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How to Build Your First Lighting Setup

1. Start with one light

Some of you are eager to go and want to start off with a bunch of lights. But I believe this to be an area where less is generally more. So try starting out with just one main light (flash head and modifier).

Once you are pleased with the quality of the first results, go ahead and assess if you require an additional secondary light.

Turning off your main light, see if a second light would really improve the scene, whether it may be for fill, hair or background.

Just be sure you turn on the main light when you are setting up the second one. Also, never lose sight of what you can create using just one light (remember, beautiful window light usually comes from only one window). So, build your look one light at a time and you’ll have better results.

1st Lighting Setup - 1

1st Lighting Setup - 2

1st Lighting Setup - 3


2. If something looks weird, you’re probably off by just a few inches

If you’ve got your light in position, and it just looks either wacky or bad, don’t get frustrated or think it’s all messed up – you’re probably just off by a tiny bit…literally inches. Try moving your lights in an arc, like the hands of a clock, around your subject. If you move the lights just a few inches in either direction, chances are pretty good that you will finally discover where the placement of the light source works best.

3. Spend more on modifiers than lights

Do you know the old saying: “Spend more on your lenses than you do on your camera body”?

A similar fact applies when it comes to your lighting equipment. I’ve found that all flashes emit a bright flash of light when you fire them. Really expensive ones, really cheap ones, studio strobes, hot shoe flashes – they all do basically the same thing: They create a bright flash of light. So, spend more on your modifiers – the softboxes and accessories that shape and sculpt your light – than you do on the “bright flash of light”-makers.

BTS - 3 Point Lighting -  Light Formers

The Three-Point Lighting Setup

After exercising with one light, the 3-point lighting is a very grand approach to move along.

3-point lighting is the most basic lighting design for photographing flattering and balanced model photography. It’s easy to setup and not very difficult to control. It uses – as the name suggest – 3 lights.

What’s It For? Beauty & Soft-Nudes!

When working with softboxes (or translucent umbrellas), the model’s skin will appear very soft. Due to the use of a fill-in, the ratio will also not be strong and you will get quite soft shadows.
The setting also helps the model to act within a certain radius because the light beams are relatively wide. The created volume around the subject further allows her to move a bit outside of what otherwise would be a fixed position.

BTS - 3 Point Lighting - Melisa Mendini by Dan Hostettler - 002

The Setup: The Three Light’s Roles

The key light, as the name suggests, shines directly upon the subject and provides the general mood based on the position, angle, strength and light modifier used.
In a basic light set up, position the key in a way that lets it create an appealing catchlight in your model’s eyes. Remember: Using a softbox produces a square reflection; an umbrella/octobox results in a round shape.

Now the fill light also shines on the subject, but from a side angle relative to the key and is often placed at a lower position than the key (about at the level of the subject’s face). It balances the key by filling shaded areas and reducing the shadow casts created by the key light. Fill-in light quality should be at least as soft as the key and – as the term says – fill some light in; meaning the power is always lower than the key, regularly around 1 to 2 f-stops. If you choose to go with less fill-in lighting, then the ratio between key and fill gets bigger and this will create a more dramatic effect. That’s a great style when the results will be in black & white, for instance, but for a beauty light setup it’s too strong most of the time.

If you only have 2 lamps at hand, you can use any disc reflector as fill-in or any other materials that bounce the key light back and create a fill this way.

The third light basically serves in the back. You can use that lamp for the rim, hair, or shoulder light. Whatever you decide to go with, this light shines on the subject in a side or top angle from behind. Now you can either point the beam toward the model to create the hair light (with a standard reflector and grid) or rim light (using a strip softbox with/without grid). If it’s for the hair, place the flash on a higher position and tilt it down to shine towards the back of the model’s head.

For rim, the height should be leveled on the upper body position.

Last possibility on how to use the 3rd flash head is to actually illuminate the background and not the model itself.

When you use a white background without lightening it up, it will look greyish. So you can use number 3 for the backdrop but you will then again lose some nice effects on hair and body.

3 lights are great and very versatile for creating a lot of different designs (not only in the studio), yet a 4th head gives even more options – at least when you shoot more than just portraits, meaning three-quarter to full length shots.

Imagery - 3 Point Lighting - Melisa Mendini by Dan H - 1

Imagery - 3 Point Lighting - Melisa Mendini by Dan H - 2

Imagery - 3 Point Lighting - Melisa Mendini by Dan H - 3 Imagery - 3 Point Lighting - Melisa Mendini by Dan H - 4

3D - 3 Point Lighting with Hair Light 3 3D - 3 Point Lighting with Hair Light 2

3D - 3 Point Lighting with Hair Light 1

2D Setplan - 3P w Hair Ligh


3D - 3 Point Lighting with Bkgnd Light 3 3D - 3 Point Lighting with Bkgnd Light 2

3D - 3 Point Lighting with Bkgnd Light 1

2D Setplan - 3P w Bkgnd Ligh

BTS - 3 Point Lighting - Melisa Mendini by Dan Hostettler - 004


  • 3x 400 Ws Monoblocs
  • Key light: Softbox 2.5×4’ (80x120cm), powered around 250 Ws
  • Fill-in light: Softbox 2.5×4’ (80x120cm), powered around 180 Ws
  • Hair or Background light: Standard reflector with a 20 degree grid, powered approx. 250 Ws
  • Nikon D700
  • Nikkor AF 85mm / 1.8

BTS - 3 Point Lighting - Melisa Mendini by Dan Hostettler - 001b BTS - 3 Point Lighting - Melisa Mendini by Dan Hostettler - 001a


  • Photography: Dan Hostettler
  • Model: Melisa Mendini
  • MU & H: Aneta Lozkova
  • BTS photography: Jan Prerovsky

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About the Author: Dan Hostettler

Dan has been a professional beauty and nude photographer for more than 15 years.

He is Swiss born and currently living and working in Prague (Czech Republic). Dan founded his flagship business, StudioPrague, which includes a dedicated production company that has received international recognition and offers private, high-end workshops. Dan has had the pleasure of photographing some of the world’s most beautiful female nude models and he always strives to capture that “bold sexy moment”, both in the studio and on location.

Aside from his own creations, Dan has been internationally published and featured among others on and in GQ Online, The India Times, FashionONE TV, GoodLight Magazine, MUZE Magazine, FOTOdigital.

Dan’s passion for traveling, cinema and visual adventures translates into a high degree of skill and creativity. Inspired by the world’s top magazines and brands like Playboy, Maxim, FHM, Vogue and Victoria’s Secret amongst others, Dan continues his pursuit of being the best in his field.

Dan Hostettler - 2014


This post is also available in: Englisch

Ein Kommentar

  1. Avatar

    Hallo Dan,

    an die Nude-Photography habe ich mich noch nicht heran gewagt, aber deine unglaublich tollen Anleitungen könnten die Grundlage für einen ersten Versuch werden.

    Ich hoffe ich kann meine Freundin davon begeistern :D
    Bis dahin übe ich in set.a.light :D

    Grüße Sigi

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