The Basics of Studio Lighting Part 1 of 2: Selecting Your Equipment

Studio photography lighting can seem very intimidating at first, and it’s true that there is almost no limit to how complex your lighting setups can become. But there are a few basic techniques that will give you a solid groundwork for studio lighting, and once you master these you can build from there.

The most basic studio lighting arrangement is a 3-point light setup. Your first light is your main light, which beams at your subject’s face from a slight side angle. Your second light is the fill light, which is placed on the other side of your subject from the main light and minimizes the harsh shadows on the darker side of their face. Your third light is your back light (sometimes referred to as a “hair light”) which creates a halo effect around your subjects head and shoulders to separate them from the background and give the photo more depth.

Selecting Your Lights

When selecting your lights, know these four terms: incandescent, fluorescent, strobe and LED. Incandescent and fluorescent lights are older technologies. Incandescents run hot and can pose a fire hazard if placed near flammable materials. They also use more power and have a yellow tint. Fluorescent lights are less ideal for photography because they have an inconsistent colour temperature and flicker. LED is a newer technology which eliminates a lot of the drawbacks of the older technologies; LEDs produce less heat, use less electricity, and are lighter. Some have adjustable brightness and colour temperature as well.

Studio ring flash
There is a large debate among photographers between strobes (lights that flash brightly for a split second), and LEDs, which are a continuous light source. The benefits of strobes include capturing quick motion without motion blur, and creating a more comfortable environment for the model with less squinting or blinking. Benefits of continuous LEDs include being able to see exactly what the final image will look like as the lights are placed, and cooler operating so that lights can be placed much closer to a subject than hot incandescents. Continuous lights also have no recycle time, (ie. the amount of time a strobe takes to recharge before it can be flashed again), and they can be used for video lighting.

Ultimately there are good points on both sides of the debate and your choice of light will depend on your preference. Do some research and find out what’s right for you. Personally I prefer LED panels because, as a relatively new technology, photographers are only beginning to experiment with the potential of what can be done with them.

When selecting your lights, make sure that they all have a consistent colour temperature. You cannot correct for more than one colour temperature present in the same photo, so make sure that all your lights match. Make sure that the white balance in your camera is set to match the white balance of your lights. For best results, read your manual and learn how to use the custom white balance function.

Colour temperature is measured in Kelvins. Daylight and other cool lights have a blueish tint and occur somewhere between 4600K and 6500K on the spectrum. Pure white balanced light bulbs are between 3100K and 4500K. Incandescents and other warm lights have a yellow tint and a colour temperature of between 2000K and 3000K. The extreme end of the warm spectrum includes fire light. Yes, it is counter-intuitive that sunlight filtered through our atmosphere is more blue-balanced than yellow.

Keep in mind that, as long as your colour temperatures match, your light source doesn’t have to be electric. You can use window light as your fill light, bounce light off of a wall or ceiling to create fill or hair light, or use a reflector. My favourite lighting setup uses the sun as the main light and a reflector as the fill.

If your lights don’t have adjustable brightness, you will want to use the brightest light for your main light, and your second-brightest light for your fill. You can also modify the brightness of your lights by placing them closer to, or further away from the model.

Umbrella style diffuser

Gels, Light Modifiers and Reflectors

There are many ways to change the quality of the light you are working with. As a general rule, using something to soften and diffuse your light (such as an umbrella, softbox or scrim) will have a more flattering effect on your model. You can also bounce a light off of a reflector, light-coloured wall or ceiling to create a more diffuse effect. Beauty dishes and ring lights are more specialized modifiers for fashion portraits. Other types of light modifiers can affect the texture of the light (grids, gobos, cookies), direct it into a narrow spot (flags, snoots), and change its colour temperature (gels).

A cukoloris or “cookie” is used to give the background light texture in this still from Casablanca.

As you are learning, start with basic soft filters on your 3 lights. If you can’t get ahold of umbrellas, there are some great online tutorials on how to make DIY softboxes and scrims at home (keep in mind that if you are working with incandescents they can pose a fire hazard when placed too close to flammable materials). Once you’ve gotten the hang of basic diffusers, start experimenting with different light modifiers to get a feel for their effects.

Keep following Raw Finery Studio’s blog for part 2 of this article, where we will cover light angles, placement, and 4 and 5-point lighting setups!

All images are licensed under a Creative Commons license.