Lighting For Success

When I first started out in my photography career, I shot a lot of different jobs. One day I might be shooting ice climbers, the next day snapping shots of cheesecake dripping in chocolate and the next day photographing moose for a visitor bureau.

During this time I started shooting portraits, and I quickly realized there was a steady flow of business in this area. Snapshots didn’t cut it for a business executive headshot, and high-school athletes wanted something more than a photo of them leaning against a tree holding a football.

I began shooting in my garage with a few simple lights and later moved into a studio. Twenty-five years later, those same types of jobs and lighting setups are as popular as ever and still create a lot of business.

Three types of portraits have generated a lot of business for me through the years: executive headshots, sports portraits and beauty shots. If you can master these setups, you’ll have the skills needed to start producing income for your studio, whether it’s in your garage or a rented space.


Let’s start with what gear you need, at a minimum, to shoot these three lighting setups. First up are the lights, your biggest investment. You have two basic choices: speedlights or studio lights. Speedlights offer the advantages of being lightweight, moderately priced and battery-powered (you can use them anywhere). Even more, speedlights work with your camera in TTL mode to determine correct exposure—no need for exposure meters here. You’ll need a wireless trigger system to fire flashes scattered around your studio.

The bottom line is that speedlights are more versatile, but there are disadvantages: lower power output and slower recycling time. Studio lights have become much more economical in recent years, and the price difference from a basic AC studio flash and speedlight is minimal. With AC lights, you’ll need to plug them into an outlet, but watch with joy as your lights rapidly recycle shot after shot at full power, something a speedlight quickly falls behind doing.

Another advantage is the power. These lights can blast a lot of light through large softboxes without slowing down. If you choose to go with studio lights, I’d recommend models that have a wireless trigger system to minimize the cables stretched across your studio. Next up are light modifiers like softboxes and umbrellas. Umbrellas are very inexpensive, and large ones produce nice soft light. I started with three umbrellas costing less than $100 total for my first studio portraits. You can still do this today, but if you have a little more money, I’d recommend getting at least one large softbox.

Softboxes have two diffusion baffles and can angle the light with more direction, helpful for edgy portraits. Also, if you’re working in a tight space, softboxes won’t spill light onto backgrounds and walls as much as umbrellas.

Another useful accessory is a simple white/silver reflector, which can be used in the portrait setups as illustrated in this article.

Additional items needed are light stands and backdrops. Simple light stands like the Manfrotto 367B nine-foot stands should work fine. Fill some stuff sacks (find them at a camping store) with sand, and you have sandbags to hold your stands steady.

One background that works for all three lighting setups is a white seamless. White looks great for most subjects, and you can change the color from white to gray if you move your lights and subject away from the background. For a little more money, you can buy a roll of black seamless, or buy a black velvet background you can hang from the wall. I also really like a patterned background like the Lastolite Urban Background. These pop up like a big reflector, so you can lean them against any wall and you’re ready to go.

If you’re like most photographers, once you start shooting with the basic gear needed, you’ll start justifying buying more gear (I’m the worst!). Sure, you’ll get softer light with bigger softboxes, and boom arms are really handy, but remember, you can create terrific portraits with a few umbrellas, stands and a couple of lights.



What about the lighting setups? Try out any of these lighting techniques with your subject, and you’re off and running with your studio business.

The Executive Headshot. The beauty (no pun intended) of executive headshots is that your subjects need professional images to promote themselves in business, meaning they’re willing to pay for it. The last thing a young professional wants on his or her business card is a horrible headshot. Some photographers make their entire career around shooting headshots: actors, executives, athletes—they all need them. For a simple, yet stylish corporate headshot, you’ll need two lights, two stands and either a white or black seamless. Start with a large, soft main light placed slightly left of your subject. Get the light as close as you can to your subject, since the larger the light source, the softer the light.

Next, set up your second light, the accent light, on the right side of your subject, almost directly opposite of your main light. This creates a cross-lighting setup, a tried-and-true lighting technique. You can use a standard reflector with your accent light or a softbox for softer light.

Set the power on the accent light one stop brighter than your main light. The idea here is to create a bright rim light on your subject, creating separation and dimension in the image. Be careful not to create hotspots on your subject’s nose from your accent light. Position it so that the light doesn’t spill onto your subject’s face. Having your subject facing your main light, at a slight angle to the camera, prevents accent light spill and creates a more flattering portrait. You don’t want the "frontal-linebacker-blocky-shoulder-bruiser" headshot!

How do you meter the flash output? If you’re using speedlights, set these in TTL mode and let the camera determine exposure. If my exposure is off (based on the LCD histogram), I use my wireless transmitter to change the output. If you’re using studio flash you can use a light meter or your LCD. I use my LCD to meter my studio shots, using the histogram and highlight indicator to determine exposure.

Backgrounds are important. Generally, you want a clean background, often white, gray or black, but you’ll see a variety of backgrounds in executive headshots. Changing the position of a white background will change the color of it. If a white seamless is close to your subject, the large main light will illuminate it for a white color. But if you move your subject and lights farther away from your background, there’s less light spilling onto the white seamless, and the color will change to gray.


Generally, indoor ambient overhead lights don’t affect the shot. If you shoot at 1/200 at ƒ/8 at ISO 100, your flashes should be the only light source showing up in the final image. Tip: It’s important to shoot in a bright room; if you photograph in dim interiors (with modeling lights off), your subject’s pupils will enlarge and not look good in the final shot.

Optionally, you can use a third light illuminating the background separately. This creates even more separation for
your subject and allows you to control background exposure independently of your other lights.

The Athletic Portrait. Whether it’s a hometown little league baseball team or pro basketball players, athletes want their picture taken. Sometimes this is an assignment from a client, other times it’s the subject who wants a "cool" image of herself in uniform. Athletic trainers use these shots to promote their business.

Lighting athletes is different than lighting executives. There’s one theme you have to remember about athletic portraits: edgy. Athletes like their muscle tone and definition to be highlighted, and that requires hard-edged light sources like standard reflectors and small softboxes.

Also, while a business headshot works with your subject seated, athletes look better holding weights, footballs and bats, and you have more choices in posing them. I regularly bring a water spray bottle to add some "sweat" to my subjects and sometimes even use smoke machines. It just depends on what the client or subject wants.

My favorite lighting setup for athlete portraits uses three lights. You could use two lights and one reflector for this shot, but being able to independently control your lights really helps with creating edgy highlights.

My main two lights are Elinchrom 35-inch strip banks. Strip banks produce controlled, edgy highlights from the head to the waist. You can use umbrellas here, but the light is harder to control and isn’t as edgy. Many times, I add a grid to my strip banks to further narrow the spread of light. I place these lights on either side of my subject, both set at the same power.


Strip banks create strong shadows from the side, great for highlighting muscles, but this doesn’t look so good on my subject’s face. To soften the face shadows, I use a third light placed in front and high above my subject. The purpose of this light is to reduce the shadows from the strip banks; think of it as a big fill light. I use a small softbox on this flash to soften the light.

You have a lot of options for backgrounds with athletes. I like to photograph athletes where they work out—gyms, ski slopes, football fields—but if I photograph them inside, I’ll use gritty backgrounds like the Lastolite Urban Background to contribute to the feel of the shot.

The Beauty Shot. Who wouldn’t want a picture taken of themselves when the sole objective is to make them look gorgeous? Okay, I’ll admit I know both women and men who dread getting their picture taken, but I can’t count the number of beauty shots I’ve taken for clients through the years.

Sometimes, these sessions are given as a present (birthday, Valentine’s Day, prom), other times, aspiring models want new shots for their portfolios. Whatever the case, be ready to shoot beauty and glamour shots for a number of clients. Beauty shots are characterized by big, soft lights that create flattering skin tones and reduce any skin imperfections. Beauty shots can be done with one big umbrella placed above your subject and a white reflector placed directly below them to fill in shadows under the chin. White seamless backgrounds work great. Also, styling and makeup are important for these images, so you might consider hiring a makeup artist for your portrait package.

My favorite lighting setup for beauty is clamshell lighting. This setup uses two large light sources, one above and one below your subject, with you shooting through the narrow gap between the lights. If you use your imagination, the two lights look like a big open clam (thus, the name "clamshell").

Start by determining the exposure for your main light. Place this in front of and slightly above your subject. Don’t place it too high, or you’ll create shadows around your subject’s eyes.

Next, set up your second light in front of and slightly below your subject. This light is aimed upward at your subject to fill in shadows and even out skin tones. The important thing to remember is this light should be slightly lower in power than your overhead main light (strong light from below isn’t a good idea). I love the eye catchlights using this technique—people just look good!

Another variation on beauty lighting is butterfly lighting. Using a large soft source just to the side and slightly above your subject, a faint butterfly shadow is created under the nose. This lighting works especially well for beauty images when you use a white reflector to bounce light back onto your subject from the main light.

Okay, you have your gear, studio space and these techniques. Time to get to work. Practice the lighting techniques mentioned above and master them completely. You’re ready to go. Next up is finding those clients. Show me the money!

To see more of Tom Bol’s photography, visit his website at

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