FAQ Fridays: off-camera flash setup

PrettyGeeky’s FAQ Fridays is a segment on our website where we try to answer your photography questions in plain English. This week’s topic is something that we think would be very helpful for those of you who are just starting out with off-camera flash photography:


How do you guys set up your lights for your photo shoots?

Before we get to the answer, since every post should have a photo… here’s the end result of a basic 3 light setup that we often use.

simple 3 light photography setup


Although natural light can be the most flattering light, sometimes you just don’t have enough of it (or it’s coming from the wrong direction) to properly light up your subjects. It is during this time that you should start to think about using off-camera flash photography. There are many different ways to position your lights, but what we’ll show you today is the most basic way to start off. You don’t even need a lot of lights, you can start with just one and work your way up. Below, we’ll show you how your subjects would look like when lit with just one light, two, then three lights.

Let’s start off with a bare bones natural light photo. Although it’s nice, it can sometimes be a bit flat and lifeless. With natural light photos, sometimes you get the dark evil eyes too… scary! O.o.

simple 3 light photography setup

Now let’s add one light to brighten up the subject. Where do you place the light? A good starting point is 45 degrees camera left, and 45 degrees above their face (flash pointing down at them)… basically diagonally from your subject and diagonally up above their face. If you do it correctly, you should see a nice catch light (sparkle / reflection) in their eyes. Make sure you don’t put it so high that you lose the nice catch lights and make their eyes look all dark and evil again.

simple 3 light photography setup

Ok, so now that you’ve been using one light for awhile… you’re getting tired of the dramatic shadows under the neck and nose… and want to soften it up a little. The next step would be to add a second fill light. This fill light does exactly what it’s supposed to: fill in the shadows left behind by the main light. The key here is to make sure your fill light is not set to the same power as the main light.. otherwise you will have a boring flat light again. Keeping it half the power of the main light is a good starting point.

Tip: you can save money and use a reflector here instead of another light.

Notice how the neck shadow is now nicely filled in.

simple 3 light photography setup

By now, you’re so used to main and fill lights that it’s starting to get boring. What’s left to do? You can add a little more pop by adding a 3rd rim light (sometimes called back or edge light). What’s the purpose of this light? It adds just a kiss of light to create a soft rim around your subject. This helps separate your subject from the background making it “pop” out more.

Take a look below, do you see how nice the hair looks now? There’s a nice glow that’s been added by the 3rd rim light. Just like the fill light,make sure you keep the power lower than the main light.

Bonus tip: you can always use the sun as your rim light! It’s free and its batteries won’t run out of juice before your photo-shoot ends ;p

simple 3 light photography setup

Well, that’s it! Easy huh? Here are photos showing how each light individually affects the photo. If I know that I will end up using 3 lights… I will usually work backwards. I set up the rim light first, making sure it is dialed in correctly… then I’ll turn off the rim light and set up the fill light… then I set the main light… then finally I turn all three lights on. Why do I work backwards? For me, it’s easier to pinpoint the effects of the fill and rim light when you do it this way.

Let’s start from scratch again… no lights at all.

simple 3 light photography setup

Below: just the rim light… it adds a nice silhouette to separate your subject from the dark background.

simple 3 light photography setup

Below: just the fill light… you see how it softly lights up the side of the face.

simple 3 light photography setup

Below: just the main light again.

simple 3 light photography setup

Again, here are all three lights turned on for the final look.

simple 3 light photography setup

BTS: Light setup
Take a look at the light setup below, especially how each light is placed in relation to each other. Another thing worth noting is the size of the modifiers… remember, the larger the light, the softer the shadow. Although all lights used were the same light (Nikon SB-600 speedlight), each used a different modifier. All lights were controlled remotely by the Nikon SU-800 Wireless Speedlight Commander Unit (this lets me change the mode and power of each flash unit separately without having to walk over to each light) and furthermore… controlled by radio (instead of line-of-sight limited infrared) by the RadioPopper PX system.

The main light used a giant 64″ PLM silver reflective umbrella with a diffusion screen to further soften up the light. What power setting did I use? I had the main light set to TTL mode (geek speak for: automatic). Lights are so smart nowadays huh? I did tone the power down by -1.0 stops however (I prefer the soft light instead of the hard super flashed look).

The fill light used a similar but smaller 51″ PLM silver umbrella w/ diffusion screen as well. The power setting was again on TTL mode (-2.0 stops adjustment). Told you it was easy.

Before I talk about the other light, REMEMBER: if you plan to use umbrellas or softboxes outdoors… make sure you sandbag them down. You’re wallet will flip you off if you don’t. ;p

The rim light used a home-made black foamy thing snoot. Basically the foamy keeps the light from spreading everywhere… directing it mainly to the head and shoulders. With the rim light, since I don’t need it to change much, I leave it in manual mode with a very low power setting.

All lights were placed on the trusty Impact light stands that were include with the very first umbrella light kit i purchased from way back when. I still recommend it because of it’s low price point for what you get (2 umbrellas, 2 light stands, 2 umbrella brackets .. all for ~$100).

I saved the last gear item for the best. It’s super small, but durable and sturdy… the Giottos mini-ball head (~$13). This works just like the larger ball heads that are needed when you mount a camera onto a tripod, except this is smaller and mounts your flash onto your light stand instead. I use this because it gives full 360 degrees motion to my speedlights. When used with an umbrella, I can lay the speedlight down along the umbrella shaft so that the light from the flash hits closer to the center to create a more even light.

simple 3 light photography setup
simple 3 light photography setup
simple 3 light photography setup

What is FAQ Fridays?
FAQ Fridays is an ongoing weekly feature on this site where WE answer questions submitted by you. We hope this new segment will help with many of your photography challenges. As always, you can ask questions in the comments section if it relates to that certain post.

Here is a list of: all previous FAQ Fridays posts

If you have specific questions that do not relate directly… then feel free to submit your questions by using the FAQ Fridays Submission Form page.

Alternatively, you can email your questions to: faq -at- prettygeeky.com (note: email broken up to prevent spam bots).

  • Lori said:

    Sometimes nice lmao

  • I love love love this! I think your bts photos are my favorite they're so helpful!

  • KB said:

    It's been a couple of months since I've had my camera, but I've been lazy on reading up on the manual (zzzZzzzZZz... Puts me to sleep!) . Reading your blog makes me want to get out there and shoot some photos. I'm learning so much and I appreciate all the VISUALS. Me, like, you dumb down how to's. Thanks and keep it up!

  • hey guys: can you guys do one on indoor on camera bounce? during our wedding shoot, we were struggling with bouncing. There were times when it was over exposed vise versa.. I wonder if our setting was wrong.. any who, it will help a great deal.. love you guys! see you soon..

  • Nana said:

    VERY HELPFUL! I am still learning about photography and wish I could go to your seminar tomorrow. This entry was very thorough and totally useful!