In this blog, I'll show you how to create a strong, three-light studio portrait. I'm fortunate to live in the beautiful South Bay area of coastal Los Angeles where we can take beach portraits outside all year long. Still, sometimes clients need a studio portrait for one reason or another. This post assumes you have a basic understanding of your camera, and how to work in manual mode. With practice, the three-light portrait is not difficult, and yields excellent and consistent results.


For this portrait (above right), I used a studio strobe for the main light, and two LED lights on stands to the side and slightly behind my subject. (Click on the above left image to see the complete lighting set up). I photographed the subject straight on. I put the light in front and above the subject and just over my lens. By placing my main light directly in front of the subject, there were no side shadows. Although I like moody portraits with lots of shadow, that was not my intention with this shot. If you want to see one of my portraits with more shadows, and side lighting, check out this blog post from when I created a portrait at the Louvre in Paris.


First, I like to set the proper exposure for my main light, then I adjust rim lights.   I took a test shot with the main light, but found the exposure was too bright. My strobe has a remote radio trigger, which you can see on top of my camera.  I dropped the flash down -1, then upped my shutter speed to reduce the ambient light a bit. After there or four test shots, I settled on the following: 1/100 se at f/5.0, ISO 200.

If you have a light meter, this can save you a lot of time getting your exposure correct. You may also want to consider creating a custom white balance for your shot. There are many white balance cards and cubes to get your white balance right.  If you are just starting out, I'd suggest using Auto White Balance and shooting in RAW to give you more flexibility in post-processing. If you don't yet understand the implications of photographing in RAW vs. Jpeg, look it up.  It's too long a discussion for this post.


After setting the main light, I'll add my two side lights.  By adding lights on the side of your subject (often referred to as rim lights) gives depth to the subject, and lights their hair in a way to make it more attractive and less flat. Rim light can also be used to provide detail in clothing and face detail. In this case, I mixed LED's and FLASH. I like LED constant lighting for rim lighting because I can see what it is doing. Although I like using LED's in portraits, I find that they are so bright, my subjects don't typically like them for the main light in a studio setting because they are so bright. LED's are nice for a main light at night outside. They tend to be small and light and easy to handhold. You don't have to use two LED's. There are an almost infinite number of options and modifiers. You could use two strobes, or two speed lights, you could use strip lights. You could also use one flash to the side with a reflector on the other side for fill light. You could also use an ice light or comparable light saber for a hair light. 

The LED's I used were Manfrotto Lykos LED's. They are powerful and have adjustments from 1-100, and can be controlled via bluetooth from your phone. I usually start at 25% but found I only needed at 10% for the clean bright look I wanted.  The LED's height was adjusted so the lights hit the shoulders and head of the subject. I was approximately eight feet from my subject, which was about two feet in front of the background. The main light was about seven feet from the subject. Your settings will, of course, vary based on your distance to subject, ambient light, and desired brightness. 

The blue background with circles is a Westcott cloth backdrop. I love the colors. To make the colors pop, I had my subject wear a blue shirt to coordinate, but not match, the background. Check out Westcott's mailing list and holiday sale for solid discounts on their backdrops.

Since the photograph was from the chest up, I did not have to remove the rug under the sitting chair, since it would not be in the photograph, and would not clash with the background. Click on the middle photograph to see the LED light placement.


For my main light I used the Flashpoint Xplor 600, with a battery pack and optional extension head with a beauty dish and sock placed on a tripod. This is a relatively new set up from Adorama. I like the 600 watt power and battery that allows me to take this light on location easily. Their R2 wireless controller works with the Xplor and can also be used with their receivers speed lights. The R2 controller has radio contact with the Xplor 600, so you don't need line of sight. Although this strobe can fire in TTL mode (basically auto flash power), I prefer to shoot in manual because I like to have the most control to make adjustments, rather than leaving it up to the camera's metering. Having said that if I am in a rush and outside, having TTL can save you a lot of time.


If you have not used LED's before, they have a lot of advantages. They are bright, cool to the touch, portable, and lightweight. They are also more expensive than  the cheapest speedlights on the market. I really like being able to see the light they throw, it makes adjustments easier in my opinion. The Manfrotto Lykos LED's I used are study and well-made. They can be powered with a battery and hand-held on set or on location, which is great. I like the handle on the light which makes it easy to hold for assistants. Also, the Lykos has two different screw in locations, making it easy to use horizontally or vertically.  For more information on the Manfrotto LED's click here.


Initially, I intended to shoot this portrait with with either my Canon or Tamron  70-200, f/2.8. I often use the 70-200 for portraits for the nice bokeh. In this case I was in a smaller space so I decided to switch to my Tamron 16-300, because I wanted the ability to go wider. I've been very impressed with the versatility of the 16-300, and with a little sharpening in post, it's great for portraits.  I'm shooting with a crop sensor Canon, so the mm's are multiplied by 1.6 so a 50 mm becomes an 80 mm (50 mm x 1.6 = 80, as an example). I thought about using my 90 mm but that was too long for me on a crop. I also have the Tamron 35 mm f/1.8 and it is sharp and I really like it but I didn't want to go that wide. The 16-300, worked out great at 63 mm, (63 mm x 1.6 = 100.8).


When possible, shoot your portraits on a tripod to reduce shake. My Canon 7D MK II, was on a Manfrotto 055 CF (carbon fiber) tripod and ball head. If you have not used a ballhead, try one out. You may never go back. I love my sturdy Manfrotto Tripod. Disclaimer, I am a Manfrotto Ambassador. Having said that, I've used their gear for years, and before I became an Ambassador for their products. They are well made and durable, and that's why I like them.  If you use image stabilization on your lenses, turn it off when you put them on a tripod so the stabilization motors don't cause shake.


The amount of work that can be done on an image in post-processing can be staggering. Some digital artists excel at creating layer upon layer of adjustments in Photoshop. For most of us, if you get the lighting right, you don't have to do too much in post. Lightroom does about 90-95 of what I need in most photographs. Typically, I'll adjust the brightness, perhaps bring down highlights, maybe add some clarity,  and sharpen the eyes. Depending on the subject, you may need to whiten the teeth or remove blemishes. Light blemishes can be adjusted in Lightroom, for more extensive work, you'll need to roundtrip to Photoshop.  That's another blogpost. In this case, I saw some hairs I could have removed, but decided against it, because I thought it was part of the charm of this young man who has hair to spare. The last adjustment for me is typically a highlight adjustment to slightly darken the edges of the image, helping to bring your eye to the center of the photograph where it is brightest. 


I set up and shot this portrait in less than 30 minutes, and spent about 15 minutes in Lightroom culling the selections and doing some basic editing. It took longer to photograph the behind the scenes images and write this blogpost than it did to create the image below.  With practice you will become faster. If you are just starting out, expect to spend more time.


Learning to light your images well is critical if you want your photography to advance, and if you want clients to hire you for your portrait work. Practice, practice, practice. I've been working on my lighting for years. I'm still learning every day. You can read about my journey to learn lighting in this blog post. One of the things I enjoy about photography is that you never STOP learning.

I hope you found this information to be helpful. If so, please share it. I'd love to hear from you. Please send an email to me with your comments. Click HERE to send me an email or to book a portrait session.

Thanks for reading!

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Kevin Gilligan is a landscape, portrait and sports photographer from L.A.'s South Bay. His images have been displayed in museums and published across the United States.

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