Portrait Lighting Arrangements for the DIY LED Studio Lights – How to light a portrait

 

Now that you have your own DIY LED studio lights- or you maybe you are planning to build a set-  you need to learn how to use it. I’ll walk you through a dozen different ways that I use these lights, plus I’ll give you some not-so-obvious tips that I have learned along the way and I’ll even show you a few of my finished shots.

Watch the VIDEO…

This is a 4 light DIY LED studio lights setup that I built (and showed you how to in this video) with the idea of having two main lights that are 11.5 in wide by 48 in tall and two additional lights that are 5.5 in wide and also 48 in tall with the plan being to use them as rim lights or background lights. You can even add strobes to extend the possibilities.

Bird's eye view of LED studio lights setup with two main lights and two rim lights

One main Light

So let’s start out by using just one main light on camera left. Here is the result on a white background:

One LED Studio light on camera left on white background

a gray background:

One LED Studio light on camera left on gray background

and a black background:

One LED Studio light on camera left on black background

One main light with Walmart Reflector

If we add a Walmart reflector on camera right, this is what we get on white:

One LED Studio light on camera left with walmart relfector on camera right on white background

here is how it looks on gray:

One LED Studio light on camera left with walmart relfector on camera right on gray background

and on black:

One LED Studio light on camera left with walmart relfector on camera right on black background

Please note that the reflector is parallel to the subject’s face and slightly higher. You don’t want to be adding light from below the face unless you are trying to make a zombie photo. I also place the reflector slightly in front of the subject’s face. Experiment moving the reflector closer or further from the face to get the amount of fill that you are happy with. Remember: there is no right or wrong.

One Main Light, One reflector, two rim lights

If we add rim lights to the mix we get this look:

One LED Studio light on camera left with two rim lights

This will also work well on a black background.

Clamshell Lighting

I created this LED Studio lights setup intending to use it as a clamshell lighting setup turned sideways. Remember that clamshell lighting is when you have two lights one above and one below your lens and you get light that looks like this:

Clamshell lighting example focus on catchlights in eyes

 

Clamshell lighting setup example

If we turn that clamshell setup sideways and set each light at an equal distance from the lens, we get light that looks like this:

Vertical clamshell lighting example focus on catchlights

 

Vertical clamshell lighting setup example

Now if we set up our two main lights on either side of the subject on a white background we get this:

Two LED Studio lights on either side of subject on white background

on a gray background it looks like this:

LED Studio lights on either side of subject on gray background

And on a black we get this:

LED Studio lights on either side of subject on black background

My subject is approximately 5 ft from the background in the above examples.

If you place your subject and lights closer to the backdrop it will of course make the white and gray backgrounds lighter. If you place everything close to the black background, it tends to turn the black to a dark gray.

2:1 Lighting Setup

For those of you that like a more traditional lighting setup, if we turn off the inside strip on the camera right main light, we now have a 2:1 lighting ratio with two lights lit on the left and one light on the right.

turn off LED Studio lights pannel

 

LED Studio lights two to one lighting ratio on white background

Here it is on the gray:

LED Studio lights two to one lighting ratio gray background

and again on the black:

LED Studio lights two to one lighting ratio black background

Now before some of you ask if these lights only work on white, black or gray the answer is of course not! They will work on any color you want. Be patient – I’ll get to different colors.

Two Main Lights and Two Rim Lights

Here is the set-up that I had in mind when I built these LED studio lights. Four lights: two main lights in the front and two rim lights in the back.

LED Studio lights clamshell lighting on white background

Here is the result on gray:

LED Studio lights clamshell lighting on gray background

and here it is on black:

LED Studio lights clamshell lighting on black background

Now remember, my subject is about 5 ft from the background. If we turn the two rim lights and face them towards the backdrop we make the backdrops lighter. Here is the gray version:

LED Studio lights two main lights and two rim lights aimed at background on gray

If I move the two single strips closer to the background, I can make the backgrounds even brighter. Here it is on gray:

LED Studio lights brightened backdrop gray

Gradient

I can get a nice gradient on the backdrop if I take the two single lights and simply lay them on the floor to light the gray background.

Gradient background

Hair Light DIY

For those of you who really want to go old school with a hair light, you can use a super clamp made by Manfrotto or Impact and a swivel tilt bracket with a stud to mount the super clamp.

Hair Light DIY

Mount this on a heavy duty light stand and you will also need to use a small counterbalance bag to level it out.

hanging light

A warning here: this works very well, but be sure to tighten that super clamp with a death grip and use a stand that will support the weight of your counterbalance and the light. You don’t want the light falling on your subject. If you think you are going to do this more than once, it’s a good idea to mark the spot where you got the light to balance with a Sharpie. That way, the next time you set it up, you won’t have to experiment with finding the balance point.

Colored Backgrounds: Two Lights on Camera Left (and rim light!)

Ok, so let’s look as just a few more variations and I’ll use colored backgrounds for these.

If we take both main lights and move them to the same side, we get a much broader light source.

two lights on camera left

If we keep the subject close to the background we can get away with just the main lights or add a simple rim light like you see below.

rim light

Colored Backgrounds: Sideways Clamshell, Strobe and Gels

If we add a strobe to light the background, we can use all four LED studio lights in a sideways clamshell set-up with two rim lights and then light the background with a separate strobe – this gives you the option of adding colored gels to create even more color possibilities.

Clamshell lighting setup with purple background and teal gel

Clamshell lighting setup with purple background and orange gel

Clamshell lighting setup with purple background and magenta gel

Clamshell lighting setup with purple background and no gel

I could go on for another hour or so, but I think you get the point… the possibilities are endless and you are really only limited by your own ability to “see light.”

Now I promised you some useful tips…

First: notice the height of the lights in relationship to the subject. I always try to keep my subject’s face about 1/3 of the way from the bottom of the fixture. If you set the fixture too low, you will have a lot of the light coming from below the face, which can cause shadows on the top of the cheeks and nose.

subject's face in bottom 1/3 of light

Second: Be very careful with the rim lights. You don’t want them to be so close that you lose detail in the hair and skin, and you don’t want to have a nose that glows. Take your time and adjust the lights accordingly. Also pay close attention to the hair when you are using the rims. If the hair is too far forward on the subject’s face, it will cause a dark shadow on the side of the face.

dark shadow on side of manequin's face caused by rim light

You do NOT need to move the light to fix this. Move the hair! A little hair spray will keep it in place long enough to get your shot.

So there you have it, regardless of whether you are using my DIY LED studio lights or if you already had the T8 fluorescents or if you are using speedlights or monolights – all of these arrangements work depending on what modifiers you have available and what backgrounds you have as well.

Now please… PRACTICE. And then practice some more. Experiment! And remember: your best shot is your next shot. So keep learning, keep thinking, and keep shooting. Adios!

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