The Lighting Technique That Always Sells

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  By Karyn Lee
The Lighting Technique That Always Sells

It seems these days that photographers are always looking for the next, new and interesting way to set up their studio lights. While I respect the experimentation, it adds an awful lot of confusion. Just exactly, how should you be setting up your lights for a typical family portrait session?

There is one lighting method that I fall back on for nearly every session. Look at any artificially-lit family portrait, corporate headshot or school portrait and you’ll see the same lighting technique every time.

Why? Because it sells. Every time.


Let’s talk about natural light for a moment. If you could plan to shoot outside at a perfect time of day, what time of day is it? Sunrise or sunset, naturally. The angle of the sun to your subject is about 45 degrees, and it’s simply perfect. Rembrandt caught on to this in the 1600s and started lighting subjects the same way in their portraits. Hence, this lighting style is called Rembrandt Lighting. Rembrandt studied light and how it affected faces and determined that the most flattering light for people is this 45-degree angle of light, just like the sun would provide, at the perfect time of day.

Here, a sample of Rembrandt’s work:


Observe, particularly, the shadows. A lot of photographers mistake flat light for good light, but this isn’t the case. Flat light always works, but it’s always boring. The shadows are extremely important – the shadows give the depth and detail to a face.

All we are going to do is emulate that in your studio.

The other note I want to make is that, in all of the diagrams below, the main source of light is a strobe with an umbrella. You can also use a softbox, but in terms of emulating the sun, an umbrella does a slightly better job. Think about how the two devices work.

A softbox allows you to shoot through several layers of fabric, and direct the light exactly where you want it to go. However, an umbrella takes hard light from an uncovered strobe and shoots it in several directions at once – which is much more like the sun.

This can be done with one light, and up to three.

One Light

Take a look at the diagram below.


This is a simple, one light setup. The light is set at a 45-degree angle to the subject, who is turned very slightly towards the light. On the opposite side, you’ll see a white reflector. The reflector is necessary because, while it leaves the shadows on the sides of the face, it fills them in a little bit so that the details are not lost.

The result of this lighting setup is shown in the image below.


Two Lights

Take a look at the diagram below.


This is a basic two-light setup. Again, the primary light is left exactly where it was in the first diagram. I have even left the reflector opposite to the primary strobe. The best place for this second light is as a kicker light, behind the subject. This adds separation of the subject from the background.

This light setup results in this:


As you can see, around her head and some on her shoulders, there is a light that sets her off from the background.

Three Lights

The natural instinct with three lights would be to remove the reflector, and replace it with your third strobe, as shown below:


However, I would actually suggest you turn the third light into an additional kicker to add some drama. Further, I can eliminate the use of the reflector, simply by adjusting the light more to the front of the subject. The angle is still 45 degrees on the subject.


Here is the result:


Using that 45-degree angle is the real trick to photography that sells. Keep in mind, you don’t want to eliminate shadows entirely – just fill them enough, so you can see the details.

Shadows are what give your face character, and what looks most natural. Families are always more likely to purchase images where the people they love, actually look like the people they love.

All diagrams in this image provided by

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Karyn Lee runs a fully appointed portrait studio in High River, and has worked with both family and wedding clients, as well as high profile corporate clients. Karyn uses a Nikon D800 and a wide arsenal of lenses to produce her work. Please follow Karyn Lee on her social media profiles.

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Comments (1)

  1. paul wain Guest

    Really clear explanation Karyn, invaluable to a beginner like me.
    Thanks very much.