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Seeing and Shaping Light

Lesson 11 of 17

Background Light

Lindsay Adler

Seeing and Shaping Light

Lindsay Adler

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Lesson Info

11. Background Light
Finish building a lighting setup with multiple lights by working with background lights. Adding a background light will lighten up the background and create more separation between the subject and the background. Watch a live demonstration adding a background light to the studio lighting setup.

Lesson Info

Background Light

So for your checklist of questions, highlights, rim lights, and background lights, just going over this. So, the question is going to be, first of all, does it look like there's any light on the background? If there's separation, if you can see the subject from the background, why is that? Is that the main light is lighting, lighter than the background? Or is it because there's a highlight on the background? Or is it because there's a highlight on them? Something's giving them separation, what is it? So, a background light, we talked about before. Here's no background light, no separation, so the left hand side of the face blends in with the background. But then we add, in this case it was a grid, a 20 degree grid, actually this is probably 10 degree. 10 degree grid, and it adds separation, cuts them out on the side. Can I do something real quick with a demo? I just want to tell you about a type of light that I like. Can we put the grid on that one real quick. Okay. So, this brings up ...

a lighting setup that I really like, for drama. I made up this name, but I don't think I did. I think I heard it some place, but I don't know if it's a real thing. So we're just calling it this, and we're all gonna agree, okay? I call it checkerboard lighting. Reason I call it checkerboard lighting, so we take a look at this photo. The highlight side of the face, white, is against the shadow side of the background. So there's one checkerboard. But then, the shadow side of the face is against the highlight side of the background. So it goes black, white, black, white. And I see this a lot in older portraiture, and it creates drama. And I was in Vegas last week, and I went to a Yousuf Karsh exhibition. And if you don't know Karsh's work, look it up. Oh my gosh, his control over light is mind blowing. I'm staring at these photos and I'm just like, I'm seeing what he's doing but, it's just that good. And he did this a lot, where he would put highlight side of the face, or shadow side of the face against, just the tiniest highlight on the background. Just enough so that this dramatic shadow doesn't just blend in, and then just pop it beautifully. So, I'll have you turn it off to start with. Let me get this. So, I'm gonna have you turn your body a little bit this way. And let's go a little bit more dramatic, so I'm gonna go, tiny bit of short light. Good, so it'll be like loop short light. Oh, and this is why modeling lights are good. Taking a look, I'm getting a whole lot of light on my background. So this would be a perfect example of when I might use a grid, a grid helps me out. Or what he was grabbing with the flat. We've talked about these solutions that you have. Let's pop the grid on. Because now, can you see it already? You put the grid on, none of that light's hitting the background. Yeah. I think it's a little bent. I'll get it in. Right, so. Perfect, we got it. Alright, so, let's take a look, with that grid on. Let's see, short light, perfect. (camera clicks) So pretty. Okay, so this is short light loop. And, double click. So you can see the entire right hand side of the frame goes to complete shadow. Which, if you want it to, that's fine. But usually you want a little bit of definition. Where I find this to be particularly poignant, or important, is if you've got a subject posing. Let's say I've my short light here, and I've got a curve, and I've got my hand up. Everything from here back is solid black. You don't see any of this. So you don't see the shape, you don't see the definition. One option is to use barn doors, or strip soft blocks, from behind, and separate out. But it creates a really beautiful drama to light the background instead, because you get that checkerboard, highlight, shadow, highlight, shadow. So let's put a highlight in the background. Yeah, let's try five eight, yeah. Alright good. And turn towards me a little. Right there. Good. So, what this does is, it puts a little highlight in the background, so now you can see her neck. And if I didn't want to use, what degree grid is that? This is the five. So if I didn't want to use a five, if I wanted it to be more of a highlight that was around her entire hair, her shoulder, then I could use a 20. Or I could use a soft box, and feather it. So instead of just pointing the soft box at the background, I could angle it so it would only light the side of the, or the background on the side of the face that's dark. So highlight, shadow, highlight, shadow. The reason that I've been so inspired by this, like I said, if you look up Karsh, and then look up Churchill. So the famous Churchill photo. He just plays with these highlights and shadows against one another, and it's so masterful and beautiful. But you'd have to be able to see, oh, on the shadow side of the face, when you look at this portrait, shadow side of the face, he's got a highlight to separate from the background, instead of using a rim light on that side. So, analyzing that. So, I'm gonna pop back to presentation. I just wanted to show that setup. Okay, so we talked about background light. You can put it just behind the subject to glow, or you can just flat light the background. There's not a right or wrong answer. Sometimes I use soft boxes, if I want it to be nice and even. And then if I want it to have kind of a radiating look, I'll use a grid. There's no right or wrong answer. So, let's pop next on to the rim reflector, let's just compare these again. So you see what the silver did? Nice and defined. Where as the white, much softer. Everything we talked about already. Modifiers. Barn doors, very crisp. A little bit more even when you use the strip. You see that, how it's just a little bit more even? There's the barn doors. Hot around the temple, and then not as bright on the jaw. That strip just evens it out a little bit. So that's why I'm saying, I think it's a slightly easier modifier to use for a rim light. And then multiple rim lights, just you know. There could be one that's a reflector, one that's a strip soft box. The point is even if you can't exactly tell which one it is, the goal is just to recreate it. Just get it close. So maybe the silver reflector is going to be enough to give you the contracting definition. Or maybe the barn doors is what you have to use to get that razor sharp. Or maybe it's a strip soft box, and then you use tin foil, or V flats to narrow it down to be crisp enough to help you get the look of the barn doors. Just to know the tools that are available to you. Alright, and let's take a look at a placement of that rim light. So we're going to do the axis front to back. So there is when it's from a back angle, moving it forward. Little bit more, gets bigger. And gets wider. And then becomes a side fill light, as you move it around. And then the height of the light once again. So nothing on the shoulder. Then we'll have it on the shoulder and the temple. And then as we raise it up, now look, it's on the top of the hair as well. So that's how you can utilize your strip soft boxes. Okay, so I will pause really quick on the rim lights. And so basically what your goal is, just to say if the subject is separated from the background somehow, how are they? Is it the main light hitting the background? Is there a light emanating from the background? Is the background lit, or is it a rim light? If it's a rim light, is it so high up that it's hitting the hair? Is it so low that's not getting the shoulder? Is it wrapping around the face, so it's maybe from a more front axis, or is it from behind, so it's very, very narrow? Is it a strip soft box because it's nice and even and it wraps? Or maybe it's barn doors because it's nice and narrow and razor sharp. Those are the questions you're asking yourself.

Class Description


  • Recreate the light from any image you see
  • Work with traditional studio lighting patterns
  • Design your own creative, complex multi-light setups
  • Understand how to use a studio lighting kit
  • Work with several different lighting modifiers


Decipher the complexities of light. From working with studio lights to using modifiers, Lindsay Adler helps photographers develop the ability to see and shape light. By the end of this class, you'll be able to look at any image and determine how to recreate the lighting in your own work.

Using clues like catchlights and shadows, Lindsay demystifies photography lighting setups. Learn how to create classic lighting setups, from a single light to multi-light setups. Build the skills to be able to recreate the light from any shot you see -- and the ability to design your own creative lighting system. Work with studio strobes, light modifiers, window light, and natural light outdoors.

Stop fearing studio lighting and start using your light kit to design create powerful portraits.


  • Any photographer ready to learn light
  • Beginners ready to learn essentials like hard and soft light
  • Intermediate photographers eager to learn to create their own lighting setups
  • Advanced photographers ready to learn the clues to recreate light from any photo


Fashion photographer Lindsay Adler is one of the most respected photographers of the genre, known for a clean yet bold style. The New-York-City-based photographer has work in some of the most prestigious magazines, including Marie Claire, Elle, InStyle, Noise, Essence and more. The Canon Explorer of Light shares her knowledge on digital cameras, posing, light and more with other photographers through speaking engagements, books, classes, and workshops.

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with Purchase

See The Light Checklist

Seeing The Light eBook Download

Ratings and Reviews

Student Work

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Kaltham Ali

Wow wow wow- I finished the entire class in a day! I feel like owning and buy right away all her trainings... this is what a real trainer is al about.. I went from zero in light understanding to really looking to lights/shadows etc.. awesome thanks Lindsay .. the best purchase ever

Warren Gedye

Lindsay, you're an absolute genius!! Such a terrific teacher. You are so talented- not only as an out-of-this-world exceptional photographer, but also as a person who clearly is so passionate about her craft and has that very rare ability to teach your art in such a unique and structured manner! I have learned so much from you previous courses too, Lighting Bootcamp 101, I think was one of them. I look forward to more of your tutorials. On a side note- John in the background is such a stand-up guy! I love the rapport you have with him. I've seen him in on a few Creative Live courses now and he's a kind of guy I just want sit down and have a coffee with, and pick his very informative brain! Such a cool fella!

a Creativelive Student

Lindsay is a talented teacher. She is very knowledgable of what she teaches, but also can teach it well (which is not something all talented people are gifted with, whatever the field). She is humble, dynamic and her courses are interesting to study. The one small improvement I would have liked would have been a little more emphasis and theory on the shaping part. However, this not being the most important, it is better that more emphasis was put on seeing (if you can't see it, you can't make it). Finally, I will say that to study and understand this course, or Lindsay's methodology, you are then equipped with an understanding—you could even say partly knowing the language—of light, which gives you a huge set of tools and advantage, allowing you to progress quite substantially with your studio or out-of-studio photography.