Triple and quadruple main lights learning

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Looking for a soft light with a lot of punch? You’ve come to the right chapter. But the triple main light technique is different in that each light is a parabolic aimed into a 36-inch white umbrella.

For this approach, I set the lights in a loose semicircle or with all three parallel to each other, with the center light on a boom so there is no stand to get in my way. This center light is placed higher than usual, roughly 3 feet over the subject’s head. The other lights are on regular stands and placed lower than my typically recommended height, 6 to 12 inches over the subject, and can slightly overlap the center umbrella or just be butted up to it. Placement like this guarantees nice, soft shadows (but with an “edge”), and the light on the boom means I can shoot through the tunnel from whatever distance is best for the lens I’m using. All three lights are angled down slightly but aimed straight ahead, not individually angled toward the subject, and are placed about 6 feet from where my model will be. See image 8.1.

Metering is a little tricky but not too difficult. Set up another light stand or some sort of target where your subject will be. Measure each light separately, with the others turned off, until all three are powered equally. Turn all three lights on and measure again. You’ll notice the three lights together are brighter than their individual readings because the effects of light are cumulative. If you must make an adjustment to get the total reading to a perfect whole, one-third, or two-thirds f-stop, power the two sidelights down equally or power the center light up. The adjustment will be minor, but you’ll need to be as accurate as possible.

When your subject is in place, the first thing you’ll notice is how nicely the subject’s features are modeled by the light. You might have thought this light would be flat, but the snappy specularity the umbrellas render does exactly the opposite, and the result is beautiful. See image 8.2.


Triple main lights




As you can imagine, the three lights create interesting catchlights in the eyes. These are easily retouched to a single point should you wish to disguise your lighting or want a more traditional look. Personally, I think retouching two of them out of each eye, disguising the technique, would be one more little thing that could set your work apart from that of your competition. (“I use one umbrella, just like you, but my shots aren’t even close.” Music to my ears.) See image 8.3.

An added benefit from this scenario is that your subject is free to move to either side without a need to reposition the lights. See image 8.4.

I’ve found the best place for the model is 5 to 8 feet from the lights. This gives each light enough distance to mix with the others and yet be separate enough to add contour. If the model is farther back, the lights tend to mix too much and flatten out a bit. It’s not necessarily a bad look, it’s just not as punchy. See diagram 8A.

Since the background will be flooded with light that’s angled straight toward it, the only way you can control the brightness or darkness of the background is to vary the distance of the model to it, relative to the lights. For example, if the model is 6 feet from the background and 6 feet from you, and the background is too bright for your taste, double her distance from the background (i.e., move her 12 feet away from the background) but keep her 6 feet from you and the lights. This will reduce the light on the background by 2 stops, making it 1/4 its original strength.

This technique works beautifully with a black background as well, and, while it will work with any model, it can be very dramatic if the model has dark hair. In my case, my model’s hair was professionally colored to matte black and soaks up light like a black hole. I set a beauty bowl with a 25 degree grid on a boom above her and powered it up 1 full stop over the triple main light. It was placed very close to the top of her head, about 18 inches, because I wanted fast falloff and needed to control how much light would spill onto her shoulder. If too much light were to hit the shoulder, it would blow out to pure white and be a distraction. The light was metered at the top of the model’s head and allowed to fall off from there.

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After checking that all three lights were outputting the same amount of power, we started to shoot. The result is spectacular light that softly wraps around the subject. It shows all the qualities that make a triple umbrella main light so wonderful, but with a little less punch. Notice how well the light illuminates the fabric of her dress.

When a hair light is so close to the subject, there’s an element of danger in the setup. While the odds are against electrocution, it is quite possible that the model may move her head in such a way as to get hit by extra light. Since the effects of light are cumulative, she will be overexposed wherever the extra light lands.

When you get everything set, you might want to put a piece of tape on the floor, between the model’s feet, so she knows exactly where she needs to be centered. She won’t have a lot of room to move around, given the narrow constraints of the hair light.

You probably know by now that my favorite working question is, “What if . . . ?” So, what if the model were lit by softboxes in the same configuration?

I removed the umbrellas and substituted a 3×4-foot softbox for each of the sidelights, with a 2×3-foot softbox on the boom. The side boxes were angled slightly off the vertical to give me more room to shoot through them, while the softbox on the boom was set straight across. This is not carved in stone, you understand. I set the softboxes as I did for the space, but also because I thought I’d get more interesting catchlights in the model’s eyes.


I keep trying to find new ways to wrap light around my models. When it’s properly thought out and tested, light that wraps around a subject creates a different look, a look that’s both even and dimensional, unlike other methods.

For this portfolio shoot I wanted something different. I knew my model would look great if I used the triple main light scenario, but I wanted to push the envelope. I wondered if the approach could be improved with an additional strobe and umbrella. I began by setting up three lights on stands arranged in a semicircle. I attached the fourth to a boom. Putting the center light on a boom allows me to shoot through the umbrellas without having to deal with a stand right in the center of the group, but that’s only a matter of convenience. One could easily shoot around the stand if necessary.

The upper three lights were powered to the same f-stop by metering each light separately. The fourth light, also metered separately, was 11/3 stops less because I wanted it to act as fill. All four lights were then turned on and metered together to get the working f-stop.

The model was positioned about 6 feet from the lights. I’ve found 5 to 8 feet to be the optimum distance for a single model because the light will flatten out with more distance. Image 8.10 is what the setup looked like from the model’s perspective. Imagine the camera right in the center.

One of the beautiful features of this scenario is the multiple catchlights in the model’s eyes. Under other scenarios I’d personally not want to see more than one catchlight in each eye, but that “rule” may go out the window when the lights are placed symmetrically.

You may have noticed minimal shadowing in the shots made with the triple main light. The fourth light worked beautifully to eliminate that problem, filling what few shadows there were and adding an extra degree of dimensionality.When the model looked straight into the camera, the softness and depth of the light were spectacular. The extra catchlight is pretty cool, too.

It didn’t matter if my model moved left or right, as long as she stayed the correct distance from the light, giving her a great deal of freedom on the set. I found it interesting that, whenever she turned her head, slight shadowing occurred on the half of her face not hit by all four lights. Beautiful.

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This lighting scenario has proved to be very versatile. For example, it’s not necessary to always power the bottom light less than the other three. When all are equal, the result is soft, even light with a great deal of “snap.” Look at the detail and color in this model’s hair and the even color of her skin.

Let’s make a couple of changes.I left the top and bottom lights evenly powered but turned the two sidelights down 1 stop each. It’s necessary to re-meter, of course, because the cumulative strength of the light has changed.

Notice how she appears to be outlined, slightly, by the areas of less density on the sides of her arms yet her entire front is perfectly lit.

I’ll take it a step further and turn the sidelights down an additional stop. The impression given by the lights would indicate the model’s being lit with a long softbox. Notice how the extra density on her arms increases as her arms recede from the camera. Unfortunately, I’m not aware of any traditional softbox in use today that allows a camera to shoot through it.

I left the sidelights at –2 stops and turned the bottom light down 1 full stop. The shadow under her chin has increased and the light now falls off, vertically, across her body. Even though it doesn’t quite have the unique feel to it that it had in the previous images, the light is still beautiful.

Want to drive your competitors crazy?Most photographers will look at catchlights when trying to figure out how someone was lit. If a faceted reflection is seen, it’s a no-brainer that the photographer used an umbrella, so that’s what they’ll use to duplicate the look. Same goes for the rectangular shape of a softbox. I’d suggest that you retouch the multiple catchlights in a quad main light or triple main light shot and replace them with fake catchlights made in a shape that could never create this light, an ellipse, perhaps, or a point light source. It’s so much fun to mess with the competition.

By now you’ve seen some of what I would consider to be basic extensions of my train of thought, the “What if…?” scenario. You’ve seen what just a few combinations of lights can do if the application, the physics, and the end result are thought through before the “moment of truth” begins on the set. I’m certain that there are many combinations of lights, ratios, and modifiers that I’ve not covered or even thought of. I’m equally certain that you, if you’ve welcomed the investigative spirit that I’ve tried to impart, will find them. And more.

Always keep your customers amazed and your competition guessing. It helps justify your fee.

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