Cross-lighting in an alley. Background light is an Elinchrom Quadra with 30-degree grid and an orange gel. Main light from the front is an Elinchrom Quadra shot through a 27”x27” square softbox with grid.
Every photographer knows that beautiful light is critical in creating an impressive image. Striking subjects can look boring in flat light, while dull subjects appear spectacular in dramatic light. Landscape photographers get up in the dark to catch the first orange rays of sunlight illuminating a desert spire. Travel photographers research sun angles to ensure sunlight is beaming through narrow streets. If you want a photograph that stands above the rest, you need great light.
But portrait photographers are faced with a slightly different challenge. Sure, some portraits are created using the same beautiful warm light at dawn and dusk that other photographers seek out. But portrait photographers have more options because they can create their own light using flash. And that brings up the million-dollar question: What lighting technique is best for taking portraits?
This is the No. 1 question I get when I teach lighting workshops. Normally, I respond to this question by asking a question: “What is the concept for the portrait?” A glamour shot will use different lighting than an edgy sports photograph. Film noir portraits are lit differently than high-key lifestyle images. But even across different genres of portrait photography, one technique emerges as the most versatile and effective; cross-lighting.
The Versatility Of Cross-Lighting
As the name implies, cross-lighting involves two light sources illuminating the subject from opposite sides. The reason cross-lighting is so versatile is you can change light angles and modifiers to give you limitless options in lighting effects. Classic cross-lighting often involves one large softbox as the main light and one small hard-edged light source as an accent light on the opposite side.
But that is only the tip of the iceberg. Since you have two independently controlled lights, you can also change the lighting ratio to create different lighting styles. I may use two strip banks at equal power for a sports portrait and then switch to a large octabox and a gridded flash at different power settings for a glamour shot. While classic cross-lighting uses lights opposite one another, nothing says you can’t change the angle of your two lights for a different lighting effect or change your shooting angle to the opposed lights.
Cross-lighting doesn’t necessarily mean using two flashes, either. I often get hired to photograph people in midday light. Why? Because that is the only time they have available for a quick portrait. I could place my subject in the shade or bring a large overhead silk to make my own shade, but why not let the sun help out? At its simplest, cross-lighting can be created by using a standard reflector and the sun. The reflector will add light to the shadowed side of your subject, while the sun will add highlights to their hair and shoulders.
Add one flash, and a beautiful cross-lit portrait can be created by using the sun as your accent light (think hair light) and shooting flash through a large softbox as your main light source. Determine the daylight exposure so the sun is brightly illuminating the backside of your model, and use the large softbox to fill in the shadows on the front of your model.
You can also use a large reflector with one flash unit. Whether in the studio or outside, try placing a large white or silver reflector on the opposite side of your flash. The flash will illuminate one side of your subject, and the reflector will illuminate the other side. You can change the contrast and side-to-side illumination in the image by moving the reflector further away from your subject. If you are shooting against a white seamless backdrop or a white surface outside, move your subject away from the white background to reduce the fill light effect.
Are you beginning to see how versatile cross-lighting is? You can create this lighting style using a single reflector and the sun, with one flash and the sun, or using two flashes. But cross-lighting techniques don’t stop there. Since cross-lighting usually involves two flashes, you can use the sun as a third light for even more options. Imagine this scenario using two flashes. You use a large softbox as the main light on your subject, and let the sun add highlights to the model’s hair and shoulders as an accent light. Since you still have one flash available, you could use this light to illuminate the background to add more dimension and depth.
Since there are so many creative choices available when using cross-lighting, let’s look at some tried and true techniques. You can start simple with one reflector and build into more advanced techniques using two flashes.
I can’t tell you how many times I have seen photographers holding a gold reflector six inches away from a model on a bright sunny day. The model is weeping, with mascara running down her face, transforming the glamour shoot into a Halloween horror show. This is not good reflector technique. To properly light with a reflector, place your model with their back or side to the sun. Your job using a reflector is to fill in the shadows on the opposite side to the sun (i.e., cross-lighting). Next, determine the intensity of the reflector fill light. If you are working in bright midday sun and using a solid gold reflector, you may have to stand many feet away from your subject to produce flattering fill light. On sunny days I might have my assistant add fill light from 12 feet away from my model.
My favorite reflector for adding fill light is soft gold. This color adds a soft, warm light, not quite as orange as solid gold. Color choice is also determined by how bright the sun is. On overcast days, try white or silver to get stronger fill light from your reflector. I have my assistant bring the reflector into position only when I am shooting, which is much more comfortable for the subject. Reflected light is bright and hard on the eyes, especially if you use it for long stretches of time. My favorite small reflectors are Lastolite TriGrips. These reflectors have a handle, which makes it easier to aim the reflector. I also use the large Lastolite Skylites reflectors for bigger jobs.
One Speedlight Cross-Lighting
Many photographers own a speedlight, and effective cross-lighting can be created using one. A speedlight has an advantage that many studio lights don’t offer: TTL flash mode. Using your speedlight in TTL flash mode uses the camera’s metering to determine flash exposure. All you have to do is find a great location and subject. Once again, place the subject with the sun at their back to use the sun as an accent light. You can fire your speedlight on-camera to add fill light to the front of the subject, but using flash off-camera offers more creative choices. I like to trigger my Nikon SB-5000 using the new radio WR-T10/WR-R10 transmitter. I place my flash in a Lastolite 24” Ezybox and hold it high and slightly off to one side of my subject. The Ezybox adds beautiful soft light to the front of my subject, while the sun adds bright specular highlights to their shoulders and hair. You can also use a speedlight as your main light and a reflector as your second light source on the opposite side. White walls make great reflectors when you find them on location.
Two Flash Cross-Lighting
My favorite cross-lighting style is using two flashes, whether they are speedlights or more powerful strobes. Using two independently powered lights gives you the most options and doesn’t rule out using the sun as accent light if you are shooting outside the studio. My standard cross-lighting technique is using Elinchrom ELB 400 strobes with a 39” Rotalux Octa Softbox as my main light and a gridded strobe as my accent light. Adding a 20-degree grid to the accent light narrows the strobe illumination and prevents light spill onto the face of my subject. I set my accent light one stop brighter than my main light to create bright, specular highlights. But never say never with lighting. Experiment with different light positions, modifiers and output to create different styles of lighting. The power of cross-lighting is in the vast array of effects it creates.
Use The Silver Bullet
Recently, I was photographing a model with the new Nikon SB5000 using a small softbox. We were photographing in an urban area and using one light for most of the portraits. But then we discovered a clean white wall with a brilliant yellow sign on the top level of a parking garage, and I knew this location would be perfect for a portrait. By placing our model next to the white wall, I could shoot flash through the softbox and get bright fill light on the opposite side from the white wall. To add some spice and humor to the portrait, the model jumped up against the wall during the shot. He looked suspended against the building, adding an eye-catching element to the final shot. Once again the “silver bullet” of lighting saved the day. If there is one lighting technique that works almost all the time, cross-lighting is it.
With minimal accessories and a little sun, anyone can create beautiful cross-lighting. Add a couple of flashes to your lighting kit, and your creativity will have no boundaries. From simple travel portraits to studio sessions, cross-lighting gives you tremendous lighting options and brings your portraits to life.
See more of Tom Bol’s photography and learn about his workshops at tombolphoto.com.
Here are more behind-the-scenes images and examples of portraits that Tom Bol created using cross-lighting techniques.