Triple Main Lights

Today's post comes from the book Christopher Grey's Lighting Techniques for Beauty and Glamour Photography by Christopher Grey. It is available from and other fine retailers.

Looking for a soft light with a lot of punch? You’ve come to the right chapter. In a way, this technique is similar to the double main-light scenarios described in chapter 7, but the triple main light technique is different in that each light is a parabolic aimed into a 36-inch white umbrella.

For this approach, I set the lights in a loose semicircle or with all three parallel to each other, with the center light on a boom so there is no stand to get in my way. This center light is placed higher than usual, roughly 3 feet over the subject’s head. The other lights are on regular stands and placed lower than my typically recommended height, 6 to 12 inches over the subject, and can slightly overlap the center umbrella or just be butted up to it. Placement like this guarantees nice, soft shadows (but with an “edge”), and the light on the boom means I can shoot through the tunnel from whatever distance is best for the lens I’m using. All three lights are angled down slightly but aimed straight ahead, not individually angled toward the subject, and are placed about 6 feet from where my model will be. See image below.

Metering is a little tricky but not too difficult. Set up another light stand or some sort of target where your subject will be. Measure each light separately, with the others turned off, until all three are powered equally. Turn all three lights on and measure again. You’ll notice the three lights together are brighter than their individual readings because the effects of light are cumulative. If you must make an adjustment to get the total reading to a perfect whole, one-third, or two-thirds f-stop, power the two sidelights down equally or power the center light up. The adjustment will be minor, but you’ll need to be as accurate as possible.

When your subject is in place, the first thing you’ll notice is how nicely the subject’s features are modeled by the light. You might have thought this light would be flat, but the snappy specularity the umbrellas render does exactly the opposite, and the result is beautiful. See image below.

As you can imagine, the three lights create interesting catchlights in the eyes. These are easily retouched to a single point should you wish to disguise your lighting or want a more traditional look. Personally, I think retouching two of them out of each eye, disguising the technique, would be one more little thing that could set your work apart from that of your competition. (“I use one umbrella, just like you, but my shots aren’t even close.” Music to my ears.) See image below.

An added benefit from this scenario is that your subject is free to move to either side without a need to reposition the lights. See image 8.4.

I’ve found the best place for the model is 5 to 8 feet from the lights. This gives each light enough distance to mix with the others and yet be separate enough to add contour. If the model is farther back, the lights tend to mix too much and flatten out a bit. It’s not necessarily a bad look, it’s just not as punchy. See diagram below.

Since the background will be flooded with light that’s angled straight toward it, the only way you can control the brightness or darkness of the background is to vary the distance of the model to it, relative to the lights. For example, if the model is 6 feet from the background and 6 feet from you, and the background is too bright for your taste, double her distance from the background (i.e., move her 12 feet away from the background) but keep her 6 feet from you and the lights. This will reduce the light on the background by 2 stops, making it 1 /4 its original strength.

This technique works beautifully with a black background as well, and, while it will work with any model, it can be very dramatic if the model has dark hair. In my case, my model’s hair was professionally colored to matte black and soaks up light like a black hole. I set a beauty bowl with a 25 degree grid on a boom above her and powered it up 1 full stop over the triple main light. It was placed very close to the top of her head, about 18 inches, because I wanted fast falloff and needed to control how much light would spill onto her shoulder. If too much light were to hit the shoulder, it would blow out to pure white and be a distraction. The light was metered at the top of the model’s head and allowed to fall off from there.

When you get everything set, you might want to put a piece of tape on the floor, between the model’s feet, so she knows exactly where she needs to be centered. She won’t have a lot of room to move around, given the narrow constraints of the hair light. See image below.

You probably know by now that my favorite working question is, “What if . . . ?” So, what if the model were lit by softboxes in the same configuration?

I removed the umbrellas and substituted a 3x4-foot softbox for each of the sidelights, with a 2x3-foot softbox on the boom (below).

The side boxes were angled slightly off the vertical to give me more room to shoot through them, while the softbox on the boom was set straight across. This is not carved in stone, you understand. I set the softboxes as I did for the space, but also because I thought I’d get more interesting catchlights in the model’s eyes. See image below.

After checking that all three lights were outputting the same amount of power, we started to shoot. The result is spectacular light that softly wraps around the subject. It shows all the qualities that make a triple umbrella main light so wonderful, but with a little less punch. Notice how well the light illuminates the fabric of her dress. See image below.

When a hair light is so close to the subject, there’s an element of danger in the setup. While the odds are against electrocution, it is quite possible that the model may move her head in such a way as to get hit by extra light. Since the effects of light are cumulative, she will be overexposed wherever the extra light lands. See image below.

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