Background Light

How do you set up and meter a background light for a well-exposed portrait? Jeff Smith explains it in this excerpt from his Amherst Media book Step-by-Step Lighting for Studio Portrait Photography.

This excerpt from Step-by-Step Lighting for Studio Portrait Photography is provided courtesy of Amherst Media. To purchase the book and learn more about the publisher, visit the Amherst Media Web site.

When you turn on your main light, you raise the quantity of light on the subject. The area behind the subject, however, will then appear darker in comparison. To attain a balanced exposure, this means you will need to use a background light to increase the light levels in the background. Using a background light may seem pretty simple. However, using it correctly can be a challenge for new photographers. 


If you want the background to appear as it does normally to your eyes, you will need to add the same amount of light that you used on the subject’s face (if your main light reads f/8, the light on the background should read f/8). Of course, there’s no reason the background has to match “reality.” You can easily brighten or darken the background’s appearance by increasing or decreasing the amount of light on it relative to the main light source. (Note: If you paint your background a medium tone, you can darken it to near black or brighten it to near white by changing the amount of light you add.)


Backgrounds with strong lines look best when illuminated with a soft, even light. This is achieved by using a bounce light attachment to soften the light or using your flash without the parabolic reflector. If you are working with a background without distinct lines, you might want to create a hot spot behind the subject. This is done with a parabolic reflector, which focuses the light onto a spot behind where the subject will be positioned. The reflector allows the light to spread softly, becoming darker as it moves outward from the center. I prefer this style of background light because it helps to separate the subject from the background. Also, it can help you to direct the viewer’s eye right where you want it.


The height and angle of the background light can also change the characteristics of the light. When the light is directly behind the subject and aimed at the background, the light beam will create a circular pattern of light. This will ring the subject and fall off as it moves outward from the center. You can also lower the light and angle it upward to create a fan-shaped beam of light. This allows for better separation than placing the light right behind the subject. You can also put the backgorund light on the side or top of the background and have the beam of light come in from a different angle to achieve different looks with the same background.

Consider the Background

Before setting up your lights, consider the tone of your backdrop. Medium to dark-toned backgrounds can be lit similarly. White backgrounds need to be approached differently; if you are not careful, a white wall behind a subject can reflect light from all around the subject’s head back into the lens. If you’re shooting digitally, meter the white area and adjust your lighting so that it reads ½ stop less than the main light to ensure it is not reflecting into your lens and compromising your images. You can create a simple action to brighten and blur your white wall/background in postproduction.

We repaint the white floor in our studio every two business days. Because of the foot traffic, plus the Harley and the Viper (these are popular props for our senior sessions), the floor looks terrible most of the time. We simply run an action that brightens and blurs the floor to do away with this problem in the final portraits.


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Lighting for Product Photography: Shoes on a White Background

Allison Earnest demonstrates how to light and photograph a pair of athletic shoes for an online store in this excerpt from her Amherst Media book Lighting for Product Photography.

This excerpt from Lighting for Product Photography is provided courtesy of Amherst Media. To purchase the book and learn more about the publisher, visit the Amherst Media Web site.


Product: Field-hockey shoes

Directive: Photograph the shoes on a clean white background for use on a web site

I was commissioned to photograph products for a field-hockey company’s online store. The client requested a white background and a realistic depiction of the shoes’ attributes.

Flat lighting a product on a white background will not enhance its look—or its sales. I have often heard people say, “It’s only for a web site—it doesn’t have to look good.” In fact, when a product is placed online it is more important to show every characteristic of the subject. Many people who order items online are not equipped with calibrated monitors, so the photograph must convey the product’s attributes in their entirety.

For this assignment (see the final image in plate 6-55, above: ISO 200; 80mm lens; f/14; 1/100 second), that meant the lighting had to show the protruding tread on the sole, as well as the silver (with black breathable fabric) at the top of the toe area.

How It Was Done

Plate 6-56 is well-exposed, though flatly lit. Unfortunately, you can’t see many of the different fabric textures and characteristics of the shoe. There are burned-out highlights as well as blocked-up shadows. If I saw this photo online I would probably perceive the shoes to be black, red, and white—when, in reality, they are black, red, and silver. Can you see why lighting products is critical for your clients?

Plate 6-56. This flat exposure doesn’t do the shoe justice—or help the viewer decide to buy it. (ISO 200; 80mm lens; f/14; 1/100 second)

In plate 6-57 you can see the auxiliary tools that were necessary to shape this image. The black finger blocked the reflected light from the white surface to help shape the metallic silver trim and “D” logo on the shoe and the back sole of the product.

Plate 6-57. The tools needed to shape this product.

Plate 6-58 shows the final setup used to create plate 6-55. Let’s take a look at the diagram. A single monolight (A) with a 7-inch parabolic reflector was positioned high and angled down onto the back shoe as a hard source to show texture and depth on the treads. A double net cutter (B) was placed just in front of the monolight so that no additional light would fall onto the front of the shoe or the white surface. This would have added unwanted bounce light on the product. A second monolight with barn doors (C) was aimed at the white seamless paper to illuminate the background. (Note: To obtain a white background, the background exposure must be at least 1 stop brighter than the subject.) A 7-inch parabolic (D) was directed toward the background, metering about 1 stop brighter than the main light, ensuring a white background. A small stripbox (E) was placed to camera right as the main source of illumination on the product. Notice that this light was not on the camera axis, which would have produced flat lighting. It was placed at approximately a 90 degree angle to the product to create shadows and highlights and enhance the texture of the shoes’ black fabric. A small mirror (F) was used as an accent light, bouncing a highlight onto the silver fabric of the shoe. Another small mirror (G) was placed to add a highlight to the tip of one shoe and the logo on the back of the other. Remember that clients want to see their logo as clearly as possible, so don’t allow any highlight or shadow to run through any part of it.

Plate 6-58. The final lighting setup.


Plates 6-59 and 6-60. Viewing the bad (left) with the good (right) gives you an idea of how a few small adjustments can enhance the overall image and show all the product’s realistic attributes.



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Corporate Portraits

Working with overscheduled business people can be a challenge for any portrait photographer. Alyn Stafford explains how to set up and meter your lighting to make even the most time-deprived executives look good in this excerpt from his Amherst Media book Flash Techniques for Location Portraiture.

This excerpt from Flash Techniques for Location Portraiture is provided courtesy of Amherst Media. To purchase the book and learn more about the publisher, visit the Amherst Media Web site.

Working with professionals in a corporate environment is very different than taking photos of individuals for their personal portraits. The corporate professional is typically a busy individual who doesn’t have a lot of time to spend during their portrait session. So, getting your lighting correct and fast is essential.

When I’m hired to take corporate photos, I almost always take more than one assistant with me. My corporate clients do not have the time to waste while I get my gear ready and test my flashguns for the correct settings. I generally arrive anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes early to scout the location where I will be shooting and set up my lighting. I use one assistant to stand in the position where I will be photographing so that I can set up my lighting and make certain that all of my flashguns are positioned properly and powered according to my meter readings. I do this so that when it comes time to call the subject to the set, I can take the portraits without wasting the individual’s time. By taking the time to test the lighting with the assistant, I know that when I am photographing my subject, any lighting modifications that may be necessary would be minor.

Image 7-23. My assistant stands in the place where the businessperson will be photographed. Configuring and testing the setup before the shoot prevents me from wasting the businessperson’s time.

Working with Busy Professionals

Each location portrait session is different, so your lighting setup may vary from shoot to shoot. For this particular session, I could have set up a shoot-through umbrella to camera left, added my backlight, and called it a day. However, I wanted to demonstrate working with a light panel, which is nice if you have the time to set it up. If you don’t, then I recommend that you just go with the shoot-through umbrella—it’s quick and easy to use. 

Image 7-24. A setup shot showing the subject with various light modifiers, flash units, and my assistant holding a reflective bounce.

For this corporate session, the businesswoman I was photographing was a busy individual and didn’t have a lot of time to waste, so I used my assistant to stand in as I set up my lighting (image 7-23). Once I had my lighting configuration set up (images 7-24 through 7-27) I was able to call her from her office and place her in position to take the portrait. My decision to work with the light panels rather than a shoot-through umbrella came about because I was originally hired to photograph two individuals together. The light panel offered a wider surface area where I could set up two flashguns, not because I needed the power, but because I needed good light coverage across the area where the subjects would be standing. However, after I had set up my lighting, I ended up only having to photograph one individual, so I didn’t add the second flashgun. 

Image 7-25. A setup shot with a reverse view. Notice my assistant to the left holding a reflective bounce. This is a 2-in-1 bounce with a white surface on one side and a gold reflective surface on the other side.

Image 7-26. Detail shot of a Nikon SB800 flash unit mounted on a cold shoe flash/umbrella bracket, positioned above a shoot-through light panel. Notice the 45-degree angle, which is common in portrait lighting setups.

Image 7-27. A flashgun mounted on a tripod, gelled with a full CTO filter to warm up the background. Cinefoil was added to help create a pattern on the background wall when the flash was tripped. 

I took one photo using a bounce (image 7-28) and one without (image 7-29). If a client has time to spend with me during a photo shoot, I like to experiment with different lighting setups and see what works best. This isn’t to say that I don’t go in with a plan to begin with, because I do—however, each environment is different and brings new challenges and oppportunities to explore with lighting.

Image 7-28 and diagram 7-8 (left). Portrait made with bounce. Technical data: Nikon 80–200mm lens, 1/250 second at f/5.6, ISO 200. Two Nikon SB-800s, manual mode. 
Image 7-29 and diagram 7-9 (right). Portrait made without bounce. Technical data: Nikon 80–200mm lens, 1/250 second at f/5.6, ISO 200. Two Nikon SB-800s, manual mode.



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Flash-Fill and Flash-Key

How do you determine accurate fill-flash exposures every time or use your flash as a key light? Bill Hurter explains in this excerpt from his Wedding Photographer’s Handbook from Amherst Media.

This excerpt from Wedding Photographer's Handbook is provided courtesy of Amherst Media. To purchase the book and learn more about the publisher, visit the Amherst Media Web site.

A predictable form of shadow fill-in is electronic flash. Many photographers shooting weddings use barebulb flash, a portable flash unit with a vertical flash tube, like a beacon, that fires the flash a full 360 degrees. You can use as wide a lens as you own and you won’t get flash falloff with barebulb flash. Barebulb flash produces a sharp, sparkly light, which is too harsh for almost every type of photography except outdoor fill. The trick is not to overpower the daylight. It is most desirable to let the daylight or twilight backlight your subjects, capitalizing on a colorful sky background if one exists, and use barebulb flash to fill the frontal planes of your subjects.

Some photographers like to soften their fill-flash, using a softbox instead of a barebulb flash. In this situation, it is best to trigger the strobe cordlessly with a radio remote trigger. This allows you to move the diffused flash out to a 30- to 45-degree angle to the subjects for a dynamic fill-in. For this application, it is wise to equal or overpower the daylight exposure slightly so that the off-angle flash acts more like a key light, establishing a lighting pattern. For large groups, it may be necessary to use several softboxes or to use a single one close to the camera for more even coverage.


A handheld incident flashmeter is essential for work indoors and out, but it is particularly useful when mixing flash and daylight. It is also helpful for determining lighting ratios. Flashmeters will prove invaluable when using multiple strobes and when trying to determine the overall evenness of lighting in a large room. Flashmeters are also ambient light meters of the incident type, meaning that they measure the light falling on them and not the light reflected from a source or object. 

Metering and Exposure for Flash-Fill

Here is how you determine accurate fill-flash exposures every time: First, meter the daylight with an incident flashmeter in “ambi” mode. Say, for example, that the metered exposure is 1/30 second at f/8. Next, meter the flash only. It is desirable for the flash output to be 1 stop less than the ambient exposure. Adjust the flash output or flash distance until your flash reading is f/5.6. Set the camera to 1/30 second at f/8. That’s it. You can set the flash output from f/8 to f/5.6 and you will not overpower the daylight; you will only fill in the shadows created by the daylight and add sparkle to the eyes.

Daylight was the main light source for this charming image by Noel Del Pilar. To get a sparkle in the bride’s eyes—and good modeling on her face—Noel used a small, diffused strobe held high and to the left of the bride. The strobe was about ½ to 1 full stop brighter than the daylight in order to overpower it slightly.

If the light is fading or the sky is brilliant and you want to shoot for optimal color saturation in the background, overpower the daylight with the flash. This is where the flash becomes the key light and the ambient light becomes the fill light. Returning to the situation above, where the daylight exposure was 1/30 second at f/8, adjust your flash output so your flashmeter reading is f/11, 1 stop more powerful than the daylight. Set your camera to 1/30 second at f/11. The flash is now the key light and the soft twilight is the fill light. The problem with this technique is that you will get shadows from the flash. This can be acceptable, however, since there aren’t really any shadows coming from the twilight. As described previously, this technique works best when the flash is diffused and at an angle to the subjects so there is some discernable lighting pattern.

It is also important to remember that you are balancing two light sources in one scene. The ambient light exposure will dictate the exposure on the background and the subjects. The flash exposure only affects the subjects. When you hear of photographers “dragging the shutter” it refers to using a shutter speed slower than X-sync speed in order to expose the background properly.

One of the ways to deal with unflattering sunlight or overhead open shade is to overpower it with strobe, as was done here by Nick Adams. By overpowering the available light by about 1 stop with the assistant-held strobe, he created a pleasing portrait lighting pattern on the couple. The daylight became the overall fill light. The strobe was held high and to the couple’s right and it was fired remotely. The exposure was 1/160 second at f/4. Nick vignetted the image in RAW file processing.


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Octavian Cantilli Shoots FlowRider Surfing

In this article from our Professional Photographers on Light Metering series, Octavian Cantilli explains how he used two lighting setups to capture action shots of surfers.

In this shoot, where I had very limited time to make images, my light meter was vital for increasing the time I could spend behind the camera instead of messing with my lights. In all honesty, without my Sekonic L-558R I don’t think I would have had any time behind the camera at all. Metering at the point where the action takes place and then tweaking the packs once or twice beats the hell out of asking someone to stand in, taking the picture, and then repeatedly guessing what to do next. The name of the game here was getting my strobes at least 3 stops over ambient while maximizing either flash duration or high-speed sync.


My regular commute takes me by Fantasy Surf in Kissimmee, FL. About two years after first noticing the establishment, I finally went in to investigate the possibility of creating some interesting imagery. It turned out to be oozing with possibilities! After a few phone calls, e-mails, and visits with an enthusiastic and very accommodating general manager, as well as a short wait for the dual FlowRiders (water jets) to be fully functional, I was granted an hour and 30 minutes of "closed to the public" time with a couple world champion indoor surfers.

As someone who started his college career as an aspiring engineer, I've always been interested in the latest and greatest image-making technology. For this situation, both Profoto's ultra-short flash duration Pro-8a and Pro-B4 generators and PocketWizard's FlexTT5 high-speed-sync transceivers teamed up with Nikon speedlights seemed like a good choice. I had access to both systems, so why not use both and compare and contrast the results? With the generous help of a couple good friends, Vincent Santilli and Willie J. Allen Jr., I was able to make some images worth sharing. The amount of time required for setup, and for the cameras to become acclimated to the humidity in the room, shrank my shooting time to about 30 minutes.


System A 

  • Nikon D4
  • Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II
  • Sony XQD 16 GB cards
  • 2x Profoto Pro-B4
  • 2x Profoto ProHead Plus
  • Profoto Pro-8a
  • Profoto ProHead
  • 2x Profoto extension cables
  • Profoto RFi 1'x4' softbox
  • Profoto Air transmitter

The limiting factor, thus the first thing I dialed in this system, was the amount of power the backlights could put out. Each backlight consisted of a Profoto Pro-B4 and a ProHead Plus. In full "freeze mode," I could only turn the packs up slightly above half power or f/3.5, ISO 200, 1/250 second, measured at the center of the surf area, which was about 3 stops brighter than the dimmed-down overhead fluorescents. Then, I dialed the frontal fill light (the 1'x4' strip, which was feathered up, powered by an Pro-8a) to about 1.5 stops under the backlights or f/2.3, ISO 200, 1/250 second. For the overall exposure, I wanted more depth of field, so I settled on f/6.3, ISO 800, and 1/250 second. Looking back, I wish I had gone with f/11, ISO 2500, 1/250 second, because the sensor in my D4 still makes super-clean images at this ISO setting! Having some magnum reflectors on the backlights would have let me go down in ISO as well. Turning the overhead fluorescents completely off would have allowed me to go down in power on all the packs, which would have yielded shorter flash durations, and thus even sharper images. Next time. . . .

System B

  • Nikon D4
  • Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR II
  • Sony XQD 16 GB cards
  • 4x Nikon SB-900
  • 5x PocketWizard FlexTT5
  • PocketWizard AC3 ZoneController
  • Profoto RFi 1'x4' softbox
  • Profoto dual speedlight speedring
  • 4x Manfrotto Magic Arms
  • 5x Manfrotto Super Clamps

The lights for this system were piggybacked next to System A, within one foot in placement, so the difference in light angle was negligent. Magic Arms were used to secure the speedlights and FlexTT5s to the C-stands and Junior Boom Arm. I controlled this system from an on-camera AC3 ZoneController. The backlights were set to zone C at half power, and the two frontal fill speedlights in the 1x4 strip softbox were set to zone A at one-eighth power. All of this produced an overall exposure of f/3.5, ISO 800, and 1/250 second. This exposure was only 1.5 stops brighter than the ambient light, which would have given me ghosting and blurry pictures. This is where the FlexTT5 system came in. I was able to dial in my shutter to 1/1000 second, while losing only about 2/3 of a stop of light. I settled on an overall exposure of f/2.8, ISO 800, and 1/1000 second, but just like before, I wish I had trusted my camera and gone with f/6.3, ISO 4000, and 1/1000 second. Having external battery packs on each of the speedlights and turning up the power to full on the backlights would have given me a more favorable overall exposure and faster recycle times, but that would have pushed my poor little speedlights to the max. With the way I had things set, I was getting about three-second recycle times, which I often didn't abide by. That was evident by the fact that the images I made with this system were all over the place in exposure and white balance. Given more time to set up and test, better results can be attained than what I was good for, but my time to make images was running out.

Check out Octavian Cantilli's behind the scenes video of the shoot.

Octavian Cantilli is an Orlando FL-based photographer who specializes in natural, moment-based imagery and personality portraiture.  You can see more of his work on his Web site.

Read more from Octavian Cantilli and other working pros in our Professional Photographers on Light Metering series:
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