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Playing Around With External Lights

Learn Contrast & Background Lighting

In the concluding part of this three-part series on Playing around with external lights, we delve into creating contrasting lighting using grids. We also learn how to illuminate your background and create clamshell lighting and lighting triangles.

Contrasty (Edgy lighting)

Contrasty lighting is definitely a type of lighting where there is a lot of shadows. Contrasts signifies a wide tonal range and not merely contrasts between white and black. An image with contrasts will have all of these – shadows, midtones and highlights. High-noon is one time of the day when you can expect a lot of shadows in your images naturally.

Kiss of Light

In a home studio environment you can use a single light to produce the same thing. If the light is large, place it away from the model and you will produce a hard light that will produce contrasty images. If the light is small, place it at an angle to the subject’s face and you will have a lot of contrast going.

Photographers routinely use a number of ancillary tools in order to produce a focused beam of light. Grids are one tool that I shall be detailing below and is one such popular tool.

Lighting your Background

No matter what type of photography that you do, lighting the background of your photos is a key aspect of your photography and therein lies the challenge at times. Rather, challenges. I am referring to studio photography because in a natural light situation the background isn’t in your control.

All you can do is control the shutter speed to capture more or less light as the case may be. But you can’t turn the background light off or use an external light source to illuminate your background.

Portrait of a Man

So, why is it a challenge?

The challenge comes from estimating the right amount of light to ensure that the background is just the shade you want. Let’s say you want a perfectly white background.

You will need to:

The key light will control the exposure of the face. But by the time the light reaches the background there will be a lot of light fall off (courtesy: inverse square law).  So, to make the background appear perfectly white you will need to fire the studio strobe / flash at the same intensity as the key light or at least a stop higher.

The Use of Grids

Grids are one of the more popular light shaping tools around.

They are predominantly used on:

Small grids (stacked grids such as the 3-in-1 from Rogue) are available which you can attach to the front of a flash. They are perfect for creating an on the go hard lighting setup for contrasty portraits.

The Light Triangle

The light triangle is a favorite with studio as well as outdoor portrait photographers. You might have noticed that I have referred to portrait lighting quite frequently in this tutorial. It’s not that I love portrait photography more than other genres.

As a matter of fact, I love landscapes more. But the reason I keep referring to portrait lighting is because this tutorial is all about artificial lighting and portrait and studio photography are the principle areas where artificial lights are used.

Ok, the light triangle is actually a lighting setup. You can use this in a studio environment as well as in the outdoor environment. This is a typical front lighting arrangement but with a twist. The light sources are arranged in a way so that a triangle is formed. The photographer shoots through that triangle.

As you can imagine this arrangement can only be created if you shoot using softboxes and that to rectangular or square ones. This is because these softboxes with their clearly defined edges are most suitable for setting up to form a triangle.

One thing that you will have to keep in mind is that this is a predominantly front-lighting situation and that means the background is going to be dark. If you want a high-key arrangement or want a slightly brighter background you will need to use a background light. This arrangement is sometimes used in outdoor portraiture session. The ambient light fills up the background in such situations.

Clamshell Lighting

As the name suggests clamshell lighting uses two lights – one setup up high over the subject’s head and the other lower down, sandwiching the subject between. This is a high-key lighting setup and one that is used mainly for portraits, fashion shoots, and glamor shots.


There are a million different lighting arrangements that you can try out once you have the concept of using external lights figured out for yourself. This tutorial was designed to excite you to the prospects of what you can achieve with external lights and to inspire you so that you can try it out for yourself.

Feel free to use the lights you have and don’t be afraid to experiment.

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