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My Smartest Lighting Setup. Ever.

lighting setup diagram - 2-in-1 group and portrait, layers

This is, without bragging too much, my smartest lighting setup by far.

Or so far. It is a combination of things I have learned when struggling with making the standard group shot more easy to manage and one of my standard portrait setups I use in the studio as well as on location.

This is lighting in layers, where each layer is a working setup for individual portraits/headshots and smaller group shots, respectively. All you need the four lights, but you could do it with only three if you skip the rim light.

Two Lighting Setups in One


Here is the behind the scenes shot from a large conference room I used when setting up a studio (or rather, two) for portraits and smaller groups.

That was my assigment. My client was having a conference, and I was invited to shoot both individual portraits of the employees as well collecting them in smaller groups based on which branch they were working in.

My first idea was to do as I always do, I set up two separate photo stations so I can go from one “studio” to another depending on which kind of photo that is written in the plan for that group or individual.

In the room I used there was a large (or fairly large) open space but the rest of the room was filled with chairs and tables. And I didn’t want to move everything around if I could avoid it (as I would be the one to put everything back later).

Combining different setups into one

Instead I thought of a setup I did earlier this year when shooting a small groups and individual portraits with the same two-light setup (see Same lighting setup for portraits and group photos).

That setup used two Profoto D1 with silver Umbrella XL (and Front Diffusers on), and worked very well. And that became the group part of this setup. As well as the background light for the portraits.


I try to avoid pure white background, at least on location, as it often gives the light to much ways to bounce around and make the portraits flat.

When setting up the lights, I first made sure that the background section would have the right light output and distance to the groups. If I would have tried to make the wall completely white, it would not have worked. But with a light shade of grey, the people standing near the wall looked good.


When the group section of this long studio worked, I set up the lights for the portrait section which used a 5-foot Profoto softbox Octa as my main light. Together with a round silver reflector from below.

And the small softbox you can see in the diagram pointing back at the camera, almost, is my rim light to add a little light to the shadow side. And the hair on that side. It was angled in a way that it didn’t hit the groups at all.

A very long portrait studio

This is not a setup that I can use on every assignment like this, few places I find myself in when working on location has the space to handle this. But the time it saved, not having to move tables around, and not having to move the camera more that a few steps back and forth, was great.

To have them all stand in the right spot, and for me to have the camera in the right position, I taped papers to the floor with markings so I would know where to direct them and where to place my camera stand. It saves a lot of time in Lightroom/Photoshop if I don’t have to adjust for not having the camera in the right place so someone gets bigger and someone else looks smaller.

It is not only time saving for me, working like this, it is also very good for the client that can plan the portrait sessions without having to pull the same persons from their meetings more than once during the day. Ok, that can be done with having two photo stations, but this is a more beautiful solution. I think.

Same settings everywhere, all the time

Maybe the most elegant part of this setup was that I used the same camera for all my shots, the same lens, the same camera settings (aperture and shutter speed) and the same effect on my Profoto lights, all the time.

I own two Profoto D1 250 Air and two Profoto 500 monoblocs. To make sure that this worked, I put one with Air in each part of the setup, i.e. my main light for portraits had Air, and one of the Umbrella XL had the other.


And finally, a Wall of Light

When I was done with the portraits and smaller group shots, my client also wanted a larger group shot with everyone in it (of course). They were around 25 in total, so that reqiured a smaller change of the setup for that to work.

I switched to a 24-70/2.8 lens and moved the camera to the group position. Then I placed them in two rows, changed the aperture so everyone would be in focus and turned the knobs on the lights to work with the smaller aperture.

To get the easiest light possible, I moved the Octa in between the umbrellas and got a smaller wall of light that minimized the risk of shadows in the group.

Group shots are not my favourite thing at all, so I try to find ways to make it easier to pull off. It almost always ends up looking like a class photo, but if you have two minutes when everyone is in the same room, it is nice to know that the lights just works. And that I can focus on making them all look into the camera at the same time, and all that.

So, almost three setups in one.

And you could probably do it with just three lights, that would work too.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Mark November 23, 2012, 01:39

    Really nice set-up Stefan, thanks for sharing. Still, it requires a lot of firepower, my two Canon strobes have to suffice at the moment. In the example shots, you either photographed people made of Lego bricks or the images have pixelated!

  • Stefan Tell December 5, 2012, 01:41

    I guess you could try it with small lights, but then it might be hard to get everyone in the group shot sharp with sufficient DOF. And for this, you would need at least one more light.

    The examples are pixelated because I hadn’t finished the delivery to my client at the time I wrote this.