4 min read

Studio Lighting Photography: Understanding Setup Options

4 min read

Last updated:

Studio Lighting

Studio Lighting Setup Options

Once you have settled down with a reasonable body and a good lens, the next logical thing to buy is a set of lights. Now, there are many different kinds of studio lighting products available in the market – strobes, speedlights, continuous lights and so on. In this article I shall not be delving into the details of each type of light or what their advantages and disadvantages are, but more about how to use them so that you can get some pretty interesting images in a controlled environment.

The best thing about artificial lights is that you can set them up the way you want, effectively controlling shadows, textures and tones to create high-key, low-key or a wide variety of other results. Let’s talk about a few photography lighting arrangements where a single, two or even three lights are used.

Single Light Setups

Studio Lighting - Photo Juliet by Jay DeFehr
Juliet by Jay DeFehr

Depending on whether you are using a speedlight / strobe or a continuous light, you will need to have a way to focus the lens before taking the actual shot. Modelling lights, on some strobes, help in that regard. Else, you can use a separate modelling light. With continuous lights you get exactly what you see with your eyes. Continuous lights are a bit easier to work with in this regard. Strobes provide, to be fair with them, more intense bursts of light compared to continuous lights.

A single light setup is the bare minimum. It is the most basic lighting arrangement. But there is nothing about the results. A single light can be tweaked to create what is known as split lighting, rembrandt lighting, loop lighting and even butterfly lighting. The thing in common with all these lighting setups is that there is a lot of contrast and therefore punchiness in the final images.

Studio Lighting - Photo Juliet square by Jay DeFehr
Juliet square by Jay DeFehr

For Rembrandt lighting the key light, or in this case the one light used, is placed at an angle of about 45 ° to the camera. It results in a shadow of the nose that touches the cheek and creates a small triangle of trapped light.

In the case of loop lighting, a similar lighting setup is used but the light is positioned in a way so that the shadow of the nose does not touch the cheek. In butterfly lighting the light is positioned straight over the head of the subject. Resultantly a shadow is formed just under the nose of the model which is similar to the shape of a butterfly.

Two Light Setup

Studio Lighting - Photo "The 5 minute portrait" by Pat David
The 5 minute portrait by Pat David

All the above lights are examples of single light setup. If you want a slightly high-key result you would want to bring in an additional light source. The second light, which is often referred to as the fill-light, is used to fill in the shadows. The fill light is adjusted to compliment the power of the key light in a certain ratio. The ratio depends on whether you want a low-key, high contrast image or a high-key image. There is an easy way to set the right intensity ratio between the two lights. This is done using a hand-held light meter.

Ensure that the light meter has been setup properly so that it states exposure values the same way as the camera. Most light meters expresses light values in one-tenths of a stop out of the box. If you are using a camera that uses one-third stops, make sure that both speaks the same language. When you have set the lights, take an incident reading for the key-light. Then take a reading for the fill-light as well. If the amount of light for the latter is too bright, stop it down by one stop to make a better exposure.

The second light can sometimes be also used as a rim light. A rim light is one which separates the subject from the background. Let’s cite an example. Let’s say you have a subject standing against a dark background. There is a single light that illuminates the subject from camera right. Due to the inverse square law light fall off at the background will make it overtly dark and if the subject is wearing a dark dress there will be no way to differentiate where the subject’s dress ends and the background starts.

This is where rim light comes in to play. By placing the rim lights just behind the subject and aimed at his shoulders and back of the head but just out of the frame, the light will create a beautiful halo that will separate the subject from the background. A little bit of space between the subject and the background will also make matters easy.

My new friend, Maksim by Jay DeFehr
My new friend, Maksim by Jay DeFehr

Three Light Setup

The third light in a three light setup is invariably a background light. A background light is essential when you want to highlight the background and place a bit of emphasis on it. Some photographers prefer to use the third light to create a bit of gradient on the wall just behind the subject.

As you are aware, a bright light flashed on a black wall will make it appear grey. But as you move away from the center, there is going to be a dramatic light fall-off. That in itself will create the gradient. This is just one way of using the third light, for illuminating the background.

Different combinations of these lights and sometimes with a reflector and in combination with softboxes gives you an incredible number of options. You can also play with the position of these lights to create portraits of different moods.

See more in


Share with friends


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Connect with aspiring and professional photographers

Learn how to improve any kind of photography

Get access to exclusive discounts, courses, rewards, etc
Find daily inspiration in a diverse community
Recommended Articles
Discover the natural wonders through the lens of Daniel Kordan, a renowned nature and landscape photographer featured in our Trend Report. Unveil his camera bag essentials, insights on gear innovations, and predictions for upcoming photography trends. Dive into Daniel's world and unlock his secrets for capturing breathtaking landscapes with finesse.

Last updated:


The World Nature Photography Awards is an annual competition open to nature and wildlife photographers worldwide. Explore the winners in 14 categories for 2024.

Last updated:


The Mobile Photography Awards is an annual competition that recognizes mobile device photographers worldwide. Discover 15 remarkable award winning images from the 13th annual contest.

Last updated:


We have fantastic news: from April 2024, we will launch our 'Great Big Photography World' podcast again! Stay tuned!


Photo Karma 2024 - Free Trend Report