Studio Lighting for Beginners
By Andrew Hudson Published: June 7, 2011 Updated: August 28, 2014
A “photograph” is a “light drawing” (from the Greek, phos meaning “light,” and graphê meaning “drawing”). The best way to control that light is by providing your own. Here are some tips.
Why Not Use The Sun?
The sun is just too darn bright. Perhaps you could invent a solar-fusion dimmer switch thing, but everyone in the world would get upset. Outdoors, you can use shade and scrims (translucent fabric) to “hold back” (reduce) the light, but sunlight reflects off everything so it can get rather tricky.
For full control over lighting, you need to get rid of the sun and go indoors, into a studio.
What Is A Studio?
A studio — from the Latin studere, meaning “to study” — is a workroom. You want a location where you can minimize the effect of sunlight and have enough space to move around with your subject and equipment. And have a coffee.
Let’s See A Studio
Here’s a studio. Notice that this is a simple room with no windows, so there’s no sunlight involved. The walls are white so there’s no color introduced. There’s a simple backdrop using a roll of white material. And there’s space for a model, some equipment, and to move around. The big question is, where is the coffee machine?
The Coffee Machine
Ah, excellent. Oh look, there’s an espresso for you too. Mmmm.
Back at work: Let’s look at the lighting in this picture. We can see that the light levels are very even throughout. There are no bright spots, no dark areas; we can see everything without distraction and our focus is allowed to be on the subject matter itself. How is this achieved? By using several types of lights.<, currently on the backdrop.
Well done, you found all five. We’ll look at each one in turn.
Here we have a couple of spot lights just for the backdrop. They help remove shadows behind the subject.
See those two black boxy things? These are our main lights that provide general lighting all around the subject.
Inside the black fabric canopies are lamps. They can be continuous bright lamps, or strobes which fire like a flash. Either way they will be bright and require some power packs (out of view).
The canopies — called “softboxes” — provide a white fabric screen that the lamp shines through. This disperses the light for that all-important even distribution of soft, diffused light.
Notice that one of the softboxes is overhead, to provide the effect of general sunlight. This is difficult (read: expensive) to do, since you need a big tripod, a convenient I-beam, a gantry, or some other sturdy structure.
Car studios can have massive overhead lights. Annie Leibovitz often uses a huge overhead light, or an umbrella light on a pole held by an assistant.
The picture below shows four lights suspended over a large overhead scrim and side panel, all of which is suspended by wires. Now that’s quite a production. I expect you to have this set up by the end of the day.
This is usually a strobe (flash) into or through an umbrella. The key light provides the light for the viewer’s perspective. If you’re using a camera flash unit, place it off camera with an extension cable to avoid a bright and direct reflection.
You might another lamp as a “fill-in” to reduce shadows caused by the main light. The fill-in light is usually 1/2 to 1/10 the brightness of the key light.
Well this guy looks happy. You may need to fill in some darker areas, such as under a person’s chin. You could use another lamp, but who has that many lamps? Instead, just reflect light from an existing source using some white card or a fabric reflector, and a happy guy in a yellow shirt.
The Eyes Have It
Where do your eyes end up on this model? On her eyes. And what helps draw you there? The lovely white glint in her eyes. This is called a catchlight.
A catchlight is a white spot in a person’s eyes and is key to make the person look alive.
“Catchlight: Light that reflects in a subject’s eyes and adds life to the portrait. Either a flash or reflector panel is used to create catchlight.”
The easiest catchlight is made by turning on your camera’s flash, using it as a “fill-flash” and getting a reflection off the eye. In the photo above, the catchlight is actually the reflection of a softbox. Look at this picture:
Your camera can transmit a signal to operate the flash lights. Your camera may already have this built-in, or you place on the hot-shoe a small transmitter which operates via infra-red or a radio frequency signal. Your camera is the “master” and the studio flashes are "“slaves.”
These are usually small spot lights aimed at part of the subject to draw the eye somehwere. Accent lights are often used on a model’s hair and/or shoulder.
Here we have an accent light for the eyes, and of course that lovely glint. Hey, is that my coffee?
Ever watched CSI? They always have a rim light on the person’s hair. It helps separate the head from the background and generally looks cool.
This rim or “halo” light is created by one spot light behind the person. The trick is to hide the light off-camera, either behind the person or out of frame, and minimize the glare it causes into the lens. You can use a lens hood, hold a black card over the lens, and/or use black baffles on the spot light to control the light’s direction.
This Looks Expensive
Not necessarily. I’ve done photo shoots on my patio using white cardboard panels and lamps from The Home Depot; total cost: about $50. You can buy starter kits with two studio lights, a softbox and an umbrella for around $300. For around a $1,000 you could build a rough studio in your garage or a spare room.
This Looks Technical
No, it’s not really. A great thing about photography is that you can see the results instantly. So take a test shot and see what’s not lit properly. Then move your available lights around accordingly.
To make something brighter, just point a light at it. To reduce light, angle the lamp away. To remove shadows, position a reflecting white card. It’s all pretty easy, and kind of fun.
Now let’s look at the finished product.