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Tips & Tricks

Build Your Portrait Lighting One Light at a Time With Tony Corbell

By Chris Nachtwey on May 29th 2014

When it comes to lighting a portrait, be it in the studio or in the field, when using multiple lights, it’s always best to light your subject one light at a time. This allows you to see how each light will light your subject, allowing you to build up to your final lighting setup. Think of it as making a cake, each light is a different layer to build upon until you reach your final lighting set up to the achieve the look you want.

In the Bowens sponsored video below, Tony Corbell breaks down how he lights a studio portrait one light at a time to achieve the look he desires.




Tony perfectly explains how to using one light as a building block and continuing to light from there. He starts with a main key light, in this case, it’s a gridded light to really accent the subject’s face (the foundation light). The second light is a small soft box on the ground with an egg crate to skim light across the front of her gown. His last two lights are twin grids to light up the seamless paper background. Tony explains that you will need to adjust the exposure of each additional light based off the exposure of the main key light.



Tony makes a great point when he is talking about having to really direct your model due to how precise the main gridded key light is when lighting the face of your subject. He directed his subject to keep her face in the hot spot of the main gridded key light, because that was exactly where the exposure was perfect. This is a great thing to remember, you are not just lighting your subject, but you have to also direct your subject to nail the lighting you are trying to achieve.

Gear List:

Canon 5D Mark III
Canon 70-200mm f/4
Gemini 500Pro
Gemini 750 Pro




This is a great tutorial explaining the importance of building your lighting one light at a time to create the image you want. When using multiple lights, it really pays to take your time, because you’re dealing with a complex lighting set up that needs to be precise and well exposed to create a great final image.

Via: Bowens Youtube Channel, images via screencaps

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Chris Nachtwey is a full-time wedding and portrait photographer based in Connecticut. He is the founder and creator of 35to220 a website dedicated to showcasing the best film photography in the world. Chris loves to hear from readers, feel free to drop him a line via the contact page on his website! You can see his work here: Chris Nachtwey Photography

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Kurk Rouse

    -___- a bit overwhelming for some one with just one light but i loved the results

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  2. Tom Bove

    Good technical tutorial. A wise old photographer once told me, “When you photograph a woman, if you don’t have the eyes, you don’t have a photograph.” I’d never try to portray any woman this way. I really don’t see the point of this shot at all.

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    • Stan Rogers

      This one’s easy: it’s the classic/iconic Veronica Lake look. It was an accident in a 1941 film originally, but it made her career and started a huge fashion (and photography) trend. You can philosophize all you want, but you can’t argue with success.

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