Glamour Lighting SetupsSubmitted by Michael on Thu, 2011-03-03 11:33

Speedlights as backlight for “Star” photos

Please note: I am going to take a couple of weeks off from blogging for personal reasons. I'll send an email to the newsletter subscribers once I am back - which will be soon.

But now on to a situation that you might find yourself in sooner or later: Do you have a model that belongs onto a big stage with spotlights shining bright on her? Lucky you! Congrats! You are going to shoot her like a star, right?

Now do you also have a big stage with spotlights? A stage where you can quickly go and shoot some frames with her? No? Do you know anybody who can let you into a theatre? No? Oh, oh.... life is a bitch, isn’t it?

No problem. With a little bit of luck, you might have a black backdrop or black curtain and a couple of speedlights at hand. That’s pretty much all it takes to introduce some “big stage” feeling to your photos.

If you also add an umbrella to the mix, then the photos will turn out much more charming than they could ever turn out on a real stage.

In this video I am taking some photos of HA-L who is a music producer (Avex Trax). While her artists are usually on the big stage she herself is working in the background... until now. Because with the lighting tactic I just mentioned I pulled her onto the stage - at least photographically. The lighting setup requires a bit of effort, but it’s not that hard. Setup takes 10 minutes max. Have a look at the video:

Here’s the lighting diagram of the shoot. It’s a tiny little bit more complex than what you usually see on this blog - but don’t let that freak you out:

Some example photos of our shoot:

Model: HA-L

Postproduction: Gina Hernandez

Graphic Design: AlexZlatev


I wish you good light!
-- Michael


Related Links:

This video on Youtube: Speedlights as backlight for "Star" photos 

Great tutorial. Will try it at my next session.

Thanks a lot, cousin Steve! Post a link to your results if you like - I am curious.

Michael, your videos just get better and better. Thanks again for the ideas!

That's because people like you keep encouraging me. Thank you!

Heya Michael, this is a really inspiring tutorial. You make it look so easy. :)

Thanks Erin! In fact, it really IS easy. Otherwise I would not be able to do it. I am not particularly skilled or experienced or something.

Great video once again, I always look forward to seeing your videos they are a great inspiration, keep them coming.

I'm always looking forward to your feedback. Thanks, Boomer!

I hope everything is alright. See you in a couple of weeks.

Again you have managed to create stunning images and a process that seems achievable even by me how ever i have a couple of questions?

1. your umbrella light is close to the black background but i see no contamination in the black, is this post processing, goboed or is the light just not bleeding onto it?

2. the strobes you use for the spot lights are pointed into the camera and they seem to be blown out on HA-L's hair, are they blown out #0799 it the one i am most interested in?

Hi Richie,
thanks a ton for the questions.

Do I need to gobo the mainlight to let the background sink into black?

That's because of the combination of a couple of things. First and foremost: The curtain in the background is made of black velvet. Sounds posh and expensive - but to be perfectly honest, it is the very cheapest black velvet you can buy online (Taobao in my case). But don't tell anybody about it. The velvet is the quality that is usually used by stage designers in theatre and similar - and they never have budget, believe me. This fabric is sucking light like a black hole. Or in fancy photographer's lingo: The surface efficiency of black velvet is extremely low.

Now, from the curtains point of view the lightsource is the INSIDE of the umbrella. And it's a good 8 feet or so away.
At the same time our model is only 2 feet away - a quater of the distance.
The surface efficiency of our model might be 8 f-stops higher compared to the curtain.

To fully get impact of this, let's imagine two photons, who start in the speedlight. Both photons want to end up on the sensor of my camera. Photon A bounces back in the umbrella and goes into the back while Photon B goes through the umbrella and reaches the model. Photon A has to travel 8 feet to the curtain, then manage to bounce off a black hole and then travel back the 8 feet. Photon B has to travel 2 feet and then bounce off at some pale makeup, shiny hair or glossy black lycra top.

I mean - does that sound like a leveled playing field? Not at all!!!

My theory is this: Once photon A comes out of the speedlight, it takes a look at the situation and goes like "4 times the distance of my competitor? 8 f-stops harder to bounce? WTF? I ain't got a chance anyway. I give up!" The photon won't even try to reach my sensor.

As for question 2, I am not sure if I fully understand it. Both speedlights are zoomed to 128mm and the are roughly pointed at the camera. The fact that the blow out her hair is because they produce flare in the lens. But if you mean something different, then try to rephrase your question and cross fingers that I read it in bright moment so that I understand it then.

Hi Michael,

Great blog! I'm going to try this. If successfull, I'll post the link here.;)

Thanks for sharing!


Sure you will be successful, cousin Dennis!


As usual you outdo yourself! Very creative lighting technique. I look forward to using it in the near future.

Wonderful. Thanks you. Schedule your shoot for next Saturday or something and give it a try. It's easy and fun.


You are an educator - of the highest calibre!

Not too bad with the photography as well....

Thank you. Actually, I believe I am not good in any of these disciplines. But keep saying things like that - I really like it.

This can make many people inspired and it can alsen coourage many people! Keep it up!

I am glad I can inspire you, cousin!

really nice mr zelbel but i was wondering how do i set up grp speedlite like that ? if im using my 580ex as master can i use my other 430ex set on manual or not ? pls im kinna very new in this thing , great job btw keep it up

Do it like this: Set your 430 Speedlights to "Slave" and your 580 to Master. Now the 430's will do whatever the master tells them to do. That means, if you set your 580 to ETTL, then all the slaves will work in ETTL mode. If you set your 580 to Manual, like I did in this example, then all the slaves will work in manual mode.
In this particular case I grouped the slaves into groups A and B. I defined levels for both groups on my 580 master speedlight.
Give it a try!

hey michael.
ich verfolge jetzt schon ne ganze weile deine unglaublichen videos.
ich lerne gerade professionelle fotografie als teil meiner schulischen ausbildung als medientechniker.

letztens im studio habe ich mir gedacht: wie komme ich selbst auf ein solches setup?

dass ich die blende gleich lasse ist klar. aber wenn zB mein Bild zu stark belichtet wird: taste ich mich mit verändern der stärke der blitzer an mein optimales ergebnis und nicht durch ändern der Belichtungszeit an der SLR liege ich da richtig?

ich würde mich sehr über ein video freuen, in dem du zeigst wie man für sich selbst (egal mit welchem equipment) die beleuchtung einrichtet.

liebe grüße, Alex

Hi cousin Alex,
If your aperture is a given, then there are actually two variables that you can adjust in order to get your perfect exposure.

a) the power of your flashes
b) the ISO level of your camera

Tip: if you don't have a gut feeling for the values you need, then start by setting your flashes to 1/8 and your ISO to 200. Shoot a photo, look at the histogram and the preview and take an educated guess how much you should dial up or down to meet your desired result.

You are correct, varying the shutter speed does not work. The flashes burn for less than 1/1000s. The fastes sync speed of your cam is usually 1/250s, so you will always capture the complete burn time of the flash. OK, an exception is the high speed sync mode. If you use something like that, then the flash acts as a constant lightsource. But that's a whole different ballgame. You don't do that in a studio.

Hi Michael,

I thank you for this post(and all the others), your ability and willingness to shed light on these awesome techniques is brilliant and so very appreciated!

I actually have a shoot coming up this Sunday where my client was looking for me to achieve this sort of effect, although I had done something similar through trial, error and accident, it is comforting to see someone of such a high calibre pulling it off and being able to explain it so well.

My set-up is slightly different, I have only one speedlight - a 430ex but I also have two Elinchrom 500/500 BXRi's. I have a remote that can trigger off the speedlight, and in turn the other lights as well. Would you recommend I use the two studio flashes to achieve the "stage light" look and the speedlight as my Key light?

Are there any other concerns with this sort of lighting that I should consider as my subjects are African and have a much darker skin tone than that of your lovely model?

I will post the results as I would love to see what you think of my outcome. It is going to be a new experience for me as I am shooting eight individuals that are music producers and performers.

Again, I thank you for your teachings, I really appreciate it! You are a true inspiration and a wonderful educator!

Hi cousin Paulo,
thanks a lot!

> recommend I use the two studio flashes

Yes, I guess you have to turn the power of them waaaay down, but it should perfectly work. If you got honeycomp grids, then try out how that is looking like with the particular lens you are using.

> have a much darker skin tone

I think a darker skin tone is an advantage in this setup.

> will post the results


Thank you so much, I really appreciate the response.
Chat soon. :)

thanks Michael , ik like you videos en style !!
I am glad to have discovered this blog!

Thank you so much for watching, cousin Johnny!

Hi Michael,

Wow I am so happy that one can do beautiful pictures with flash and to know this is done at a low cost, using flash system. I just discovered yous site I have watch every video and pictures you have done and I go back often for inspiration and instructions. Thank you so much, please keep providing insight on the matter, I need it and so many others. I a newbies is enjoying this.

Yours from Canada


Thanks a lot, cousin Kenneth

Another fantastic and creative tutorial video cousin Michael! Thank you for sharing such insightful and professional video tutorials every time, especially the step-by-step lighting diagrams. =) Hope you get to enjoy some time off and I look forward to the return of your videos! I actually have some catching up to do =)

Thanks a lot, cousin Brian. I am going to post new videos soon.

nice to hear that new videos are coming!
Here I really look forward to it,I can still learn a lot!
Michael, I've sent you an email,with perhaps a nice suggestion!

kind regards


I also tried .....


I have no reflection screen used, but that comes later this week, and then I still try.....

now first to the other videos start ....


Hi cousin Johnny! Wonderful lighting. You would not need photoshop lens flare effects. Well done.

HHIS I suhold have thought of that!

Hallo, kommen bald neue Blogeinträge/Videos? Würde mich sehr freuen.


Cousin Salech,
I am sooper dooper busy at the moment, but will be back with new stuff soon.
If you are in Germany, consider to join the Fotocommunity Convention. It will be a lot of fun. I am doing a live nude shoot on stage on Saturday and a nude photography workshop on Sunday. Cousin Emily will model.

Hi Michael,
You are an amazing instructor and photographer. I just stumbled upon your site and I'm overdosing on your fantastic instruction.I plan on experimenting with my Canon Rebel and Vivitar 283 flashes. No TTL or RF triggers - just a cord and optical slaves!
Cheers, Les

Excellent plan, cousin Les. If you dial down the your build in flash to it's lowest power setting, then I guess you can savely use it as your trigger for your optical slave. The you would not need a cord. More freedom.
Have fun and ... good light!

I just want to thanks for your blog/work, i learn about light more fast here with your videos that all the time i spend reading about this lol.
I will keep watching you i learn more and more with your work.
And now let me put some off your tips on my photos.lol
Regards Carlos from Portugal.

Thanks a lot, cousin Carlos! Lucky you, being in sunny Portugal! I'd love to be there but all I can do is sipping my double espresso after lunch here at Perla Porto, my favorite Portuguese restaurant in the media habour of Duesseldorf, Germany. Regarding your photos, once you used some tips in the photos please let us know by posting a link to them. How about that?

Sure Michael. A few weeks and ill try to put those in practice and send you the results.
Regards Carlos

I love it...funny and enlightening, bookmarked!

Thanks a lot, Sean. That's an honor for me.

Hello cousin Michael ;)
Like i post after i put some tips that i read and learn with you in some of my work.
Check this out and your opinion is very welcome.
My material was a limited, i use only one speedlight with triger, the flash was in the floor pointing to my friend face.


In this set i use speedlight with some tips that i learn with your videos.


I hope you like my attempts lol ;)

I think the mini photos are really awesome!

Thank you ! Very helpful - will have to try this out..

Let us know how it went, Isaiah!

Man, you´re great ... speachless!!! Big hug and big tks!! Good lights!!! :)

Thanks a lot for the compliment, cousin Fermando!

I have come to two conclusions......
1) I love your blog
2)weeks where you come from last a LOT LONGER than they last where I come from :)
I'm looking forward to your next posts

Thanks a lot! I see it it that way: Time flies having fun... and it seems like we photographers have quite a lot of fun, don't we?

hey Michael
when can we expect new videos?
I come here every day watching,and I think I am not alone!

I really like your style and love to learn !

Hi Johnny, I can't tell you an exact date. But I will have time for videos soon. At the very moment I still have to care about my family. They really need me.
Until then, I am still present over here answering questions. So if you tell me your next big photographic challenge, then I might be able to help you specifically on that one.

The first picture is my favorite, witht eh 2 lights behind and the pose that she's doing. Absolutely gorgeous, and you can't even tell its not real. I had no idea until I read the article!

She is acting quite good on this photograph, isn't she?

Hi Brother Micheal,

What software do you use to make your videos and the introductions?

Thank you,

My work horse for that is Adobe After Effects. My suggestion for that is: Find the rider, not the horse. Head over to Elance and hire someone who can do that for you.

Nice Outocme will try it myself !

Wonderful! Let us know how it went. Share a link of your results with us over here if you like.

Michael, your web site is extremely helpful and encouraging and you are a great photographer! Your photos look so extremely professional that I wonder, why do you consider yourself an amateur? Do you mean you do photography as a hobby, not as your main occupation?

Hi cousin Vasily, yes, photography is my beloved hobby. My photos are not sooo professional. The real pros produce much better results. However, my photos are good enough for a number of applications. That's why clients also book me for catalogues, commercials, weddings and more. However, this is not my main job. But it's very rewarding.
Good light!

Thank you very much for your tips and posting your videos on Youtube. Your tips and advices have been both educational and inspiring to me and I'm looking forward on buying some of your books.

Another great behind the scenes tutorial. Thanks!

Can i just ask, are you still using the Phottix Odin triggers and are they still working well for you?

Thanks again and keep up the good work!

great shots, thanx for sharing!

Hard to get my thick German accent? Here's the transcript!

Hey fellow photographer, how is it going? Welcome to glamour lighting setups. My name is Michael Zelbel and here is the topic of today’s show.


Today I would like to give you an example of how you can shoot photographs in a tiny tiny room and make it look like a big stage. Now if you know how you can use light in order to transform your location into something completely different, then this gives you a lot of power as a photographer and often times your subjects they are going to love it.


And like today’s model which is cousin HAL and she is a music producer for some pretty well known artists and that means that her people are usually on the big stage in the limelight but she herself is invisible. Now she is always been in the background and I found that is not fair, right? That is why I wanted to shoot some frames which have the feeling like she is on the big stage, now just more charming that the regular stage light.


The way I introduce this big stage feeling into our photographs is this, first of all I used a black back drop which the viewer cannot see where there room ends, it is just completely black so potentially the room where could be really really large, right? Then the second things is I used 2 speedlights in the background and they are firing directly into the lens and that makes them look like they are big spotlights on the stage, now they are not sharp anymore, they are pretty blurry, so the viewer all can’t identify them as speedlights.


But wait there is more! Let us have a look at the lighting diagram. So we have our model Cousin HAL and she is sitting at a table. And on the table I put some silver reflective material to fill in some shades. We are seeing the really backdrop and we are seeing 2 speedlights firing into her back and into the lens.


Another tricky part is, that the main light is coming from the side. It is a little bit behind the models so it is firing mostly from behind and it is going through a big shoot through umbrella which makes it pretty soft. If you have such soft light, it is not really like a stage. Now if we have a look a the photo again, it is so soft, it is much softer than let see a follow-spot on stage would be. But you know my goal was not to perfectly simulate the stage, my first goal was to shoot a really charming photograph and for that I use soft light of course.


Then there is one more important thing which is reflector over here, the other side of the model is reflecting back some of the main light, so that I could record texture of everything in the shadows of her face. Now if you have a look at the image again, in the shadows everything is still there. It is pretty dark but you can see the things and for that I needed some light and that is coming simply from the reflector.


The camera settings are pretty straight forward, 1/200s for syncing speedlights, f/11 for a nice sharpness, ISO200 for good quality that is all standard stuff. The speedlights, they are all in manual. Main light is on 1/8 of power in group A. The back speedlights are down pretty low to 1/32 of a power because they should act as spots but they shouldn’t really completely flare the whole image and that is why I need just a little bit of power over here in group B. Both of the speedlights in the background are attached to one light stand and this is something I did just for convenience. It is not mandatory of course, but I covered the shiny metal part of the clams that I used to attach those speed lights. I covered them with black fabric just in order to be sure to have nothing in the photo which screams "lightstand". You know, a bit of light that is falling onto the metal would make it clear to the viewer that this was done with speedlights which are attached to a light stand. I really wanted to hide this fact. So all in all, it is a little bit of a more complicated lighting set up but it is really worth it. It is really tricky and really good!


So if you want to do similar lighting set up but let us say you don’t have 3 speedlights that you can scatter around the scene, then simply check if you can find other lights sources that are bright enough to serve as a backlight in your scene. It could be, for instance, regular lamps which you equip with a strong light bulb and where you remove the lamp shades so that you can directly look into the light bulb.  They will serve as a backlight as well.


Now this has a cool effect, so try it out and if you do have nice results, then please post a link to your photos in the comments. I would you like to see what is the outcome.


All right that is all for this show, I really hope you can get something out of it and let me know about your opinion in the comments below the video. And I really hope you come back next Thursday when I am back with another video for you, until then have a lot of fun with your camera, your photo shoots and for that I am wishing you...

good light.

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