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What the hell is a kicker? What's a key light? The names photographers use for studio lights.

11/25/2020 ISO 1200 Magazine 0 Comments

Everyone has a name for every position where they place a flash on location and in the studio. But not everyone agrees on every name and this jargon can be sort of confusing.

Before we get started today, for the purpose of this discussion, we’re going to talk about lighting positions as hours on a clock with the photographer standing at 6 o’clock and the subject in the middle.

The key light or main light got their name because they are the key or main light in your set up. It’s normally going to be the light hitting your subject’s face and it’s brightness is going to determine your exposure. Often times people will use a softbox or beauty dish for this type of light.

The key light is usually going to be somewhere between four and 8 o’clock and if you’re using a beauty dish it doesn’t have to be at 6 o’clock, it can be wherever you wanna put it, it’s just a modifier like every other modifier after all.

Side Light

And if you place your key light at 3 o’clock or 9 o’clock it will often be referred to as a side light, which will result in split light, where only half of your subjects face is illuminated. I’m personally not a fan of this type of lighting, so you won’t see it very often on my timeline, mostly because I want there to be light on both of my subjects eyes. Side lighting can be very unflattering for people with bad skin, because it will show all the texture in their complexion.

The phrase “key light” should not be confused with “high key lighting,” which just means that you have a low contrast scene that’s fairly evenly lit, probably with two equally bright key lights, one on your left and one on your right.


Fill is simply a light that you use to fill in the shadows of your scene. Often times it’s going to be in a soft modifier and a lot darker than your key or main light and the reason is so that it doesn’t end up creating its own shadow and it fills in the shadows from your other lights more evenly. You can also bounce a hard light off of a ceiling or a Vflat. 


A rim light is a light that creates a rim around your subject. Normally it’s going to be placed at 12’o clock behind your model and its position will be obscured by their head or body so that you don’t end up seeing it in the camera. This light is going to create a halo around there figure and maybe some of it will wrap around a little bit if they move slightly to one side. But the point of this light is to separate the subject from the background.

Kicker = edge 

Some people like to interchange the words rim light, kicker and edge light. The purpose of this type of light is to “edge out” your subject by creating a highlight around the edge of their body and or head on the same side that you’ve placed this “kicker. This will separate your subject from the background and also add some three dimensionality to your shot. I personally think that the phrase rim light should only used for a light placed at 12 o’clock, whereas an edge light or a kicker can be placed at anywhere between 2 o’clock and 10 o’clock, but not 12.” 

Background lights

If you want to control the light of your background, you’re going to need a background light. You can do this with anywhere between one and four lights. I’m sure some industrious person could find a reason to use more. 

So if you want to use one background light, it’s very common to place it behind your subjects at 12 o’clock pointed at 12 o’clock. if you point near the bottom of the background, it’s going to create a gradient from the bottom to the top, if you point it at the middle of the background it’s going to create a circle of light right behind your subject. Most people will use a small reflector, some will use a grid and others may mix it up with a gel. 

If you want to light your background more evenly, you could use two lights one on each side — one low and one high pointed generally at the center of the background, left to right, which will do a pretty good job. But if you want to light a white background extremely evenly some people will use four lights and umbrellas, one high and one low on each side. You’ll also see photographers shine one or two light into a v-flat, on each side of the backdrop.

Hair Light

A few years ago someone was assisting me and he thought that a hair light was a light that lit the front of the persons hair, which I could totally understand.

The hair light is simply a light that you place at 12 o’clock above your backdrop or bloomed above and behind your subject, pointing down towards the top of their head, in order to create a highlight that will separate them from the background. It will also probably preserve detail in their hair that otherwise would have disappeared. 

Diagrams made with Sylights

You may also like: "The Hard Truth About Softboxes: Which Modifiers To Use In Each Role During Photoshoots And Why"

About John Gress:

For over 20 years Chicago photographer & director John Gress has created stunning photography and videos for some of America’s largest companies and international media outlets.  His work has included national lifestyle advertising, portraits and videos for the beauty industry and action photography of professional athletes. Professional Photographer Magazine called Gress “one of the nation’s foremost experts on lighting.” Let's Get Connected: www.johngress.comTwitter | Facebook | Instagram

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