The Magic of Motivated Key Lights in Portrait Photography

Anyone who uses artificial light is used to working with key lights, but what they may not have played around with is the art of using motivated lights as their main light sources. In the video below, Jay P. Morgan shows us just how beautiful motivational key lighting can be:

What is a Motivated Light?

For those unfamiliar with artificial lighting, a key light is the light that illuminates the subject. Often, it will be a beauty dish or a softbox, but sometimes it can be something more creative—like a motivated light. A motivated light is a light source that occurs in the scene  as part of the photo itself. These can be anything from street lights and lanterns to chandeliers and windows, and as Morgan says, they “give the viewer a clear view of where the light should come from and how it should look in the image.”

In this fantasy shoot Morgan uses a fairly complex lighting schematic, with the key light being the lantern in the model’s hand (a Dynalite Pencil Light was ensconced inside to provide the actual light). His secondary light is a beauty dish, placed near the camera so it can mimic the light from the lantern, but to add some wider fill to the model’s face. For more fill, a PhotoFlex LightPanel reflector is off to the camera-left side of the shot, further opening up the shadows on her face. Beyond that, three Photoflex Flexflash Heads light up the background and a Dynalight RoadMax Head creates some rim light to help separate the model from the background.

The setup looks as follows:

how to use a motivational light

Lighting Diagram

One of the key pieces the makes this setup work is Morgan’s use of diffusion gels. He wraps several layers on the front of the pencil light (only one on the back so that it doesn’t look too blown out), as well as adding some to his background lights. The rim light will has no diffusion as it needs to be crisp and focused. Other accessories for the shot include a Rosco Full CTO (color temperature orange) gel on the pencil light, a smoke machine, and a wind machine. Morgan’s main camera was a Canon 5D Mark III with a Tamron 24-70mm lens.

Camera Settings:

  • 1/50 of a second
  •  f/5.6
  • ISO 320

Add in a lighthouse for the background (beautifully edited to seem like it’s adding light from behind) and some creative bleach bypass work (with Nik Color Efex Pro) and you get one hauntingly beautiful fantasy shot.

fantasy portrait with motivational key light

Final Shot

Needless to say, you don’t need to do fantasy shoots to get a great effect with motivated key lighting. Even just using a window as your key light will make a dramatic difference in many setups.

Like This Article?

Don't Miss The Next One!

Join over 100,000 photographers of all experience levels who receive our free photography tips and articles to stay current:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

New! Want more photography tips? We now offer a free newsletter for photographers:

No, my photos are the best, close this forever