3 Portrait Lighting Setups Using 2 Lights

3 Portrait Lighting Setups Using 2 Lights

Tutorials on using a 1-light setup for portrait photography are commonplace, and rightly so. There are several ways that a single light source can be positioned to create flattering lighting on a subject. You might think that switching to a 2-light setup would be twice as complicated. This isn’t the case. There are several 2-light arrangements that are easy to understand and quick to set up. Using 2 lights can make it easy for you to transition between a clean headshot and a dramatic portrait. 

All photographs for this article were created using two LED panels from the Westcott Flex Cine Bi-Color 3-Light Kit. Each panel measured 1’x2’ and was supported by a lightweight Matthews Extendable Reverse Stand.

Clamshell Lighting

Nikon Z7 with 85mm f/1.8.

Clamshell Lighting is a setup where one light is placed above the subject’s head and another light is placed below. The top light is close to the face and angled at 45 degrees to provide soft light on the forehead, cheeks, and chin. Because this light is placed above the subject’s head, the shadow is created underneath the nose, cheeks, and chin. The second light, placed below the subject's face, is used to fill these shadows to whatever degree looks best to you.

When arranging lights in a Clamshell orientation, your top light is the key light. Position this light first. Angle the light so that it illuminates as much of the face as possible. Pay attention to the catchlight in the eyes and position this light as low as possible so that it is only a few inches higher than the top of the subject’s head. This will ensure that the light on the face is as soft as possible and that there is light in the eyes. It is important to avoid the eyes looking dark or hollow.

To determine the power setting for this light, first lock in your shutter speed, and aperture settings. If you don't what camera settings to use, try 1/160 and f/5.6 at ISO 100 as a starting point. Next, turn on your key light and begin taking test photographs with the light at its lowest power setting. Increase the power of the light with each subsequent photograph until the exposure on the face looks correct to your eyes. You will notice shadows below your subject's nose, cheeks, and neck. Position the bottom light so that it fills in the shadows. Repeat the process of incrementally increasing the power setting with each frame that you capture until you determine the correct power output for this light. You may choose to eliminate all shadow from the face with this 

Clamshell Lighting setup.

Parallel Lighting

Nikon Z7 with 85mm f/1.8.

Parallel lighting is great for headshots as it produces smooth, even lighting. For this setup, we place 2 strip boxes, or softboxes at 45-degree angles on each side of the subject. The power output should be the same, or nearly the same for both of the lights. Our goal is to eliminate shadows under the nose and cheeks. Depending on the length of your lights, you may be able to illuminate as much as 3/4 of the subject’s body, making this setup good for both headshots and partial body portraits. 

It is important to place the subject in the spot where the light from the 2 light sources intersects. This is known as the point of convergence. If the subject is too close to the lights and camera, she will be ahead of convergence. This will be evident from the line of shadow that runs down the middle of her face. If she is too far away from the lights, the catchlights will be very small in her eyes and the lighting will be flat and uninteresting.

Once you have determined the correct exposure for one subject at a specific distance from the lights, you can shoot multiple subjects quickly. You may have to raise or lower the height of your lights to accommodate different people, but the angle and distance of the lights to your subject will not need adjusting. Parallel lighting is easy to set up and doesn’t require the use of a boom arm. Because the lights aren’t angled, you may be able to use a small, lightweight, light stand without fear of the light stand tipping over.

Parallel Lighting setup.

Key and Kick

Nikon Z7 with 85mm f/1.8.

For this setup, we intentionally create shadows on the face. This setup works great for someone who is young and does not have wrinkles on their face. A Key and Kick arrangement may not be flattering on an older person unless you are intentionally trying to create a dramatic portrait that calls attention to the lines of the subject’s face.

For this setup, will place our key light as close to the subject as possible. This light is positioned at a 45-degree angle so so that one side of the face is in shadow with the exception of a triangle of light under the eye. A second light is used as a kicker to highlight the hair. This kicker must be arranged so that it does not create any additional shadows on the face, or the image may not make sense to the viewer’s eyes. The second light can also be placed behind the subject to separate the subject from the background. Subtlety is key concerning the placement of this second light. The power should not be so high on this light that we have a pure white highlight on the subject. We want to define the subject's hair, shoulder, or face in a way that does not give too much visual mass to these elements. The key is to create a portrait that uses shadow to define the face, without becoming a dramatic portrait. 

Key and Kick Lighting
John Ricard's picture

John Ricard is a NYC based portrait photographer. You can find more of Ricard’s work on his Instagram. accounts, www.instagram.com/JohnRicard and www.instagram.com/RicInAction

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Thank you! very simple and practical information, I will try those lighting set ups

Let me know how it works out!