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What is Lighting in Layers?

Lesson 3 from: Editorial Portrait Photography for High School Seniors

Dan Brouillette

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Lesson Info

3. What is Lighting in Layers?


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

What is Lighting in Layers?

Alright, so we're going to get into lighting. So lighting, for me, was one of the first things that brought me to photography. I know Ken and I were talking yesterday about how back in 2004 I was real big into browsing the dp review forums on the internet. And I had just purchased my first camera, which was a Sony 717. This tank of a digital camera that had a 12 megabyte, not gigabyte, 12 megabyte card. My first senior session was the summer of 2004. My mom has a shop in Sioux City, Iowa, and one of her employees had a daughter who was going to be a senior, and I was just getting into photography, so they thought "Well maybe Dan can take her senior pictures." Yeah, maybe. So I gave it a shot. It worked out alright. But what I do remember from the shoot, and this is kind of a funny side story. Is having a camera with a 12 megabyte card is almost like shooting rolls of 120 medium format film, and the fact that you're on a real strict shutter count. And, I didn't have a laptop at the time...

either. So my dad lent me his Gateway 2000 laptop. I took that out on location. We would shoot until the 12 megabyte card was full, which was like 30 photos on a two megapixel camera, and then load up the card, which took forever. So there wasn't much flow to this shoot. But it was all about getting out there, and getting experience and trying it. And hopefully making a little money so I could upgrade the equipment. So then after that, I bought a Nikon D70. A little bigger memory card. Got my own laptop. And that second year, summer of 2005, I had about 15 to 20 seniors, and that's when everything started to take off. And that's also when I was browsing the review forums, looking at work from photographers that I thought had a good handle on lighting. And one of the first things that caught my eye with lighting was outdoor lighting. I saw these images of models or anybody on a beach, and it didn't look like how my eye thought it should look. Why is the sky so dark, but the model's so bright? Why does this almost look surreal? So I started asking a lot of questions. Finding the photographers who shot those images, and being that guy who emailed and you know, asked about the equipment, asked about camera settings, asked about lighting. Basically, anything I could. And I emailed a lot of people without a lot of results. But just enough to keep me going. So in 2005, I bought my first set of lights. And I just got a basic kit of strobes with a battery pack. And a couple of soft boxes, and that's where it all took off. So again, lighting was that thing that I saw in the magazines, and saw in the review forum that got me going. And I took a couple of workshops, and that's where I think building a foundation into lighting is so important. So, when I use the term lighting and layers, we're going to go through these one by one here in a second. We're going to get into why the layers are important for a conceptual knowledge of lighting. Key terms, you know, the names of the equipment. Things I'll use when giving direction, and I want you guys all to be familiar with these terms, so you're not wondering what I'm talking about down the road. I'm going to introduce you to some of the equipment I used, just so, familiarity so you'll know why I'm doing what. I'm going to explain everything as I do it. But I just want to give you an overview ahead of time, so that way, it makes a little more sense, and you're familiar. And then again, the foundation of lighting, and why building a foundation with any structure of part of learning is important. So, lighting in layers. The layers help us understand how each light affects the final image. So whether you're doing a simple one light set up, and you just want to know how to tweak that one light to get a certain effect, or if you're using five lights on a full set, how each light is affecting that image through a series of layers. And that way you know how to tweak things and change things when things aren't going quite right. The first layer I always start with is the main light. So if you're using one light set up, that would be your main light. If you're using a five light set up, that first layer is always the light that is highlighting the person within the image. So your main light, your key light. That's the first layer I'm always working with. And from there, I use everything after that. It's kind of like making a cake or a house probably. It'd be a better analogy, because you're trying to get that foundation, and build everything on top of that. So it's, that's the layer one is the main light. Layer two is, since you've introduced the main light, you are now causing shadow. Layer two is your fill light. So fill is, literally means filling the shadow with light. So we'll get into different types of fill light. And that starts to help you sculpt light, and get a different look within the image. Layer three are your accent lights, also known as rim lights, edge lights, hair lights. Anything like that, that starts to bring out other parts of the image. And the fourth layer is any additional lights. Those can be background lights, if you're trying to light up a whole room. If you're using just any other additional lights that you're using within the shot. And again, they're all equally important, but I just like to build on that foundation. And we're going to get into these in much more detail here on the next slide. So first off, we're going to do lighting terms. One of the things I use is a beauty dish. And all this equipment will be introduced as we do the live shoot, because I'll have it all on hand. It'll make a lot more sense when you're seeing it all hooked up and being used. A beauty dish is basically a 20 to 22 inch metal dish. It looks like a salad bowl, kind of. The light goes right in the back of it. I use one that has a white interior, because I want that soft quality. And we'll get into how different materials, colors and everything like that, affect the light quality. So a beauty dish is kind of a staple in my lighting set up. Another term is diffuse, also known as soft light. So if you're going for diffuse light, we'll talk about different ways to approach that and achieve it. Lighting fall-off, basically how light goes from the hot spots, and falls off over time. So we're going to do a little quick lesson in the inverse square law, which is like the nerdiest part of photography. I love it. We're not going to get in too deep, because it gets confusing. But I just want to give some main ideas on that when we're actually shooting. A grid, basically, an egg crate grid, a metal grid, the honeycomb grid, used to control the light. You can see among the lights around the studio here, it's just basically to control the spread, and have a little more idea of where your light's going to go and keep light on where you want it to be on, and keep it off of the things you don't. A magnum reflector, we're not going to use one of these, because it's mostly an outdoor thing for me, but it's basically a slightly smaller version of a beauty dish, about 12 inches in diameter, a little deeper, and it's something I use to replicate the sun when you don't have the sun, or when you're in open shade. It's a very harsh light. A lot of times we'll jell it to warm it up, and do things like that. But it's something that I keep in the bag, because it's a little different look, and it's something that I had never. I've still never many senior photographers use it. But a lot of commercial shoots and editorial shoots will use that to recreate the sun. A scrim basically used to diffuse the light, if we're using something like a magnum reflector that's really harsh, sometimes you'll want to put a scrim in front of it to diffuse the light. So, just another tool. Specular, that's the opposite of diffuse. Specular is the hard light. It leaves those harsh shadows. And real small highlights and things like that. So we'll show some samples of diffused and specular light when we're doing the set ups. And lastly a v-flat, for anybody who doesn't know, a v-flat is a big reflector board that has a black side and a white side. It's typically, basically two sheets of foam core that are four foot by eight foot folded in half. So, it forms a v. I'll use those to block light in the studio. Reflect light. Help light backgrounds, and things like that. So, we'll use that a lot more. But, I always keep about two v-flats on hand, because they come in really handy when you're when you're on set. Alright, so my equipment, I want to introduce you to some of the stuff that I use daily and that's in my kit, whether I keep a bag of lights in my car. Well, I try to not keep it in there. Bring it inside at night sometimes. But I use a lot of the Profoto equipment, and the first thing that I want to introduce to you is the B1's. So this is the head of a B1 light. The cool thing about these lights is this is it. There is no cord. You need a stand. Or you could have somebody hold it. The battery, the reason why you don't need a cord, is the battery is built in. It has a nifty thing so you can see how charged it is. That one's fully charged, that's good. You just slide the battery in, and you're set. All the modifiers connect to the front of the light. Stand goes here, and all your controls are on the back. So, it's pretty slick in that you don't, not having to deal with cords and find power and all that is awesome. I don't even own lights anymore that ever require being other than charging the batteries. They don't really need outlets or anything like that. These are decently heavy, so a lot of times I'll use these in studio. For other shoots, when I have on location, and I don't want to carry something quite like that, I'll switch, and this is what I bring on a lot of shoots on location outside. And I don't know the weight on the B1, but what I will tell you is that the weight on this is one and a half pounds. So this is the B2. This is the only cord, but it's still all pretty well self-contained. The battery is within this pack. In fact, we'll crack this guy open and I'll show it to you. So you can get a better idea of what you're working with. So the battery's all right here. I keep a couple of these batteries in the bag. Typically I'll get at a lower power, I don't know how many shots per charge. Several hundred, I know that, because I don't charge them often enough, and they seem to last. And then it has this little carrying case with this strap that is pretty handy for hanging on a light stand. They also make extension cords, so you can have two heads plugged in to one pack. A lot of times I'll do that when I'm adding main light and a fill light, or an accent light. And they have an extension cord, so you can put them further away from the pack. All the controls are on the pack itself. And the light, again, is just really light, so if I'm doing things where I want on camera flash type of look, or if I have an assistant or a mom holding a light, or a friend if you're really desperate. It's just handy to have something that's this light weight. And again, having all battery power doesn't tie me down to having to find outlets or wall power when it's not available. So those are the two main light sources I use. And they both come in pretty handy kits that you can. Two of these come in a backpack, and these come in a thing that looks like a gym duffel bag. So, you know, carrying those onto set, compared to my old lights where I had these big bulky battery packs that weighed 20 plus pounds, and getting a work out, and get to your shoot, and you already look like you went to the gym. It's not an ideal situation. So, I like how it's evolved, and how it's become lighter weight with more power and less cords. The next thing I like to use, and we're going to introduce you to the rest of the equipment when we're doing the shoot, but I just want to make you familiar with it now, is the Profoto Umbrella. So, even though it kind of felt like when I was getting church directory photos back in the day, it was just this, or school photos when you're in fourth grade, you have that two umbrella set up that makes you look a little bit cross eyed. It's real flat light, not super flattering. Well I always thought when I first started, I don't want that, and those were umbrellas. Well, it's mostly how you use the light, and you don't need two equal powered umbrellas, and we'll get into that. So, Profoto makes an umbrella, especially this one that's deep. And it's medium sized, it's around 40 inches. They have them in white, so you get a nice soft light, or silver. I have used either one. The other brand that I love and use a lot is Photek. They're very inexpensive. They make an umbrella called the Soft Lighter. They have a 36. I own the 36 inch and the 46 inch, and that's because both of those can fit in my suitcase. With a little stretch. And then they also make a 60 inch. So, you know, the prices on those are really inexpensive for what they are. I've seen some photographers on big time commercial shoots, like Art Streiber, or Annie Leibovitz even, shooting something for Disney. If you look up some of the behind the scenes of her work, you'll see this elaborate set with 100s of thousands of dollars of budget, and then a $65 umbrella as the main light. So, you know, they do the job. They're inexpensive, and they're a great design, because one of the things we'll get into when we're shooting is it's not only umbrella, but it also works as a really soft nice light soft box, too. And it folds up like an umbrella, and you can throw it in your trunk. And it's 60 bucks. If you use it for a while, and something happens, you're not going to cry when it breaks. Those are kind of what I use every day. The other thing is the beauty dish, we've talked about that. I love putting a grid on a beauty dish, just to control the spill of the light. We'll be shooting with the beauty dish with the grid on it. In studio here later on today. Continuing on with some more equipment, we talked about the magnum reflector. Again, we're not going to use one of those. Just because we're inside. But I'll show you some shots where I have used one, and you can kind of see the effect. I'll use grids on those to control it. And a diffusion sock, which is basically a translucent piece of material that goes over the front of the light to cut off some of the sharpness. So, it makes it from being a really harsh light to not quite as harsh, and it works out really well. In fact, it's in the other room, but I have a diffusion sock. We'll use that with the beauty dish. And then some other equipment that I just keep in the studio that I don't necessarily use on every shoot are a silk. A silk is basically a big piece of diffusion material. We're going to talk about it later, but I have an eight by eight foot silk, so it cuts 1.6 stops off of your light. So if I'm using a really harsh light from far away, but I want a soften it up, sometimes I'll. You have a frame, or I'll just hang the silk from a couple of light stands. And basically create a softer source for the light to shine through. Scrims, basically a smaller version of a silk. The ones I use are four by four foot. And they're on a stiff steel frame that goes on c-stand. Again, the c-stands, those are the heavy duty stands that have the grip arm on top. I use those all the time, just because they're heavy duty. They really support sand bags on the bottom, which is important for not tipping things over, whether you're in the studio or out in the wind. And then the other thing I use is a ring flash. And you can create some of the similar effects of the ring flash by holding something like a B2 close to the camera. But the ring flash just brings a unique, really specular bright light. And I use it both as a main light, to kind of get that paparazzi on camera flash look that you see in a lot of the magazines, or use it as a fill light. Which adds a totally different look, and it fills the whole image and all shadow. Kind of gives, it's an effect that gives a look to the image that you can't really describe so much. You just know it when you see it. How it fills shadow from basically the exact stand access of the camera. We'll get into that when we start lighting. And then, always important. And so important that I have it right here is my light meter. So many people, including myself, for the first ten years of shooting photos, owned a light meter and it never left the bag. This is one that I keep with me all the time. I have two of them. Two different ones, but they're all the syconic light meters. I'm going to show you guys how I use the light meter. Why it's important. And, as much as a technical tool that it can be used for, it also gives me peace of mind that everything's accurate when I'm shooting. So we'll talk it, we'll talk about the approach to getting all the technical stuff out of the way before you start shooting, so that way once you know all the technical stuff is good with your camera, your lights and everything else, you can focus on your subject. And you don't have to be thinking oh is the light right? Well you know it is because your light meter. You already did all that. And all the settings are correct.

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