Lighting Technique: Three Lights and the Sun

Posted by / Filed under Lighting Technique, Personal Work, Tools Of The Trade

Portrait of a retired university professor and his wife.  Photo by John Keatley.

A month or so ago, I was hired to photograph several people for a marketing publication.  They were looking for lifestyle type portraits.  So I shot most of them in natural light, often with a reflector or two.  Warm, happy, and beautiful was my direction, and so I was looking for bright colorful backgrounds.  When I arrived at this couples home, I went through the usual introductions and before long, I was taking the grand tour of their home.  It’s always funny to me that as a photographer, I can walk into a strangers home, look around in all of their rooms, and tell them what to wear.  Years ago, this took a bit of getting used to, but now it feels somewhat normal.

There was not much in the house that lent itself to what I was looking for, so I decided we would head to a park.  As we were leaving, I took notice of this room with the piano, the old lamp, and the bright sun streaming through the window.  For a moment, I turned off the filter in my head that was only looking for commercial lifestyle type portraits.  The muted colors and the overall feel of the shot that began forming in my head was not something that would interest my client, but I decided that it was worth exploring for myself.

This was a really fun lighting process, and there were some elements that I don’t often get to work through.  I know a lot of you are often curious, and email me about my lighting, so how about a lighting walk through.  Take out a sheet of paper and a number 2 pencil.  Here we go.

Direct sunlight was coming through a large window on the left side of the frame.  You can see the bright spot on the floor pointing toward the piano.  There were soft rolling shadows all over the wall and furniture from the sunlight bouncing off the white carpet and other light surfaces.  It was beautiful light, but the range between the light on the floor and the shadows was too wide to capture with detail.

I took several frames with just natural light, to get a rough idea of what the shot could feel like.  After I felt confident that something interesting could develop, I ran out to the car and brought in all of the lighting that I had with me.  Three strobes in this case.  I almost didn’t even bring them because I didn’t think I would be using lights that day.   The first thing I did was get an exposure that had some detail in the  sun spot on the floor.  I wanted it to be bright, but not blown out.  My goal was to mimic the natural light, but bring the range from highlight to shadow down to something that is within the camera’s range of capturing.  I shot at ISO 100, and the exposure was 1/125 at f/9.0.

Exposing for the brightest spot in this case made the rest of the frame very dark.  The next step was to add in light and bring up the shadows.  I like to add and work with one light at a time when I am building my lighting setups.  I start with the brightest light source.  The sun in this case, and work my way down to the fill lights.  I feel like this gives me more control, and allows me to better see the results and consequences of each light that I am using.

Equipment: Before I get into how I used my equipment to create this shot, here is a list of the actual equipment I used along with links to the product pages.

Camera: Canon DSLR
Lights: Elinchrom Ranger Battery Pack and Head x2
Extra Elinchrom Ranger Free Lite A Flash Head
Light Modifiers: Photoflex Large Softbox
Wescott 45” Umbrella x2

The Key Light: I set up a large softbox on camera left, in front of the window.  There was a lot of furniture and items in the room, and although I did rearrange quite a bit, I didn’t want to make a complete mess of their home.  There was not enough floor space to set up a stand where I wanted the key light, and even if there was, it would have cut into the frame of the shot.  So I set up a C stand with a grip arm and mounted the softbox on the end of the arm.  I swung this over the couch and up against the window so that it was angled down toward the floor and feathered away from the wall (pointing across the frame toward the right side of the room).  The reason for feathering the softbox from the wall was because I wanted to create a darker shadow in the upper left corner of the frame.  The more the softbox is pointed away from the wall, the larger and deeper the shadow in the left corner becomes.  I also wanted the light to be a little more even across the frame, and feathering gave me more reach.  You can see a slight shadow with a hard edge on the floor on the very far right at the base of the drawers.  This shadow was from the softbox.  If I had the softbox pointed directly toward the couple, the light would not have reached that far.  And finally, let’s not forget.  It is kind of important to actually light the subjects with the key as well.  So I made sure that the light was hitting them how I wanted.   The head and softbox were actually a little too large for the C stand arm, so I did have to do a little work with some tape, clamps and an extra light stand to keep the softbox from pointing straight down.  Clamps and tape are a must if you ask me.  Now we have a floor highlight that is not blown out, and properly exposed people on the piano bench.  But, the right side of the frame was still really dark.

Fill Light #1: The goal for the fill light was to control the shadows.  I don’t want this light to be even with the sun, or the key (softbox).  What I want out of the fill is to bring up the dark shadows to a level that has detail, but still looks and feels like a shadow.  I used a 45” umbrella with black backing that I bounced a strobe into.  So the strobe is actually pointing away from the subject into the umbrella and bouncing the light back onto the frame.  I experimented with a number of positions for the first fill light, but I ended up placing it about a foot or so behind me, and two or three feet to my right.  The height of the strobe head was about a foot above the subjects head, and the umbrella was not angled much.  The umbrella rod was about parallel with the ground.  You can see the shadows created by this light on the ground behind one of the piano bench legs, and the right piano leg.  There is also a very soft and subtle shadow on the wall to the left of the drawers.  This tells you that the actual strobe head was just to the right of the edge of the drawer, but the umbrella just swept over the edge to create that soft shadow.  If I would have moved the light further to the right, the shadow would have grown and become darker.  If I would have moved the light more to the left, the shadow would have disappeared completely.  I left the shadow in to create some depth on the right side of the frame.

Fill Light #2: I also set up a second umbrella for fill light.  I placed this about 9 feet away from me on the right side of the frame, and used it to fill in the shadow on the wall to the right of the drawers.

And then it was time to start shooting.  After a number of different poses, I decided on this one.  I really like this shot.  The man is a retired professor, and it turns out that he taught photography for a few years.  This was many years ago, and the program eventually was shut down when funds became tight.  But it was a lot of fun talking to him about cameras and equipment.  It was also the first time I had a subject offer to set up and take down stands and actually know how to do it.

I hope you found this interesting, or helpful.  Feel free to post any comments or questions.  I will do my best to respond and answer any questions you may have.


Great post! I like how you write the lighting description in an easy, flowing manner that lends itself to being understood. Thank you for sharing this.

POSTED BY Tim Broyer on 7-21-2009

No problem Tim. Thanks for your comment! I'm glad you liked it. Once again. A very big thank you goes out to David at www.strobist.com for linking to to this post. It is exciting to get this kind of interest in my work. Here is the link to the Strobist post. http://strobist.blogspot.com/2009/07/inspired-by-natural-light.html

POSTED BY John Keatley on 7-21-2009

I love hearing about the behind the scenes lighting, and how photographers set up shoots... It is interesting to see the step by step processes that people go through in order to get the shot they've envisioned. Enjoyed the post!

POSTED BY Krystal Kerr on 7-21-2009

That was really interesting story. Thanks for sharing! You should definitely write more "backstage" posts like this one. One in a month is a must :)

POSTED BY Marcin Retecki on 7-21-2009

Thank you very much for this post.

POSTED BY Alejo on 7-21-2009

Thank you! I am always wondering how you light your shots and have wanted to email you before. Your lighting always looks...complicated (maybe sophisticated is a better description) so this post was awesome. Question: what elements did you get to work with in this shot that you do not get to work with very often?

POSTED BY Eric Corliss on 7-21-2009

Hey Eric, Natural light / direct sun for starters. Maybe has something to do with the fact that I live in Seattle. But a good amount of my work lately has been studio. And the other elements would be working in an environment like this picture. Where there are many little objects and corners casting shadows. There were a lot of details to watch out for. And again, because of so much studio work, environments are a welcome sight for me. A lot of my personal work in the past couple of months has been outside, and environmental to try to balance this out. I'll try to do another one of these lighting walk through's with some of my personal work in the weeks to come. Thanks for your comments and question.

POSTED BY John Keatley on 7-22-2009

Thanks for not only sharing your setup, but detailed info on your thought process.

POSTED BY Anon on 7-22-2009

As the designer on the project for which these photos were taken, I have to say I loved this photo and the others in this setting the most. It's unfortunate when a client doesn't really "get the picture," but it looks like much good has come out of this image. Thanks for the tips and walkthrough. Great work, John!

POSTED BY Chris K. on 7-22-2009

John, Thank you so much for this post! I came across your work about 6months ago, it has had a huge impact on me. I've been a "pro" photographer for the past few years. I kinda hit a wall as far as my style and what I was shooting. When I saw your work I was so impressed and influenced that I've started to climb the wall and create a style that truly makes me happy! This post is truly inspiring and helpful. Do you have a photo of your light set up by chance? Kevin

POSTED BY Kevin on 7-22-2009

Thank you so much for providing such detailed lighting info! I really appreciate it! This is an excellent portrait and I so admire your work.

POSTED BY Carolyn on 7-22-2009

Beautiful preconceived photograph and very thought out lighting, superb craftsmanship and a stunning photograph

POSTED BY Abba Richman on 7-22-2009

Just came over from Strobist, thanks for posting this,very nice detail. very heplfull, another site for my favs

POSTED BY mark donovan on 7-22-2009

Word on the Tape and Clamps. Never leave home without them.

POSTED BY Leon Godwin on 7-22-2009

Thanks for the run through. Excellent work. I really like your methodical approach to adding light one at a time. I totally understand the concept but don't quite implement it in such a professional way. Thanks again.

POSTED BY Geoff on 7-22-2009

Great post, John, thanks. Amazing work, as always.

POSTED BY Dan Depew on 7-22-2009

[...] John Keatley Blog » Blog Archive » Lighting Technique: Three Lights and the Sun - [...]

POSTED BY Green Tee Readings » Links for July 22nd through July 23rd on 7-22-2009

Really nice writeup. Great portrait as well. Thanks for sharing.

POSTED BY Joachim on 7-22-2009

Thanks for posting this. Its great to be able to read about your thought process when lighting. Alan

POSTED BY Alan Bremner on 7-22-2009

thanks for this post (so it via strobist.com) very interesting to see how you work. A few questions: how long did it take you to get the lights set up so you could start shooting and were the couple there all the time ? (btw. in your "leave a reply" part the text is white on white and one can't read it!)

POSTED BY a j french on 7-22-2009

top draw, the way the mans head cuts the edge of the picture, also very brave to not have the lady facing into the camera, thank`s for sharing.

POSTED BY Dave Warren on 7-22-2009

I liked the setup with 2 fills, as well as the extreme placement of the key. Very interesting. First I tried to get the positions of sources by the shadows on the floor cast by the objects in the frame. Partially, I got these, but the text clarified all.

POSTED BY UncleSam on 7-23-2009

Thanks for not only sharing the setup, but also your thought process. With just the setup I know how to light this exact scene. With the thought process I can begin to understand how to light my own scenes.

POSTED BY Eric Mesa on 7-23-2009

Very nice post! One of my favorites. Love all the detail.

POSTED BY Taylor Young on 7-23-2009

Great post! What I find interesting is in the past I would set up a lighting situation ... I would have shadows and feel I didn't get it "correct". You've shown us that it isn't always "correct" the first time. Don't panic ( as people sit there watching you figure it out). Stop and think. LOOK and SEE what you have then add other lights (or reflectors) one at a time, until the lighting is "correct" or what you're looking for. Thanks! Hope I can do this next time!!

POSTED BY Kathy Marciante on 7-23-2009

Hey wow, great post. Brilliant explanation of your light placement, love it love it love it. Great job on the lighting and great post. Regards Heinz

POSTED BY Heinz Schmidt on 7-23-2009

[...] It is therefor an utter joy when one comes accross a very well written blog post regarding lighting on a commercial photography shoot, like this one by Seattle based advertising and editorial photographer John Keatley. [...]

POSTED BY Great lighting blog post « Commercial Portrait & Stills Photographer on 7-23-2009

Thanks, John, for the step-by-step process of how you set up your lights. Very educational!

POSTED BY Sarah on 7-23-2009

wow i love the shot.. it has a humbleness that really makes me feel like im in the room with them. also great post and balancing of light... thank you

POSTED BY brennandesigns on 7-23-2009

John, Thanks for posting this info it is insightful. Question for you, how long did it take you to set up this shot and what did you do with the subjects in the interim? Hoping to understand the process from a people side. Thank you!

POSTED BY AJ Mallory on 7-23-2009

Just a thought...but you mention that you take shots along the way as you build in each light one by one. It would be very helpful to see the effect of each light you add along the way as part of the post. You know how visual photographer are :-)

POSTED BY Todd on 7-23-2009

Thanks so much for this detailed and thorough walk through. Any chance that you could post or provide on-line access to those preliminary shots, i.e., key-only, key + 1st fill? It would be particularly instructive to see how each element changed the previous shot. Thanks again. Great post.

POSTED BY Rick on 7-23-2009

@ Kevin - Comment 10 Hi Kevin, Wow. Thanks for your kind words. I'm so glad to hear that you are shooting things that make you happy. I went through a similar experience about a year ago. It started with me forcing myself to shoot more personal work and listening to the ideas in my head. It makes such a big difference, and that is why we got into photography in the first place. Because it's fun! I don't have a shot of the lights on this one, but that is something I will try to show in the future. Thanks again for taking an interest in my photography.

POSTED BY John Keatley on 7-23-2009

@ AJ - Comment 20 Good questions. I took a look at the time stamps on my pictures, so this is exactly what the timeline looked like. From the time I took the first really rough test shot with just natural light, and all my equipment packed in the car. To my first test shot with just the key firing, was 22 minutes. The umbrellas were set up at that point as well, but they were not firing or placed where I wanted them. Next I took many test shots and tried different positions and a few different lights until I got it looking like I wanted. This took another 13 minutes. So the entire setup process was 35 minutes. There was also quite a bit of moving furniture around in that time frame. Yes. The couple was there the whole time. I was talking to them as I worked and they were pretty interested. At one point, he left and came back with a digital camera and asked if he could take some pictures. I guess it would feel pretty exciting to have a bunch of lighting set up in your house. Especially if you are not used to having your picture taken. And he also used to teach photography, so it was especially interesting to him.

POSTED BY John Keatley on 7-23-2009

Excellent post! Very educational. I'm glad that I was directed to your blog through strobist. :)

POSTED BY Tom Li on 7-23-2009

@ AJ - Comment 30 Thanks for your questions AJ. I think my answer in comment 34 should explain, but adding to that. It always helps when your subjects are talkative, or ask questions. When someone just sit's there and doesn't try to make conversation. There is only so much you can do, and it might not feel super comfortable. These people were great though, and they were very interested in the whole process. And excited to be photographed.

POSTED BY John Keatley on 7-23-2009

Hi John, got to your post through strobist.com... That's a great walkthrough and I love how you detailed the effect of each light, showing me shadows I wouldn't have even noticed ! However, I now feel like the shadows of the right bench and piano legs don't look really natural, given that all the light seem to come from the left. Anyway I do love the result, it's really inspiring ! thanks ! Olivier

POSTED BY Olance on 7-23-2009

John -- great post and really eye opening to how you so gracefully think your way through a shot. You don't over complicate the process. Would it be possible for you tell us the power settings of the strobes?

POSTED BY Quan on 7-23-2009

Thanks for sharing a great photo and an even better explanation, much appreciated!

POSTED BY Matt Kendall on 7-23-2009

very nice image, I like the way the upper part is vinetted to hid the clutter. I see only two shadows comming from the keroscene lamp on the piano. I guessing one is from the Sun and the other from the first fill. I had expected perhaps three shadows or even a trace of 4. What's your take on the lamp shadow? The question is did your photo ed see this image and did it sell?

POSTED BY Me Ron on 7-23-2009

Came over via strobist. Got you on my Reader list now. Thanks for the article, and I definitely will practice your suggestion of adding one light at a time.

POSTED BY Chrisdavid42 on 7-23-2009

Found You thru strobist, second time allready and im not dissapointed. Great article, would never guess the light setup of this shot!

POSTED BY TenisD on 7-23-2009

Thanks so much for this John. I've been following your blog for some time now and enjoy your style (and wit). Always helpful to see the behind the scenes thought and action.

POSTED BY Jeff n on 7-23-2009

Thank you for your details ! You have a very good style to tell stories! ps: I paste some ideas from your post in my blog (of course, keeping your link). If it is not ok with you, please tell me.

POSTED BY Bogdan Diaconu on 7-24-2009

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POSTED BY Weekend Links – Week 30, 2009 « compose.click.edit on 7-24-2009

Superb work mate.. thanks a lot for the info :)

POSTED BY Abhishek on 7-24-2009

Great article John. I think the key to great lighting is to be able to make it look completely natural whilst removing unwanted shadows as you have done.

POSTED BY Pat Bloomfield on 7-24-2009

I really like this photo. The lighting, setup, poses and color all are eye capturing. And you explained your light setup procedure so clearly. I just looked at your site too. Marvelous photos! I just learned more about lighting!

POSTED BY N2U Photography on 7-24-2009

The concept of recreating and controlling natural light is very interesting indeed. I like the shot and lighting setup. I also like the fact that multiple shadows were not photoshoped away as they usually do in ad shots - this is truly great for learning how to light. Thank you John!

POSTED BY Nikita Buida on 7-24-2009

Thanks for sharing...as a first time reader I was impressed with your giving of information, after all, humility in education is what lends to passing the torch to the next generation and creating great photographers for the future!

POSTED BY Photorina Studios on 7-24-2009

The article gave a new thinking to me about photography.. Thanks a lot for sharing..

POSTED BY DEEP on 7-24-2009

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POSTED BY A narrative on lighting - Louis Rene Jacome on 7-24-2009

Thanks for the setup walkthrough. You explained it all very well. Just by glancing at this you wouldn't be able to tell strobes were used at all, so you achieved your goal. Way to go.

POSTED BY Chris Biele on 7-25-2009

[...] # Ich mag es, wenn ich einem Fotografen über die Schulter schauen darf und er aus dem Nähkästchen erzählt. John Keatley jedenfalls hatte etwas ganz anderes vor, als er dieses Foto gemacht hat. Schöne Story. [...]

POSTED BY Die browserFruits sind da. | Digitale Fotografie Lernen - KWERFELDEIN - Martin Gommel on 7-25-2009

Hi John, thanks for sharing your creative lighting strategy with us. I like the image. Regards Uwe

POSTED BY Uwe Noelke on 7-27-2009

I found you from the stobist and now you are on my reader list. I can't wait to look at your other posts. I'm sort of a newbee and trying to learn about light and I think you gave me some really good insight. I'm having a blast shooting and learning and with such a generous community of photographers to share it is a real pleasure. Thanks John

POSTED BY John Thomas on 7-28-2009

So what about the power that you use for the softbox and strobes? Interested to know how do you determine the setting on this.

POSTED BY Jim on 8-6-2009

@ Jim (and everyone else interested in strobe power) - Comment 57 I don't know what each light metered at for this portrait. I do still use a light meter from time to time, but most of the time I am just going by the look of things on camera. I am also a big fan of the on camera histogram. It's a good way to see where your highlights are registering. You can't completely trust the the LCD screen on your camera. If it looks perfect on that bright little screen, you may actually be under exposed. The histogram let's you see exactly where things sit.

POSTED BY John Keatley on 8-6-2009

Excellent post, thanks for sharing your lighting setup, it certainly has given me food for thought. Thanks again, Chris

POSTED BY Chris Ridley on 8-10-2009

Very interesting post, especially pointing out the subtle shadows from the various lighting. Now I'll be forever paranoid about that in my own work!!

POSTED BY Robert on 8-13-2009

Hello John, Jim wrote........... " So what about the power that you use for the softbox and strobes? Interested to know how do you determine the setting on this" I also wondered how you had worked this out. So, i'm assuming that you had your strobes set to iTTL or manual settings from the lowest output. And camera set on manual. I'm new to using strobes and learnt a lot from your article...thanks for posting. Regards, Martyn.

POSTED BY Martyn on 8-16-2009

Thanks for sharing this wonderful image. I've been browsing through a lot of images on the net lately, but this one keeps coming to my mind. The light, the pose, the simplicity of it just make for a beautiful experience. And thanks also for sharing the setup.

POSTED BY David Guedel on 9-23-2009

[...] behind-the-photo lighting post, for the strobist dorks out there. [...]

POSTED BY Links!! – Pamela Helme Photography on 9-28-2009

Great step by step explanation, thank you. It's made me want to get out there and try some new things. Love the image.

POSTED BY Dave Perris on 11-4-2009

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