Monday, December 23, 2013

A Quick, Simple 2/3 Lights Setup

The final result

I received a request from an anonymous commenter to show the lighting setup and the processing done to a picture of my daughter wearing a scarf. And since I didn't have any BTS pictures of the setup, I decided to shoot a similar picture, in the same place, with the same scarf, and show the lighting steps as I progressed. Click through to read the rest.


The picture you see above is the original picture that I used in more than one post, the most recent being my mini-review of the Olympus 45mm f/1.8 lens.

Before we start, let us take a look at the two pictures above and see what's different:

  • First of all, my daughter has a different haircut and pajamas, but at least I was able to find the same scarf. :-)
  • Next, the original picture is more moody with the far side of the face darker than the side facing the camera (called Broad Lighting). The new one has a brighter, happier feeling.
  • You might not notice it, but in the original picture, the key light was placed to the camera's right side. On the new one, it is placed on the left side, you can tell from the slight nose-tip shadow on the right side, but it is not too obvious because the fill light is quite strong.
  • The background in the original picture is less bright, and the composition is slightly not similar. I didn't try and emulate the original picture exactly.
  • You can see a blue light hitting my daughter's hair in the new picture, this is an optional 3rd light that I thought will add a little kick. The original picture didn't have this hair light.
  • Catch lights, one of my regrets with the old picture was the lack of catch lights in the eyes, this is one of the more important things that people might miss (like I did) when shooting portraits, they give life to the eyes. Pay attention to any cinema movie, and watch the catch lights in the eyes of the actors, and notice what happens when they are not there, the eyes look dead, or creepy. In the old picture, I had to use the adjustment brush to brighten the eyes.
  • Finally, there is a difference in the white balance, the original one has a slight magenta tint. I remember setting the white balance in post judging with my eyes. This time I used a gray card to get accurate white balance, I like the color balance of the new one.
Now, let us jump to the lighting setup, here is a picture of the setup. I need you to look carefully at it before we start.


Lighting setup, can you find the three lights?

Let us summarize the lighting setup, there are three lights here, two of which you can see directly (left side facing the umbrella & right top). There is a hidden one on the left most chair pointed at the background. And of course there is the very important reflector (white cardboard to my daughter's right, it has a white face and a black face).

I used three manual Yongnuo flashes (a topic for a coming post), with Yongnuo RF-603 wireless triggers. Now, let us break that setup down.




The key to this picture is the blue background, so how did I do that? If I used the blue gel that came with my Rosco strobist kit, it would be a dark shade of blue. Instead I used a famous trick, the background light is just a standard hotshoe flash with no gels. The flash head was zoomed to the max, and the power reduced to just give a color tint to the background.

So where did the blue light come from? By cahnging the camera's white balance to tungsten. At this warm color setting (~ 3000k), an un-gelled flash with a cooler color output (~ 5600k) will appear blue, while warm tungsten lights will appear normally white. So that's how I started, I setup the background flash on the chair, reduced the power and took a test shot.


Background light test shot 1

Yikes, too much power, but that's why I take test shots. When I do that, I take a test shot of each light on its own, with the other lights turned off, and once I am comfortable with that, I start combining lights and see if I need further tweaks. I judge the light intensity using the histogram and the camera's LCD, it is a rough method, but I can do it fairly accurately.

So I reduced the power way down and took another test shot (BTW, I was shooting 1/250, ISO 200 and 45mm @ f/1.8).

Background light test shot 2


This looks good to me, and I make a mental note to put my daughter between the camera and the piece of wood in the middle of the wardrobe in the background, since it creates a large highlight that is distracting. But as you can see from the opening picture, I didn't follow that precaution. My daughter was very fidgety and bored, and I had to gun-and-run, so excuse my mistake.

Ah, there is one important note before we move on, glad I remembered. Focusing! How do you focus in such darkness? That's easy, I am shooting with the room lights on, and it is not dark. But at the lowest ISO and the highest sync speed, the room lights are not powerful enough to affect the exposure. I usually take a test shot (with the flashes turned off) with the aperture, shutter & ISO set correctly, and make sure that I get a dark frame before proceeding with the lighting setup.




For the key light, I used a reflective umbrella instead of a shoot-through umbrella (my favorite light modifier) in order to control the light spill. If I used a shoot-through umbrella, it will push light everywhere and contaminate the background, i.e. it will light the background (in addition to the background light) and mess-up the setup we started with.

Instead, I used a reflective umbrella, with a white interior (I have another one with silver interior) to give a softer light, with less hotspots (bright specular highlights). And you'll notice I directed the umbrella away from the background in order not to spill any light on it. I placed it higher than my daughter's head and almost 90 degrees to the side.

Now, what about the color of the key light? Remember that we changed our camera's white balance to tungsten, and that an un-gelled flash will turn out blue. But if I gelled my flash with a CTO gel (converts flash cool color to warm tungsten color), the color will be neutral white. That's what I did. There is another trick that I learned from David Hobby. When I want to give an extra warmth to my subject, I add a 1/4 CTO to the key light, however, I didn't do it this time. Here's a test shot with just the key light.


Key light test shot

You can see it is a moody picture with too much shadow on the left side of the face, and you can see that the shadow side of the face doesn't look very smooth due to the directional light creating tiny shadows behind any imperfections in the face and emphasizing them.

Time for the fill light, a very simple large piece of white foam cardboard. Here's how the shot looks like with the fill light.

Key light + fill light test shot


A much better result, if you look carefully in the eyes, you can see two catch lights, one from the key light, and the other from the white reflector. Now let us turn that background light on and see how things look like.


Key light + fill light + background light

And this is how I took the original picture. The next light is optional, I wanted to add a little more kick to the hair from the right side since it was bleeding in the dark background. I used a flash with an Opteka 1/8" grid (to constrain the light size to a very small patch) mounted high on a light stand, and pointed it to my daughter's hair. Here is the same picture with the hair light on.


All lights on, final result

I had two choices with the hair light, either to gel it like the main light and make it neutral-white looking, or leave the flash un-gelled and have the cool blue color, which I preferred.




With that done, it occured to me to test a couple of other lenses to show you how the perspective and the depth of field changes when using different focal lengths. All of the above images were shot using the Olympus 45 f/1.8 lens wide-open.

Next, I will show you the same picture with the same relative subject size using three different lenses in the following order:


Panasonic Leica 25mm @ f/1.8

Olympus 45mm @ f/1.8

Olympus 75mm @ f/1.8

What do you think? As far as the pictures go, I prefer the one with the Oly 45 because of the subject's expression. On the other hand, the background is too close for the difference between the 45mm and 75mm to be noticeable, but you can still notice a slight difference. And finally, the 25mm lens creates too much distortion in the face for my taste, hence, that's why I don't use it for close head-shots like this one. There was a commenter that asked me about the difference between the PL 25 and the Oly 45 for portraiture, I hope you are reading this.




Finally, I was asked about the post processing of this image, the screenshot below (click to see a larger version) shows all of the sliders I have moved in lightroom 5.3, except for one modification that I will show below that.


Post Processing, Lightroom Sliders

Before I describe what sliders I moved and why, the white balance you see above is warmer than what I ended up with, so please ignore the white balance setting. I am assuming you are looking at this using a calibrated screen.

I started off by reducing the highlights (nose and right cheek had some specular highlights), then I reduced the whites further since the image still looked too bright. Next I opened up the shadows a bit, and added blacks for a little more punch and contrast. Finally, I added a little saturation to the blue color to give it more vibrance, and a tiny post-crop vignetting as you can see.

The other modification you don't see here is a radial filter (available in Lightroom 5 only), I selected a circle around my daughter's head, and reduced the highlights (-100), shadows (-40) and exposure (-0.5 stops) outside the circle, to keep the attention on the subject's face. On the other hand, I could have reduced the intensity of the background light instead and tried to avoid the highlights, but given how quickly I shot these pictures, it's ok with me. Here are a couple of screenshots showing the image before and after the radial filter.


Without the radial filter

With the radial filter

That's all. I hope you've enjoyed reading this, and I hope our anonymus commenter's questions have been answered.



  1. Great post Mohammad and that's an awesome portrait of your beautiful daughter. I like the setup you used. The fill from the white reflector created a natural-looking fill ratio.

    As for the 25 vs. 45 vs. 75, I personally Iike the 45. The 75 is a little distant, though if I were trying to create a cinematic look I think it is the one that I would choose.

    Thanks again!

    Best regards,

    1. Thanks Mic, glad you enjoyed it. However, I don't see the 75 as distant, in fact, the 25 gives the most feeling of distance.
      I believe the expression difference is the main reason behind the distant feeling. If I had more time with my daughter (she had to go to sleep), I might have gotten a better expression with the 75.

  2. Great post.
    I know the main intention was showing the light setup but I really liked the direct comparision between the lenses as I'm going to buy into m43 early next year when I go to Miami and been thinking hard about what to buy.

    Good posts as usual

    1. Thanks Bruno, let us hear all about how it works out for you.

  3. Terrific post, Mohammad. I appreciate the time you took to go thru the steps with pictures of the set-up. I've recently begun experimenting with the Speedlight on my Nikon and it is certainly changing the way I'm shooting some things but I also have a lot to learn. This post is very helpful.

    btw - I find both the 45 and 75 as used here to be quite acceptable.

    1. Thanks Dave, you can use a single speedlight to get very different looks. There was this game I played with my brother and a friend, we used a single Canon speedlite, a single subject, in a single room with 4 white walls and a window, and try to get as many different looking pictures as possible.

      I might share them here if you like.

    2. Sounds interesting. Please do share them.

  4. Could you let me know what you do with the tone curve?

    1. Nothing at all, I leave it linear as it is, I hardly use it, instead I use the Black, Shadows, Whites & Highlights sliders.

  5. Superb post and pictures Mohammad. Thank you very much for your time and the detail you went into. It was actually myself asking for that as anonymous user in your previous article.
    Thanks again.

    1. Now I am glad I know you've seen that post. Anytime. :-)

  6. Thanks so much for this lovely lesson.

  7. Great article and exciting news on the upcoming wireless trigger. :-)
    I suppose it still won't be TTL capable, just that you can sett the Power remotely for the flashes? MAybe each flash sepperately.
    Or will it be TTL? (just hoping)

    1. Thx Camaman, no it won't be TTL capable as far as I know. It should be able to remotely set power for each flash.


Thanks for your comment. It will be published as soon as we get a chance to review it, sorry for that, but we get lots of spam with malicious links.