Five Classic Lighting Recipes

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As much as I like to experiment when it comes to lighting, there are times I need a sure thing, and that’s when I reach into my bag of tricks and pull out one of the five lighting techniques that always work and that create a variety of looks? These techniques are ones that a beginner can master in a short time with minimal gear, and should be part of any photographer’s lighting skill set.

Lighting styles have varied through the years, but over time a few techniques and principles have stood out as timeless. These proven lighting techniques have produced some of the most iconic photographs in history. The next time a client calls with a big job—or you need to photograph the neighbor’s kids—have these lighting recipes in your back pocket.

1. Soft Lighting

Lighting all starts with one light, and sometimes that is all you need, but not all single lights are equal.

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Soft lighting.

First, let’s review a few characteristics of light. All light has direction, quality and color. Altering these aspects for one light radically changes your image.

Changing the light direction in a portrait produces different highlights and shadows on your subject’s face. Aim your light directly at your subject and you get very few shadows. Put your light source to the extreme right and one side of your subject is lit, while the other side goes dark.

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Soft lighting.

The quality of light, or how soft the light is, relates to how large the light source is relative to the subject. A large light source close to a subject produces soft, wraparound light. A small light source at the same distance produces hard shadows and is more directional.

Finally, colored gels can be used with lights for various effects. Some gels correct color, others add creative effects.

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Soft lighting.

One lighting style that is simple, effective and can be mastered in minutes is using a single large light, slightly off-center and above your subject. A large light source produces flattering, soft light with minimal shadows to worry about. Any skin blemishes are nicely filled in, and the skin takes on a healthy tone. Using a large light allows your subject a little room to move around while posing, giving you and your model more flexibility to get the shot, instead of stopping the shoot to reposition your light.

Remember one important principle when using one large light: light gives illumination while shadows create dimension. Or, in other words, shadows are not a bad thing. A soft light source looks great when positioned high and slightly off-center to your subject. The soft “butterfly” shadow under the nose adds dimension and contrast to your image. Use white reflectors to soften the shadows, or black reflectors to increase shadows (and contrast).

Soft Lighting.
Soft Lighting.

For the best results, and the most forgiving light, use a softbox or umbrella at least two feet in diameter. Today, there are many softbox options for speedlights. All you need is one flash, a softbox, a light stand and either a cord or wireless trigger to fire the flash. I use a Lastolite Ezybox II Switch that can change shape from rectangular to square, and is large enough to produce smooth soft light. Placing this light high and slightly off-center to my subject produces flattering light with soft shadows under the nose and chin.

My favorite light to use for this technique is the Elinchrom Octa, or any similar octagonal soft box,  placed about three feet away from my subject. This light is over six feet in diameter, and produces the softest light I’ve ever seen. Part of the magic of this light is due to the flash head aiming back into the softbox, diffusing the light before it travels through the diffusion panel on the front. Shadows are almost nonexistent, and skin tones look luminous. This light is expensive, but worth it for those shooting commercially.

2. Rembrandt Lighting

Say you only have one simple light and no big softbox. What kind of portrait can you create with a single edgy light? Try using Rembrandt lighting for a dramatic look.

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Rembrandt Lighting.

Rembrandt lighting got its name after the famous Dutch painter whose natural studio lighting produced a unique style of illumination on his models. Rembrandt lighting typically has one side of the face illuminated, and the other side cast in shadow except for a small, triangle-shaped area at the eye. Once you know what this lighting looks like, you will see it everywhere from magazines to movie posters to fine art prints.

Rembrandt lighting is easy to set up. Have your subject sit in front of a nice background, and place your light almost directly to their side, aimed down on their face. Take a test shot and see where the shadows fall. By slightly moving your flash, you will get the perfect angle, so your light hits one side of the face, and just a small patch of light hits the opposite side of the face. Ideally, this small patch of light illuminates the eye.

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Rembrandt lighting setup.

You can use a bare flash head to create this kind of lighting, or use a larger softer source if you prefer. My favorite style of Rembrandt lighting uses a black background and a beauty dish for the light. The beauty dish softens the light, but it’s still edgy. The subject just floats on the black background, a very moody shot.

3. Rim Lighting

Another single-light technique is rim lighting. Rim lighting illuminates a side profile of your subject, creating a dramatic portrait. This technique requires a single softbox and a dark background. I start by having my subject turn sideways to my camera, facing my large softbox. I make sure I have a dark background behind my subject, or I set my exposure so the ambient room light is underexposed three stops or more. Rim lighting doesn’t work as well on bright backgrounds.

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Rim Lighting.

Next, I have my subject move sideways toward the camera until they are just past the edge of the light. The softbox looks like it is aimed behind my subject, but in reality the light will just clip the side of my subject’s face. If your subject moves closer to the softbox, you will lose the rim lighting effect. I like to experiment with hand positions, jewelry and eyeglasses; these aspects make great rim light portraits. In post-processing I often boost the contrast of these shots to make the lighting more dramatic.

4. Clamshell Lighting

Have you ever seen a beauty shot where the subject seems so vibrant and lively it really catches your eye? I constantly embarrass my family at the checkout line in the grocery store. I’m the guy staring at the bikini model on the magazine cover, trying to see what catchlights are in her eyes and what lighting technique was used. More often than not, clamshell lighting is the technique being used.

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Clamshell Lighting.

Clamshell lighting can be achieved a number of ways using one light, two lights or a combination of lights and reflectors. This lighting style is done by placing one light high in front of your model, and another light or reflector aimed up directly below your model. Clamshell refers to the clam-like configuration of the two softboxes. You simply shoot between the narrow gap of the two softboxes—the results are stunning. Two light sources fill in all the shadows and skin blemishes, and the dual catchlights in the eyes make the shot spring to life.

I use two clamshell techniques. The simplest way to create this beauty lighting is to use a softbox as your overhead light, and a silver or white reflector from below aimed up at your subject. Place the reflector as close to your subject as you can, so it reflects plenty of light from the overhead softbox.

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Clamshell lighting setup.

I really like to use a silver reflector here. Silver produces a shiny, specular light that works well to balance the light from the softbox. If the reflected light is too intense, I will lower the reflector. A Lastolite Trilite does an excellent job as well with clamshell lighting. This reflector system uses three angled reflectors aimed up at your model, filling in shadows and producing dramatic catchlights.

The other style of clamshell lighting I like uses two square softboxes, one aimed from above and the other from below. I leave a small gap between the boxes as a shooting window. Using two strobes allows me to adjust power quickly and change the ratio of my clamshell lighting. I often set the bottom light at lower power than the overhead light to avoid strong under-lighting effects.

5. Cross Lighting

If someone asked me what lighting technique I use the most, I’d reply cross lighting. This lighting technique uses two light sources opposite one another with your subject in the middle. One light will be illuminating your subject’s front, while the second light will be an accent light illuminating his shoulder, hair or backside. Any combination of softboxes, reflectors and umbrellas can be used.

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Cross lighting setup.

My typical cross light setup uses a large softbox as my main light on my subject’s face, and a standard head or speedlight as my accent light. I often use a 30-degree grid on my accent light to keep the light focused on my subject’s hair and shoulders.

With a speedlight I zoom the head to 200mm, which is similar to using a grid on a studio strobe. At 200mm the speedlight shoots out a narrow beam of light. I generally have my accent light one stop brighter than my main light.

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Cross lighting.

Cross lighting is popular because it creates nicely lit portraits that have separation from the background. You can increase the separation from the background by underexposing the ambient light in your shot.

Experiment with different lights. Try using one large softbox as your main light, and a smaller softbox as your accent light. I also like using a beauty dish as my main light and a gridded strobe for my accent light.

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Cross Lighting.

Lighting can seem daunting to photographers just starting out. I have friends who photograph wildlife and landscape and they think of lighting as “a necessary evil,” but a lot of this resistantance is because they think lighting is difficult. Try out one of these five lighting recipes. You might be surprised at how easy it is, and how great your subject looks.

To see more of Tom Bol’s photography, visit

Updated September 1, 2016
Published May 9, 2013

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