Plenty of outstanding portraits have been created with a single source of light.  A single strobe, a lighting modifier, and a couple of reflectors give you plenty of options.  Nevertheless, many photographers prefer the lighting precision and greater sense of depth possible with a multi-light setup.  In this section we'll build up the portrait lighting one light at a time.



Main Light


The main or key light is  the primary and, usually, the strongest light.  It is responsible for providing  shape and form.  In the example to the left, our subject is lighted solely by the main light.  As this main light is quite contrasty, the image shows stark areas of highlight and shadow, and would benefit from some fill lighting.












Fill Light


The fill light provides light to "fill in" shadow areas created by other lights.  In general, fill lights should provide an even, non-directional light that adds  little character or shadows of its own.  The fill light is nearly always weaker than the main light. The example to the left shows our subject lighted solely by the fill light.   This is a very flat light. 













Main and Fill Lights Combined


The image to the left shows the result of combining the main and fill lights.  In this example the main light is approximately 1.25 f-stops more intense than the fill light.  Used with a much lighter background, this lighting combination is useful for basic school and business photos.

















Main & Fill with Left & Right Kickers


Kicker lights, also known as rim lights, accent the edges of the subject.   Kickers are usually placed just out of view and,  behind and slightly to the right or left of the subject.  A gobo is often placed between the kicker light and the camera lens to minimize flare.  The image to the left shows our subject lighted with the main and fill lights as above, but with the addition of  a kicker to the left and right.   From the camera position, kickers set to the same output as the main light will appear noticeably brighter.   The kickers in this example are delivering less light than the main light, yet the area  they light appears brighter than the front of the face.  This occurs because the kickers are positioned such that a greater portion of the reflected light is the form of direct  reflection. 









Hair Light Added, One Kicker Removed


The hair light is used to enhance hair texture and provide separation from the background.   Notice how the hair, which nearly blended into the background in the previous images, is now visibly separated and more attractive in the example on the left.  This example differs from the previous one in the addition of the hair light and the removal of the camera-left kicker. 

Hair lights can add wonderful impact, but should be removed or used judiciously for people with thinning hair or bald pates.








       Main, Fill & Hair  (No Background Light)                     Main, Fill, Hair & Background Light


The background light is used to illuminate the background.  Background lighting may be even or graduated, color neutral or colored with the addition of gels.  In the examples above, we have the same lighting (main, fill, & hair), but in the image on the right a background light is added.  Notice how the background light helps separate the subject  from the background.