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Variations on a Two-Light Theme, Pt. 1

People always ask me how many flashes they should have. That's an easy one -- however many you can afford, plus one or two.

See? Easy.

But a good, basic kit is two speedlights -- plus the assorted doohickeys needed to make them work well. And after all, if you have just one flash and it goes down you are merely an available light photographer. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

Two lights not only give you lots of options but serve as insurance, too. Starting today, we will be looking occasionally at some different, two-light portrait setups.

Nothing too fancy pants. But not the typical stuff, either. Details on the shot above, after the jump.

Not Another Umbrella / Rim Light

I say that because I went to this well way too often in my early days. Not only that, the umbrella always seemed to come from the right front, and the rim from the back left.

Why? I have absolutely no idea. I was like a little "lighting function key" or something. Press me, and you'd get a camera right umbrella portrait with a back left rim. Go figure.

Nothing if not consistent, I suppose. Perfectly acceptable -- certainly compared to on-camera or bounced flash. But... boring, Sydney.

Not to dis. If done subtly and with regard for the ambient, that technique can look elegant. But if you have two lights you can create a look without the need for any contributory ambient, which is a term I just pulled out of my made up.

Soft / Hard Combo

Usually, my workflow when setting up a two-light, flash-only shot is to build the fill first. Choose the quality of fill light, expose for it, then knock the aperture down to build whatever lighting ratio you want. Then add the key, salt to taste, and simmer for two minutes until the sauce thickens.

But this time we were already working with a gridded key, which by itself looked like the photo at left.

Not bad, if you are into floating heads.

Bringing in the fill from just below on-axis (see photo up top) gave a cool up-light to Riaz's arms. It also wrapped an atypical, 3D-ish light when combined with the key. And the slight specular you can see on the wall down low is also from the fill.

That specular erases much of the shadow on the wall created by the fill, which makes the light a little hard to reverse at first blush. That's because the missing shadow doesn't seem to play by the rules.

The top of the fill light (shoot-thru umbrella) was just below the lens, which meant that the center point for the fill was a foot and a half or so below the lens axis. The ratio was about two stops down -- a good two stops, as Miracle Max would say in The Princess Bride.

I like the look for a few reasons -- it is controlled, I can produce it just about anywhere with two flashes and it is a little bit atypical. That last one is always a plus in my book.

When the Ambient is Not Your Friend

Having some two-light, flash-only solutions in your pocket is a good fallback when you ambient is crappy and your only backdrop is a wall. This wood-paneled wall is actually pretty cool. But later in this series we will be up against the more garden-variety white version.


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