Create Stunning Portraits With This Simple Two-Light Setup

Creating even, flattering light in the studio doesn’t have to be difficult. In this tutorial, I’ll show you three easy parallel lighting tricks to achieve portraits that everyone from the boardroom to Broadway will love.

What is Parallel Lighting?

Parallel lighting is a two-light setup where one light is placed on each side of your subject, parallel to each other and perpendicular to the ground. Although I use the Westcott Peter Hurley Flex Kit, the same results can be achieved using strobes and 1′ x 3′ strip boxes. There are many reasons to love parallel lighting, but the biggest benefit is that it creates flattering, even light without heavy shadows. It works well for all ages, genders, and businesses, actors, models, and other types of customers. And, because it’s fairly simple to do, it’s perfect for beginners who are just getting to grips with the studio.

First configuration: pleasant and uniform results

In our first setup, we’re going for flattering, even light with no harsh shadows on the face. The first thing we want to do is place each light about 12 inches in front of our subject and as close together as possible without the lights obscuring the subject’s shoulders. The most important thing is to make sure to turn off the lights. Softening is achieved by not pointing the light directly at the subject, but aiming it so that only the edge of the light hits their face. This is crucial because blurring will create a soft, pleasing light, while aiming the light directly at your subject will result in harsher highlights and shadows. Feathering in the parallel configuration is quite easy to do. Aim the center of the left light towards the camera’s right shoulder and the right light towards the camera’s left shoulder, instead of the face.

Next, take a moment to make sure your subject is in the sweet spot of the light, because if they’re ahead or behind the convergence of the light, they’ll have strange shadows on their face. You want your subject to be in the space where the two lights meet because the softest light will be in that area. It’ll probably be about twelve inches from the lights, but remember that finding the sweet spot is a game of millimeters, so keep an eye on how the light falls on the face and adjust accordingly.

That’s it! It really is that easy to do and people will love how they look using this light. I also opt for parallel lighting when I have a client with highly reflective lenses. Typically, I use a three-light setup with a bottom fill, but removing the bottom light makes it much easier to manage glare, and the parallel setup provides similar results to the three-light setup with a fill inferior.

A great setup for beginners

Besides being fairly easy to do, there’s another reason to love parallel lighting, which benefits beginners. Since the light is even across the entire face, you can easily turn your subject’s nose to the right or left without dramatically changing the results, like with a key/fill setup. The advantage here is that you can focus on your client’s pose and find their best angle without worrying about a drastic change in light if you turn their face from side to side. And while I avoid a “set it and forget it” approach to studio lighting, the basic setup can be changed fairly quickly if the subject is photographed with their nose to the left or right.

Second setup: Lots of attenuation and drama

Now that we’ve learned the basics of parallel lighting, it’s time to create a different look using the same basic setup. Instead of going for flat, even light, we can create more drama by intentionally shading both sides of the subject’s face. This variation of parallel lighting is great for actors, artists, or anyone who wants a unique portrait (I’ve also used it for corporate work). To further accentuate the drama, I go very wide open and intentionally blur the subject’s ears and body. As a result, most of the attention is drawn to the eyes.

To achieve this look, aim the lights directly at each other, so that the subject’s face is only illuminated with the extreme edge of the lights. The sides of your subject’s face will be obscured by shadow, as well as slightly out of focus, if you go wide open. I further suggest using a black V-flat on either side of your subject for more intense shadows. As before, we want the lights to be as close as possible without interfering in the composition, but if you shoot vertically and crop the shoulders, you can bring them even closer.

When using this setup, I also like to color in or create black and white versions for even more variety. I prefer my Canon 50mm f/1.4 lens for this work and often get close to the subject. Just keep in mind that even a 50mm lens will distort a person’s face when very close, so it may not be the best method depending on your client’s unique characteristics. A fast 85mm or 100mm will give great results, of course, so be sure to experiment with lenses and apertures to find a look you like.

Configuration 3: add a Kicker light

In our final setup, we add a third light to our parallel setup to use as a kicker, which creates a vertical band of light on the side of the subject’s face. One thing to watch out for is the power level of your kicker, because if it’s too bright, all detail will be lost, resulting in a blown highlight with no detail. I prefer a subtle kick that doesn’t distract from the subject’s expression and ensures that the texture of the skin is retained.

The kick can be placed on either side of the subject in parallel lighting. Make sure he is behind the subject and not directly facing him. Typically I point my kick at the opposite side of the subject, so if it’s positioned behind them, to the right of the camera, it’s aimed at the left wall. My kicker is usually between 10% and 20%, but this varies depending on the skin tone of the subject. As before, once your lights are set, you can ask your subject to move their head left or right to see how the results change. Standard practice is to point your nose away from the kicker light, but as always I think experimentation is the best way to learn, so don’t be afraid to try different face and shoulder angles.

loose ends

Although I use and prefer continuous lights, this can all be done with strobes. Be sure to use 1′ x 3′ or 1′ x 2′ strip boxes placed as close to the subject as possible to create any of the results in this tutorial. Using large softboxes will not work because the light spreads too much. I also use V-flat World v-flats but a black billboard on a light stand will also do Finally, always be aware of ambient light in your studio space as it will impact your final image. I learned all these parallel lighting techniques from Peter Hurley and Ivan Weiss, so check out their work too for more inspiration.

I hope you enjoyed this tutorial and tried some of these techniques that worked well for me!

Leave a Comment