Photography Lighting is supported by readers. When you buy with our links, we may earn a commission. Learn more

This post was most recently updated on January 8th, 2023

Lighting is the most important part of photography. It affects the atmosphere of your shot and the wrong lighting setup can highlight the wrong side of your subject.

This is particularly true in portrait photography where you want to portray the subject in the best possible setting.

It’s not just enough to depend on the natural light coming through windows but setting up key and accessory lights can make a vast difference.

We take a look at kicker lights, the way they work, and how they can improve your portrait shot.

Three-Point Lighting In-Studio Photography

Before we find out what a kicker light is, it’s worthwhile taking a look at the general lighting setup in traditional studio photography.

If you have ever had your picture taken in a studio you may not have looked at all the many lights around you but generally, photographers use a three-point lighting system for still photography.

This setup has three different light sources positioned in different places near the subject.

The photographer can control light and shadow on the subject by changing the distance, size, position, and intensity of these lights.

The play with this ambient light can create a vast array of different moods.

The three lights used in a traditional three-point lighting setup are key lights, fill lights, and backlights.

Let’s take a look at these different studio light sources.

Key Light

The key light is commonly the brightest in the three-point lighting setup. It adds an almost harsh light to the scene.

For a more dramatic mood, photographers move the key light slightly off the side of the camera and away from the subject.

This gives dramatic shadows on the other side of the subject’s face giving it a greater depth and dimension.

The key light, also sometimes called primary light, is ideal for setting the overall mood of a scene. Even this single light on its own can have a big impact on your portrait shot.

Fill Light

On the other side of the camera, you’ll be able to find the so-called fill light. As its name suggests, this light fills in any shadows on the subject which were created by the key light.

This is particularly useful when you want to bring out details in these shadows.

This secondary is a lot less bright than the key light. Photographers use the fill light, together with the key light, to control the overall mood of the shot.

For example, a dimmer fill light creates a shot with high contrasts leading to a film-noir ambiance.

On the other hand, if you use a brighter fill light will make your subject look more even without too contrasting shadows.

It’s interesting to know that photographers don’t always use lights as fill lights. They can be bounce cards, a wall, a piece of paper, or a reflector. Anything that bounces the light back can be used as a fill light.


One of the more subtle lights in the three-point portrait lighting technique is the backlight.

This light source goes by a few names, such as hair light, rim light, or kicker light, depending on its purpose in the shot.

A backlight is positioned behind the subject creating a light rim or an outline around the subject’s head.

This makes it look like the subject is moving away from the background producing a greater depth in the shot.

What’s A Kicker Light?

Now that we know the different light sources in portrait photography, it’s time to take a look at kicker lights.

A kicker light is effectively a backlight that creates accents and highlights around the subject.

Photographers and cinematographers use specific lights, such as hair lights, to highlight the subject’s hair either from behind or the side.

Just like with other backlights, the kicker light produces individual accents depending on how it is positioned together with the key light and fill light.

How To Set Up Three-Point Lighting For Portrait Photography

How To Set Up Three-Point Lighting For Portrait Photography

There are a few things to look for when you want to set up a three-point lighting source with a kicker light for your portrait shots.

Know What You Want To Achieve

Before you start with your light setups, it’s important you know exactly what you want in the upcoming shots.

Although professional photographers make it look easy with their great shots, the right lighting doesn’t happen at random, so the source of your light needs to represent the scene your subject “lives in”.

You can recreate the lighting conditions of a sunset or a dark, overcast sky. It’s vital to understand this setting before you get your modeling lights out.

Interesting to know: some genres, such as horror also don’t have any particular light setting. Instead, you can adjust the layout of your lights to create an unsettling effect for the viewer, all you need to do is plan this before your setup.

Once you are sure, you know what you want to achieve, you can position your lights with the right effects in mind.

Size And Distance Of Your Light Source

A portrait photographer determines the size of his light source based on the size of his subject creating either sharp or smooth edges on the subject.

Smaller lights create distinct edges, whereas bigger lights produce feathered edges which soften the subject’s shadows.

In a studio setup, a professional photographer usually prefers a soft look that is created with a large modifier, such as a softbox or an umbrella.

As the relation between the size of the subject and the size of the light source are so closely interlinked, you also need to take the distance of the light into account.

If you place the light closer to your subject, you create much softer shadows. On the other hand, if the light source is further away from the subject, this will create harder edges.


The intensity of light can also significantly impact headshot photography. Bright, harsh lights create strong shadows with deeper edges.

You may want to look out for fluorescent lights or LED lights where you can control the intensity.

Light Position

Where you place your light in position to the subject can play a big part in what your portrait shot will look like in the end.

Remember your first step where you needed to understand your goals for the lighting setup. This is important now as you need to place the light sources to create your scene.

For example, if you want a strong sun-like light, then you need to place your key light in the position where you need it.

Testing The Lighting Setup

Once you put everything in place, you need to check if your setup works. You may need to move some lights depending on your subject.

Final Thoughts

The most important thing when shooting portraits is to keep things simple. Don’t try to do too much. Keep your lighting simple and use only three main lights. Remember to always test your setup first.

When using multiple lights, we recommend having two main lights and a kicker light. This can help you add more contrast and create a great depth around your subject.