One of the goals of working under artificial light is to empower ourselves to harness our knowledge and creativity to produce predetermined results. It could be working with one or two small speedlights or a few inexpensive fluorescents. It could also be lighting a complex fashion set with thousands of watt-seconds of strobes, softboxes, reflectors and spots. Once we start to understand that the beauty of artificial light is that it can be carefully controlled, our results will soon match our vision. And a lighting setup can be a simple three light setup or dozens of strobes, with different kinds of light modifiers. The key is learning how to control light—any kind. If some of these terms or concepts are unknown to you at this point, don’t worry. We’ll soon sort them out.
What Are Your Needs and Budget?
In order to begin using controlled lighting, we have to decide what kind of lights we need. The number of photographic lighting choices today is mind-boggling. Tungsten. Small flashes. Big power packs. Monolights. HMI’s. Fluorescent. The number of offerings is enough to confuse even the most levelheaded photographer. So how do we make sense of all this?
The first question you should ask yourself is for what purpose are you going to use the lights? Still photography only, or video and stills? Portraits only? Large scenes like the inside of buildings or factories? Do you want to be completely mobile, away from electrical power (in which case you will need battery-powered strobes) or is it okay to be tied to the wall outlets?
If you are going to be doing both video and stills, you will need some kind of steady lighting. This can be simple tungsten lighting, or the more modern quartz variety or the latest fluorescent or LED technology. Obviously you can’t use flash for video but of course you can use constant lighting for stills. So the choice is easy and there are lots of individual lights as well as kits from which to choose.
Creative Light Softbox
A portrait setup is much simpler than a setup capable of interiors, industrial or more advanced needs. With portraits you can get by with one or two lights if necessary. Three or four are ideal. For interiors or location work it’s not uncommon for pros to use upwards of a dozen strobes.
Another consideration is cost. Very few photographers just starting with artificial light know what the future portends enough to plop down $10,000 or more for a professional photo lighting setup. A lot of this equipment is costly, so thinking ahead and planning carefully will prevent a lot of grief in the long run. Ideally, you should be able to add equipment over the coming years and not render anything useless. To wit, I have Norman 200b portable strobes that are 25 years old and work as well as they did leaving the factory. Talk about workhorses!
This guide is for beginners getting started with studio lighting. I go over various lighting kits on the market for photographers who want to start experimenting with studio lighting but don’t want to drop a lot of money on a kit. Future articles will go over more advanced and pro lighting kits.
On-Camera Flash versus Off-Camera Flash
So let’s take a look at some possible scenarios and then examine the most popular and well-proven photographic lighting equipment available. More than likely, you are at the stage where you feel limited by the camera’s built in flash. When subjects are near the camera, the background is pitch black. Things that are too close are wildly overexposed. People’s features, like high cheekbones, seem flat and lifeless. You wish you could just grab the flash and re-position it.
Creative Light Umbrella
Well, you have the right idea but, as you know, the only way to do that is to buy a separate, shoe-mount flash. The ones made by your camera manufacturer are the best choice, especially when you’re looking for all the bells and whistles available today like TTL flash metering, remote power adjusting, extra battery options, etc. Most of them are in the $300-$500 range such as the Canon Speedlite 580EX II Flash, (compare prices) (review), or Nikon SB-900 AF Speedlight, (compare prices) (review). If your budget is tight, however, there are a number of low-cost substitutes that will work just fine. The Vivitar 285HV Flash, (compare prices), is an excellent low-cost solution (~$110), for example. So is the Sunpack PZ42XC Flash, (compare prices). Make sure you get a photo “eye” (a remote sync device that triggers the second or more flashes) or radio sync system. We’ll discuss all this and more in detail further down in this article.
Video or Stills? Or both?
First question: stills, video or both? If your answer is both (lucky you, probably the proud owner of one of the new HDSLR’s) you need steady lighting, often called hot lighting. It’s traditionally been called hot lighting because the bulbs were, well, hot. Think about a 1,000-watt tungsten halogen bulb. Or a 2,000-watt floodlight. Even putting your hand near a 100-watt household bulb gives you an idea of how light equals heat with conventional tungsten lighting. This is okay if you have a big, air-conditioned studio in which to work but most of us can’t afford that luxury. Our studio is often a corner of the dining room or maybe an extra room off the garage. In a little space, the heat given off by tungsten light can be unbearable. However, thanks to fluorescent and LED technology, lights have been developed that achieve the same level of light output without cooking you and your subjects.
Additionally, today’s DSLR’s are also much better performers with less light. This means instead of 1,000 watts of light you can do nicely with 300. It also means you can spend proportionately more money on accessories like light modifiers, stands, clamps, backgrounds, etc., etc.
Basic Lighting Kits: Hot Lights
My first choice would be a small lighting kit from Lowel Light Mfg. They have an extraordinary number of choices, from small camera-mounted LED lights to multiple large fluorescents as well as their well-known tungsten kits. Lowel has always been an innovator in hot lighting, and now they have continued that tradition in cold lighting as well. Prices start at $100-$300 for individual lights and $500 and above for complete kits. A three-light kit is minimum (main light, fill and hair, plus optional background light) for those interesting in making the best-looking imagery (or footage). The Lowel Rifa is a great general purpose light system, and their Tota is probably the best-known workhorse along with the DP Omni. My favorite is the Lowel DV Creator 44 Kit, (compare prices), which runs about $1100.00 but has everything you need—a very extensive list of heads, stands, frames, gels, etc. all packed into a handy case.
Other manufacturers with a good reputation for hot lights are Arri, Chimera, Cool-Lux, Dedolight, Elinchrome, Hensel, JTL, Norman, Interfit, Photoflex, Smith-Victor and Wescott. All are available from our partners. Go here to search for lighting gear. Many of them offer kits similar to Lowel, with a wide variety of models and power to choose from.
Flashpoint, Adorama’s low-cost proprietary brand, makes an excellent low-cost cool fluorescent light kit: Flashpoint 3 Light Fluorescent Kit, (compare prices), and is available for about $160. It comes complete with light stands, two kinds of umbrellas (shoot-through and silver reflective), standard reflector, bulbs and case. This is really a great choice for the beginner in terms of cost and value.
Smith Victor, a manufacturer known for high-quality but moderately priced gear, offers a great Smith Victor KSB-1250F Kit, (compare prices), including both tungsten as well as fluorescent bulbs, light stands, case and an excellent guide to lighting. About $600.
An important note for safety’s sake: Hot lights are, indeed, hot. Be careful! Don’t let flammable fabrics or other items get close to the lights. When you use diffusion material makes sure it’s of sufficient distance from the bulb so there is no smoke or burning smell. Wear gloves when handling accessories like barn doors than can get really hot during a shooting session. And always use sand bags or other weights to securely anchor light stands if there is at all the possibility of them tipping over.
Usually the heat alone is enough to encourage you to practice safe handling, but it’s a serious concern, so please take heed. Better safe than sorry. It’s also an excellent idea to have a fire extinguisher nearby. In fact, it’s mandatory in a commercial studio so do as the pros do.
How Many Lights? What Accessories?
Whether it’s constant or strobe lighting, the basic kit should include one broad source of light, with an umbrella or softbox, a fill light (can be a shoot-through umbrella), a hair light with snoot or grid, and a general-purpose light for the background. You can start with one light (the main) and add to your collection over time as your budget allows.
The umbrella or soft box spreads the light over a wider source, giving softer shadows and a “wrap around” effect that is flattering and very elegant looking. The fill light can be used with another umbrella or can simply be reflected off a simple piece of white Foamcore™ at a 45-degree angle to the subject. The hair light and background light can be smaller units; the only requirement is that the hair light should have a snoot (cone that keeps stray light from hitting other areas) or grid (waffle-like device that does the same thing). The background light might have a filter frame so you can experiment with different colored filters or gels.
Remember that tungsten light, typically quartz, is 3200 degrees Kelvin. So if you are shooting a scene with daylight pouring in a window, you either have to cover the window with an orange gel, called a CTO, or cover the lights with a blue gel, called CTB. Which solution you use is usually a factor of which light is stronger. A large living room with half a dozen light fixtures is easier to match by gelling the window, for example. A good source for a lot of hot light accessories is The SetShop or MarkerTek).
Before leaving hot lights, we should note that there are two really inexpensive solutions to hot lights. One is at your local hardware store: aluminum reflectors with a 500-watt household tungsten bulb, $15 to $20. The other is through dealers like Adorama that now offer inexpensive fluorescent lighting fixtures and kits with the Flashpoint brand, starting at $35 for one light to $100 for a fixture that holds four bulbs. Cool! (Literally.)
So our beginner’s tungsten or fluorescent lighting kit consists of:
Cloth work gloves if you are using hot tungsten lights (hardware store)
An assortment of colored gels and diffusion material
Clothespins for holding the gels
Small Speedlight Set
If you are only shooting stills, you can build your electronic flash system the same way. Start with one small extra speedlight, get some experience with it, then add a larger umbrella or softbox unit. Then add another small speedlight with grid for the hair light and finally a fourth light for background. You may find that you don’t need the hair and background lights for your particular style of photography. The four-light system is the traditional setup for studio or executive portraits, but you may find your interest lies in shooting babies or little children, where a two-light umbrella or softbox setup is enough.
A good small speedlight set includes:
3 small speedlights (see On-Camera Flash vs. Off-Camera Flash)
Note: Instead of umbrellas you can use some of the products that HonlPhoto offers. They have an amazing number of innovative small speedlight accessories that are inexpensive and very effective, such as small reflectors, gobos (to shield the light), filters and grids (to focus the light).
Monolights & Monolight Kits
Up one step from the shoe-mounted flash is a monolight, sometimes called a monobloc. This is a small AC-powered strobe that is completely self-contained. Reflector, power supply, umbrella and light stand holder and AC power cord are all built into one unit. They range in size from the proverbial loaf of bread to ones that are about the size of a toaster oven. The advantages are (in most cases): built-in modeling light, no need for a separate power generator, built-in photo eye or in some cases radio sync slave, adjustable power output, and ease of using light modifiers like umbrellas. They also provide some degree of redundancy for backup, that is if you have three or four of them and one fails, you’re usually not completely out of luck. If you’re using a generator-based system and the unit goes south, you need to have at least one for backup or be able to rent one nearby.
One of my favorites in the monobloc category is the compact Bowens Gemini 200 Kit, (compare prices). These are very well-made, reasonably priced ($375.00) professional quality units that have withstood the test of time over the years. Today, they can also be powered by a battery unit (such as the Bowens BW7693 Small Lightweight Travel Pack Starter Kit, (compare prices) (about $600) which is essential for location solution. For the budding photographer who will eventually add to his or her kit when moving up, these are an excellent investment.
Wescott offers a value-driven three monolight setup: Westcott Strobelite Three Monolight Kit, (compare prices), including three 150 watt-second monolights, stands, umbrellas, sync cord and floor positioning mat (a great learning tool) plus a complete lighting course on DVD
So, here’s our monolight kit:
3 monolights, at least 150 watt-seconds each
3 light stands
2 smalll clamps
1 roll Gaffers tape
1 barn door
Extension cords (hardware store)
The other alternative for low-cost beginner outfits is used equipment. If you check the classified section of Photo.net, you will often see an old Norman 200b or Bowens monolite or similar strobes for a very reasonable price. If they have been used continuously or at least from time to time, you’re more assured of getting a working unit. Older units that have been sitting around for many years often have dried up capacitors. Still, if the price is right, having them repaired can be a relatively inexpensive investment.
We mentioned the challenge of synchronizing all your lights. That is, they all have to go off at the same time. There are four ways of doing this. First is hard wiring, that is, all the flash units are plugged together by sync cords and extensions. This is the least desirable because it is prone to failure due to broken wires or other seemingly invisible factors. Even a slight bit of humidity and one or more of the strobes will undoubtedly fail to fire—and that will be the best expression on your subject’s face, of course. You also have the problem of running cables around doors and walls. So let’s look at the other, wireless, options.
The least expensive way is with small light-sensitive triggers that plug into the sync cord connection of your speedlight. Wein was a pioneer in this field and continue to dominate it with new and improved products every day. They range in price from $15 for the basic 100-foot range model to $100 for a super-sensitive 1000-foot model. There are a number of other manufacturers making light-sensitive triggers, including Adorama, Morris, Metz, Nikon, Norman, Photogenic, Sunpack and Speedotron. All work pretty well indoors, but outdoors in bright sunlight is another matter. Some of them will tolerate a certain amount of sunlight; others will not tolerate any at all.
The same problem is with infrared triggers. They work fine as long as you have indoor line-of-sight conditions but outdoors they can be problematic. The most popular and reliable device is the radio slave. These range in price from very cheap ones you find on eBay to the professional’s favorite—the PocketWizard. In addition to triggering the strobes, PW’s can trigger the camera as well. At the Kentucky Derby or Olympics it’s not uncommon to see 20 or 30 cameras set up for remote firing, all dressed up with PocketWizards.
A couple of companies—PocketWizard, Radiopopper, Cactus, Quantum—are now making radio slaves that work in the TTL mode. That is, you set your camera and strobe to TTL (through-the-lens) and the flash units puts out only enough light based on what you have set the camera’s ISO. As an example, I took my Canon DSLR out in the sunlight, put two Canon 430EX II’s on light stands, put a PocketWizard MiniTT1 Transmitter [Canon], (compare prices) on the camera and a Pocket Wizard FlexTT5 Transceiver [Canon], (compare prices) on each strobe, and started shooting. Perfectly exposed images right off the bat! Totally amazing, foolproof and flexible. You can also shoot in what’s called the high-speed sync mode, enabling f/2.8 shots outdoors in bright sunlight to put the background beautifully out of focus. What’s nice about the PocketWizard system is that any upgrades are easily incorporated via downloaded firmware.
There are lights and kits for every budget and purpose. Don’t let the myth that lighting is expensive keep you from enjoying this critical aspect of photography. Start small and expand as you get the feel of it. However you acquire your lights, the most important advice is to use them. Practice setting up one, two or more lights. Bounce them off umbrellas, foam core reflector boards, or the walls and ceilings. Practice using hair and background lights, or mixing artificial light with daylight. You’ll soon find that even the simplest lighting setups can produce dramatic images.
Look at photographs made with artificial light and analyze how they were lit. What are the qualities of the light (soft, hard, edge, etc.)? How does the lighting convey the mood and intent of the photograph? In a portrait, what does lighting contribute to the viewer’s perception of the subject?
Don’t just put up your lights one way and then after your session take them down and put them away. Experiment. Use a slow shutter speed to let the background burn in. Use motion to add intrigue. Put the lights up high, down low, to the right and to the left. The only way you will maximize your investment in lighting gear is to practice using it.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the lighting forum on Photo.net. There’s a ton of useful information you can glean by subscribing to these threads.
There are also a ton of books out there. Some of my favorites are:
Gary Miller has been photographing, writing, and editing for magazines, corporations and organizations for more than 25 years. He has also written, produced and directed hundreds of corporate and educational films and videos. He counsels corporations, organizations and individuals on public relations and marketing strategies, including web, print and photography. Today he is an active freelance writer and photographer on subjects including photography, sailing, fishing, travel and video production. His editorial work appears in TV Guide, Time, Newsweek, Yachting, Business Week, Motor Boating & Sailing, Good Old Boat, Soundings, National Wildlife and others. Some of Gary’s film and video clients include Financial Management Network, Salomon Smith Barney, Stauffer Chemical, MAC Group, MasterCard International and AMEX. He is the author of a book on Freelance Photography (Petersen Publishing), and guest lecturer/workshop host at the New School, New York City.