Want to Replicate Soft and Natural Looking Lighting? Use the 'Cove' Light Technique

Often when working on a constricted set environment, you need the ability to quickly change the lighting and mood in between scenes. This is where the versatility of the soft and natural looking cove lighting technique really shines. 

A lot of times when working on set, you're required to be able to flick the switch, and change the scene from daylight to nighttime and maintain the same kind of light quality on the actor's face. You would think this would require bringing in a whole new set of lights or modifiers, but in fact, by using the cove lighting technique, it gives you a soft and clean natural looking fall off and makes it simple to modify it in various lighting scenarios.  


In this insightful behind the scenes breakdown video released by YouTuber, Rob Ellis, he walks us through a handful of scenes that he lit, ranging from daytime interiors, to darker more moody sets, which all use the cove lighting technique. To assemble the cove, he uses a couple of sheets of muslin and clamps that to a few c-stands in a circular formation around his subject. Then begins by placing his first light, which is the base of the key light into the fabric and subsequently places the other two lights to make the light wrap around the actor and fall off in a natural way. The way to keep the light looking the most realistic, he analyzes the direction of the existing light in the scene and builds the setup around that. 

In this example, Ellis is matching the direction, which is from camera left, and the color temperature of the light that is coming from the lamp in the background.

After seeing technique in action, the biggest thing I took away from it was that, if I am going for a more cinematic look in my image, I should be using bounced, or indirect light instead of direct lighting on my talent. This not only gives it dimension, it also gives it directionality when paired with the practical lights in the room. 

Have you ever used the cove lighting effect on any of your shoots? Leave your results in the comments below. 

Eli Dreyfuss's picture

Eli Dreyfuss is a professional portrait photographer based in sunny Miami, Florida. He focuses on making ordinary people look like movie stars in his small home studio. Shortly after graduating high school he quickly established himself in the art world and became an internationally awarded & published artist.

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1 Comment

Very informative and well presented.