Simple Yet Effective On-Location Portrait Lighting Setup

I often get asked to do portrait shots during local charity events and getting a simple lighting setup is the key to having a successful event. If you just use on-camera flash you will get very flat lighting which isn’t going to make the people look very good plus it also makes harsh shadows behind them. What you really want is some good directional lighting from one side with just enough fill light to reduce shadowing on the other side. In this article we are going to look at the basic lighting setup I use for these types of portraits and how it works.

The Setup

The setup consists of a seamless paper background suspended on a background stand. To the camera right is 45″ Westcott Halo with a Westcott StrobeLite Plus which is very similar to using a shoot-thru umbrella which provides a good key light for but is big enough to provide a soft transition between the shadows and the highlights. To camera left is a 28″ Westcott Apollo softbox with a Westcott Strobelite Plus which is mostly used to light the background to soften any shadows that fall on it but also spills onto the subject slightly to help soften the shadows caused by the key light. The camera I use is a Canon EOS 50D with a Canon 580 EX II flash mounted on it along with a Lumiquest 80/20 diffuser. The key here is that the 580 EX II is set to manual mode and dialed down to 1/32 power. This means the light from the flash is fairly insignificant to the exposure and is really only used to fire the optical slaves on the StrobeLite’s. To me this is preferred to having PC Sync cords and can be more reliable than using cheap radio slaves in some conditions.

Portrait Lighting Diagram

Portrait Lighting Setup

Using the Lighting Setup

Short Lighting

Given a perfect setup, I would use a backlight on the background but there isn’t always enough room to work with when doing these kinds of shoots. By using the Apollo and the Halo in this configuration I am still able to get enough light on the background to give it a type of gradient look that keeps the background from being too boring.

If someone is facing to their right, I get a nice broad lighting effect, if they are looking to their left, I just pull them a little more away from the background so that the light from the Apollo to the right of the camera will provide a short lighting effect.

Having a versatile lighting setup means you can run people through very quickly and still be able to get a variety of looks without ever having to move lights around.

Avoid Issues With Glasses

Avoid Issues with Glasses

By having the lights more off to the side rather than more straight on to the people, we can also minimize issues with glasses.

Lighting is very much basic geometry, the light will bounce off an object at the same angle it hit it. Therefor, is you angle the lights so that light is not going to bounce back to the camera, the lenses in the glasses will show almost no reflection from the light source. The only time this lighting setup presents any issues with glasses is if someone has a tendency to raise their chin up during pictures. A simple suggestion for them to lower their chin should be all that is needed to solve the glasses issue.

Getting Group Shots

Large Group Shot

The biggest problem you will run into in this situation is a large group. This is the only time I will move the lights at all and the key light will be pulled back towards the camera to help reduce shadows on people caused by standing behind or beside someone else that is blocking the light. The bigger issue is getting people to squeeze together enough so that the frame doesn’t exceed the edges of the background. You might have to get creative in placing people to keep the group width narrow enough. I take the 9′ wide rolls since they will (barely) fit into my car. The 12′ rolls would be better for groups but they are harder to transport and are available in less color options.


The biggest thing when doing a shoot like this is to not over-think it. A simple lighting setup can be very effective. The more complicated you make it, the more problems can arise, the more time it takes to setup and tear down, and the more it costs to acquire in the first place. Keep it simple, position the lights in good spots, get a good meter reading and you will be able to just fire away all night.

Equipment Used

Camera: Canon EOS 50D
Lighting: Westcott StrobeLite Plus
Modifiers: Westcott Apollo
Westcott Halo
Processing: Adobe Lightroom 3.0
Background: Savage Paper Thunder Grey


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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5 Responses

  1. Giorgio says:

    I totally agree, most of the time simple ligting is the best solution for many situations, learning the basic techniques is essential to start to use more than 2 flashes.

    Thanks you for sharing 🙂

  1. May 25, 2010

    […] often prints right on-site. This article shows a very basic setup that I use to get these shots. Camera Dojo – Take better pictures with our photography tutorials and podcast – Simple Yet Effective… __________________ Members don't see ads in threads. Register your free account today […]

  2. June 1, 2010

    […] 1 votes vote Simple Yet Effective On-Location Portrait Lighting Setup I often get asked to do portrait shots during local charity events and getting a simple lighting […]

  3. June 3, 2010

    […] full post on Camera Dojo – Take better pictures with our photography tutorials and podcast […]

  4. June 10, 2010

    […] the original: Simple Yet Effective On-Location Portrait Lighting Setup « Panasonic Lumix G Vario 7-14mm F4 ASPH lens review Lightroom Worth-a-click » […]

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