How to create checkerboard lighting | Profoto (CA)

How to create checkerboard lighting

19 September, 2023

Written by: Lindsay Adler

Have you heard about checkerboard lighting? It's a classic lighting pattern to achieve a sculpted and dramatic look, favored by legendary photographers like Irving Penn. Here, top fashion photographer Lindsay Adler shares her tips on how to create checkerboard lighting with just a single light and an umbrella.

What is checkerboard lighting?

Much like the alternating light and dark squares on a checkerboard, your objective is to replicate this pattern when lighting your scene. This entails positioning the highlight side of your subject’s face against the darker (shadow) side of the background, and conversely, situating the unlit side of the face (shadow) against the highlighted portion of the background. This technique produces a 'highlight-shadow and shadow-highlight' lighting pattern, resulting in heightened contrast, depth, and drama.

Step 1 - Use a soft modifier 

To create a classic version of a checkerboard effect, as commonly used by Irving Penn, select a large light source such as an umbrella with diffusion. A large light source helps you to create soft and forgiving light that gently wraps around the skin.

Step 2 - Feather your main light 

Feathering the light can help to darken the light on the background behind the illuminated side of the face. Adjust the light’s direction so that it is pointing across the subject, feathering the light.

Step 3 - Add a V-flat or flag 

Even though the left-hand side of the background is already dark in this scenario, it may not be dark enough to create a defined checkerboard effect. In such cases, it’s recommended to add an element to block the light. Here, the black V-flat is positioned between the light source and the background to cast a shadow.

Step 4 - Adjust contrast

Playing with contrast will amplify the impact of the checkerboard effect. While checkerboard lighting traditionally complemented black-and-white imagery, a modern interpretation can certainly incorporate color.


You can create the checkerboard effect with different types of modifiers and lighting styles. To follow a more classic approach, choose soft light.

Written by: Lindsay Adler

Products used in this story

Umbrella Deep White

A versatile and zoomable umbrella for a softer light
From $289.00 CAD

Umbrella Diffuser

Turns your White or Silver Umbrella into a softbox
From $69.00 CAD

Air Remote

Syncs and manually controls any Profoto Air light
$525.00 CAD