Flash Photography Basics: My Four Go-to Lighting Setups

This article is the ninth installment of my Flash Photography Basics Series–a crash course in using flash.  To start at the beginning of the tutorial, click here.

Now that you have seen what each of the light modifiers do, you can begin working with the flashes to create lighting setups.  To help you get started, I'll show you four common light setups.

At this point, you are ready to actually get shooting and learn your flash.  I'll get you started here, but if you would like to watch video tutorials of exactly how I set up my lighting for portrait photography, you should really consider my online flash photography class.

Whether you are in the studio or on location, you can achieve different lighting styles to complement your model. It is important to remember that different lighting styles will look better depending on the shape of your model's head. Go ahead and start with your go-to lighting setup and see how that looks on the model. If it is a winner, then keep working with it. If you aren't completely satisfied and believe something could be better, it's probably the light.

4 basic, easy-to-remember lighting setups to get you started:

One Light Portrait


What to Look For
One Light portraits can be difficult to detect, unless you were the one taking the photo. One way to know if there was light involved is to look at the catch lights in the model's eyes. Seeing the catch lights gives you an idea of where the light was placed and if there was more than one light.

Using one light will work best when you have other ambient light in the photo. Your flash becomes the key light. It is easier to expose for the background when you are adding the light to your model.

The Setup

  • Place the light 45 degrees away from the camera to the side where the model parts their hair.
  • Raise the light to be just above the model's head and point the light downward slightly.
  • Flash power will depend on how much ambient light you are dealing with. Be careful not to create hard shadows by having too much flash power.
  • A softbox or an umbrella will be fine for these shoots. The closer the light, the softer the shadows will be and the less flash power will be required.
Some Tips

  • Use ambient light to fill shadows.
  • Hide and reveal. Expose for a normal background (which will most likely make the model too dark), then “reveal” the model with flash for a nicely exposed portrait.
  • Use the help of an assistant. Have your assistant help you quickly make adjustments during test shots as you figure out what all of the light is doing in the shot.
  • If there is too much ambient light, the flash won't do you much good. You will have to move to a location where the flash will have an affect.

Butterfly Lighting


What to Look For
You can easily identify butterfly lighting by the small shadow that appears under the model's nose. To fill in the shadows a little, you will most likely need a reflector or second flash pointed up. This makes it so the shadows aren't so long on the face.

The Setup

  • Place the light about 5 feet (2 meters) in front of the model.
  • Raise the light 9 to 10 feet (3 meters). Point the flash downward towards the model.
  • Increase the flash power a little bit because it is now further away.
  • Place the flash on a boom stand so that nothing is in the way of the photographer.
Some Tips

  • Use a reflector to fill in part of the shadow under the nose.
  • The model can easily hold the reflector while you take some closeups.
  • Butterfly Lighting can make some face shapes look heavier than they actually are.
  • Use this style to help create strong jaw lines.

“If you aren't completely satisfied and believe something could be better, it's probably the light.”

Rembrandt Lighting


What to Look For
In Rembrandt Lighting, you're looking for a small triangle of light that appears on the opposite cheek from where the flash is placed. This is a very common lighting style and will look flattering on almost anyone you try it on. A good rule of thumb when placing lights is to always place the light on the side where the model parts their hair — particularly with female models. Otherwise, the model's hair will cast a big shadow across their face.

The Setup

  • Place the key light 45 degrees to the side of the camera, about 5 feet (2 meters) from the model. Raise the light 6-7 (2.5 meters) feet high.
  • Place the fill light on the opposite side with a low flash power. Keep the light 4 feet (1.5 meters) from the model. Raise the flash to be about eye level with the model.
  • Position the model's head so the light will go across their face.
Some Tips

  • Place the key light on the side where the model parts their hair.
  • Use a reflector in place of a fill flash.
  • Unless the key light moves with the model's head, it is easy to transition into other lighting styles.
  • Small adjustments with the lights will make all the difference in how it looks on the model.

Headshot Lighting


What to Look For
Headshot lighting is important when shooting on darker backgrounds. Sometimes, the color of the model's hair will blend right in with the shadows and the color of the background. Use a hair light to create an outline around their head and pull them off the background. The way you can recognize this lighting style is when there are visible highlights on the person's hair. This can be overdone, so be careful and only apply enough light to create the outline.

The Setup

  • Place the key light 45 degrees to the side of the camera, about 5 feet (2 meters) from the model. Raise the light 6-7 (2.5 meters) feet high. (In reality, you can place the key light wherever you want, but we will stick with a basic Rembrandt style setup.)
  • Place the hair light behind the model, up high, with a low flash power. Keep the light 4 feet (1.5 meters) from the model. Raise the flash 9 – 10 feet (3 meters) high.
  • The hair light is best placed on a boom stand so that you can have it right above your model.
Some Tips

  • Place the key light on the side where the model parts their hair.
  • If you don't have a boom stand for the hair light, point the light at the background right about where the model's head would be.
  • Use a softbox for the hair light because you don't want the light going everywhere or spilling onto the background.

Continue to the next article in this flash photography basics series by clicking the red button below.

Continue to page 10

19 thoughts on “Flash Photography Basics: My Four Go-to Lighting Setups”

  1. Hi JIm.

    I was going to buy your flash set up that you recommended and I see there is a new item available and wondered if it was better or could replace the receiver for Nikon? I have a Sony Nex 6 and am so lost but would love to learn off camera flash and have no clue what I am doing! Thank you for your flash basics post, it certainly helped”shine Light” on the subject! Any help would be wonderful as I have a small budget.



  2. This is a respond to Erin’s comment……

    I own a Sony Nex-6 and a Sony A6000. I bought the Yongnuo flash and transceiver but never got the transceiver to work.
    Apparently the Sony standard hot shoe make it difficult to connect. (Not to be confused with the different proprietary hot shoe of Nex-5 and before models that are entirely different to the standard hot-shoe)

    However, knowing that the Yongnuo is a dumb flash (it will respond to any light)….I would first lift up the on-camera built-in- flash, then put on the Yongnuo. This way the bulit-in flash will not contribute to the final flash power because it points to the ceiling, but act as a very nice trigger for the Yongnuo. ……If you can get the Yongnuo to work just by being on the hot shoe it is even better.

    I bought the YN560-TX and find that it would only work some of the time . On Youtube there are all kinds of suggestions about taking the paint off the hot-shoe, wedging the side of the hotshoe, etc. I find that if you twist the YN560-TX to the right, there is a higher chance of getting this to work.

    These Yongnuo flashes are wonderful. Now I have 5 flashes and a radio transmitter , all for the price of one Nikon or Canon flash.
    Good luck and happy shooting.

  3. Hi all,

    I have run a number of lighting courses for my camera club, individuals, small groups and schools. Lighting is a very wide subject but this is an excellent starting point. Well done.

    I have a page on one of my websites about being prepared for a photo shoot that may be of interest to both photographers and models. The link is


    All the best


  4. Lighting setup is very important for taking high quality photos. Most of the professional photographers use lighting setup to increase the exposure quality, to boost the picture quality, etc. In your article you described every detail which we will need to know to buy a better lighting setup. Thanks a lot for your suggestions. Do you think taking pictures in lighting setup can bring much of a difference than comparing them with taking pictures in natural light? If I decide to buy any lighting sets then which model would be a better choice for product photography?

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