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  • Writer's pictureRuss Tierney

Background light - building a multi light studio set up for photography portraits.

Building a multi light studio set up for photography portraits

Background Light

Need more separation? Of course you do.. apparently!

I warn you now, this video is mostly just an advertisement for our live tutorials here at Splash Point Photo Photography Studio.. I mean, there's only so much you can say about a background light in one minute without going in to depth about different modifiers, which is probably a different video unto itself. Plus, we kinda cover that here in the blogs as I ramble on about some vaguely in context information relating to each 101. At this point, these are pretty much just an excuse to write blogs, really, aren't they? However, hopefully it'll give you something interesting to latch on to, maybe a eureka moment of why something wasn't quite firing as you expected in the studio, and then a little confidence in a potential exploration for next time on how to fix that.

I keep saying it and repeating myself, but as always, the real results come from the doing! Gaining experience and making mistakes is invaluable, and then searching for the understanding as to why you don't like what you're achieving, or why it isn't working as you imagined, and then how to possibly address it... that will always be king! Not knowing what to look for, and the terms in which to research are the killer, so again, hopefully these blogs and 101s are merely potential answers of bite sized info to help you identify what to research, or with some luck, they may actually provide a potential answer.

So yeahhhh, you can interchange a background light with kickers, a rim light, hair lights etc, or you can use them all combined. The image below (and thumbnail above) of Emma on the swing is using a key, a fill, two kickers, and a background light.

Emma Starmore Smith at Splash Point Photo Photography Studio

As suggested above, the biggest question with the background light is how you want it to appear in shot. As often as it is, that is a creative decision and a personal choice. In that image of Emma, you can clearly see it's a spot, ie a circular gradient right behind her, kinda like a sun burst. These are achieved with adding a grid to a reflector dish. You've probably heard me touch quickly on grids, but again, they just ensure that the light travels in straight lines more tightly. Equally, the size of the reflector dish will dictate, well the size, but as does the distance of it from the subject, as there will be inevitable fall off over distance. What that means is, once a light leaves a modifier, it will naturally spread out to nothing (fall off), but a grid keeps that light pretty true to the shape of the modifier, turning it in to a spotlight.. hence the spot on the background, yet with inevitable minor fall off creating the gradient sunburst.

You don't have to use spots, you could use soft boxes and other light shapers, and then use the fall off to create gradients you find appealing. Back in the day, and probably still with old-skool purists, some photographers would try to match the gradient of the background light with the direction of the key light. That way they'd achieve the illusion of one natural light with the added benefit of no shadows behind the subject and/or an appealing looking backdrop that the fall off of the key light didn't allow for.. and of course, with separation! Honestly, in this day and age, that's probably the stuff that old white men who are stuck in their ways choose to argue about on photography forums.

Taking the background light(s) out of the studio is where it's hugely important as we try to avoid 'cave' like images. When a photographer says it's like shooting in a cave, they mean that if you stand at the mouth of said cave, you're getting light on the subject, and as it falls off, there's a whole lot of nothing behind, so effectively you're shooting into blackness or a dingy scene. It's the bane of event photographers lives who are forced to use a small on camera flashes in dimly lit rooms. That is when you'll potentially drag the shutter (see previous blogs) to bring in the ambient lighting of the room, so it's not cave like.

The chances are, of course, if you're on location, that scene is an important part of the narrative, so you will want it to be exposed in a manner that it adds context and is rendered in appealing detail. That may require several background lights, or the clever use of windows, lamps and other ambient sources to give that room an atmosphere. In smaller scenes, you could even lift those details by the key and fill light alone. Again, the important thing here is, you don't want any pure black patches of zero detail unless they're unimportant and not distracting to the scene, in which case, you may use that as a tactic to hide distractions.

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