Three Light Studio Photography Setup

Not all photographers find it fitting to shoot with an assistant. Street photography, for example, requires a certain element of stealth, which means that traveling in a group can drastically affect a shot by making subjects more likely to notice the photographer and more likely to respond negatively at being outnumbered.

However, studio and portrait shoots involving special effects and extra lighting will often require the photographer to employ an assistant—and even two or three.

In this video, photographer Jay P. Morgan and his assistants enjoy the rewards of teamwork and demonstrate how to use two duvetyne panels, three lights, a cookaloris, Rosco smoke, and fishing line to shoot a superhero-themed commercial button:

Below is a quick breakdown of the key elements Morgan and his team used in the shot:

I. Backdrop

The black backdrop behind the subject was built from two 12×12 sheets of duvetyne fabric hung side by side. To eliminate the seam in the middle, the team turned the seams away from the camera and clipped them together; this created a soft seam that completely disappeared once they added smoke into the equation.

II. Lights

Morgan and team lit the scene using three different light sources. First, they placed a 1K rim light directly behind the subject and aimed it directly at the subject’s back to create a halo of backlighting.

“This light is pivotal to everything we’re going to do,” Morgan said. “It’s going to determine how the cookaloris, or the ‘cookie,’ looks. It’s going to show us the smoke we’re going to use. So it’s important to get this light up first.”

Second, they used a Photoflex medium softbox equipped with a Starlite tungsten bulb to the front left of the subject as one of two key lights in the setup, “booming” it overhead and feathering it up slightly to illuminate the subject’s face and eliminate rim shadow from the subject’s hat.

Finally, the team placed a 39×72-inch litepanel to the right of the model as a fill light and charged it with the task of boosting the image’s look by opening up the shadows a bit more.

rosco smoke rooter hero plumber special effects

This shot shows Morgan’s process for adding the lights. First, the 1K, then the softbox, and last, the litepanel.

III. Cookaloris

Often humorously referred to as a “cookie,” a cookaloris is a tool used to cast patterned shadows or add streaks of light to an image, depending on its position. “Hard” cookies are made with plywood or poster board, while “soft” cookies are created out of plastic or screen materials. In both cases, irregular shapes are carved out of the material to allow some light to pass through.

Morgan’s team used foam board for their cookaloris and cut out triangle shapes to achieve long shafts of light in a sort of starburst. They placed the cookie directly behind the subject, between the subject and the light source, so that the light streaks made the subject look like a superhero straight out of a comic book.

jay p morgan photography portrait studio

Morgan spent time adjusting the cookie until it looked exactly how they wanted it. The result? Superman.

“It really became an experimental process where we’re cutting and taping and just trying to work to the point where we liked the look of the [light streaks] and smoke,” Morgan said.

IV. Smoke

Morgan and his team tested out three different types of Rosco fog fluids to determine which smoke worked best with their cookaloris and lighting setup. To test each type of smoke, they ran the fog generator for 1 minute and shot a 10-minute timelapse to demonstrate how long each type hung in the air and how the smoke looked on camera.

Rosco Light Fog Fluid is the subtle solution for photographers who want a bit of atmospheric haze.

rosco light fog

Rosco Light Fog was almost completely dispersed by the 10-minute mark.

“This fluid is a more transluscent fog effect that disperses into a haze much quicker than the original fog fluid,” said Morgan. “It’s great for just putting a nice haze in the room where you don’t really see smoke, but just gives you atmosphere. It does disperse very quickly so it needs to be replenished often.”

Rosco Stage & Studio Fog Fluid is thicker and hangs around longer than the Light smoke, but it still dissipates rather quickly.

rosco stage studio fog

Rosco Stage & Studio Fog still provided a light haze at the 10-minute mark.

“It’s good for creating fog for one single shot and then it disperses quickly so you can move on to your next shot that’s smokeless,” Morgan said. “This is also the fluid used for creating low-lying effects indoors. That way, the smoke is dispersing before it rises up too far into the shot.”

Rosco Fog Fluid is the company’s original formula. Smoke produced with this fluid is thicker and much more billowy than smoke from the other two formulas, and it lingers for a long time. Morgan and his team chose this type of smoke for their shoot, but only used short bursts and periodically fanned the smoke away from the subject’s face.

rosco fog fluid orginal

After 10 minutes, Rosco Fog was still too thick to shoot without fanning.

“It can be a little overpowering to the shot sometimes, [but] it gives you a great smoke effect you can work in for a long time,” Morgan said. “I love this smoke outside because it’s thick and even if there’s a little bit of wind, it’s going to hold together.”

V. Fishing Line

Morgan and his team also used fishing line on three different areas of the subject’s cape to make it flap in the wind like a sail and to seamlessly pull it from the subject during his transformation from superhero to plumber.

To create the sail effect, they attached one strand of fishing line to the side of the cape and pulled it up so that it caught the wind just right and billowed over the subject’s left shoulder. They also pulled the back end of the cape down slightly with yet another strand of fishing wire to keep the cape from flapping too high.

To achieve that seamless cape shedding effect, the team clipped the cape’s ties off and instead secured the cape onto the subject with a straight pin, pointed downward. They attached a final strand of fishing line to the end of the straight pin so that when one of Morgan’s assistants pulled the line, the cape gracefully fell out of the frame.

three light studio setup backlight

The final still from the video is beautifully lit thanks to Morgan’s three lights, cookie, and smoke.

All in all, this seemingly-simple commercial shot required four people: one person to release the pin on the cape, one person to hold the cape up with fishing line, one to pull the cape down in the back with fishing line, and another to roll the cameras and turn on the light.

So, while soloing is arguably better for many genres of photography, teamwork thrives in a well-organized studio—especially when you need a super cool flying cape effect.

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