How To Set Up Lighting for Portrait Photography

How To Set Up Lighting for Portrait Photography

Portraits have been a very popular medium for over a century. Portraits whether via paintings or photographs from a dedicated camera have helped capture and solidify their subjects within the frame for years to come.


It has been told time and time again, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and with that being said its the goal of any photographer to properly capture the subject as is. The thing most often forgotten is the lighting is just as important as the camera being used.  The importance of properly setting up your lights will be reflected in the work you do.

What’s required:


  • Painters Tape
  • Tape Measure
  • Tethering Cable
  • A computer
  • Adobe Lightroom (or any other tethering programs)

Setting Up Your Equipment

The first thing you want to do is find a space with at least 15 feet of working area–if you have less space than that don’t fret as lights can be moved around closer or further away.

The first two things you want to set up is your backdrop and your hair-light. The hair light should be raised higher than the backdrop tilted in an angle pointing towards the back of the subjects hair. This light should be set at about 1/8th power and is critical in illuminating the subject’s hair. The hair light although not super critical, as an image can still look fine without it, it does bring a slight shine to the hair making the image more appealing.

Secondly, bring your backdrop down and start setting up your equipment down the center of the backdrop. This is where a tape measure and painters tape comes in handy. Personally, I like to have a line of tape starting down the center of the backdrop to where the camera is going to be (approximately 14 ft). This tape will only serve as a tool to setting up the lights equidistant from the subject.

The back-light should be place about two and a half feet from the backdrop’s center. The backdrop light will require a neutral density filter. They can be made at home but you could definitely buy a dedicated kit that attaches different colored gels to the back-light. The neutral density filter softens the light emitted from the flash and diffuses it equally on to the backdrop. The back-light’s power should be set no higher than 1/4th as we don’t want to wash out the backdrop. The stand for this light should also be smaller as you don’t want it higher than three feet from the ground.

The subject’s chair should be place about five feet from the backdrop with the center of of the chair  aligned with the center of the backdrop/tape line.

The next two things you want to set up is the main and fill light. The main light should be place about 42 in. of the right of the 10.2 ft. line off the center of the tape. The main light will illuminate most of subject’s face and will serve as the main light source. The lighting stand should be raised about 73 in. from the ground. The fill light will be set about 32 in. to the left from the 12 ft. line on the tape. The stand should be raised about 62 in. from the ground. You will need to make sure your reflector cones are attached to your main and fill lights with the two umbrellas placed into the respective cutouts.

Your camera will be placed 14 ft from the center line. Now, you can remove the painters tape (or don’t) but I do recommend marking an “X” under each light, stool, and camera like that you can visually see if anything has moved and easily place it back in place.

Measuring Your Lights


I have used many different types of equipment to measure lights but the one that was easiest to use is the White Balance/Exposure Target (WBET) created by Pounds Labs. The link is provided above but the reason I like their tool is because the attached full instructions on how to read your camera’s histogram and what it would look like if its under, over and correctly exposed.

This exposure tool needs to be placed (or held by a secondary person) where the subjects stool is and needs to be held where the subjects face/nose will be.

Camera Settings during Shoot:

  • M (manual)
  • ISO-200
  • Shutter Speed- 125/160 (tops)
  • F/9 (Once fully measured
  • White Balance- Custom (use WBET)** or leave in auto

First, turn off your main light–we will focus on measuring the fill light individually. Set your aperture to f/5.6. Use the WBET and it’s instructions until correctly exposed on your camera’s histogram. Next, you will turn on your main light. Leave your fill light on! Set your camera to f/9 and measure until its correctly exposed on your histogram. Once that is completed, your lights should be properly measured. This will still work the same even if the lights doesn’t follow our ideal set-up mentioned above.

Once measured, you’re ready to shoot like a pro!

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