While there’s a variety of assorted lighting diagrams available online, it’s tough to beat the beauty and simplicity of a single, large source (which is exactly how many pros light their celebrity subjects for national magazine covers). This is easily the best and easiest portraiture lighting set-up to pull off successfully, and it’s the first set-up I would recommend to anyone just starting out in studio portraiture.

The technique is simple: Use a large source, as close as possible to your subject, and you’ll be rewarded with lots of flattering “wrap,” accompanied by a noticeable amount of fall-off (which helps to create form). The closer the light source is to your subject, the faster the light fall-off, and conversely, the further away your source is from your subject, the less fall-off (this is all due to the effects of the inverse-square law). Less fall-off results in more even illumination, and while appropriate for certain applications, light that’s distributed too evenly often leaves portraits looking “flat,” lacking a sense of dimension. Remember, it’s the difference between light and shadow which creates the illusion of form and depth.

Shown in the images on this page is the set-up described using just two light sources: a single key, and a backlight. The primary key’s modifier is an Elinchrom Rotalux 69″ octabox, placed just right of camera, with the center of the softbox approximately two feet above the subject’s eyeline. The distance from the front surface of the softbox to the subject is six feet. No supplemental fill or bounce is required since the softbox is so large.


For the backlight, an Elinchrom 24″ x 31.5″ gridded softbox is placed just left of frame, about two feet above the subject. Note that as a general rule, any source which faces toward camera needs to either be gridded or flagged to prevent stray light from hitting your lens. Stray light hitting your lens can significantly decrease image contrast (and therefore, color saturation) as the light bounces around inside your lens’ optics. When choosing a softbox to use on your backlight, make sure it’s the type which can accommodate a fabric eggcrate (i.e., “softgrid”). Elinchrom in particular only makes softgrids for three of their softboxes, so shop carefully.


Sources: Two Elinchrom ELC Pro HD 500 monolights are powering the softboxes (an in-depth, hands-on review of these impressive monolights is coming soon). No supplemental fill or bounce was used. Other than skin-retouching, the characteristic curve is unchanged, using the out-of-camera Nikon .JPG “neutral” profile, essentially, as-is. Again, in addition to the lack of any supplemental fill, the light-to-shadow transitions are the effect of the large softbox being relatively close to the subject, creating a pleasing amount of natural-looking fall-off.