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Layer One: Main Light

Lesson 5 from: Editorial Portrait Photography for High School Seniors

Dan Brouillette

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Lesson Info

5. Layer One: Main Light


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

Layer One: Main Light

First layer within any setup is your main light. I know I've said this before and I'm probably gonna say it 30 more times today, so select that main light, that's where you're starting. What is it, what quality, what size, all those good things, that's where your foundation starts, because once you've selected that, if, say, you wanted soft light and you selected something that wasn't soft and you start off on the wrong foot, the whole rest of the thing is gonna be messed up. So it's really important to get that foundation set before you move along. Many times, this will be the only light in your setup. A lot of times, I'd say, I know this is gonna be a question so we'll get onto it now, with any senior session, I don't light every image. I probably don't even light half of them because lighting does take time, it takes the equipment, you know, you gotta have that full setup. So let's say an average senior session for me is two hours long and they'll bring in five clothing changes. I'l...

l probably use all those clothing changes both inside and maybe a little bit outside, but as far as how many of those, so let's say that's 10 different looks within a session, I'll probably light three to four of them because so much of what I do is about the direction and all that stuff that we'll get into later that you can't light all that and shoot it in the time you want and it's just a whole other production. Plus I want different looks, a natural light photo looks a lot different than something you shoot in studio, so a lot of times I'll do two studio looks with lighting and one outdoor look with lighting, and then the rest of it's natural light. So I'm not trying to light every single thing, so don't think that. And when I am lighting, a lot of the times especially with seniors, I'm only using one light. It's when you get into some of the other, more intensive setups that you're using multiple lights. But you know, there are times where I'll use three or four lights with a senior, but a lot of times, it is only one light. Here's a couple samples of in-studio shots. My studio has a white wall, I'm not really a big background guy. I have a white wall and we'll talk about how you can make a white wall actually look white or how you can get it to go gray or even black if you want to. So I have a white wall in the studio. You know, a lot of times if you're looking at a magazine rack, most of the magazines you see, the background is white, you know, whether you're looking at Men's Health, I don't remember the last time they had a background that wasn't white, and it's just kind of shown that that's for them what sells, but also for us as senior photographers, that's what our clients are looking at, too. So I get a lot of people who like that look. They don't want kind of the old school muddled canvas backdrop as much as they want something that's just clean. And with a white wall in the studio, I can, again, make it white, gray, black, whatever I want, just by where I move the subject. And we'll do that later on today, as well. So this is just a simple one light, it's a silver umbrella. The reason why I know that, other than the fact that I shot it, is because you can see the shadow has a pretty good edge to it, it's not a real soft fall off of the shadow but it's also not as hard as a ring flash. Also, the specular quality of the light. So this was just a silver umbrella and as you can see where the shadow falls off, it was placed about right here, just over my camera to the right. And as you want to move shadows and things like that, you know, you just move the light. The more shadow you want to show, the more you move the light towards that dramatic angle. The less shadow you want, the more you move the light over your camera because then that shadow's gonna fall directly behind her. The other thing you can do if you want less shadow is move your subject farther away from your background because then the shadow's gonna disappear completely. But that adds other challenges, so we'll talk about those later. So this again was just a silver umbrella, one umbrella in studio on a white backdrop. And the other thing about this image is she's pretty evenly lit from forehead to knees, so that also tells me that has to do with light falloff. If your light is one foot away from your person, your subject, how inverse square law works and we'll talk about this later is the farther your light is from your person, the less falloff that light's gonna have. So she's pretty evenly lit from forehead to knees. This tells me that that light must have not been really close because that falloff's pretty even. If I were to put the light right next to her head, her face would be properly exposed, but all that intensity of the light's going right there and it's gonna fall off really quickly, so her knees would've just faded to black. So think about that when you're placing your light, too, you know, is this a close-up image where I can put the light close or is this something where I want it evenly lit over a three, four foot span? So you need to think about how far away your light is gonna be. This is another one where this shadow's even more harsh, and by harsh, I'm talking about the edge of the shadow. So along here, how quickly does that shadow go from shadow, you know, how's the gradient from dark to light? This one's pretty quick, so that's a hard light. This one's even faster. It's almost just a clean edge. So I know that this is an even harder light. This was actually me holding the B2 right above the camera, so it's kind of that on-camera flash look. You see it in a lot of magazines. It's not the most forgiving light in the world but it has a quality that's fun, it's kind of this paparazzi look and when you have someone who can pull it off, a lot of times I'll use that to start a shoot to do kind of these photo booth looks we'll get into later. So again, I'm looking at the shadow, you can look at the catch lights in the eyes, it's a small source, and this was just a bare ball. But again, that's the same white wall, I just toned it different in Photoshop than the last photo, and a little bit harder source. And then here's an example of a guy using the exact same thing, but here, I moved the light directly above the camera, so you almost can't see any of the shadow because it's directly behind him. But these last two shots were the same light. And you can see the tiny catch lights right in the middle of his eye. That was just me holding bare ball flash right above my camera, and it gives a great look, especially for seniors. And I just had him do a number of different actions and things like that so you can catch that personality.

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