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Build a Lighting Foundation

Lesson 4 from: Editorial Portrait Photography for High School Seniors

Dan Brouillette

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Lesson Info

4. Build a Lighting Foundation


Class Trailer

Class Introduction


How to Make Senior Photos Stand Out


What is Lighting in Layers?


Build a Lighting Foundation


Layer One: Main Light


Layer Two: Fill Light


Layer Three: Accent Light


Layer Four: Additional Light


Lesson Info

Build a Lighting Foundation

So let's dig into the foundation. So to understand the light, we need a strong foundation. Like I said before and I can't stress it enough, knowing that your base is there is the most important thing because to me, conceptual learning and not memorizing is really important. I had a friend in high school who worked at the, I won't say the name of the company, but it was a portrait studio, a large chain type of thing, maybe tucked in the back of a department store, and they were a photographer. Well they were because they took pictures. However, they did family photos in the studio and the thing of conceptual learning or conceptual lighting was not a thing. When she worked there, we would talk about the photography she did and all that because I was just kind of getting into it. And she said oh yeah, we do different lighting setups because at the time I was getting interested. And I knew after one conversation that that was not the person that was going to teach me about lighting because...

the way that this company taught employees to light was not conceptual. It was straight memorization or opening to page four of your binder and knowing that the light with the yellow sticker on it went on this spot in the studio and you didn't touch the power. The light with the blue dot on it, if you had two people in the shot, went on this blue spot on the floor. And the one with the green dot went over here to light people's hair. So that was not conceptual learning. She had no idea what each light was doing. It was just if I had two people, we need the yellow and the blue. If I have one person, I need the yellow. And I'm thinking, well that doesn't make any sense to me because it just doesn't. So, it worked for that company to make sure whoever was the employee working that day, it's kind of like training a monkey to take pictures. You can just make it happen but as far as knowing if that person were to take their level of photography and not work at that store anymore and go start their own thing, those yellow, blue, and green dots don't exist anymore and they have no idea why they were doing what they were doing. So that's why I think the conceptual approach is so important and not just memorizing where the lights go on the dots because again, had ambient light came into that situation or had one of the lights not worked or anything like that, you would have no idea if you're just following some memorization, similar to memorizing things for school and not having that conceptual approach to learning. When things change or the situation changes or you have subtleties, you can't adjust on the fly because you don't even know why you did the thing in the first place. So we're going to talk about conceptual learning with lighting and why that's important because if you're lighting a CEO in the office of a bank and you know you're only using one light, that's not the same as if you're lighting a football player on the field with one light, you need to know why your situation changes and how you change it. It helps you adapt to different situations and get comfortable with the light. One of my least favorite things when I started off was getting a wrench thrown in the system and all of a sudden you start sweating and you're thinking oh, I just got hired for this job that I thought I was so prepared for and something happened, I can remember a specific situation of a portrait of a businessman in an office that had the worst lighting ever. It was supposed to be by a window. Well, it wasn't going to work because the window had a crazy tint on it so it was letting in no light and it was a rainy day, one of those combinations where oh, now you have to use the lights you brought and combine those lights with the warm, office lighting coming from the ceiling and I didn't know what to do other than hope that my Photoshop skills were good on the backend and that's not something you want to be wasting your time on all the time unless you're planning for it. So knowing the conceptual side of lighting will help you get comfortable with the light and be able to thrive when those other scenarios pop up and you have to deal with stuff. Alright, so let's get to the steps and start building the layers. So the foundation starts with this: light quality. Whether the shoot is a commercial shoot with, again, let's just say a football player on the field and you want really hard specular light that looks like stadium lighting at night or whether it's a senior in a prom dress, a light white or yellow prom dress, something that's really soft, those are two totally different situations. So the first thing that I'm thinking about with any shoot is what quality of light do I want, hard or soft. A lot of times when I'm working with Victoria and we're doing lighting setups, the thing we'll think about the night before the shoot or even days before the shoot is what quality of light do we want for this shoot. We just recently did some photos for ESPN magazine that was hockey players with scars. So knowing that, we thought these are hockey players, they're going to be shirtless, they have these scars, we don't want the same light we're going to use with Sarah in her prom dress. We want something that has that hard quality and kind of brings and edge to the photo. So we used bare bulb flashes and magnum reflectors with grids because that's where my mindset always goes. The first thing I'm always thinking about with any time I'm going to use light is what quality of light do I want, hard light or soft light. And again you saw my equipment list. That's why I have phototech soft lighter umbrellas and a beauty dish or that's why I have the magnum reflector and bare bulb flash with the solar reflector. It's just that quality of light. That's the first thing I'm thinking about because for one, that let's me know how much equipment I need to bring on the shoot and if we are doing a shoot for ESPN and we're flying to a location and we're calling up a rental house and telling them we need this, this, and this, we don't have unlimited budget. We need to figure out what we want to use beforehand and it gets us in the right mindset of this is how the final photo's gonna look. It's going to have hard-edge shadows or it's going to be really soft and pretty. It's just kind of a matter of what you want the final look to be and that's literally the first question I ask myself on any shoot is what is the quality of light that I'm going for. The second thing is keep in mind the relative distance of your light and by that I mean how close is your light to your subject. Think about the space you're going to be working in. Are you in an office with a banker and you have not a lot of space so your light has to be close or are you somewhere else where you lighting is group and your light's going to be far away? Think about those type of things when you're picking out modifiers. A lot people instantly think oh I have a four by six foot soft box, that's a soft light. Well the sun is like 850,000 miles in diameter. Shouldn't that be really soft? It's huge. No, it's all relative distance. So as your light moves further away from your subject, the harder it gets. So if you're using a four by six foot soft box from two feet away like this monitor to me, it's going to be nice and soft. But if I were to wheel that thing all the way across the room if that were my soft box, it's not so soft anymore. So the distance is really important and the subject matter, too, when you're thinking about quality of light. And by subject matter, I mean not only the football player versus the girl in the prom dress but also think about how different skin types absorb light or reflect light. I have certain seniors that I know I can't use some of that hard light because they have more oily skin or they have just lighter skin that's going to reflect more light where other people can get away with that. Even going over things in the pre-session consult which we'll talk about later like makeup and hair and things like that can help you avoid those issues. But the subject matter's important when selecting your light. Alright, so now that you know the type of light you want, you select your modifier. Again, this goes back to the space you have. You want soft light for this portrait, but you're in an office with an eight foot ceiling. You probably can't bring in that six foot soft box. So then you start to think about how can I use other lights to make them seem soft and for a situation like that, I might bring in a white beauty dish so we have a soft light and then shoot it through a piece of diffusion. So you can soften up the light and keep it really close to your subject so it's kind of thinking all these steps out in your head and that goes with seniors, too, if we're shooting a senior, I had one last year where she wanted pictures of her playing the piano in her home, I didn't exactly know what their home looked like so I had to think okay maybe they didn't have a huge living room where they have all this room for light, but my idea of this girl playing the piano was kind of softer moment, I didn't want hard light. So I thought how do I make soft light in a living room that might not have a really tall ceiling? So again, bring in that white beauty dish with the diffusion sock on it. Things like that help me through the equipment stage of selecting all the light. And then the other thing that really determines the quality of your light is not only the size as we talked about but the coloring. If you something with a white interior, it's going to be really soft, as soft as possible, where if you have something that has a silver interior, it's going to be more specular and hard. Think about it. A lot of people who shoot natural light photos have a reflector. They carry it outside, bring it on the shoot, and you know that a lot of times you start off with the white side and if you're not getting anything from the sun, you flip to the silver side because it brings out more specularity in the light. It can pick up more light. It reflects more light. Same thing with the inside of your beauty dish or magnum reflector. A beauty dish is white. It's nice and soft. That magnum reflector is that harsh light. It's the same thing with the material of your reflector. So that's also key when I'm thinking. I have umbrellas both in silver and white because depending on what I'm going for, that will help me select the umbrella that I want to use that day. Also the material: some of these reflectors have a real, it's almost like a dimpled interior because it has more surface area. It will pick up more light and reflect more light because of that surface area where things that have a matte finish will absorb more light and be even softer so there's all these choices and I know you'll get on a website to go out and buy new equipment and you think ooh, I just want this. And you get on there and it's like which one do you want, there's eight choices. I didn't know there was eight choices. I just thought I wanted an umbrella. So those are all things to think about when you're buying the equipment is what am I going to use this for, why do I need this piece of equipment, and then going through size, color, and material kind of helps you there so you're not just wasting money on stuff you don't really need. Alright, so now getting more into the foundation, knowing your angle. So now that we've selected our light, we know which modifier we're going to use, we know we want the hard or soft light, this is where you kind of get into the basics of every lighting setup starts this way for me. How far away will the light be? That's going to determine a couple things. One, the hardness or softness of the light, what modifier can you use, and all of that. The next thing is adjust the height. So for me, especially for teaching purposes, your basic lighting setup, think about it this way. When is the time that a lot of people want to shoot outdoor photos with natural light? Either in the morning or in the evening and why? Because the sun is at that sweet spot. You don't want to go out, for the most part, most senior portrait sessions aren't at one o'clock in the afternoon on a Tuesday because the sun is high in the sky, your brow bone's blocking a lot of the light, and you're not getting those catch lights, you're getting deep, harsh shadows, all those things, so why would you want to mimic that in the studio? You're not going to be putting the light directly above somebody's head. The other thing is the sun, once it gets below the horizon, it is now dark out, so a lot of people put their lights in the studio, put them too low, and you get that look like you're telling ghost stories around a campfire where you're lighting up somebody's nose, you're getting weird creepy catch lights low in the eyes. That's not natural. So a lot of times when I'm starting lighting setup, when I want to adjust the height of my light, I'm thinking where is the sun going to be on June 1st at 7 p.m. because that's when the light is awesome. And the answer to that is it's just above the horizon which is 30 to 35 degrees up so I'm always trying to mimic that with my lights in the studio and how this has to do with how far your light will be is it's an angle, you know that 30 degree angle of your light, as your light gets further away from your person, you need to raise it up to maintain that angle. And there's a whole formula you can use for that but we're not going to get into that. Just know that the further away your light is, to maintain that same angle, you need to raise it up and the closer it is, you need to bring it down. Even something as simple as having someone stand for a portrait and then sit, a lot of people do that and they don't move the light and they think, that doesn't look right. It's like well, you need to maintain that angle. So it seems obvious but obvious kind of flies out the window when you're on a shoot sometime so you have to know to adjust. The next thing that I'll do is I'll watch hotspots. So every light is different. Even if you're using we'll say a three by four foot soft box or a soft lighter umbrella, there are different parts of the light that have a sweet spot for that light where you're gonna get the best quality of light. For instance, out of a soft box, if you have a three by four foot soft box, a lot of that soft light you're going to get is coming off the edges. If you think about it, a soft box, we'll pretend there's a soft box on this light. A soft box, if there's two feet on either side of this light the hardest light is coming right out the middle because that's where it's pointed. A lot of people when they put the soft box in front of somebody, they just aim it right at them. Well then they wonder why the light doesn't look so good or why there's a hotspot on somebody's forehead. That's where you need to watch that and I'll tilt a lot my lights downwards and the other thing I'll do is feather the lights and by feathering I mean I'll almost aim the light in front of the person and let the nice light off the back edge of that soft box hit them and let all the other light wrap around. Same thing goes for a beauty dish, soft lighter umbrella. Any type of light, I never aim the light directly at the person unless that's what I'm going for. You know, that might be something where you're using the magnum reflector, there isn't a lot of soft light coming out of that guy so you just gotta accept it and you've already determined that when you were picking it in the first place. With any light, especially once we get into the demo with the umbrellas because they have the umbrella rod coming out the middle, you know exactly where that rod's pointed, so a lot of times I'll shift it forward. The other thing with feathering is with any soft box or light that I'm lighting from the side, I don't want a lot of that spill light going behind the person so I'll move the back edge of that umbrella or that soft box up to the person's ear and then have all the other light spill in front. So what that does is it let's me control where the light's going. It also doesn't have me waste a bunch of light going behind them, and think if you're lighting somebody on a background, if you have the light aimed right at them, a bunch of that light might be going back and causing a weird shadow or gradient on your background that you don't want. So it's all about knowing how to control the light and use those nuances to have the light do what you want it to do and not do all the things you don't. Hot spots and tilting the light and feathering and the other thing I mean by tilting is if you do have a soft box, a lot of people just set them up so they're totally perpendicular to the ground. Don't do that because what that's going to do is the bottom part of the soft box is actually closer to the person at the top and you're going to be having more light in here, again, more light's flying over their head, you're getting a hotspot, I'll always tilt my lights down this way so the top part of the light is closer to someone's head and when we do the demo, you'll see this. 'Cause I'll have to explain, but I also just do it automatically now because I've done it so many times. So I'm always tilting any light downward so that way the top part of the light is closer to the person's head. As far as fall off, if you're shooting a full body portrait, you're getting more of the light hitting them and you're avoiding those hotspots. So these are all things you'll see that I want to explain now but then when I do them in the demo, you'll recognize those and be like oh okay, that makes sense now. And then lastly, use your meter. So again like I said before, I'll set all that up and I'll show you how I meter and why. And a lot of people own a meter but they don't exactly know how they want to use it or how to use it or why they should use it. And I'll you how I meter and it seriously takes ten seconds. It gives you that peace of mind know that okay I wanted this shot to be at f/8. Well the meter says it's at f/8. So you know it's at f/8. The meter's not going to lie unless you screwed up your settings which always double-check that stuff, too, because some of these newer meters like this one has a touch screen and I'll have it in my pocket and it's like pocket-dialing someone, I'll pocket-ISO up to like 400 when I'm meant to be at and I'm like this thing says it should be at f/ and I wanted f/8 so you know, double-checking. It's kind of like when you start a photoshoot and you don't take your lens cap off and you feel like you're real professional. So same thing. Stuff happens. Alright so after that, when I start to place my light within a shot, there's what I call the light radius. So the gray area is your background. It's kind of your sweep. The little oval in the middle, that's your subject's head from the top view. And your camera is at the bottom. Anywhere within that yellow area is where I'm placing, in a one-light setup, where I'm going to place the light. The closer you get to this line up here, the more dramatic your light's going to be because it's coming from one side so the other side's shadow. And so the closer you get to the camera, the more flat that light's going to be, and there's no right or wrong answer. It's just kind of determined by what you want the light to look like. When we're shooting sample photos later, we'll move that light around this radius so you can see typically what it looks like right over the camera, 45 degrees either way, and then all the way right next to the subject, so 90 degrees from your camera. So we'll go through that, too, so you can see samples and we'll be shooting tethered so you can see everything as we're shooting it and how it's changing when I move the light.

Class Materials

Bonus Materials

Lighting Gear List

Bonus Materials with Purchase

Lighting Terms Guide

Ratings and Reviews

pete hopkins

awesome teacher and awesome technique. after soooo many webinars, it's really great to see someone break it down to the bare bones of lighting with exceptional quality results. i can listen to Dan all day. no pretense, no over the top emotional pleas, no drama! did i say awesome!!!! Plus, I'm a huge fan of the B! and B2 systems. Freedom is key. Now I can shoot anywhere, anytime. Thanks Dan.


This is by far the best class on senior photography I have found on creativelive. Dan explains the technical aspects in an easy to understand format. He does a great job going through studio shots, outdoor shots, editing and marketing. He's given me some great ideas and inspired me to be more creative. I am going to rewatch the lighting set up for the "hero shot". It's super cool!

Tristanne Endrina

Dan was great. His class was very comprehensive but easy to follow. The slides he used weren't flashy. Instead, they were simple and he went at a good pace. I left feeling like I could really pull off the lighting techniques he taught. I'm excited to put what I learned into my photography. :) Thanks, Dan.

Student Work