Lighting Workshop
How To Meter And Balance Your Lights

Main light only, camera left. The image has some dimensional quality.
Photos © 2003, Steve Nichols, All Rights Reserved

It started back in the old days of Hollywood. The cameramen and directors needed to devise lighting schemes that would create a realistic, three-dimensional look on film. Their solution was what they call "triangle" lighting.

The concept is simple. A main light to one side of the camera, a fill light on the other side of the camera, and a backlight or hairlight aimed, from above and behind the actor, at the head and shoulders. Thus, the light coming from three points (a triangle) gave them the images they were looking for. It also helped separate an actor with dark hair and dark clothes from a dark background.

Main plus fill light. (Fill light is camera right.) The image looks "flat," no dimensionality.
(Model: Nissa Hall)

Build Off The Triangle
Lighting has become more sophisticated by adding more lights to a set. In glamour these are mainly accent and background lights. You always want to utilize your main "triangle" and then build your lighting around this basic setup.

Photography is the art of painting with light. Lighting is everything. How you meter and balance your lights is vital to getting an exceptional image. Your work with metering and lighting is what makes the difference between a good photo and a great photo.

I like to shoot with a five to six light package. Here is how it looks:
Picture a 10x10 foot shooting area, with the model in the center. Your main light is at one corner, camera left; the fill is in the opposite corner, camera right. Both are pointed at the model. Your accent/rim lights are behind the model, both in opposite corners. One is pointed at the lower leg/hip, the other pointed at the shoulder/arm. Your hairlight is behind and above the model. The background light is lighting up your background right behind the model.

Monolights And Power Packs
Strobes are by far the most widely used, either power packs with multiple heads, or monolights. Some photographers mix power packs with monolights. There are pros and cons for each. With the power packs, you would have one in the front of the set for your main and fill lights, and one in the back of the set for your rim and hair lights.

Incident Metering
Meter your main light first with an incident flash meter. (An incident meter reads the light falling on the subject.) Stand right where the model will be, point the white dome on the meter right at the light. (It helps to have an assistant fire your lights for you as you take the reading.) Turn off all the other lights. Adjust your light level until you get a reading of f/5.6.

Turn off the main, then turn on the fill light. Adjust your fill light to get a reading of f/4.0, or one stop less than your main light. The purpose of the fill light is simply to fill in the shadows created by the main light. Now turn off your fill, then turn on one of your rim lights. Adjust your light to read f/5.62. Repeat this with the other rim light to get f/5.62.

Now, adjust your hairlight. This is driven by the hair color of the model. If you are shooting a blonde, adjust your lights to read f/5.62. If the model is a brunette, adjust to f/5.65. If the hair is black, adjust to f/5.7. You want your rim and hair lights to be slightly brighter than your main.

It's essential that you take your reading by pointing the dome on the meter right at the light, from exactly where the model will be, and that you meter just one light at a time. You don't want other lights going off and biasing your reading, which will negatively affect your results. I like to set my lights initially before the model is on the set, then fine-tune as we go.

Which lighting tools are best? I use the following: Main light: medium or large softbox. Fill light: umbrella or softbox. Rim and hair lights: reflector with a honeycomb grid, diffuser, bastard amber gel, and barn doors. Background light: reflector with diffuser.

The main, fill, and background lights plus two rim lights. (Five lights in all.) I like the images without the background light, which gives you stronger separation between the model and the background.

Light Feathering
There is a technique you can use with accent or rim lights called "feathering" the light. This is done by not pointing the light directly at the target. Point the light slightly above or away from the area you want to illuminate, such as the hair or a shoulder, leg, or hip. This is a good technique when your light is too strong and you don't have enough room to back the light farther away from your model. It can also be used if you don't have adequate power level adjustments on the light to lower the light level to get that 2/10 difference between your main and your rim lights. The "edge" of the light is falling on the model. This difference is subtle and makes for a beautiful, soft effect.

A problem can occur with monolights not firing when the slaves on the rear lights can't pick up the light from your main and fill lights. This happens when the slave sensor on the back of the lights doesn't "see" the light from the front. The solution is to use a "peanut" slave, which attaches to a cord that plugs into the monolight. You place the peanut in such a way that it will read the light from the front and subsequently fire the rear light(s).
This equipment package can get expensive. The good news is that in every major city there are at least one or two professional camera stores that have equipment rental departments. You can rent whatever you need.
Another thing: Always use a lens hood to prevent stray light from the rim and hair lights from flaring off your front lens element.

Study your favorite photos in magazines and try to figure out the lighting. The shadows will tell you where the lights are placed.

For more information, visit my website,

Steve's Gear List
Camera: Fuji Finepix S1
Lighting: Photogenic monolights
Softboxes/Umbrellas: Photoflex
Light Stands: Avenger
Meter: Minolta Flashmeter IIIF
Tripod: Bogen