I don’t take that many figure photos these days, but when I do, it’s always with flashes. While the entry barrier of getting multiple flash units, stands and modifiers may seem intimidating, there is a massive advantage of control and quality over light bulbs. I’ve posted lighting setups a few times in the past, but this time I’d like to talk about each lighting component and the light modifiers used for them.

Key Light

The most important light source for any photo is they key light — the main light source for the photo. For this I always use a soft box mounted on the flash. This diffuses and enlarges the light source to produce a softer light. This particular model is a Lumiquest Soft Box III, but a smaller and cheaper model would work just fine for figures.

There’s not much to say about the key light besides that it’s the most prominent light source in the photo. I typically hit most of the subject’s face with the key light, though in this particular example I found that the key light coming from the camera left direction produced unpleasant glare on the figure’s eye, so I lit the figure from the camera right direction instead.

Rim Light

The very opposite of the key light is the rim light, which is a narrow beam of hard light that serves to highlight the contours of the subject and separate it from the background. This achieved by putting a grid attachment onto the flash unit, which limits the degree to which the light spills to the sides. The one I use was hand-made by my father with some black drinking straw, cardboard and elbow grease.

In this particular example, in addition to preventing the left side of the figure from fading away into the backdrop, the rim light also serves to create a bit of a lens flare on the top left corner. This happened because the light was aimed towards the lens, which was an accident at first, but I think it’s a nice affect — it makes her look like she’s posing for a photo for someone to the left side of the frame.

Fill Light

Lastly there’s the fill light, which is the supplementary light source to fill in the shadows,  For the fill light in this shot, I used a piece of foamcore board to reflect the key light back onto the figure, though you can also use another flash unit at a lower power setting.

As you can see, the fill light brings out the left side of the figure without overpowering the key light from the right. A common mistake I’ve made in the past is to light he subject in equal strength from both sides. This often leads to a flat image with very little depth in the lighting. Keep this in mind especially if you’re using a second flight source as the fill light.

In Conclusion

Once again, here is the final image after some post-processing in Lightroom. In addition to the usual edits, I’ve added some blue tone to the shadow, and brought out her eyes a little by adding some luminosity to blues and aquas.

As you can see, there are a lot of options to modify the shape and intensity of light when shooting with flashes. Although the photos I take with are mostly indoors and rather sterile, you can also take your gear outside and combine flash lighting together with ambient lighting (like this shot in a backyard with Menma). 

Although the setup photo above looks rather busy, all you really need a flash unit and a small soft box to get started. A cheap flash & soft box can be had together for less than the price of a scale figure, though you might also need a cheap radio trigger if your camera does not have a built-in feature to trigger off-camera flashes. It’s a relatively small investment that makes a huge difference in your photos, so give it a try!