The Standard Three Light Portrait Setup

I get asked all the time what a really solid portrait lighting setup should consist of. My stock answer is a softbox as the main light, a shoot through umbrella for fill and a third light for a hair light or background light. This can be your ‘go to’ setup anytime you need something quick that will give you great results every time.

Even though I have talked about this setup several times, recent events have prompted me to bring it up again and for good reason. As I am writing this, I am on a cruise ship sailing towards St. Maarten. One thing about cruise ships is that they make a good chunk of money selling photos. They take photos of you getting other ship, arriving at ports, at dinner, and they have multiple static setups with different backgrounds. When you are needing to pound out hundreds of portraits per day you can’t be spending a lot of time messing with your lighting. So what lighting setup do they use for quick, simple, and consistent lighting? The standard three light portrait setup of course.

Let’s dissect their secret recipe and see how they are using the three light setup so effectively.

To the camera right is a 32″ softbox as the key light. On the camera left is a 42″ umbrella as a fill light, and then high right off the background stands is a third light with a honeycomb grid as a hair light. Why does this setup work so well that they use it exclusively at every one of their stations? The answer is simple, its because it works. The softbox provides some nice directional lighting while the umbrella softens the shadows. The high gridded light adds a splash of hairlight which looks natural for both indoor and outdoor scenes.

While the cruise ship is using 500 watt second monolights, a Westcott Apollo, and a Westcott umbrella, you can put together the same setup for much less. Let’s break down all of the pieces and see what it would cost to replicate this tried and true lighting setup.

(3) Yongnuo YN560 speedlites
(1) 32″ Speedlite Softbox
(1) 10′ × 12′ backdrop stand
(1) Camera Dojo Ninja Speedlite Triggers
(1) Blackbelt Lighting swivel mount
(1) Shoot through umbrella
(1) Blackbelt Lighting Samurai Light stand kit
(1) Bogen Superclamp
(1) Expoimaging Rouge Grid
Printed backgrounds from Backdrop Outlet

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All in you are going to be between $700 – $900 depending on the background you get. While this may sound like a lot of money, you would easily spend over $2,500 for big name products. The beauty of a setup like this is that it is a very versatile lighting kit that makes for a great starting point for building upon as your skill increases.


Kerry Garrison lives in Castle Rock, Colorado with his wife and two dogs. With 10 years of experience shooting products and 5 years of experience in the wedding industry, Kerry brings a good deal of technical know-how and can explain topics in easy-to-understand terms.

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4 Responses

  1. great information, here on cameradojo I've only just found you and have spent ages looking through. 🙂

  2. Paul says:

    Thanks for this post, the drawings make it easy to see whats going on.

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