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”.

Clay CookFacebook | YouTube | Instagram | Twitter

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Previous comments
Stephen Robertson's picture

Great post Clay!

Clay Cook's picture

Thank you Stephen!

Andrea Stenson's picture

Great article, thank you!
I love the texture of the backgrounds, what are you using?

Clay Cook's picture

Thank you for reading Andrea! It's a hand painted canvas from Oliphant Studio - NYC

Andrea Stenson's picture

That's what I thought, thanks :)
Goodbye seamless!

javier caldas's picture

very useful

Clay Cook's picture

Thank you Javier!

Reynardt Badenhorst's picture

Heavy post editing, simple lighting. I love it!

Clay Cook's picture

Thanks for reading!

Seoirse Brennan's picture

Awesome set ups

Clay Cook's picture

Thank you my friend!

Nikolaj Lund's picture

Great article! Thanks for sharing :)

Femi Aboluwarin's picture

Great Article Clay. When I learned lighting like two years ago (and I'm still learning), my teacher back then had a theory i.e. Understand the look you're going, decide what modifier to use, start with one light + modifier, understand it well enough and then add another light or modifier if necessary and don't forget to use your eyes.

After much trial and error, i still am learning to find that stylistic subtleness that light can add to your images. I am learning that lighting alone is an art that can complement the total picture's emotion or soul. Thanks once again for sharing and taking me back to why I even use lights in the first place.

Nice article! What brand strip box were you using in the image of the blonde in the gray top?

Patrick McGarrh's picture

Brushing up on some info and came back to this article. Shooting some NAHA shots this weekend!! Thanks for the informative article, I will let you know how it turns out, haha!

Lee G's picture

Great tutorial!