Studio Lighting: Unravelling the Complexity of Multiple Lights

Studio Lighting: Unravelling the Complexity of Multiple Lights

As one gets started in studio lighting I think it is pretty common to get over ensconced in the lighting scenarios. It is funny because everything you read tells you to start with one light until you really start getting a feel for how to shape, angle and manipulate it with purpose. Most of us end up getting lost in multiple light set-ups struggling to find proper lighting solutions. I was not any different.

Soon after I got started, I found myself using 4-5 lights in every setup and then getting frustrated with the nuclear explosion of light that was going off with each shutter click. It makes me laugh now, because at the time I was solely focused on getting light on the subject, background and in most cases everything else in the room that was touched by the mushroom cloud of illumination. I did not understand the importance of shadow, shape, depth and form.

Maturing with studio lighting takes time and patience, and always remember that each light should have a specific purpose. Understanding how to build the lighting with intent in mind takes plenty of practice and a fair number of mistakes and experimentation. Just remember to keep an open mind and never stop learning from both your successful and failed attempts. So, let’s get down to business and walk through a more challenging lighting set-up being mindful of the reasons and rational for each lights use.

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In pre-planning for any shoot it is always good to have some structure and direction to the idea or concept. Some focus, no matter how vague, will always be helpful. Understand what sort of mood, feel or emotion you hope to portray and have some insight into what you want presented in your final image. In the shoot presented in this article, the overall theme was a creative portrait based on the beauty of ice, winter and cold.

This already set most of my color palette to blues, whites, silvers and other cooler tones. I also wanted to give a feeling like the model was being seen through a pane or block of ice and knew I wanted some crystal like texture incorporated. Simply put, I needed a lighting set-up that would maximize the crystalline texture, but that would also provide a flattering light for the model. Sounds simple right?

Lighting Plan

Let’s think through this lighting for a moment. In order to light for texture, one needs to light from the side so that the light skims the texture and creates shadows that give some shape, depth and form to the surface. Great! We can side light our crystalline forms. Oh but wait, if we side light the model we are likely going to see every blemish, hair or imperfection on the skin and either are going to resort to a lengthy saddle-sore ridden editing session, or have a very unflattering photo of our model.

How can I get a nice beautiful light on my model? I know, butterfly or clam shell lighting provides a very flattering look and has a way of smoothing out the complexion. Awesome! But wait, if I front light the texture, I will lose the depth and form of the crystals. Quite a conundrum, huh? Well, at least it provides a framework to help me set-up my lighting. I want some sort of combination of side lighting and butterfly lighting that will accomplish both of my needs. Lets break it down in a diagram.



All make-up and styling was performed by the amazingly creative Dina Bree. The model, Leslie, was shot against a blue seamless background through a piece of plexiglass that had been treated to create a crystalline or frozen texture. White and silver confetti was released over the model during shooting to gain an effect as if snow was falling lightly.

I had two strip boxes, one on either side of the plexiglass skimming the surface and providing some side lighting to the model. The key light was a diffused beauty dish that was placed directly above the plexiglass and angled down at the model and positioned so that it would not spill light on the textured surface. My fill light was a 7” reflector with blue gel bounced off of the floor beneath the plexiglass up at the model again trying to avoid spill on the plexiglass. I knew I wanted both the textured surface and the model in sharp focus so I chose a very small aperture at f/16 to gain a large depth of field.

Thus, I had found a pleasant combination of side lighting and butterfly lighting to accomplish my goals within the original framework I had outlined.

When I conceived the idea for this shoot, I have to admit I was not sure if I could pull it off effectively. I knew the lighting would be tricky and that it could take some subtle changes or modifications as I progressed through the shoot. I also knew that it could be a complete disaster with an ultimate failed result. Either way it was going to be a great learning opportunity. Lighting with intent and purpose is critical as you move into multiple light set-ups. Planning and understanding the need for each light serves to unravel a lot of the complexity encountered in studio lighting scenarios.

Also, don’t be afraid to experiment within the set-up. This final shot was a fantastic accident as I decided to turn the key light off for some production shots and I got a whole new look and feel to the image. Take your time and think it through and make sure you have an idea of where you are going before you start. There is no need to fly completely blind. Be confident, clever and calculated and you will soon find that you can amaze yourself and satiate that starving creative beast inside you with a nice healthy meal.

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Alex Smith is a photographer and blogger out of Denver, Colorado. He is cofounder of the blog that is dedicated towards making better photography easier for everyone. More of his work can be viewed at

Some Older Comments

  • Mike Fox April 27, 2013 02:21 am

    Excellent article. I have been working on a similar idea with an ice and frost theme and the plexi glass technique and confetti has added a whole new dimension to my idea. I don't have the same lighting gear, though so hope I can get a good result. I have a three light studio setup. Two softboxes, a shoot-through and a reflective umbrella, also my speedlight with gels. Have other diffusers and modifiers that may come in handy. Anyway, will start experimenting and hopefully this will result in something good. Thanks for the article.

  • David Mayne April 26, 2013 05:16 pm

    What a fantastic article gives you lots of knowhow. as to the set up. I will probably try this out with my wife as the model.
    David Mayne

  • Lenna Davis April 26, 2013 06:07 am

    Thank you so much! I learned a lot!

  • Alex Smith April 26, 2013 01:58 am

    No worries! The beauty about trying new setups and scenarios is to learn from them and experience the results to help fine tune and improve ones skills. Thanks for the comment and for reading the article.


  • Larry April 26, 2013 01:13 am

    Very cool concept!

    I hate to say it but the blue neck looks like a goatee... sorry.

  • Alex Smith April 21, 2013 12:47 pm

    @Hilda Wehe
    Yes, you are correct. I left the central part of the plexiglass clean so that I could shoot through it.

  • Hilda Wehe April 21, 2013 09:24 am

    Nice article. I just want to check my capture the image did you photograph through the plexiglass in an area where the Epson salt was not painted on the surface.

  • Alex Smith April 20, 2013 12:26 pm

    The crystal texture was created with a super saturated solution of Epsom salt. Essentially, heated a cup if water and added two cups Epsom salt. Allowed to cool a bit and painted it on the Plexiglass and let it dry.

  • Scott April 20, 2013 06:31 am

    How did you add the texture to the plexiglass??