Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Studio Lighting and How to Setup a Basic Home Studio


Lighting is about controlling where light falls as much as where it does not. The following points are from my personal lighting notes. These will introduce the reader to basic studio lighting accessories and give a few product recommendations based on my home studio. I will essentially talk about light sources, modifiers and kits.

The core any studio is made up of:

  • Studio lights – Sources of light (divided into key light, rim light, hair light etc.)
  • Background lights – Which illuminate the background and create separation between subject/talent and the background
  • Light modifiers – That make changes to the quality of light (hard, diffused, soft etc.)

Generally speaking, light modifiers are all about controlling light. Whatever you decide to do with your light sources, one most important thing is to keep a check on them. As such, we can split modifiers into two main groups: soft and hard modifiers.

Soft modifiers

Modifiers that soften light generally work by diffusing it - spreading it out over a large surface so that light rays are scattered. They are used anywhere you want to reduce shadows and make things look smoother. Their number one use is for key lights in people photography. The most popular of these modifiers are umbrellas (also called a brolly) and softboxes.

Umbrellas include:
  • Shoot through umbrellas - these are semi-transparent umbrellas that you place in front of your light source. They work just like putting a lampshade over a lamp's bare bulb, you place them between the subject and the strobe. Imagine that they "filter" the light like a sieve.
  • Reflective umbrellas - these are opaque, black outside and are usually silver, gold or white inside. These are placed open-side to the subject, with the strobe pointed away from them, straight into the umbrella. The inside reflects the light, scattering it in every direction. The various liner materials determine the color and quality of the light being reflected.

Umbrellas come in all shapes and sizes, from tiny ones to ones over 6 ft across, and are easily the most popular modifier you will find. Their main advantages are their small size, low price and versatility - you can shoot with a folded reflective umbrella for a very specific light quality. Their biggest disadvantage is a lack of control they give over light spills.

Softboxes include:

  • Softboxes - these are usually pyramid-shaped constructions, lined with a silver material, with room for a strobe at the top of the pyramid and diffusion cloth at the base. They come in almost all dimensions, from tiny inflatable ones for speedlights, to huge, studio-only setups that require multiple light stands to hold. Their biggest advantage is their ability to control light spill and to accept modifiers. They are heavier, bulkier (even folded down), more expensive and take longer to set up than umbrellas.
  • Octas - there are two versions of the octa: either as a softbox with a octagonal shape, or as a hybrid softbox-umbrella, which is what I'll be writing about here. A strobe is placed inside something akin to a deep umbrella, then diffusing cloth is placed behind it. In practice, this creates extremely soft light as light is first scattered off the reflective material inside the "umbrella", then diffused again by the cloth. With large octas it's difficult to support the entire modifier off the front of the strobe, so some manufacturers (Elinchrom, Profoto, etc) have octas that mount on the light stand and allow you to place the strobe inside it.

Softboxes are what most people think of when they think of studio photography, so they make a good impression if someone's coming to pose for you. Using additional modifiers, like a grid, flag or filter on top of your softbox can give you even more control.
The key in softboxes is diffusion, you don't need to literally make a softbox, you can throw a bedsheet over a broomstick supported by two chairs and you'll make yourself an excellent, soft light source. You can literally make a soft box by lining a cardboard box with aluminum foil and pulling a sheet over it, but the comedic effect while shooting portraits might be a bit too much.

Hard modifiers

Hard light is the default with strobes - that's what we get when we fire off a speedlite or on-camera flash. It is a small point of light that brings out imperfections and coarse textures. Shoot it from the side and it'll make a child look like they have awful skin. Still, it's extremely useful to have controlled beams of light (think: rimlights/hairlights) and it's absolutely critical in portrait photography.

There are four basic types of hard modifiers:

  • Reflectors - these are the standard bowl-shaped accessory that pretty much every studio strobe sold today ships with. Their only use is to cut down light spill to the sides when using a bare bulb (which is rarely done) and when using umbrellas or grids.
  • Grids - these are literally metal grids of various thickness and density. The black tubes they form work extremely well to stop scattered light rays coming from the strobe bulb, creating a thin, relatively soft beam of light. The density of the grid determines the quality of light, while the size of the beam (expressed in degrees) is determined by the thickness of the grid. Grids often also include gates, which are movable flaps on each side of the grid, which allows for finer, tighter beam control.
  • Snoot - a very simple construction, this is usually just a slightly tapered tube of black metal. It creates a very harsh, small beam of light.
  • Beauty dish - this is the most complex and - in my opinion - nicest of the hard modifiers. A small reflector (usually silver, gold or white) is placed in front of the strobe, while a bowl-shaped reflector is placed around the strobe. This creates a very even, hard light with an extremely sharp drop-off. Used almost exclusively in people photography, it's extremely useful as a key light, especially for people with good, smooth skin (or makeup). As the name implies, it is extremely popular in beauty photography.


General observations

Light is just light, and most of these modifiers can be (and are!) mixed and matched:
Grids on Snoots, diffusion material on beauty dishes, grids on softboxes (these are almost always cloth), silver backs for shoot through umbrellas, etc. There are also tons of different names for everything I've listed above, I just used the ones I'm most familiar with.

Three critical components of studio work that I didn't cover as they aren't strictly light modifiers, but are worth talking over: Flags, Scrimms and Bounces.

  • Flags - anything that's not a light modifier that blocks light. Professional flags tend to be black cloth or paper stretched on a frame that has a small handle protruding to make it easier to place on a stand. At home you can use pieces of black paper and just tape them where they need to go, or maybe black cloth if you need to stop a white wall from reflecting. Used mainly to control light spill and keep down highlights.
  • Scrims - these are panels covered in diffusing cloth, placed where light needs softened locally. You know those outdoor TV scenes where it's a bright, sunny day, yet all the actors are lit by nice, soft light? That's a huge scrim over their heads. At home, I just use a piece of white cloth.
  • Bounces - also known as bounce cards. Literally, anything that will reflect enough light to be useful, but usually opaque white, silver or gold material stretched out on a frame, but you you'll often see mirrors used for this. Usually used in contra to a key light as a way of lightening (or opening up) shadows created by the light. The type of material determines the light's quality, the distance from the subject and light determines the bounced light's intensity.


Studio Nuts and Bolts
For lighting, I typically use background stands with either seamless paper or muslin.
Lighting is more subject dependant, but I usually will do a 2-3 light setup. Usually I shoot with one key light, which is either an octa/softbox/umbrella with rim/highlight being a strip box. I will recommend going through some of the online tutorials on lighting situations to get to your personal preference. 

Here is an itemized list of studio lighting accessories:

  • Background Support – Essentially two stands with a horizontal pole to support paper or muslin. E.g. http://www.bhphotovideo.com/buy/Background-Supports/N/4294550758
  • Backdrops – These are the actual backdrops that sit on the supports. Choices are seamless paper rolls or muslin. Available online or at local camera stores. E.g.


  •  Next are the actual light modifiers and the lights. I recommend starting out with kits that give you both the lights and modifiers and later based on the type of shoot, buy individual lighting. E.g. Westcott, Elinchrom, Profoto






For Key you can use either a beauty dish, octobox/softbox or a shoot through brolly/umbrella depending on what type of highlights you are looking for. You can also buy all these types of modifiers in types that will work with flashes too.

This should get you started on a basic home studio.




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