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Lighting 101: Cross Lighting

Cross lighting is nothing more than using two light sources that oppose each other in their direction.

I say light sources, instead of strobes, because It is important to remember that if you are photographing outdoors with one strobe, you really have two lights. Rather than just trying to do damage control on what the sun is doing to your subject, start to think in terms of using the sunlight as your main (or secondary) light.

The photo above is of a fifth grader who, using herself as a human shield, saved this tree at her school when construction workers building a nearby parking lot were about to mistakenly bulldoze it.

She was a hero in the story. And I wanted to visualize her that way in the photo, so I shot up at her from a low angle. To get a clean background, the sun had to be coming from the upper-back-camera-right direction.

I could have very easily fill flashed her if I was just trying to undo bad sunlight. But if you are working with a small stand, it is just as easy to use your strobe more effectively.

I placed the strobe on manual (at 1/2 power) up on a stand coming from the upper-camera-left, and had her face the strobe. Exposure was 1/250th, of course, to make life easier on the flash, with the corresponding aperture to properly expose the sky.

Now, the strobe becomes the main light, and the sun becomes the rim light. Waaay better than on-camera fill flashing.

This cross lighting scheme is pretty forgiving with respect to subject movement, too. As long as you are working on the quarter angles (roughly splitting the difference between the two light sources) you are going to be fine.

When I shoot high school basketball I like to cross light, too. I use two SB's, one at the top center of each set of bleachers, aimed in a cross pattern at the top of the key. Using them at 1/2 power with a 50mm throw will usually get you an honest, crisp-looking f/2.8 at ASA 800 from the mid-court line to the other basket.

It can be helpful to use external battery packs for these strobes, as you are gonna be firing off a lot of half-power frames. AA's get eaten up pretty quickly this way. Plus, you'll be waiting between shots.

Next: Lighting 101: Back Light as Main Light


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Anonymous brian jackson said...

An alernative to the expensive external power packs are the handly little units built by Al Jacobs.


April 17, 2006 9:22 PM  
Blogger David said...


Thanks for the battery tip. I am working on a page on external batteries that will go up soon. Thanks for the good info.


April 17, 2006 10:55 PM  
Anonymous Pete Millson said...

I just had to write in with this. I've just done a last minute job covering for another snapper. The job was a conference and lo and behold it was in the mother of all sports halls - 30 ft ceilings that along with the walls were painted dark blue!

I tell you, if it hadn't been for your tips on cross lighting (I used a couple of speedlights on quarter power at 800 iso) I genuinely don't know how I could have come back with anything good.

So thanks!


May 31, 2006 5:45 PM  
Anonymous Hans Keesom said...

regarding external powerpacks, I wasn't too happy with CP-E3's so I converted one so it would work with 12 volt from an ordinary 12V carstarter. See for what I did. Works like a charm. Only takes 6 seconds to recover from a full blast.

August 05, 2006 6:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I realize the topic here is cross-lighting, but don't people find it odd in the picture of the girl outdoors that the "sunshine" on her face is coming from one side and the "sunshine" on her legs is coming from the other? I find it a bit freaky.

December 21, 2006 8:58 PM  
Blogger mike said...

In that case "annonymous," your flash should best be left on your camera.

April 19, 2007 4:35 PM  
Anonymous Tim said...

ON the HS sports / indoor gym example -- you light from above at half court, and shoot from the shadow side under the basket? Or the strobes are at the end line, and pointing toward the top of they key... just curious

December 21, 2007 10:11 PM  
Anonymous Laurence said...

I too would greatly appreciate a response to Tim's question on the placement and aim of the flashes and the location of the photographer for the gym.

December 29, 2007 1:08 PM  
Blogger jawrr said...

I did just this yesterday for the first time, and now I'm learning it's called "cross lightning".

August 22, 2008 7:21 PM  
Blogger José Quiroz said...

It has been almost 2 years since I read Lighting 101. Now it happens that I'm living in the USA and I'm shooting sports for the Local Newspaper. I was shocked today when the Local ISD Athletic Director asked me to remove my flash (it was on the bleachers, at the corner at 1/8) as it causes "something" on the players... he said also "everybody knows that!".
Any word on this? Can I sue him?

December 19, 2008 9:46 PM  
Blogger Tyler said...

absolutly not, I shoot sports as well, and you do not need flashes for sports.

How would you feel being a player, and you have 2 seconds left, down by 1 and you have the shot, only when you go to throw it, the flash fires and you miss. I would be pissed as hell.

February 12, 2009 9:33 AM  
Blogger tario said...

Do I need a PW on everey signle flash-strobe that I use PLUS one on the camera..
I thought I read somewhere that you dont need a PW on every signle strobe to set it off...
Is that right??

So every signle flash in the diagram set ups that people shjow each have a PW on their flashes...

February 20, 2009 10:15 AM  
Blogger Daspankster said...

I use an optic slave shoe to connect my flashes(sunpak 422) to my PW's. A PW is only needed on other flashes if they are beyond the triggering distance of the optic slave shoe.

March 12, 2009 11:19 PM  
Anonymous Mark said...

Great information about cross lighting. I had no idea that it was called that. I can't wait to try this out for myself. Looking forward to more great articles.

July 07, 2009 6:41 AM  
Blogger Nicolas said...

Hello, this is Nick from Argentina. I'm a newbie in this strobist world and this is my first comment. I don't know if this is the correct topic to post my comment but it was the more aproppiate I saw.
I am a live soun professional an ever since I've been dealing with fotography and light I get more and more amazed of how they work alike.
So my question is: I know that when you aim to sound sources to a given point simmetrically they sum phisically and you get twice de sound energy at that spot.
Now if you somehow get one of the sources to be delayed in relationship with the other one( that is one arrives to the given spot earlier than the othe), depending on the amount of delay you will get different results that go from slight changes to total cancellation. That said I would like to know if the same thing o similar could happen with two light sources.
I hope I was clear. If someone can help me I would really appreciate it. Thanks!

December 08, 2009 11:21 AM  
Blogger nikonrick said...

"Exposure was 1/250th, of course, to make life easier on the flash".....

Sorry, I'm still confused here.....Shorter exposure (1/250th instead of 1/60th) time = less light coming in the lens, so....doesn't that make the flash work HARDER to compensate for the lost light??????


January 27, 2010 3:46 PM  
Blogger Jin said...

@ nikonrick,

Nope. Shoe-mount flash bursts are waaay faster than 1/250 sec. And, most flashes achieve lower power by making the burst shorter (thus, less total light is emmitted). For technical reasons we won't get into, the camera can't properly sync with the flash at shutter speeds (usually) above 1/250. That is why 1/200-ish is the best place to start.

You set your camera's shutter at max sync speed to dim the ambient as much as possible (remember, flash is well shorter than that, so flash is not affected). You set your flash at 1/4 power (give or take) to enable reasonably quick recycle. Then you use the aperture to control flash exposure, while if the ambient is too dim, you sklow down the shutter.

Please read Lighting 101 section of Strobist.

February 09, 2010 8:12 AM  
Blogger Eli Ganz photo said...

Wouldn't your sky be controlled via shutter speed and your flash via aperture? I think you may have had a type error and reversed it?

March 02, 2011 5:47 PM  
Blogger sephiroth911 said...

Ok, I have been looking after wedding suggestions and was pointed to this thread (which I've already new).
The setup made me think about my gear and the options I have with 2 flashes set up this way.
I have 5 Phottix ATLAS (love'em!) and I realized that I could just add two Triggers to each my SB-25 and my SB-26 by using a cable and the hotshoe on the ATLAS. Then I can set the channels so that CH1 fires flash 1, CH2 fires flash 2 and CH3 gives me both.
I think that might be handy to both save battery power and to control the light a bit more.
Makes any sense?

June 03, 2011 7:46 PM  
Blogger digitalgenius said...

Great post! Thanks I was wondering how to shoot some basketball interiors and get some light on the subjects.... if you guys would read you would see he put the lights in the bleachers - experiment to figure out the other particulars for yourself!!

September 17, 2011 5:07 AM  

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