Choices to Consider – 4 Light Setup


I’ve been anxiously awaiting the arrival of the FedEx truck so I could play with my new Westcott X-Drop Background Kit which gives you a quickly deployable background system with your choice of a bunch of 5×7 backgrounds you can snap into it. It finally arrived so I set it up and started up wonder how I’d setup the lighting with it. Honestly, this is really the hardest part of the entire process for me a lot of the time, the pre-planning of the lighting setup. It’s not so much the placement of the lights, the subject, etc, more around the look I’m going for. You really have to have a goal in mind before you start out, mostly. There are times when I’ll just start setting up and experimenting with things, which is fun and a great learning experience, but I don’t know of any subject that is going to sit around while you do that. With that in mind I’ll take you through a quick version of my process and some of the choices I make along the way.

Before I even take off the lens cap, I have to have an idea of what I want. After all, if you don’t have an end point in mind, how do you know when you’ve arrived? That idea will guide you through most of the decisions from lighting to posing your subject. The idea may be just a feel you’re looking for or something that the subject wants. I will often ask my subjects to email me some images beforehand of what they’re looking for so I can setup appropriately. I’m not trying copy any of those images, but rather get an idea of the mood they’re looking for. Once I know the mood I’m going for, I can setup my lighting to achieve it. For example, do I want bright, wrap around light that really has a light, beauty look? Or perhaps a flowy, ethereal look where I backlight them? Maybe a dark, moody look with lots of shadows? It really depends on what the subject and I are looking to get from the shoot, but again, once we have an idea of what we want, we set the mood and the tone with the lights.

With that in mind and the new background finally in hand, I thought that the cool pattern, and moody colors of the backdrop would make for some cool split light images where the camera is taking pictures of the shadow side of the face. At least that would be the starting point since I’m really just fooling around here and shooting selfies.

To setup for a split light look I start with my process of setting lights, beginning with the main light. In this case I opted for a medium sized softbox that put to the camera’s left and put all of my settings on my start point, 1/4 power, 180th of a second shutter speed (since I didn’t want any ambient light from the cruddy florescent lights in my garage to be visible), F5.6, and ISO200. I set my white balance to daylight and I’m off to the races. I set the position of the softbox and tweaked the light until I had mostly shadows on the right side of my face, with just enough light spilling over to light both eyes, giving me that Rembrandt look where you have a little triangle of light under the dark side eye. I dialed down the power a bit and my main light was set.

I’m a big fan of adding a little rim of light on the sides of my images. In fact you can probably see that in most of my photographs if you look for them. They’re subtle, but they’re there. I find I really like the separation that it gives me from the background and is a look I’ve really come to like. So I setup two bare speedlights, one on each side to the rear of me even with the edges of the background on 1/16th power to just cast that light on the sides of me.

From there is was just subtle tweaks to get the position and power just where I wanted them and I had the look, on me at least, for what I was trying to achieve. But I wanted to do a little to bring the background into part of the picture. I played with positioning the softbox’s spill to illuminate the background but it just wasn’t doing the trick so I added a 4th light, just behind the chair I was sitting in, to light the background. I didn’t want to blow it out or evenly light it, rather a nice gradient with the brightest point behind me. I started out just zooming the flash head all the way in but it was still too wide, so I put a little grid on the front. Closer, but not tight enough, so I slid a little cardboard snoot over the front had the restriction I was looking for.

The setup

After looking at a test shot I thought I’d make one final adjustment to the background light. Since half my face was in the light and the other half in the dark, I thought I’d contrast the background with just the opposite light. So I turned the background light away from the main light which put the bright side of my face against the dark side of the background, and the dark side of my face against the bright side of the background. I really liked the contrast between light and dark and further separates me from the background.

So I apologize for the deviation from my normal “just get to the facts” posts about lighting setups, but I thought taking you through a quick glimpse into my process might help you get the look you’re going for a little faster by having a specific lighting goal in mind before powering up the first flash.

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