Studio Lighting: An Introduction for Amateur or Semi-Pro Photographers

Anybody who is serious about indoor photography will eventually want their own studio. This doesn’t have to be an elaborate setup; a studio can mean anything from some domestic lamps and a spare bed sheet for the background to the more high tech options rented or owned by serious professionals.

studio lighting

“Studio Set” captured by Giulia Bartra

Inverse Square Law of Light

Before any discussion of lighting with flash or studio lights, it is useful to be familiar with the inverse square law. This law states that any object which is double the distance from a point light source (i.e. a flashgun or lamp) will get a quarter of the illumination. What this means to photographers is that when moving a subject from two meters away to four meters away, four times the amount of light will be needed for the same exposure. Either open the lens aperture two f-stops to achieve this, or use a flashgun that gives you four times as much power.

This is because as the beam of light spreads out, the proportion of light hitting the object is decreased. The greater the beam’s focus, the more light will fall on a subject.

When using an automatic flash on a camera, you may experience the effect of the inverse square law when you notice that difference in exposure between objects near the camera and those not far behind.

Continuous Lights vs. Strobes

Although continuous light can be used, investing in some studio flash heads is advisable because studio flash heads are much, much more powerful.

strobe lights

“Gel Holders” captured by Paul

Even the lower range ones give out more light than the average portable flash, and again much more than any continuous light system. With studio flash heads in use, the light can therefore be controlled creatively with the help of soft boxes and reflectors to minimize shadows and diffuse the light while helping maintain a good exposure at a small aperture. Flash will result in much sharper photographs than those taken with continuous light. The other benefit is that studio flash heads are faster than portable flash systems, enabling the photographer to shoot at a faster rate, which is important for portrait photography.

Light Modifiers

A diffuser spreads out light and softens it to create less sharp edged shadows. The most commonly used, on account of its portability and versatility is the umbrella, which can be used to shoot through or to reflect light.

Two Light Setup

Assuming you now have two lights to play with, when lighting a portrait, aim to use one as your main light and the other as a filler.

studio lighting setup

“Lighting for Portraits” captured by Sidious Sid

It’s worth moving the main light around your subject to see the way the light plays on them and to understand how the shadows fall and why. The second light can then be used to soften the shadows that the main light created.

About the Author:
Miranda Wilson writes about digital cameras and studio lighting for Calumet Photographic.

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3 responses to “Studio Lighting: An Introduction for Amateur or Semi-Pro Photographers”

  1. Peter M says:

    “Flash will result in much sharper photographs than those taken with continuous light.”

    Making a relation between flash/strobe vs continuous and sharpness is simply not true.

    For one particular setup, if the same amount of light falls on the camera sensor, be it from a strobe or continuous light, does not make any difference.

    For the typical portrait session, to get the sharpest images, you probably aim for something like an aperture of f8 (optimum sharpness range of the lens) and 1:200 shutter speed ( to avoid motion blurring).

    I have a small portable LED light panel which gives me enough light to shoot with the above settings. Also not hard to adjust my studio strobes or flash guns to shoot with these settings.

    The big advantage of continuous light is that you see the shadows as they will be in the images. Modelling lights of studio strobes may achieve a similar effect. There is no “preview” with flash guns.

    If a continuous light is not strong enough, go closer, or get a stronger light. But that’s to increase strength/intensity of the continuous light.

    Sharpness has *nothing* to do with it.

  2. Peter M says:

    “The other benefit is that studio flash heads are faster than portable flash systems, enabling the photographer to shoot at a faster rate, which is important for portrait photography.”

    Well, I have two studio strobes and four portable flash guns. I have used them in many different combinations in a studio and on site.

    With good batteries, and the appropriate distances, the flash guns can be run on 1/8 or ¼ power and that means they will, for several hours, recycle as fast as the studio strobes.

    For many flashes, external battery packs can be attached. With those the recycling time I seven shorter.

    I think you missed some important points with strobe vs flash gun:
    • For shooting all day, every day, something that plugs into mains power (studio strobes) are simply more convenient than units that require charging and changing of battery
    • There are no-name studio strobes that are excellent quality, and they are cheaper, compared to the camera brand flash guns. Eg a small Visico studio strobe is about $150, a Nikon SB700 is $350. This means you can actually get a two light setup with stands and umbrellas in strobes for the price of one genuine Nikon flash gun. (It should be said that $50-70 buys you a good quality manual flash, from eg Yongnuo.)
    • Studio strobes are sturdy enough to attach larger modifiers (soft-boxes or octo-boxes.) You get brackets that allow flash guns to be used with eg Bowens S Mount, but they won’t carry the larger modifiers very well.

    For on-site shoots I’m still using my flash guns, and recycling times are in the order of one second or less. For portraits, you can work with something like a 2m light/subject spacing and 1/8 or ¼ power.

    I wonder why you say that “fast shooting rate” is important for portraits. For sports or wildlife, yes, a fast shooting rate is important.

    In portrait shoots I don’t even start shooting until I have a chat with my subject, they start to relax and I start getting the expressions I want.

    Even with studio strobes you cannot do “bursts” and hope that one of the images has the right expression. You’ll have to shoot when you subject shows the expression you want.

    Get me right, I don’t want to discourage people from buying studio strobes. For an all-day shoot they are great to have. If you want to use very large light modifiers, they are almost a must. If you have to light a large set and actually need the power, they are excellent to have.

    I just think your article emphazises some aspects and other important issues are not mentioned at all.

    For really good info on studio strobes vs flash guns, go to the Youtube channel “Academy of Photography” and search the videos for “Studio lights”. There are several great ones.

  3. Marek Sokal says:

    Please remove “Ken’s Setup” as per creative commons license, or follow the proper procedure:

    you must provide the name of the creator and attribution parties, a copyright notice, a license notice, a disclaimer notice, and a link to the material.

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