B2B: One Big Top Light

We're back to basics today -- looking at working with a single, large source and how to tweak it.

Five years ago, I mostly thought of large sources in a "45-degrees-up-and-over" kind of way. Safe? Yes. But now, that kind of stuff all looks the same to me. So I almost never use them that way.

I definitely light harder than I used to. Getting into on-axis fill opened up a lot of possibilities for me. These days when I do use large light sources, they are more likely to be right behind me (as fill) or in a table-top position, as in the photo above.

Unfortunately, this does not work well with a standard umbrella as this light is all about working the edge of the beam and making use of the fall-off. An Octa works great, but you can get the same feel for lots less with a Photek Softlighter or similar (PLM, etc.). These sources are huge, under $100 and create beautiful soft light with an edge.

So, here's the setup and how to tweak it:

As you can see, the light is right over the top of his head (with a boom). You'd think that would be blowing his face out from being so close, but he is outside of most of the light's beam. His face is right at the edge, so we can easily feather the light down his body.

The light is huge -- and very close -- so it is gorgeous on his face with a nice, big specular highlight. This essentially creates a false tone on Caleb's face that is pretty much all built from the reflection of that large light in close.

As we travel down his body, the light gets further away. But we also move more into the beam of the light, so that equals things out somewhat.

Think of it this way: his hands can "see" more of the light (because of the angle of attack) but they are further away. It nets out, and that relationship is something that can be easily adjusted.

Making Adjustments

We can tweak this light a few different ways. One, the physical distance of the light, represented by "A" in the diagram. The closer the subject to the light, the more pronounced the beam edge.

Speaking of the beam edge, you'll be in or out of that by varying the distance denoted by "B" above. That will affect the light on the face, and where it edges out. You may want it to extend physically over his head just a tad, to double as a rim.

By rotating the light ("C," above) you will control how fast the light falls off as it travels down his body. "B" and "C" are micro adjustments, and will depend on each other. For instance, the closer you are with "B," the more effect a small "C" rotation would have.

Lots of different feels you can get with this one light in a table-top position and tweaking the distance/angle of attack. In this frame he looks vey human/engaging. But I could have pulled Caleb towards me (adjustment "A," bringing him under the full energy of the beam) and his eye sockets would have progressively darkened. The effect would have been less human/engaging and more intense/badass.

BTW, don't be fooled by the glow on the background. It is not a separate light -- I did that in post just to give a little focus. Would have been easy to do while shooting, just a decision I made later.

To keep the feathered burn just on the background, I created a duplicate layer and put a full-frame darken edges burn on that. Then I erased his jacket/shoulders/hands/etc. to the "unburnt" layer underneath. Just makes the burn look a little more three-dimensional, as it would if done with light.

In case you are wondering, Caleb is the same cellist I photographed earlier here. He is onto some really cool stuff since winning the HCAC Rising Stars competition. Really talented guy, and creatively fearless. Exactly the kind of person I hooked up with HCAC to gain access to.

We did a full shoot a couple weeks ago, which we'll OA later.


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Blogger Belligero said...

Great looking work; definitely has that timeless Yousuf Karsh vibe to it. (Except for the G-shock he's wearing!)

February 13, 2012 9:09 AM  
Blogger Bill Van Loo said...

How are you keeping the shaft of the umbrella out of the frame? I know the Softlighter has a removable shaft; what about if you're working with something like a 60" Westcott umbrella?

February 13, 2012 9:21 AM  
Blogger Cheerio said...

Great light David! Love that softlighter, unfortunately I'm in Ireland and they don't seem to available here or in the uk. Tried adorama and they seem to be out of stock on the big ones! Do you know where I could get these (shipped to Ireland!) Probably just go for that 7' umbrella but of course it's not gonna give the same control.

February 13, 2012 9:23 AM  
Blogger Drew Gardner said...

Hey David

A nice shot.

It is a technique I use often.

An often build on too, once I have 'Nailed it'

Keeping it simple has many benefits...



February 13, 2012 9:25 AM  
Blogger Rob Peterson said...

So, "C" represents the angularity of the entire light source in relation to the subject, right? (diagram shown at 90/0 degrees...)

I'd like to learn more about the photoshop item you mentioned - any resources readily available specific to that effect that you can share? (or video tutorial?)

February 13, 2012 9:33 AM  
Blogger Mike Mahoney said...

Excellent tutorial as always, David... not to mention that your diagrams are so much more life like than McNally's. :)

February 13, 2012 9:38 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

Thanks for posting this. I have been trying to figure the lighting on this one out, and have over-complicated things. This is a great shot!

February 13, 2012 10:05 AM  
Blogger Kelly Doering said...

Hey David,

Thanks for this B2B post and wonderful portrait as usual. Can I ask that you lay low with your fawning over the Softlighter II? The dang thing seems to always be on backorder. I just talked to Phototek and advised me to check back in a month. I wanted to get my hands on one of these back in December but it was on backorder. So please, quit teasing us with these kinds of posts with your beautiful light. It's too frustrating. :)

February 13, 2012 10:18 AM  
Blogger Bob Kidd said...

David - I liked this portrait from the first view. Thank you for sharing how it was done. - Bob

February 13, 2012 11:01 AM  
Blogger Lars Ræder Clausen said...

An interesting setup, and a nice result. I'm always a little wary when people do things a different way just to be different, as your first comments indicates. That how a lot of silly modern art has come about. But the result here is quite nice.

I fail to see the difference between the "A" and "B" distances, though. Or do they take into account the option of changing the size of the source?

February 13, 2012 11:58 AM  
Blogger dougstroud said...

Really love the light quality and the control and fall-off. But I do miss seeing catch-light in his eyes.

February 13, 2012 1:10 PM  
Blogger michael herb photo said...

Good light and nice overall effect. However, I feel that this light was not right for this subject. The light from above accentuated both his forehead and nose and not in a flattering way. I suppose this is just a personal opinion as I use this style of lighting every now and again.

February 13, 2012 1:15 PM  
Blogger As Seen by Janine said...

Hi David, I am super impressed with the elegant simplicity of your lighting on this portrait of Caleb. I'd never have thought to place a light that way, not to mention, way to make me want a Phototek Softlighter II! ;-) I appreciate your details on all the positioning adjustments and also am grateful for your notes on how you handled the glow of the background and burned darkened edges in post. Beautiful Portrait!

Janine Fugere, Louisville, CO

February 13, 2012 1:18 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Thanks, but gotta disagree with you on the last point. The series is basically about who he is, now. If the G-Shock is part of his persona, it belongs there. If he doesn't want it there, that's his choice. I think you can easily go too sterile with these kinds of things. And personally, I find my bar for that moving further and further into the al dente direction.


That's one of several reasons a Softlighter (or a PLM) trumps a regular 60" umbrella.

@Cheerio and Kelly-

Yeah, they are a family biz, and are frequently behind/overwhelmed. A PLM will work well, too. I'd avoid the Chinese knockoffs of the above, which are cranked out on the cheap and rebranded by everybody and their brother, until you have seen third-party (i.e., not the knockoff retailer's) review/assessment of their build quality and color correctness. Good luck with the search. Call and bug Alex at The Flash Centre enough and maybe they will start carrying the Softlighters.


Yep, just rotated the light source towards or away. Try it yourself and see the big differences. As for the Photoshop info, that's pretty straightforward. I do not have a video for you. Try it yourself on any photo. It's not a lot of work to do so...


"A" is a big adjustment (i.e., where are you w/respect to the entire light source.

"B" is a micro adjustment (i.e., where are you WRT to the edge of the beam)

Sorry if that wasn't as clear as it could have been.


FWIW, over 20+ years of shooting multiple photo assignments/day, I have never heard a non-photog even utter the phrase "catch light". (Ditto the word "bokeh".) I pay very little attention to either, certainly not to the point of letting them drive my lighting. That's just me, tho.


No offense, wasn't really shooting this for you. If you shoot someone, you can light them any way you want. But forgive me if I pass on dropping by to tell you what you did wrong. I don't really have time for that sort of stuff. ;)


That close, little adjustments go a LONG way. Rotation, you have to do yourself. But the A/B stuff, I'd likely go with "move two inches forward for me...", etc. As for the Photoshop stuff, it'll probably bug the purists. Fortunately, I do not give a shit about the purists...

February 13, 2012 2:26 PM  
Blogger dwbell said...

You drew a lil' 645 body! How cute?


February 13, 2012 2:35 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Transparency is the best policy.

February 13, 2012 2:47 PM  
Blogger RexGRP said...

David's portrait of the musician is beautiful. The subject should influence the lighting not the other way around, and David always demonstrates that.
I'll likely try this technique when I get a PLM with cover. I'm considering the soft silver model.
Great tutorial, thanks.
I do see a little catchlight by the way.

February 13, 2012 4:53 PM  
Blogger Frances said...

I think it's a beautiful photograph! Well done!

February 13, 2012 5:01 PM  
Blogger photophanstudio said...

Great portrait David,
Thanks for sharing! I love how the light is giving strenght to his face.

February 14, 2012 12:01 AM  
Blogger As Seen by Janine said...

Thanks David, and screw what purists say. Clarification Question... On the C rotation, are you actually rotating the entire Softlighter towards or away, or simply rotting th angle of the flash head inside thd Softlighter?

February 14, 2012 12:07 AM  
Blogger crash0099 said...

I love this shot but I too would have never thought to do this with that light. David is it me or is the light just a hair to the left of Caleb or is it the tilt of his head that darkens the right side of Caleb (in the pic)

February 14, 2012 1:05 AM  
Blogger Sokko said...

Great shot! I used same kind technique at this shot:

It's also taken of cellist. I used soft box instead and it was more over the head. I wanted to model's eyes to be in dark to give some mysterious feeling. To be honest photo was inspired by your previous shot of Caleb.

February 14, 2012 3:09 AM  
Blogger Paul S said...

How weird, I used this exact same technique yesterday on location shoot with a classical Cellist. Almost identical apart from the fact the Cellist I photographed was stunningly beautiful female with fiery red hair. On my final image I used a large soft white reflector to bounce some light into her face, but in reality it's almost the exact same shot. I used Westcott 7ft white/black umbrella fitted with a diffusion panel. It's a huge light source, and tricky to use on a boom, but the quality of the light is amazing and extremely affordable when compared to a comparable sized Octa. The light is also extremely flexible. By removing the diffusion screen you can adjust the quality of the light by moving the light source along the umbrella shaft. The amount of control you have is incredible, much more than people give them credit for. I highly recommend the 7ft Westcott and it's readily available if you are struggling to get hold of a Softlighter or similar.

February 14, 2012 4:45 AM  
Blogger Peter said...

This is great David; thanks. I must admit I'm still having difficulty with the difference between the A and B distances. Is A supposed to indicate vertical positioning of the source, rather than horizontal as illustrated?

February 14, 2012 9:05 AM  
Blogger Mountain Hideaway said...

David (or someone else familiar with the gear): Is this a 60-inch Softlighter that you're using, and is it equipped with just one Speedlight? I ask because I've been thinking about getting one, and this post has pushed me to do it. However, I went to a local camera store that carries the 60-inchers. Whoa... it is big. When I asked the salesman if a Nikon SB800 had enough juice to fill up that crater, he said, "Probably not." So... is he ignorent and the SB800 (or equivalent) will actually fill it up, or are you using the smaller 48-inch?

Thanks! Great shot.

February 14, 2012 6:58 PM  
Blogger C.Green and J.Green said...

Excellent work, Your gonna be remembered as one of the greats. Well done.

February 15, 2012 5:32 AM  
Blogger Ian said...

In reference to your remark about "A". I viewed it more as the size of the modifier. Meaning a bigger modifier would move the source farther away and making beam more diffuse.

Wouldn't there also be a vertical component to the placement of the modifier?

February 15, 2012 6:22 AM  
Blogger JustBane said...

I think what is more important is the size, proximity, position, and directionality of the light. Not the particular product used. After seeing this I wanted to try it so I used a 43in. shoot through brolly-box to accomplish it. I found the most important is the feathering (direction) of the light and proximity to subject. I used an SB600 @ 1/4 pwr.

February 15, 2012 11:27 AM  
Blogger Tom Parkes said...

@ Cherio and Mountain Hideaway above. I've done something similar with PLMs and both SB700s and 800s using the 86 inch PLM. There's plenty of power at that distance. @ Cherio - Paul C Buff Europe will be able to fix you up with the equivalent of the softlighter, they're very helpful, although stock levels seem to be a bit hit and miss.

February 15, 2012 2:47 PM  
Blogger alv said...

Thanks, David.
Just a question, would the results be similar by reflecting the light on to the ceiling? obviously, avoiding the C rotation, and considering it isn't too high.

February 15, 2012 3:09 PM  
Blogger Joe said...

I accidentally came across this same lighting with this ikea lamp.


February 15, 2012 6:46 PM  
Blogger Bustex said...

Cool light David! Love that soft lighter, unfortunately I'm in Ireland and they don't seem to available here or in the uk. Tried adorama and they seem to be out of stock on the big ones! Do you know where I could get these (shipped to Ireland!) Probably just go for that 7' umbrella but of course it's not gonna give the same control. I went to lightrabbit.com but I don't know if they are any good?

February 15, 2012 7:35 PM  
Blogger Mathew said...


Not really. This technique relys heavily on the edge of the light. That's why a shoot through umbrella wouldn't work either. Edged weapons only here.


February 15, 2012 7:42 PM  
Blogger paplaz said...

I also would like to try this softlighter, but I have searched high and low and can't find a dealer to ship to Uk. Is their an alternitive to this one, that's easier to get hold of.
I don't want to buying from china and end up with cheapo material worse than what I could produce myself.

February 16, 2012 7:52 AM  
Blogger Shane McNamara said...

Paplaz, I live in Australia and buy a lot of gear [including 60" softlighter] from B&H in New York.Shipping is not a problem and the service is impeccable.

February 16, 2012 5:09 PM  
Blogger Andy M said...

I know you told Micheal off already :) so pardon me for bringing this up again, I'm just curious about this, as I love the Platonish mood of the photo and think the contrast is amazing, but is it possible that this lighting setup has contributed to his nose looking much wider than this shot for example? http://www.theyoungeight.com/bio_Jones.html

Same goes for the curved patterns in the forehead.
I think it has to do with short/no hair vs. long hair (diffusing the light) as I've noticed the same effect when using a beauty dish on a short haired dark-skinned person, where the effect on the forehead and nose where much significant and you can't really grid the rim of your light source to dial down the spec highlight. Would love to hear your thoughts on it, as I intend to use this for a Film Noir effect.

February 16, 2012 7:40 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

People look different under different kinds of light. If you want a flat look, shoot on-axis key, like the image you linked. If you want something else, shoot something else.

There is no wrong or right. This is not arithmetic.

February 16, 2012 7:48 PM  
Blogger Jim_B said...

Very nice effect. Was that a speedlight you used with the Softlighter? If so, could you tell me what fixture you use to hold the flash and modifier? I can't find anything that works well (that leaves the flash well-positioned for the opening in the Softlighter's fabric.)

February 17, 2012 6:17 PM  
Blogger Shane McNamara said...

Jim_B, go to flickr and check elvOOOO's photostream.The MFX II bracket is what you are after.

February 19, 2012 5:00 PM  
Blogger Bimal said...

Absolutely brilliant. I loved the simple setup, yet severe tweaking possibilities and the resulting vastness in results. Thanks a million for sharing the double layered back light effect. I learnt so much from this single post!

February 20, 2012 11:59 AM  
Blogger Aaron Aubrey Photography said...

This shot is brilliant!
I'm just inquiring into how you gripped this to not have an umbrella shaft in the way..
This may seem dumb, but I'd like to try this with a 6" Westcott parabolic umbrella, and with a C stand I have the umbrella bracket and shaft in the shot, unless I really cheat my angles with myself and my subject and use more of the side of the umbrella.
Yes, could raise it up highter, but I want the light in really close.

February 25, 2012 11:32 PM  
Blogger Sean McCormack said...

Hi David,
I feel I'm well overdue a comment session. I've shot like this a lot and like it. In fact my next shoot on thurs is based on this, but with a smaller Octa (the 70cm Deep Octa to be precise. Slightly different in that I'm putting the subject closer to the camera on the near feathered edge, letting the rest of the light hit my painted grey background. They'll be chin up, with the light hitting the face and then falling off quickly.

Of course this time, it's not just in my head. My subject from Sunday let me do a few test shots with it at the end of our shoot, so I've already made my mistakes. :)

Nice to see that I'm not actually doing this out of madness. As always keep up the good work.

Sean McCormack. The rainy west of Ireland.

February 28, 2012 8:54 PM  
Blogger Smudge Chris said...

Love this lighting style, definitely going to try this out soon

March 05, 2012 10:33 AM  
Blogger Martin Kaufmann said...

Hi David,

Thanks for the blog including this about using a big top light.

I haven't tried this setup before but got a chance a few days ago. Results can be seen here:


It's really a great technique so I look forward trying it again soon.

All the best,

March 28, 2012 3:15 PM  

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