Main, Fill and Separation Lighting

Published on July 12, 2017

Strobe Hardware
A monolight is a type of photography flash-lighting unit that is completely self-contained and is the fundamental source of light for your set. The Standard SRP set up uses three Alien Bees strobe monolights to create the best illumination possible on your set.

  • AB 800
    Basics of Soft Boxes
    Different modifiers or soft boxes are attached to the monolights so that each light source better accomplishes its specific lighting purpose. A Soft box is a type of photographic lighting device that creates a soft, diffused light. The strobe is aimed through one or two diffusion panels to create the soft lighting effect. The sides and back of the box are lined with a bright surface that acts as an efficient reflector.
  • Softbox  Strip Light
  • umbrella

The main goal of studio lighting is to create illumination that is as close to natural light as possible. It is important to understand the characteristics of different
lights, so you can adapt to your environment at the schools.  For example, you may be in a closet, a large room, or even a hallway.  Adaptability is the key to a successful setup!

The three lights we normally use on an SRP set are the main light, fill light (umbrella or bounced) and separation light (hair light, kicker or bounced).

Video on light types:

Here’s how each light affects your image…

main fill and separation light portrait sample

  • Main Light 
    • The main light is the most dominant light and provides illumination of the child’s face.  The main light is modified using a large (3×4 ft) softbox to create even and diffused light. Most of the time, the main light is placed 90 degrees from the subject. If possible, it is ideal to have the main light on the left-hand side of the photographer. Illumination from the left tends to yield a more pleasing portrait since the eye is trained to read from left to right.  SRP uses an Alien Bee 800 modified by a 30 inch by 60 inch softbox for the main light.
  • Fill Light  
    • The fill light is a secondary light that is usually placed behind the photographer, on the same side as the main light. (In a large room where the fill needs to be more directional, it can be placed on the opposite side of the main light). The purpose of this light is to open shadowed areas and bring out detail. Fill light can be created by modifying the fill light with an umbrella or using as a bounced light.
  • Separation Light
    • The separation light adds depth, such as roundness to the head, by illuminating the hair from behind or beside. The separation light also helps to divide the subject from a dark background.  This light can be placed behind the backdrop or beside depending how much room you have in the room and the effect you are trying to achieve.

We will cover several lighting configurations depending on the size and shape of the room.

Medium Size Room

This is our typical set up.  This set up shows the typical arrangement for a set with plenty of room to use all three lights. The main and fill are on the same side or fill is closer to the camera (but still on the same side) and the separation light is used as a hair light.   Facing the set, notice the main light is ninety degrees to the left and the mid-point of the light is adjusted to the height of the subject’s eyes. (Using the unicorn principle, that we will learn later.)  The fill light is behind the usual camera position, and the separation light is behind the set as a hair light.

NOTE:  When you want more light on the background or there is not enough room to put the light behind the set, you can use the separation light on the side of the set.

Medium Room Typical Set Up

cap and gown sample

Large Room Set Up

Notice the fill light is set on the opposite side of the main light.  This is because the room is so large that there is not enough bounce to place the fill light on the same side as the main.

NOTE:  That if you place the fill light on the same side as the main (and there is little bounce from a wall), you will have to power up the Fill light to a much higher power.  Because the power is so high, this light could create a nasty shadow on the background. (You don’t want that!)  If this happens- make the fill light less directional (point to the ceiling or at a different angle).

Large Room Lighting Set up

CAUTION:   Your radio trigger transmitter (on your camera hot shoe) transmits a signal to the receiver on one of your lights (typically your main light).  When the main light fires, the other lights see the flash and fire (this happens very quickly!).  If you are in a large room, and the lights that do not have the receiver do not fire it is because the sensor on the back of the light can not ‘see’ the flash from the light with the receiver (they are too far apart).   If this happens, try moving your lights to where they will see the flash.

back of AB Light slave sensor

Small Room 1

This is the only room (or closet) that is available at this particular school, so we make due… or we don’t have the account!  (I say we make due!)   The room is so small, that the walls provide enough bounce from the main light to create the fill.  The Separation light is placed to the side of the set due to the  lack of room behind.

Extremely Limited Spaces
This confined room does not have enough space for the separation light to be behind or beside the set. The solution is to place the separation light where you can bounce the lighting off the ceiling and onto the set.

REMEMBER: The closer the light source is to your subject, the smaller the sweet spot (hula-hoop) of proper exposure.

Small Room

In the sample below, notice how there is only one catch-light in their eyes.  But there is plenty of light in the shadows… this is because the wall is so close that it bounces light from the main to create the fill light.  (This same effect can be achieved in a large room, if you use a reflector in leiu of a fill light… we choose not to use a reflector because it can be knocked down easily and impedes the flow on the set.)

on cottage set

Small Room 2

In this room, we did not use the separation light modifier, so we bounced it off the ceiling.  We did not have room to turn the main horizontally as in our typical set up.  We also did not have room to put the fill on the same side as the main.  We could have omitted the fill light if the main fit horizontally.  The main can act as both a fill and main in most small room set ups.  Here, the main could only fit in an upright position, so we did not have enough fill… until we added the fill where we could!  You have to be flexible and be able to adapt to any situation!

Small Room 2

Notice in the sample photo below that the catch-lights are more vertical than horizontal. This is because of the main light set up shown above.

turned main web

Small Room 3

Here’s a room where the ceiling was so low that we could not put the hair light behind the backdrop.

Small Room 3 - low ceiling

Side hair light