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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Anonymous Stephen Collins said...

Thanks for this great post. As a two light shooter, I am very much looking forward to the rest of this series.

May 11, 2009 12:43 AM  
Anonymous Gordon D said...

I do like the idea for the shot type, but you want to make darn sure that the bottom and top images are taken without moving the subject or the camera. That guy in the above photo looks like he has either a really small head, or really big arms. I'm used to seeing that sort of error on Photoshop Disasters, not on the Strobist.

Disregarding that error, the shot does look pretty neat. I like how subtle the lower light is, combined with the vivid lighting on the face. I wouldn't mind seeing the results of this technique without distorting anatomy.

May 11, 2009 1:10 AM  
Anonymous Mike Cash said...

Finally a setup I have!! Can't wait for the rest of this series.

May 11, 2009 3:26 AM  
Anonymous Dave said...

Thanks, David, Great stuff (as always). Interesting use of (near) on-axis fill. I look forward to the series.

May 11, 2009 4:53 AM  
Blogger David Griffin said...

Dave... The Prince of Cheap here... I'm a regular 2 light shooter... gettin down with 2 LP120's is fun... lil 20in ebay hotshoe flash softbox and a 30degree grided lp120 always does wonders! :)

May 11, 2009 5:32 AM  
Blogger DiMAGE photography said...

Excellent post David. I love the simplicity of these lighting solutions but the wonderful outcome you can get from them. Another one to add to the arsenal. Thanks again for your continued generosity in sharing this stuff.


May 11, 2009 6:45 AM  
Anonymous Jaroslav said...

Thats is great and simple!
Many thanks David!

Looks like this is going to be amazing series!


May 11, 2009 6:48 AM  
Blogger crocksta said...

same here! until my next SB-600 arrives of course ;)

May 11, 2009 7:19 AM  
Anonymous Woot Design said...

Great idea for a series, David - showing the different effects you can get with the same equipment just by using different set-ups/approaches (ie. using your brain to expand your photographic range, rather than buying more gear).

I'm booked to do a portrait shoot tomorrow which I'm planning on using a 2-light setup for. It's in a nightclub which is draped back everywhere, so I have a feeling I will be calling on the umbrella/rim combo to gain some background separation.

(If I put the umbrella camera left instead of right, that counts as a variation, right?)

May 11, 2009 8:54 AM  
Anonymous jtutlo said...

well done. i've been diggin the uplit fill lately.
also, nice "sid and nancy" reference

May 11, 2009 9:03 AM  
Blogger John said...

Interesting fill. I would have never considered coming from below the axis.

Looking forward to seeing more two-light combos!

May 11, 2009 10:03 AM  
Anonymous Chase said...

I have to agree that the subject looks disproportionate. His head looks way small. Also that harsh camera right shadow from his head is disturbing me.

Great food for thought on off-axis two light fill tho, thanks for the inspiration!

May 11, 2009 10:44 AM  
Blogger Bryan said...

As always.. great post..

Funny coincidence tho..

I am pretty new to the strobist world and I did a very similar setup for a meet-up shot on Saturday evening.

My model was playing guitar against a wall and I saw an opportunity..

I used a DIY grid snoot for his face, a DIY full snoot for his guitar and then just a touch of light to bring out the art on the wall..

This was my first time using this type of technique and it worked out very well as you can see...

May 11, 2009 12:32 PM  
Blogger andrew said...

Gordon D, what on earth are you talking about? That's a single exposure with two light sources... no compositing involved.

May 11, 2009 2:45 PM  
Anonymous Ronnie said...

Hi David,
I do remember this shoot from GPP 2009 but seemed to have filed this lighting exercise at the back of my head and walked away with your idea of 45deg cross lighting subjects.

Good to be reminded of the other lighting examples covered those days.Like bouncing flash on a white sheet on the floor in front of the subjects.

As for the comments on Riaz,I have to say that he was a good sport and one of the better looking participants at the workshop(self included).

Anybody has any inputs on the new Metz range of flashes?Cannot ask this on Flickr as for some reason it is banned here in the UAE.


May 11, 2009 3:15 PM  
Blogger David said...


They hooked me up almost immediately when I was in Dubai:

May 11, 2009 3:43 PM  
Blogger Guilherme T said...

@ Gordon D:
I think you missunderstood the hole technique.
It's not two photos plus photoshop composition.

It's one photo, using two flashes. but David always likes to also take a photo with one flash only, to show us how he's preparing the shot..

There was no photoshop, no anatomy distorted, the guy indeed had big arms, just that.

May 11, 2009 4:42 PM  
Blogger David said...

In defense of neutral perspective, if you take a look at a bigger version you get the idea Riaz might be doing that impress-the-ladies-by-squishing-the-forearms thing . . .

May 11, 2009 5:00 PM  
Blogger Jordan Duvall Studios said...

Thanks for another great trick!

May 11, 2009 6:21 PM  
Blogger carlos benjamin - said...

I highly recommend assorted doohickeys.....

May 11, 2009 6:27 PM  
Blogger Cesar S said...

He is the most interesting man in the strobist world.

He doesn't always use strobes, but when he does, he prefers Dos Flashes.

May 12, 2009 2:41 AM  
Blogger darrjo23 said...

personally I'm not digging this light at all. His head is way too bright for the body and the wall shadow is far too harsh.

May 12, 2009 9:43 AM  
Anonymous Ranger 9 said...

I just want to point out that if you tried to reproduce this photo with inexpensive (i.e. "crummy") offset printing, or if someone viewed it on a monitor with higher-than-standard gamma, all the subtleties David talks about would get lost and you'd be back to the floating-head-in-the-headlights look.

It's a nice look if you know where your image will be going and can control it all the way -- but it IS a bit of a high-wire act without a net.

May 12, 2009 1:06 PM  
Blogger David said...

@Ranger 9

I hear you on the newsprint repro (been there, many times) but that's exactly where controlling your fill level pays off.

It absolutely could work in an offset printing environment. (You are talking to an old newspaper guy, remember?)

I am hanging out in a higher contrast range -- because I can. My medium here is the web. And if someone's monitor is seriously outta whack, I can live without them.

To shoot unnecessarily flat to compensate for rogue monitors would be to not use the Adobe space that is (finally) available to me.

But if you are in a low-range, ink-on-Charmin print environment, you can certainly hold detail here if you want.

You just have to tighten up the fill ratio to fit the tonal range of your medium. That same image might lose some pop in the web version, as newspapers rarely re-tone for the web.

But you certainly can anticipate the dot gain (how much density you gain in the shadows in print) and compensate when you create the lighting.

The look would still be there, even if the range were a little compressed.

Remember, there are two variables at play: Fill quantity and fill quality. The quality gives you the 3-d shape you are looking for, the quantity sets the tonal range.

His shirt is black (and non-shiny black, at that) so it is certainly gonna go in a newsprint environment. Heck, it goes black on the web. But, honestly, that lack of detail in the shirt is one of the things I like about the photo. More of a graphic / portrait combo.

May 12, 2009 2:45 PM  
Blogger Brad Wiederholt said...

Thanks for the backlink to the 2006 "tension" post. I've only been following strobist for year and a half, nice to have your previous posts wired in as well.

May 12, 2009 2:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article! Looking forward to the rest of the series. I shoot all my vintage work with only two lights, one is optically triggered, so it needs to be in the sightline of the master.


May 13, 2009 7:22 PM  
Anonymous kendale said...


Just saw this product on David Tejada's blog and thought you might be interested.

Hope its useful.


May 15, 2009 5:55 PM  

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