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An Introduction to Studio Lighting

Studio Lighting closeup of cocktail glass

Once you develop a taste for indoor photography it is only a matter of time before you will want your own studio lighting setup. A studio setup can be anything from a few table lamps and a spare sheet for the background to an elaborate multi flash system.

Although continuous light can be used, I would thoroughly recommend that, if you want to get serious about studio photography, you invest in a couple of studio flash heads. These do not need to be expensive, nowadays you can get a couple of lights for about the same price as a halfway decent telephoto lens.

Studio flash heads have several advantages for the photographer because they are powerful, even the lower priced units kick out much more power that the average portable flash, and infinitely more than continuous light. This means that you can control the light in interesting ways by using umbrellas and soft boxes to diffuse the light and soften the shadows, whilst still getting a reasonable exposure at a small aperture. Flash can freeze the action (as you can see from the picture on the right), with very fast exposure times, and give you all the depth of field you need. All the head shots below were exposed at 1/100sec at f32 with the ISO set at 200. Although your portrait sitter will not move as fast as my Martini, hopefully, the pictures will be a lot sharper using flash than they will using continuous light. Studio flash heads also recycle very fast, much faster than a portable flashgun, so you can keep shooting at a fast rate, which is important when you are doing portraits.

You don't need to go for any top of the range lights unless you are going to take up studio photography for a career. The top professional gear will be bigger, more powerful and more reliable when used all day everyday, but in my experience the bottom of the range lights are certainly powerful enough for use with our DSLR cameras, and as for reliability, I have had the same lights for ten years now and would expect at least another ten years' service out of them. I have never had any reliability problems with studio flash, which is a lot more than I can say for the portable battery flashguns that I have used over the years.


In order to produce a soft light that will in turn produce soft edged shadows, we need to spread the light out with a diffuser. There are several different kinds available, window lights, 'swimming pools' etc, but the most useful, versatile and portable is the umbrella. They can be used to shoot through or to reflect the light. The parabolic shape helps to focus or de-focus the light a little (depending on which way round you use it), and they fold up nicely for transport and storage.

Studio Lighting translucent umbrella
Shooting through a translucent umbrella
Studio Lighting two light setup
A two light setup, one through and one bounced
Studio Lighting bounced light
Bouncing the light into an opaque umbrella
Studio Lighting back lighting
Using the flash without a diffuser

Lighting for Portraits

OK, enough about the equipment, as always it is what you do with it that matters most. Most people, when they first get their two studio lights, set one up on each side of them and try to produce an even light with as few shadows as possible. This is a reaction to the years of frustration using flash on camera and getting those ugly shadows down the side of the face and under the chin. Yes of course you can eliminate such shadows with ease but you can also do a whole lot more.

Think of the two lights as a 'main light' and a 'fill light', then light the object (or person) with the main light first. Move it around to get different effects and see how the shadows fall. Then use the second light, on a lower setting or further away (see the inverse square law for more info) to soften the shadows you have created with the main light but not eliminate them altogether. Below are some examples of popular lighting setups.

Rembrandt lighting - one light Rembrandt lighting with fill

This first setup is called 'Rembrandt lighting' as it can be seen a lot in his paintings. The distinctive feature of Rembrandt lighting is the little triangle of light under the eye on the shady side. The light is higher than the head and well round to the left side, but still in front of the sitter. The picture on the right shows what happens when you add the second light, which is placed on the right near the camera, at about half power. You can see the setup for these two pictures above, they are the top two pictures in he diffuser section.

Side lighting Side lighting with fill

Pushing the main light further round to the side gives this second setup. The light is now more or less at 90º from the camera, the fill light hasn't moved at all. This type of lighting has a very bold feel and was used a lot for actors in Hollywood in the old black and white days, when tone and contrast was everything. Those old studio portraits are worth a look at, they have a very strong feel to them. Watch out though in this setup that you don't over-light a shiny nose.

Back lighting Back lighting with fill

The light is now behind the subject as in the bottom left photo at the top of the page. If I have three lights to play with, this can be an effective way to get some light into the top of the hair which can otherwise sometimes be too dark. Using only one front light means that we now have quite a flat light at the front with only a few highlights in the hair and on the cheeks.

These are just three lighting combinations you can use to get you started, the exact placement of the lights will depend on your subject, whether they have long hair or short, dark or light, what characteristics you want to enhance and what you want to hide, and so on. The important thing to remember is that, no matter how many lights you use, one is the main light and all the others are fills or effects, light the subject first with one light then add others as needed.

For more about portraits see my tutorial on portraits.

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