How to Create Dramatic Headshots With Three Lights, One Light at a Time

Creating dramatic headshots using multiple lights doesn't have to be difficult. One of the best ways to become proficient at using a three-light setup is by building it one light at a time. In this article and the accompanying video, I will demonstrate how you can easily create dramatic headshots and portraits using a key light, kicker light, and fill light.

A Note on Equipment

Although I use a Peter Hurley Flex Kit by Westcott, this effect can also be achieved using strobes with 1x3' or 1x2' strip boxes. The strip boxes are preferable to a large softbox or octabox because they make it simple to control the angle and spill of the light. For all of the images in this article, I am also using two black V-Flats from V-Flat World (one on each side of the subject) and a plain white seamless paper as the background. I learned this lighting setup and my overall stylistic approach from my mentor and headshot master, Peter Hurley.

Step One: It's All About the Key Light

Dialing in the key light is the most important part of the entire setup. The key light must be feathered and angled in such a way that the light reaches the shadow side of the face and produces something similar to Rembrandt lighting. I angle the key light at about 45 degrees and point it towards the subject's opposite shoulder. If the key is positioned on the camera left as in my examples, it should be pointed towards the subject's camera right shoulder. Positioning the light so the edge of the light hits the subject instead of the direct light is basically what photographers mean by the term "feathering" the light, and taking the time to get the key light dialed in is crucial to create pleasing fall off, even when creating a dramatic look like this one. 

The most common mistake beginners make is positioning the key light too perpendicular to the ground and not angled across the face. This will result in split lighting, where one side of the face is in shadow and the other in light. The problem with split lighting is that one entire side of the face, including the eye, is in shadow. Another mistake to avoid is positioning the light too far away. As you can see in the below images, the light is close enough to the subject to be seen in the frame. 

If your key light is positioned properly, the results should more or less resemble Rembrandt lighting. One of the advantages of this light setup is that the key by itself creates an excellent image, so you don’t necessarily need to add additional lights. If we look at image one of Wayne, it is effective just with one light and indeed, very dramatic. But, the shadow side of his face is completely lost in deep black, and this may not be the best option for certain clients. I think this look works better for actors and artists, and I tend to avoid it for corporate headshots as a general rule (which I break from time to time, again depending on the needs of the individual).

Image one: Wayne lit with a key light. Although it's very dramatic, the heavy shadows on the camera right side of his face can be too harsh depending on the subject and context of the photo.

Step Two: Keep the Kicker Subtle

The next light to add is the kicker. The kicker (also called kick or rim light) adds a nice strip of light onto the shadow side of the face and also helps to separate our subject from the background. The kick light should be positioned behind the subject and feathered away from them. Make sure that the kick is not powered too high; otherwise, you risk losing the skin detail and blowing out the kick side of the face completely. I prefer a kick that is subtle and also wraps around the side of the face nicely, instead of a very narrow and bright strip of light, which I feel detracts from the subject's expression. When dialing in the kicker, think of subtlety as your guiding principle.

With my Flex Kit, the power level of the kick is generally somewhere between 10 and 20 percent, but regardless of what lights you are using, keep in mind that you probably don’t need to set them very high to achieve a pleasing effect. Take a look at image two, which utilizes the key light and the kicker. The very deep shadows on the camera right side of his face are filled in quite nicely, and there is still a ton of drama in the image.

Just as with the key light alone, the key and kicker combination works extremely well as a two-light setup and is an excellent option without needing a third light. But, if you look at the shadows around Wayne’s nose and eye, they are still very deep. That's where our fill light comes in.

Image two: Wayne lit with a key light and kicker. Notice that the kicker, which is positioned behind Wayne on the camera right side, results in a subtle strip of light down the side of his face, filling in some of the shadows and separating his face from his hair.

Step Three: Dial in More or Less Drama With the Fill Light

I like to say that the amount of fill determines the amount of drama. With zero fill, as in image two, there is a lot of drama, with very deep shadows and relatively hard light. By adding the fill, the drama can be dialed down to a level that works for the specific subject's needs. This also depends on the unique face in front of your camera, as well as the look you and your client are trying to achieve, so knowing how to add a little or a lot of fill light is extremely important. In image three of Wayne, I have added the fill light but still retained the shadow detail. Notice that we are still achieving a high level of drama in the image, but we have more skin detail on the shadowed parts of his face.

The fill light should be positioned opposite the key light and feathered so that only the very edge of the light is hitting the subject’s face. If the fill is powered too highly or pointed directly at the subject, it will spill into the other light sources and negate the effect. Begin by powering the fill at its lowest setting, since it's very easy to overdo it. I will sometimes move my fill light slightly closer or farther from the subject to achieve a specific effect. One advantage of a continuous lighting system like the Flex Kit is that you can immediately see the results when adjusting the lights. I suggest practicing this setup by adding the fill incrementally to see how it can change the overall look of the image.

Image three: Wayne lit with a key light, kicker, and fill light. The fill light helps to soften the shadows on his face and can be dialed in or out depending on how much drama you want in the photo.

Step Four: Start Shooting!

Now that we have our three-light setup ready to go, it's time to start capturing some awesome images. I use this exact setup not only for headshots but also for portraits, and sometimes, I will add a colored gel to the kicker light for added effect, as in image four. Although I don't suggest a "set-it-and-forget-it" approach to portrait photography, I do recommend this setup as a great starting point. Moving the subject around in the frame and pointing their nose towards or away from the key light will create very different results, so don't be afraid to experiment.

Image four:: Wayne lit with a key, fill, and kicker with a blue gel added for additional effect.

In image five of Wayne, I am using the same lighting setup, but I have pulled back my camera to create a half-length portrait and pointed Wayne's nose away from the key light. The kicker with the blue gel now acts as a rim light and gives a nice strip of bluish light on the side of his face and down his shoulder and arm. I have used the key and fill as before, but the effect is very different when lighting the broad side of his face. In image six, I turned Wayne toward the key light, which again gives a different dimension to the light. I also color graded this particular image, but that is a topic for another day.

Image five: A half-length portrait of Wayne with the three-light setup.

Image six: By simply turning Wayne toward the key light, a very different result can be achieved.

Image seven: Experimenting with different poses using our three-light setup.

Practice Makes Perfect

Now that we understand how to use our key, kicker, and fill lights to create dramatic portraits, the most important thing to do is practice and remember that small changes in light power, shape, and direction will create very different results. Finally, it might sound obvious, but the best advice I can give to aspiring headshot photographers is to photograph as many people as possible, as this is the best way to explore and hone your craft.

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10 Comments
Michelle VanTine's picture

Great piece. I know these step-by-step pieces helped me SO much when I was learning lighting (and still do). Excellently put together

Pete Coco's picture

Thanks, Michelle. Awesome portfolio by the way!

Cindy Quinn's picture

Pete this is a great article and video of your lighting, I really enjoyed it.

Cindy Quinn
www.CMQHeadshots.com

Pete Coco's picture

Thanks, Cindy!

Leon Kolenda's picture

Although I Like the 3-light setup here, I currently use a 1-light Godox strobe with a larger 36" Octobox, using Medium Translum in front of the Octobox, for double diffusion, set pretty close 2-feet, and then I use a medium piece of white foamboard, 18x36, opposite side as a kicker. I find that I don't get those harder or deeper shadows, but a more subtle. gradient. I use this a lot. Good Tutorial, well done.

Pete Coco's picture

Thanks for the feedback, Leon. The double-diffused otcobox setup you use is great too. Definitely gives a very different look.

Barry Braunstein's picture

Hi Pete - great article and video! One thing you may want to add is some additional BTS shots that show more of the exact placement of the lights so people can see how much feathering you're doing and where the kick/fill actually are.

Barry Braunstein
www.barrybraunsteinphotography.com

Pete Coco's picture

Thanks, Barry! Great point. I am going to see if I have any other images that show the setup better and I will link them here.

Lorin Duckman's picture

Up to a point. I use two strips and keep the octa as the key, angled. The octa is gridded. This set up also works great with a beauty dish.

Pete Coco's picture

Yep, both are good options. I often use my beauty dish with a grid and love the results.