill, and a highlight for the hair. Note that the highlight unit is behind the subject, as shown by the glowing effect as the light shines toward the camera.

Now look at:

The top photo used at least three lights, main, fill, and background. I see no conclusive evidence of a hair highlight.

The next photo down the page used at least four lights, main, fill, hair highlight, and background.

Here is an unusual lighting setup:

I see at least three lights, one from each side and one from the front illuminating mostly the lady's face.

Here is a page with some nice portrait examples:

Analyze these lighting setups yourself.

Now look at:

This portrait also used at least four lights, main, fill, hair, and background.

Here is an example of a pretty complex lighting setup:

Another four light portrait.

Judging from the facial shadows, it appears that the main light was slightly to the left of the camera, and the fill was on the right, very close to the camera.

And finally, look at:

This one has multiple lights on the subjects and on the background to minimize shadows

Look for and analyze other examples of multiple light portraits (or even advertising shots). Analyze the lighting setups used, then try some of your own.

And for techniques for flash with point and shoot cameras (and some good other basics):

Copyright 1998, 1999 David E. Price