studio lighting

Studio Lighting 101: A Guide to Photography Lighting

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This might seem a bit of a passé subject these days but believe me, if you read on you will see that it is something that everyone can learn a little more about than they already know. In fact, if you read it and don’t learn anything, I will give you double your money back immediately. Not a bad offer but double of nothing is still more nothing!

Okay, a comedian I am not so let’s get down to the subject matter on this particular article and see if we can set you up some information and if we can end up with something called Photography Lights – A Guide. It will have a lot of things that you need to know and some hints to save you time and money along the way.

Photography Light Basics

Back in the day, lighting in the studio was a bunch of round cans filled with very expensive light bulbs that were color corrected to give you an even temperature as far as the color of the lights so that your skin tones were always consistent. These light bulbs were typically just a screw based bulb that cost as much as upwards of $35 to $50. They got as hot as the devil and were very easily damaged. And to top all of that off they had a life expectancy of just a few hours.

That meant that you had to turn them off to keep from baking your model and to keep them from burning out too soon. You also had problems with the color temperature being different from the first few moments that they were on until the end of the shoot. The amount of change was not large but if you were shooting and wanted to have near perfect skin tone from one shot to the next, it could be a challenge because every time you turned them off and on they changed little bit.

Many guys at that point in time actually carried the bulbs around in a heavily padded case if they were moving from one place to another because they were so delicate. Oh yes, those were the good old days of portrait shooting. And the thing was that you couldn’t just pop the image into your computer and tweak the image. There were no computers.

Some people used filters on the lens to change the color balance of lights so that they could use less quality bulbs (i.e.: cheaper) but this was a hassle and it still usually required some manual changes in the darkroom stages where you might waste several pieces of expensive photo paper before you got it right.

At this point you are likely thinking, “Then why didn’t the photographer simply change the white balance in the camera settings before shooting?” That is a great question my friend. The answer is that back then there was no such thing as color balance being built into the camera. That is a function taken on by the camera’s small computer brain and, once again there were no computers.

Now that you have had a refresher course on photographer back then it’s time for us to hop in the time machine and head back to the future to see what things are like with photographic lights in today’s studio world.

Lighting Needs

Everything starts with the basics so let’s back up to the beginning and give it a go from the ground up as it were.

Before you actually start purchasing lighting equipment for your studio, give some thoughts to your future plans. Too many people that seems like we are getting the cart in front of the horse but if you’ll bear with me you’ll see my logic here.

This is a lot like a road trip. If you know where you are going you’ll be able to open up your map and plan out the best route to get you there. In the journey you will save more money because you will plan your stops along the way and likely the most economical way to get there and still see every thing that you want to see along the way.

Now let’s open up out studio lighting roadmap. Try and figure out where you will be in a year or so. Chances are that you can build up slowly but if you eventually want a full compliment of powerful and versatile lighting you will want to make sure that every piece that you purchase while you are on your trip to the ultimate studio system, will work and mesh together like a finely oiled machine. So now that you know where you are going, let’s back track and see where we can start.

Most photographers doing portrait work can easily get by with about four lights in total for the majority of the work that they do. If you have a little extra money then we will attempt to get five. Let’s look over what you need to get, I am assuming that you already have your background stand system figured out. That is not a light issue but it is an important step in doing portrait sessions.

Your Basic Starter Lighting System

We are going to list these in order so that you can take it slow and purchase your system one lamp at a time if you need to. The most important lamps will be first and so on. As you read along you will see why we doing it this way. Yes, it truly makes sense if you take it all in order. We are talking about the road map remember? Chart your course and you can’t get lost.

First off you will need a main frontal light. This will be the basic front light. This will be the one light that is going to give you most of the illumination for the face and frontal area of your portrait subject. It should be large enough to light up your studio with ample light by its self. There is a slight chance that you will ever use it as the only light, but think ahead. What happens if you have a session set and the other lights all blow from some weir d freak on nature or a power surge?

Secondly you are going to want to get a lower powered rear light. This will serve several purposes in your set up. You can bounce the light off of the back ground to light it up either to soften things up or for special effects. More often than not you will be using this light to shine on the back of the person’s head to make them stand out from the seamless background paper and make the hairs stand out nicely.

Next you need to add a couple of side lights. These will be of different wattages typically so that you can add some shadows and bring the details of the face out quickly and easily and be able to control what you are seeing on the view finder to wither soften up the appearance or to sculpt it sot make things more dramatic.

The final entry into our five light systems is an overhead light. This one will almost always be a hair accent light and then the smaller light mentioned as our second light will become just the lamp used to light up the back ground paper.

You will not always find a use for all of your lights but you will have the ability to use them if they are needed.

Stands to Make it All Work

Most all of the lighting gear that you buy will, come with stands. Albeit most of the lesser expensive ones will come with flimsy stands but they will get you started and allow you to get started. These can be used until you get some of better quality and then saved for using if you need a portable set.

The best thing that you can do for your stands is to look for some that roll. That way you can make quick and easy lighting changes without the aid of having an assistant to help you out. There are options for making your own stands or you can pay the extra and buy them readily made.

While I typically prefer to make as much of my own things as I can, this is one area where I suggest biting the bullet and getting the heavier duty stands on wheels. The last thing you need in the middle of a session is for a poorly constructed home made stand to come crashing to the ground and scaring or potentially hurting someone. There are some places that you can skimp and cut corners and some where you can’t and I just feel that this is not the place to cut.

Your stands need to be fairly heavy and able to go from a low position a few feet off the floor to the height of the ceiling if you want them to be as effective as they can be. With lighting it is all about the available options. The more changing or angles and heights that you can do, the better off you are going to be when you start really doing portrait shoots regularly.

Another thing that you want to look at with regards to your stands and this goes equally for the home made ones and the ones that you purchase. Make sure that there are some ways that you can attach a weight system to it. That means to be able to hang a weight bag from the bottom of it to keep it stable and in extreme cases, a way that you can attach a weight to the side opposite of the light boom to keep it from tipping. This is not something that they all do well and it is not something that you will use often, but when you need it, it can make all the difference in the world and since you are selecting your system from scratch, invest the extra couple of dollars for this feature. One day you will thank me for that tip.

Next you need to look over the reflectors that you are adding. You can spend lots of money getting a “real” reflector with the correct look so it looks like a high dollar system. That will impress your photographer friends but in reality, the models and subjects that you are shooting will likely never know the difference between a cheap substitute and one that you bought at a high dollar camera store.

So if you want to get flexibility and all of the variations of reflector that you could possibly want make sure that you add the little things like the weigh hooks and look at any possible thing that you think that you might need in the future based on your projections. That way you don’t end us settling for something that is not quite all that you need or worse yet, repurchasing some thing down the line and wasting more money.

Add a Soft Box and increase your Quality

One thing that you can add to your system that will immediately upgrade the quality of your shots is called a soft box. For those of you that are not completely sure of what that is here is the generic explanation.

A soft box is a device that will allow you diffuse your lighting – flash or constant – in to a usable light that will look great on portraits and not be terribly harsh. The soft box is generally some form of enclosure that is usually shallow and square that surrounds the bulb socket and has highly reflective material on its inside areas and a covering that is designed to spread out the light and diffuse it.

The one thing to remember here is that if you are using a hot light you need to be sure that it is not so hot that it can melt the diffuser.

The soft box will illuminate your subject evenly and help to all but eliminate your unsightly shadow areas so that the resulting portrait will be of a professional quality. Just adding the soft box alone will increase your available lighting and thus your quality. You can expect to see a fifty to seventy five percent increase in the overall quality of the final shots simply by adding this in to the mix. Review the sub heading on stands because these tend to be heavier than a regular light so a heavy duty stand is essential for the use of a soft box.

This is one of those things that you can fairly easily construct with a little knowledge and some elbow grease. It will pay you back huge dividends in both the portrait photography sessions and for any of the product or still life shoots that you might have because the lighting is so smooth and even and predictable. It will make your entire close up and macro photography simply stands out from the crowd.

Photographic Light Bulbs

This area of photography is somewhat subjective. Some photographers opt for the new color corrected florescent lights and some still like the old style hot tungsten lights. There is not really a plus or a minus to using either one of them and I have done both.

The best plus that I can name for either of the two types of bulbs is that the fluorescent ones will be a LOT cooler on your equipment and on your model or other subjects in the portrait. If you do a lot of glamour, swimsuit or nude photography / body studies, it might be advantageous to stick with the hatter temperature tungsten bulbs because it will help to keep your less than fully clothed subjects comfortable and warm.

The bottom line with today’s cameras being able to make color temperature corrections in the white balance settings on the main menu is that you need to find what works best in your setting and specific situation and then stick with that. The last thing you want to do is to bounce back and forth between the two as you go because you will inevitably start shooting a session with your camera set for the wrong color temperature and end up slapping yourself silly as you have go through and color correct each and every exposure in Photoshop which will add time and a loss of quality to your end result.

The tungsten bulbs cost more and will give you a shorter life span and are a lot more delicate but tend to be more predictable. The newer fluorescent bulbs are getting better but the tungsten’s have been around a long time and are pretty much perfected.

So do yourself and your clients a favor, try both of the types on lighting out and settle on one and stay there. I myself have opted to go with the florescent bulbs for cost and physical temperature. If I am having a less than fully clothed model in for a shoot I simply bump up the thermostat a couple notches. It saves in money and on energy so I feel like I doing my thing for a green ecological sense.

So Let’s Put it All Together

So now by this time you should have made your decisions on our lighting. If you have a special photography store that you have been working with there is a chance that you can get them to allow you a return on the items if they don’t meet your needs. That is the absolute best case scenario because then you can try out your ideas in a real world situation in the studio that you are building and can try it out with your camera and your lenses before laying down a batch of cash.

Before I had a relationship at the store that I now call home, I actually offered to rent the gear for a few days before purchase. They take your credit card info; you take the gear and try it out. It was a good thing I did that on the first time because I was young and green and I would have made a he mistake because I went with what looked cook and not what would do the job. It cost me a rental fee but saved me a bundle and I then got what really would do me some good and in the process made a lasting business relationship. Not only that but I have been with these guys so long that if I need a lens that I don’t have, they let me take it and use it without charging me. It pays to be loyal in some instances.

So assuming that you have done all the homework and you have taken time to take all of this in, you should be able to put together a fairly complex and usable system that you can expand as you go and you should not have totally broken the bank in the process. It should be a good feeling.

Remember that this is a pretty formidable investment on your part and so you need to keep it clean and keep it in cases or your gear closet when you are not using it. I treat mine that way and I still have some pieces that I have had for over 20 years that still look as they did the first time they came out of the box.

You have to remember that getting your lighting equipment is only the first step. You now need to take the time to hook it up and learn how to work it all as one unit so that you can literally set it up without even thinking about it. That way you will get the most out of the system. Better portraits will be only a snap of the shutter away.


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