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How to shoot a low key portrait with two speedlites

Last week I wrote an article about things you can do to diffuse the light with one speedlite mounted on top of the camera (Four ways to diffuse flash light using on-camera speedlite). This week I thought why not adding a second flash to the equation. 

When shooting with more than one speedlite, you have ample possibilities and challenges: setup, directing the light, bouncing it, master flash on camera, slave flash off-camera, TTL control or manual flash control,  keep both flashes off-camera, triggers, angles, power, distance, ambient light, etc.

Background underexposed further to pure black using Adobe Lightroom.

Options to consider

Two sources of light give you lots of possibilities. For example:

  • Cross-lit key and rim lighting: flashes 180 degrees apart on opposite sides of the subject
  • Key and fill lighting: one light at 45 degrees to the subject, other light down 1-2 stops above camera axis
  • Both lights on one side, 90 degrees apart
  • Key light in front and rim light behind the subject on a black background - low key photography (this is what we will cover in this article) 
  • Key light at 45 degrees from camera and second light whitening the background (high key photography)

There are no rules however and you should experiment. Imagine your subject is the centre of an analog clock and your speedlites are the hours (12 o'clock, 1 , 2, ..., till 11 o'clock).

This article is not and will not cover all endless possibilities but I am also sharing below some of Syl Arena's instructional videos below... 

...and some books to just scratch the surface". I am sure, like I did, by just watching and reading you will build up your lighting knowledge.

By Syl Arena
By Syl Arena
By Joe McNally
By Joe McNally

What do you need for setup?

For this article however, we are going to see how to use two-speedlites to produce a portrait that is simple, easy and that you can use to impress. What do you need:

  • One Speedlite positioned off to the side and in front of your subject (for the key light) 
  • Another Speedlite placed directly behind the subject’s head (for the head and the rim light)
  • Black backdrop. You can buy a black fabric for a few bucks
You subject positioned 1 to 2 meters away from the backdrop. 

You subject positioned 1 to 2 meters away from the backdrop. 

Take few shots and notice the separation light created by the speedlite placed behind the subject . To avoid over exposing the hair of your subject, rim light should be extremely subtle. To lower the output of your head/rim light: if you are on ETTL dial in a flash compensation of -2 and try again. If you are on Manual, start with 1/8th of the flash power and increase and decrease as you see fit. You will need to experiment with both speedlites power to get a good key and rim lights exposure.