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What is a main light?

By January 9, 2018 Photography No Comments

Main light, fill light, and accent light are the main three lighting components that work together in the creation of a more complex setup.

main light

Although all are aimed at lighting the scene, these different types of light each serve a specific, unique purpose and take specific names according to their task. The correct use and balance of these units can turn basic lighting into an elaborate and sophisticated setup that caters to the project and is most suitable for the subject.

Main light, or key light, is the name given to the unit that lights the most important part of an image, giving it its shape and depth. In people photography, the main light is usually aimed at the front plane of the subject’s face, often also partially or entirely lighting the upper body. Without the main light, the subject would be barely visible, which is why this unit has the most important role in a shoot and is always the first one to be considered and positioned in the setup.


The main light is usually positioned opposite or to the side of the subject to allow its light to easily reach and brighten at least part of the front of face and body. This light is aimed at generating the main light pattern on the subject, often following the standard lighting techniques. The main light can be placed at any distance from the subject and matched to a variety of modifiers to affect the intensity, direction, shape, colour, and harshness of the light.


The extent and quality of highlights and shadows created by the main light can incredibly influence the emotional perception the viewer gets from the final image. The main light is, in fact, one of the biggest contributors to the creation of a specific mood, and in positioning it, one should always keep in mind any existing theme behind the shoot. For projects and images that wish to convey happy and hopeful emotions, it is advised to position the main light so that it creates minimal shadows on the face and body, matched to a modifier that softens both highlights and shadows, making them subtle and graceful. On the other hand, whenever it is an intense and tenebrous atmosphere to be conveyed, the main light should aim at making the scene predominantly dark, with an abundance of hard shadows created through the use of undiffused modifiers such as lamp reflectors, snoots, or barn doors.


main light

In the image here, the light unit is positioned about 45° around the subject’s right-hand side, slightly higher than eye level, and pointing down toward her. From this angle, the light is able to reach and brighten the whole mask of the face as well as the upper body, but creates visible shadows on the opposite side. Because the light is equipped with a beauty dish, the shadows are relatively soft and non-invasive, but they still confer a very intense mood on the image.

Main light quick tips

Setup: Position the light source at the front of the subject, either directly opposite or at 30°, 45°, or 90° around their side. Equip the unit with a modifier depending on the spread and quality of light required, keeping in mind how these two factors can affect the overall perception of your images.
Uses: Main light is used for brightening the subject and creating the main mood of the picture, which will define the emotions generated in the viewer upon viewing the image.

Image details

  • Model: Joshua Williams @ AMCK Models
  • Makeup: Lara Himpelmann
  • Hair: Noriko Takayama
  • Wardrobe: Marina de Magalhaes
  • Photography Assistance: Phoebe Cheong
  • Styling Assistance: Camilla Sverdrup-Thygeson, Clara Li, and Gina Trias
  • Hair Assistant: Sho
  • Shutter Speed: 1/160
  • Aperture: ƒ/10
  • ISO: 100
  • Model: Anna Tatton
  • Makeup and Hair: Virginia Bertolani
  • Shutter Speed: 1/160
  • Aperture: ƒ/6.3
  • ISO: 100
  • Lights: Studio head 1 with beauty dish (front, camera left)

Lighting People: A Photographer’s Reference is Rosella Vanon’s complete reference and guide to lighting techniques and posing models. Lighting People is an art every photographer—and every photography student—must master, and this single volume is both a complete course and the most useful reference book you can find.

Lighting People, Rosella VanonLighting People: A Photographer’s Reference
Rosella Vanon

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RRP for print edition: £24.99

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