This is one of those things that you can read up on all the various ways to set up your own portrait system and then you are still going to have to experiment with it. It is not an exact science because the way my studio is set and the amount of ambient lighting in there is going to be different than yours. There is no doubt to that fact. What we can do is instill the basics, the things that will narrow down your arrangement so that you actually have a starting point and that is what I am going to do here.
Setting Up Your Studio Lighting
You can fairly easily get by in a system with two lights and get fairly decent and predicable results. I prefer having four lighting units, I may not use them all every time, but I like having the options and I will explain what these units are and why I like them..
You need to ignore the arguments and hype, bypass the urge o save money by getting bottom of the line stuff and bite the bullet. The dividends that you receive from quality gear are enormous.
First get a light box, a soft box or any of a dozen other names. This is the main light in your portrait system. It will be large (as large as several feet) and it will have a very bright and soft glow. It is a lot like sunshine on an overcast day. The light will be evenly distributed and will make your models look great. Even skin tone, low if any shadows and just generally it will give you the professional look that you want in a portrait. This is likely the single most important and the single most important investment in the area of lighting that you will make and it will give you back results that are well worth the price.
This is you main light and should be mounted somewhere above and to the front of your setup. That way it will give the illusion of diffused sunlight and on many occasions you can shoot only using this light for some great results.
The second light that I would purchase, providing that you got yourself a decent light box or soft box, is a back light or background light. This is a small light that may or may not need a reflector to be effective. That is strictly a matter of taste I usually bounce it off an umbrella.
Here is a description of what it is and why it is the second light for your system. If you shoot a model against your backdrop only using a main light they will tend to end up looking flat and more or less a piece of the background. However, if you take your smaller wattage background light and bounce some light onto the background, the model will pop out away from it and add depth to the image. If you instead turn the light and bounce it on to the back of the model, you highlight the body curves or the hair making a dramatic statement and separating them from the background as well. No matter which technique you use, the results will give you a better image in any given situation unless you are after the effect of the model blending with the back ground.
The third and fourth lights are what are commonly referred to in the industry as the fill lights. These light do exactly what the name infers. IT adds light to either or both sides and fills in the shadows that may have been given by the main or the background lights. The purpose here of these lights is to even things out so that a thing like the nose does not cast a large shadow etc.
These should, again in my opinion, be used as bounce lights off an umbrella. Many guys like bouncing strobes because they are strong and very bright lights. That is precisely why I don’t like to use them. I prefer my people portraits to be soft and to make the subject look stellar. That usually does not happen from strobes, In fact as I have said time and time again. Strobe units bring out the absolute worst in human features and require a lot of Photoshop post production work in order to get useable images with very rare exceptions.
In my studio I have a control unit right next to where I stand in my shooting position, where I can dim or brighten any light in my studio by simply moving one step to my left. There is a master dimmer there that controls each and every thing that lights up in my studio. Then if I want to try a different amount of light in one area or another it is just the matter of sliding a slide switch up or down to make that happen. I don’t have to move this light or that stand closer to do it. It is very cool and it makes my life a whole lot easier. I can change the lighting on my set from midday sun to midnight candle light in seconds without missing a shot or wasting any time that might spoil a shot.
You see, from time to time a model might make a one of a kind facial gesture that is a great shot but the lighting is all wrong. I can literally tell them to hang on a second and to not move a muscle and I can change the mood to match the expression effortlessly and get a killer shot as the result. I end up getting things that would have other wise been lost forever or difficult to remember what the exact look was by the time I had rearranged the lighting manually.
Doing a little research, deciding on your budget and needs will get you in the ballpark. It is then up to you to make the most of it and hit that home run.