Beyond The Key - Building A Subtle Light Setup

Beyond The Key - Building A Subtle Light Setup

Lighting isn't easy, a world-class-perfectly-lit studio portrait happens with a lot of instinct and experience. A strong grasp of lighting comes with experimentation and practice. Those that know my aesthetic know I'm a huge fan of one light photography. With that said, every image I produce I try and maintain the look of one light, even though it very well be lit with six lights. If I'm shooting for a hair, the hair needs to be well lit. If I'm shooting for makeup, the light needs to fill the face and really show detail. The same applies to product photography or fashion. I always give the client what they need, but always retain my dramatic lighting style.

Don't expect perfect results right out the gate, there are sweet spots with every modifier, which takes time to find. Sometime within the past year I found the right instinct to pull off high quality studio imagery, but it required a lot of patience and practice. Find your frame, build the lighting foundation that add to it subtlety.


Before I even touch a light stand, I start with the subject and mood. I analyze the subject or model, I look at face shape and distinct features. Usually, the creative director and I will hunt through hundreds of inspirational images until we land on a photograph that captures a faint sense of how the lighting should look. The same applies for wardrobe, makeup, hair and overall mood. The idea is always hashed out beforehand and the idea will always determine the modifier I use for my key light.


A crucial step to my lighting setup starts at the foundation, just one light. A play to my style, I usually prefer to use a soft light source such as a Photek Softlighter II, Octobox or Beauty Dish w/ Sock. Depending on the modification, a good starting point for a key light is always half power. Once the key light is adjusted to the mood and locked in, the rest comes easy. The goal now is to create subtle contrast and contour with light.


Time and time again, I see photographs which go completely overboard with lighting; blown highlights, inferior rim lighting or simply a wrong choice in modification. It’s all about the subtleties and maintaining a realistic aesthetic. So, keep the strobes or speedlights at low power and compensate as you build. Once the key is place the goal now is to create contrast, which can be done several ways, the most effective way is the place a light off camera (opposite of your key) behind the subject, which creates a highlight on subject’s cheek, neck and body. When creating a portrait, I usually go to a Stripbox with a grid on the opposite end of the key light. For beauty work, I may place two Stripboxes behind the subject for a greater specular highlighting.


Now that there is some subject separation and contrast from the background, it’s time to create depth and dimension. If you’re shooting on a bright color or white background you may not even need a background light. However, if I'm shooting on a dark background, I always love to add a bit of pop in the background. That pop can come from a light with a 20° or 30° grid and/or gel. On some occasions, I've even doubled up on grids with gaff tape for even more focused light. A speedlight can also come in handy for a background light because of its ability to fire at such low power. Remember, it’s all about the subtleties.


Similar to a blown highlight, when a shadow goes black it’s tough to pull up in exposure without a gross amount of noise. To avoid that issue, I’ve found a fill light to be an important piece to the puzzle. Many photographers place a large light source directly behind them at a very low power, but I like to fill in only certain areas that require it. By setting a softly modified light source or a piece of white foam core next to those strong shadows, you can reduce the contrast and provide more playing room in post processing. Many photographers use fill under the chin for beauty or fill opposite of the key light for less shadow density. Although this isn't a pivotal point of light, it can definitely help out when you need it most. A fill light should not be forgotten while working with light.


This is probably the most underrated light in the entire game of photography. A hair light can not only create contrast, but if done correctly and really change the dynamic of your image. Unfortunately, it’s easy to go too hard and wrong with a hair light. You’ll need a solid boom stand to hold a hair light, I recommend the Avenger Combination Boom or if you're on a budget the Manfrotto Combination Boom. But, don’t forget the sandbags!

Now that the key, kick, background and fill lighting is in place, adding a hair light can really add an "extra side of pop with a cherry on top." The hair light is placed above the subject and slightly behind so it does not hit the face, only the hair. Start with the lowest power and tune it in from there. Place a grid on the light to focus the light only on the top of the subject’s head. Pay close attention to highlights, as they can go way too hot and blow out with just a small touch of the aperture.

This might seem like too much to many of you, but those extra little steps can make a world of difference. Lighting can be overwhelming, but these additional lights are playing a very subtle role. However, without them the image may lose interest. With that said, next time you have some creative time in the studio, start small and build, you never know what unique light you may find beyond “the key”.

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Previous comments
Clay Cook's picture

Thank you so much for reading Sergey!

Clay, this is great thank you for sharing. I love the light and your highly skilled approach to it - absolutely learnt a lot from this. But I'm worried about the dude in the bottom photo, he appears to have been hit in the head by a retouching club as he's nothing like the guy in the set up pic (yes I retouch heaps too, but to my eye this doesn't look real enough - it's got the look of the portrait pro plug-in or something. Sorry.
BUT, the lesson was brilliant, do appreciate that - thanks!

Clay Cook's picture

Mark, thanks for reading and I appreciate the feedback! That was professionally re-touched, we wanted a very clean look and the skin retained it's texture. I think it's beautifully re-touched, but photography is also subjective, one may see it differently then I do! Thanks again, cheers!

Hey Clay, thanks for the insight. I really appreciate the point about being subtle. I have tended to be too heaven handed with the multiple lighting set ups in the past, it all ends up being far too bright flat and blown out. Great post once again!!!

Clay Cook's picture

Thanks for reading Mark! Keep it subtle and build from there, you got this man!

Bob Bell's picture

Cheers Clay, something I definitely need to work on. Bookmarked!
And great shots, too :))

Clay Cook's picture

Thanks Bob! Really appreciate that!

Thank you so very much for this article Clay!

Clay Cook's picture

Thanks for reading Lucien!

Josh Crump's picture

This is full of great information. Thanks for the awesome article!

Clay Cook's picture

Thank you for reading Josh! Much appreciated!

Ernst de Groot's picture

Love your articles/style! Looking forward to the next one!

Clay Cook's picture

Thank you Ernst! That is awesome of you to say.

Jason Ranalli's picture

This is a wonderful article with clear examples. I love how this shows you how to "build" a lighting setup from a very simple yet effective starting place. I'm dying to try some of these.

Clay Cook's picture

Thank you for checking it out Jason! Looking forward to seeing what you do with the information!

Great article! Thanks for sharing! Having been out of school and in the world of accounting for 10 years, this is the kind of stuff I like to read as a refresher. I can fumble my way through learning digital photography but studio lighting was something I never paid much attention to as a student because I thought I'd never use it (hah!).

Clay Cook's picture

Thank you Jennifer! Just work at it and the good results will come!

Simon Dyjas's picture

always an inspiration

Clay Cook's picture

Thank you Simon! I try! :)

Christian Berens's picture

Great article, but now you may have made me want to buy just ONE MORE light lol

Thanks for the tips! I love articles like this!

Clay Cook's picture

Thank you for reading Christian! You can do a whole lot with just one light, but the possibilities are endless with two or more!

Christian Berens's picture

OH i know! I'm a big Joel Grimes fan and love his lighting techniques as well. I currently have 3 studio lights and a ring flash, but one of those 4 light setups was amazing as well ;) They keep adding up lol
Thanks again!

Sam Merkel's picture

Awesome, detailed articled with beautiful photos. It was a great read.

I need to invest in a good boom for my Einstein

Clay Cook's picture

Thank you Sam! Check out those recommendations I made in the article. Cheers!

Jesse Rinka's picture

Great article Clay...thanks for the in-depth breakdown regarding each lights role/importance along with the pull-back/results shots. I've also been looking to obtain a boom for my Einstein and will take a close look at your recommendations.

Clay Cook's picture

Thank you Jesse! Really appreciate that! Check out the Avenger stand, great investment.

Tyler Core's picture

Thanks so much for this article, man! I'll give a few these set-ups a whirl at the next shoot. You're the best!

Clay Cook's picture

Thanks for reading Tyler! Means a lot man!

Sid Vasandani's picture

Great article as always Clay, I love this style of lighting and what you do with it!

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