2 point lighting ~ Techniques and strategies revealed

Jun 28, 2009 | Flash, Location, Studio | 32 comments

Square on two point lighting created by using the sun a

I used square on two point lighting for this shot for one of my clients. It was lit with the sun as a back light and I used a hand held off camera Speedlight as the key. The Bristol waterfront is a favourite area of mine for photographing clients and running workshops alike.

I often find myself looking at the world a bit differently when I’m shooting portraits. I look for light sources naturally occurring and turn them to good use. If I have some control over them, then better still – like curtains or shutters on windows that can be opened or closed or set at some point between the two.

At weddings Julie and I shoot towards light sources and either add a second, usually flash but occasionally an Arri 300, or we just increase exposure until the shot comes good. There is always some light heading back into the face even if it is 5 stops less than the background.

The soft key light in this picture is 4 stops darker than the background and our bride is beautifully lit from behind as a result.

The soft key light in this picture is 4 stops darker than the background and our bride is beautifully lit from behind as a result. Look how the rim light is defining her cheeks, jaw line, and the muscles in her arms.

Using this high key system is hardly 2 point lighting but it does utilise the concept of the background lighting paying a crucial part in lighting the perimeter of the face. When it comes from the side to create a bright band down the cheek of the subject it is called a kick light.

The window in the background of this shot is providing the backlight and my Arri 300 is the key light.

The window in the background of this shot is providing the back light and my Arri 300 is the key light. I pointed my Arri directly towards the window. I used a tungsten white balance on my Canon 5D mk2 to give the shot it's cool look.

The crucial concept to understand when using 2 point lighting is that the light sources point directly towards each other and the subject is placed between the two. On plan there is a straight line between light source 1, the subject and light source 2. It doesn’t matter if I’m shooting with technique in a canal tunnel or a hotel bedroom that has windows on two walls. I try to create the straight line set up.

Here you can clearly see the shadows on the ground indicating my straight line strategy.

Here you can clearly see the shadows on the ground indicating my straight line strategy. I lit this shot with 2 Speedlights on stands. I'm shooting at about 70 degrees to the lights for this shot.

When I shoot in the street I use exactly the same techniques. If there is no sun to use as a kick light I’ll make my own with a Speedlight. I can use another Speedlight as the Key light too. Of course Speedlights are hard directional light sources and if you want to modify them to be softer sources by using an umbrella for instance you soon run out of power. That is where a big flash approach is called for.

I used the same 2 flash symetrical set up here too. I let the key light create a slash of flash on the steel doors.

I used the same 2 flash symmetrical set up here too. I let the key light create a slash of flash on the steel doors. Canon 5D mk2, 1x 430 EX2 and 1x 580 EX2 flash guns.

Ratios are all the rage in the off camera flash world. {It’s a good word rage, it’s ironic that it’s out of date} I find that ratios are rarely needed for my style of lighting. It is surprising how often the same quantity of light is required from the two light sources. This makes using a pair of Speedlights a doddle when you are triggering them with another master Speedlight, a Canon ST-E2, a Nikon pop up flash or the Nikon SU-800. Control is great but really not required for this kind of shooting if you are using TTL.

I took this frame from 45 degrees to the lighting line. The second flash is just kicking the side of the girls face and defining the line of her back.

I took this frame from 45 degrees to the lighting line. The second flash is just kicking the side of the girls face and defining the line of her back.

With big flash like the Broncolor Mobil, the Elinchrom Ranger etc the opportunity to use asymmetric power distribution is far more important for 2 point lighting. Without TTL control, a 2 head set up driven by a single power pack will need some split control if you have a softbox on one head and you are using a bare reflector for instance on the other head. You can move the lights closer and further from the subject to change the balance to some extent but this can have it’s limits because I usually end up with my lights just out of shot.

Lit by a pair of Broncolor Mobil heads using my classic 2 point system.

Lit by a pair of Broncolor Mobil heads using my classic 2 point system. I shot from below the eyeline and into the shadowed side of the face. Phase One camera with a P65+ back.

Moving Speedlights that are TTL controlled does not affect the lighting balance because the TTL compensates for the change in position of the lights. You can however set your Speedlight flash units to manual and adjust the power independently over an incredible 7 stop range. So if you invest in big flash kit and you want to use more than one head on a single power pack, ensure that it has switchable power distribution.

The sun created the back light and I used a Speedlight as a key.

The evening sun created the back light and I used a Speedlight as a key. Getting the exposure right is critical for this kind of shot to work. Use the camera screen as a guide.

There are other forms of lighting that I use too, of course there is the basic 1 point set up. This is the most obvious and the easiest to find. Using a window or doorway as a light source, or perhaps a single flash unit, or the sun, all constitute 1 point lighting scenarios. 3 point lighting is taking the lighting rig to the next step. It is possible to find 3 point lighting naturally occurring but it is certainly rarer.

This studio shot uses 3 point lighting with a double kick light and a frontal key light. On plan the lights are 120 degrees apart.

This studio shot uses 3 point lighting with a double kick light and a frontal key light. On plan the lights are 120 degrees apart.

Tip: Next time you are out shooting try and look for the light first then find the backgrounds, it might just open up a whole new way of working.

Please feel free to comment on the points raised or how you use 2 point lighting in your photography.


  1. Amanda

    I have had a love of photography for years but am very new to the business side of things. Daunting! However, I have a great opportunity to shoot Evander Holyfield. Great right? But i mostly shoot outdoors and this session will be inside a restaurant in the evening. I have lighting equip and backdrops blah blah but not feeling super confident that i can make each photo amazing. I will take any advice you’re willing to give. i love your advice. Very practical.

    • damien

      Hi Amanda,

      Keep the ISO high, the ambient in the restaurant about 1 stop lower than the camera would choose to expose it and light your man. Make it happen.

      Kind regards, Damien.

  2. Keith infokus

    You make these look so easy!! Come back to Ireland again please, looking at these images inspire me massively.

    • damien

      Thanks Keith, I’ll be back when I can get some help with organising workshops locally.

      Cheers, Damien.

  3. Rod

    Lovely work! I wonder if you could elaborate on something for me?

    In the second pic of the bride in the stone doorway type thing, you said that the background is 5 stops lighter than the foreground. Could you just explain on a few things? Firstly how you lit the back ground? Was it just sunlight or did you have a flash? And how about the key light? Is it just a strobe? How did you meter it all?

    I’m just trying to work out how I would go about shooting this. Presuming the backlight is just sunlight blown out, I presume you’d start with a couple of test shots until the back ground is naturally very over exposed – highest ISO/F stop possible? Then I guess when you have the amount of exposure right for the backlight you have to bring the keylight in.

    How did you know you needed it 5 stops darker? Let’s say you had arrived at f 2.8 to get the backlight right, would you then get your meter out and fire the flash until the meter reads five stops darker for the keylight? i:e, F16?

    Sorry, many questions all rolled into one I know. I just can’t think how else to ask this question!

    • damien

      Hi Rod,

      The process of shooting creative pictures with extremes of increased exposure requires an organic approach. Not one that relies on exposure meters. I merely use the exposure difference as a reference based upon experience. With Nikon cameras the look can be achieved in A mode but on a Canon 5D mk 2 there is only 2 stops of exposure compensation available hence my shooting in Manual mode. I use the camera screen as a reference to how the picture looks. I increase exposure until the picture screams then I knock it back a bit.

      Kindest regards, Damien.

  4. nitin satghare

    excelent ,the way you explain is very good.thanks

  5. Denz

    Chris, well if the Nikons have the 1:1 zoom quick function – there’s no hope it appearing on my Canon 5D2 due to patents – just like Nikon has a patent with the one-button disable flash.
    Even a double-click to zoom 1:1 would help Canon.

  6. Chris

    on the D3 and i think the D700 you can go into the custom menu function F1 and program the multi selector to zoom the screen to near 100%

  7. Denz

    Isn’t it amazing that there is no 100% view button on the back of our cameras – The amount of time I waste zooming in to check sharpness……

    • damien

      Hi Denz and Chris, I just get used to it. What I really, really want is an OLED very high resolution touch screen. A double click on the zone to zoom into would then be the best ever tool. The new iPhone due out by June will have this for sure so why not a camera costing 5 times as much?

  8. JC

    Thank you so much for your answer, Damien.

  9. JC

    Oops, sorry for misaddressed reply, Martin. And thanks a lot again.

  10. martin

    That wasn’t Damien’s reply he may have a different view :)

  11. JC

    Thank you so much for your answer, Damien. It surely helps me a lot to choose what to consider to my lighting gears.

  12. martin

    JC: I recently bought a 300w Arri. It is bright enough to use as the key light and will easily give you 1/60th @f/4 even with a reasonable light to subject distance. The 650w is brighter but that’s not necessarily a good thing (uncomfortable for the subject) its also bigger, heavier and I guess more expensive.

    The 150 isn’t really bright enough to use as a key unless you know you are always going to be working with the light close, but it would be ideal as a kick or hair light. I’m going to get one of those, in the meantime I use a gelled speedlight in TTL mode alomgside the 300w.



    • damien

      Hi Martin, I just came across your answer as I worked my way up the comments in my admin area. Your comments are my sentiments exactly. All three Arris are about the same price so the choice is best made for suitability of purpose over price. Damien.

  13. JC

    Great job, Damien.

    I was wondering about your Arri 300. I found that it is a brilliant idea. Can you kindly tell the reason that you use Arri 300 instead of using Arri 150 or 650 and do you use Arii 300 just inside or ouside as well (does Arri 300 have enough power to be a key light outside)?

    Thanks a lot.


    • damien

      Hi JC,
      I use the Arri 300 because it gives me ISO 800 1/60th at f/4 at 3 metres working distance on full flood. This means I can integrate the light with existing light sources on location. Perfect for winter weddings. The 650 comes into its own for longer throws or when used with a diffusion material to make an instant soft key. The 150 is perfect for back lights and kick lights. Damien.

  14. damien

    Hi Norman, Thanks for your praise. I think you may be like the 90% of SU-800 users that have not found the tiny white switch in the battery compartment that switches the unit from macro mode to normal mode.

    The SU-800 is truly brilliant at communicating with Speedlights when it is switched to the right mode and does away with the pre flashes that cause blinks.


  15. Norman

    Hi Damien, great stuff and lovin’ your Photo Pro Magazine stuff, too. I’m writing because of your high praise of the SU800.

    I’m comfortable with the Nikon flash set-up and have no problem with setting up an SB900 and getting communications and lighting right with 2 x SB-800’s. However, I want to improve my party photos and I’ve always had problems with the 800’s and 900 leaving subjects with sleepy eyes.

    I purchased the SU-800 in the hope that this would cut out pre-flashes but the results are disappointing. I expected that, if I take the SB900 off the camera, place it on a bracket, thereby moving it only an inch or two up and to the left of the camera (i.e. same distance from subject) and then place SU800 on the camera, I would get the same results as if the 900 was on the camera. What I get is a 2 to 3 stops difference. I am now nervous to use the SU800 in a party zone for fear of losing control.

    Am I missing a trick here. Is the starting point to have the SU800 firing the SB900 to get the same results when there’s no real difference in the actual distance when the SB900 is camera mounted? Or, do you think the 2 stops will remain constant in unstable party conditions?

    Thanks again for a great site. Regards, Norman

  16. CRAIG

    Thanks so much. Will give it a try.

  17. damien

    Thanks Michael and Craig for your kind words,


    On a D700 set the regular exposure comp to -2 stops with the camera in program mode. Then set the flash on group A to +2 stops and all should be fine.

    When working with toddlers I always use manual settings on all kit. I set the balance with a teddy in shot. Once set I can ignore the equipment and concentrate on the subject. Timing is everything with young children. Everything happens so fast.

  18. CRAIG

    Great site Damien. Can anyone help me with this. (damien?) Have been using my nikon and sb900 off camera on manual with pop up flash controller and chimping the screen but the time it takes to hit the right lighting loses shots with toddlers. would like to use TTL as the setting in the commander menu on d700 but i like the effect of the flash balanced with ambient dialled down two shots. how do I achieve this with the camera set to manual or aperture priority? If I dial the camera down two stops does the ttl compensate or ignore that? if it compensates can i dial the flash up?

  19. Michael


    Once again full of helpful information for us. Many thanks


  20. damien

    One final check when shooting with Nikon…

    Ensure there is no regular exposure compensation dialed into the camera when shooting in Manual mode as this effects the TTL flash output – strange but true. It has no effect on any other parameter as the manual settings override compensation.

  21. Nigel

    Hi Damien

    Thank you for such a detailed reply.

    I have no real problem getting the speedlight to fire remotely as I always mount it with the IR point facing the camera, or if the flash is stand mounted in portrait orientation, I always point the IR downwards. My problem is more with achieving consistent and repeatable set-ups when firing the flash(s) remotely in TTL mode.

    I take fully your point regarding recovery times etc. For some reason though, I seem to get flash power more appropriate to the required exposure when firing remotely but with group A, B etc set to manual. As an example, if shooting into strong direct evening setting sunlight, putting the sun behind the subject to remove flare and create rim light, the flash seems to run out of puff in TTL and doesn’t render the subject properly exposed for the flash part. When switched to manual output however, a setting of nowhere near 1\1 is needed, typically around quarter power, so the flash did have plenty of puff. A side effect of this though is the commander pre-flash is recorded by the meter if attempting to meter the flash output.

    Another way would be through experience, simply ‘getting to know’ flash output. For example, 6ft to subject, speedlight on eighth power equals f8 or with softbox fitted, down 2 stops (just an example), and adjust shutter speed as required to control ambient (not exceeding sync speed).

    This is an area that interests me greatly and rather than discuss here it will be much more beneficial for me to go into more detail with you in person when I’m there for a 1-to-1 in a couple of weeks, which I’m really looking forward to.



  22. damien

    I’ve just been asked another Nikon question from a client of mine and I thought I’d share it here as we are having a Nikon moment.

    “I own a D300 and I am using the onboard flash as a commander to trigger the flash. How can I stop the pop up flash firing? Should I buy the Nikon commander unit or can the pop up do the job?”

    A: Navigate to the built in flash commander menu. You can find it in the pencil sub menu. Follow ‘bracketing and flash> built in flash>commander mode. The top line of the matrix represents the action of the built in flash. You need to ensure it is set to non firing by scrolling through the options until a double dash appears in the box, then set group A & or B to TTL. Make a note of the channel the system is set to transmit on and press OK or Set.

    On the SB-900 or SB-800 set the flash to remote with the channel the same as the camera and the group to either A or B. You will still see a pre-flash from the onboard flash unit, but this happens prior to the shutter opening and is a communication signal. Ocasionally this pre flash will cause blinks and that is why we use an SU-800 commander on our Nikon D700.


  23. damien

    Hi Nigel,

    I have extensive experience with Nikon D200, D300 and D700 using the pop up flash as the commander. There are several things to consider.

    1. It’s the little round black disc on the side of the SB-800 that is the IR signal receiver and not the larger lens on the front of the flash. If the small disk is pointing directly towards the camera and is not in sunlight all should be well. The disk is set back to make it easier to shield it from the sun and I usually tip it down a bit too.

    2. Set the pop up flash to non firing mode while you are in the commander sub, sub, sub menu. There will be a pre flash but not while the shutter is open. Some people experience a minute amount of illumination from this unit when they are shooting in the dark. I expect this is from after glow.

    3. TTL works a treat and if you want to use manual flash settings you can but if the flash units triger in manual they would trigger in TTL. I find my D700 with it’s pop up flash is spot on time and again. If you don’t wait for the SB800s to fully charge they will not be able to deliver a full pulse of light. Switch the sound on and you can get an audible ‘I’m ready now’ signal. If you get a series of beeps you know the unit failed to deliver the correct mount of flash. It will even tell you how much it was out by in the form of a read out on the LCD : -1 2/3 or similar.

    On the other note you mentioned. If you should ever want to use a hand held meter to measure the light from a speedlight set to manual then I suggest you use a sync lead connected directly to the flash unit. Set the Speedlight to manual and adjust the power as required. When finished measuring you could dial those power values into the commander menu and shoot normally. You could also shield the meter from the cameras pop up flash with your hand.

    What matters is what the picture looks like. I was testing a Nikon D300 and comparing it to my D700 for Warehouse Express recently and I was shocked to find nearly a stop of difference in the said values between the cameras for identical exposures with the same lens. So if I had metered using a hand held unit and dialed the values into each camera one or both of the cameras would have given incorrect exposures.

    If it looks right on the back of the camera it is right irrespective of what any meter will tell you.

    It doesn’t matter what position the Speedlight is in. If it is in slave mode it just ignores zoom functions etc leaving you to set those manually as required. Why not join me for an Urban Portraits day and let me show you how to master your flash system? You will get some great portfolio images too.

    I hope this helps. Damien.

  24. Nigel

    Yet again another great article with lots of guidance and tips.
    I have been using off camera flash for many months now, to greater and lesser degrees of success. (D300 with pair of SB-800’s).
    I find my best results seem to come from manual power on the speedlights as opposed to TTL, and I have tried both extensively to establish best results.
    One question I have pondered many times which maybe Damien or other Nikon users may be able to help with…
    With the D300 pop-up set to commander to trigger the speedlights, it’s almost impossible to meter the flash power as the pre-flash is recorded first and the meter ‘misses’ the main flash. This of course isn’t an issue when the speedlights are set to TTL as no metering is required, and in theory this is great. I find though that the TTL flash exposure cannot be relied upon and more often than not I end up keying in a +1 or +2 flash exp comp. especially in stronger backlit situations.
    My question is, does the positioning of the Nikon speedlight have any impact on the TTL power output? I know when the SB-800 is fitted traditionally to the hotshoe, the TTL metering takes into account the angle of the flash head etc. in order to deliver the correct amount of power output.
    To relate this to off camera flash, if the speedlight is mounted on a stand, in a vertical straight up and down postion (i.e. as if pointing straight up in the air if camera mounted) does this have any impact on the TTL metering for flash output power?
    Yet again, great points explained here and very well illustrated with the relevant images.


  25. damien

    Thanks Chris,

    It doesn’t really matter what metering option you choose because the camera is going to be several stops out on any of them. I set my metering to matrix or multi patterned and I forget about it.

    I shoot with the camera set to Manual exposure and here is my system:

    1. I use the analogue display on the top plate of the camera as a guide, I then set a guestimate exposure. It might be + or – a couple of stops as required depending upon the scene I want to capture.

    2. I take a test frame and I asses the picture on the camera screen. I have a 5D mk2 and I have my screen set to manual brightness, middle position. I have found that the latest generation of DSLRs screens are nearly always best with the brightness in the middle position.

    3. I then adjust either the ISO, shutter speed or aperture to taste. If the picture looks good on the back of the camera it is good. I always zoom into the image to see if it is sharp and if I have detail where I need it.

    I hope this helps.


  26. Chris

    Great article and pics Damien.

    Can I ask what metering mode you would set the camera to when your subject is heavily back-lit?




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