Every good portrait starts with one light. I’ve said it a million times (which is something you already know if you’ve watched enough of my videos, or read any of my ebooks). But when you’ve gotten comfortable working with one light — and by comfortable I mean you’ve basically mastered it — it’s time to introduce a second light. In this case, for cross-lighting. If you’re ready, watch the video.
The first thing people will usually suggest that you to do with a second available light is to use it as a fill light. And that is great advice. Of course, you can use that second light in any role that you’d find in a three- or four-light setup. I suggest you watch this 60-second explanation of how a three-point lighting setup works.
Back to our two-point lighting scenario. Cross-lighting is my favorite way to employ a two-light setup. It’s really very simple to do, and very, very effective. Aside from it’s cool-sounding name, cross-lighting is simply a way to add a slick highlight to the subject’s form and/or hair on the opposite side of the key/main light. I’ve used this technique in everything from headshots, to boudoir, to editorial portraits.
It’s helpful to think about cross-lighting as an effect that can be created with any available light source, just like the key light. For example, that second light might be ambient or sunlight, it doesn’t necessarily have to be something in your lighting kit.
If you need a loose form of kicker, hair light, rim light or similar, then this will do the trick. Here are a few examples of using two lights in this general configuration:
This cross-lighting pattern was created with two household lamps.
A subtle but effective use of cross-lighting is something I’ve used often in my boudoir work.
Cross-lighting as a key (main) and rim light setup.
So, when you feel like you’ve got a good handle on using one light for portraiture, add a second light. Give cross-lighting a try.