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Creatively Using Selective Focus in Photography and Photoshop

Harold Davis, photographer, author, and print master, shares with you how to use selective focus as a creative tool, including in-camera and in Photoshop.

Studio Photography

by Philip Greenspun, June 1999 (updated February 2010)

Why go into the studio?

Studio photography is easy because you can get exactly what you want. Studio photography is hard because you can get exactly what you want.

A 14mm perspective on a photo studio

Soft light, hard light, hair light, background. Everything is under your control. If you are a tremendously creative person who knows how to use studio equipment, you'll get wonderful results. If you are uncreative, you'll have very flat and boring results. If anything is wrong with the lighting balance or exposure, you'll have nobody to blame but yourself.

Rent or buy?

Most big cities have good rental studios that come complete with lights, backgrounds, and often assistants. This is the way to go if you have a big budget and know exactly when you want to shoot. Having your own studio, especially at home, is great for spontaneous work and also because you can take some of your equipment on location.

Ceiling or floor?


Decide whether you want your studio to be floor-based or ceiling-based. A floor-based studio means that you have lightstands for the lights and background supports for the background. All of these supports are very lightweight because they are designed to be portable. You'll be treading very carefully and/or you'll be knocking things over.

In a ceiling-based studio, you mount background rollers on the ceiling and a rail system that allow flexible positioning of lights anywhere within a rectangular area. A ceiling-based studio costs about $1000 more than a floor-based one, but is a much nicer place to work since you don't have to worry about knocking lights over.

The coolest part of any rail system is the pantograph light support. These pull down from the ceiling and are cleverly counterbalanced so that they just stay wherever you leave them. You just grab a light and move it up or down an inch and it stays there. Pure mechanical design magic. As far as I know, the Manfrotto Skytrack system (my personal choice; explained at www.manfrotto.com), a FOBA system (imported by SinarBron), and the Calumet system (www.calumetphoto.com) are the only rail systems available in the US.

The Lights

Decide what format camera you'll be using. Bigger cameras require smaller apertures to get adequate depth of field and hence more light. Decide how big your subjects are going to be. Head-and-shoulders portraits require much less light than automobiles.

To learn about hot lights, read one of the many good books written for cinematographers on the subject. With flashes, 500 watt-seconds is sufficient for digital or 35mm photography of people at full-length. The smaller strobe systems also work for 4x5 view camera photography of tabletop subjects. Most serious studio photographers start with about 2000 watts-seconds, which is adequate for 4x5 photography of large subjects, and will rent another pack if they have to light something huge.


If you have any windows in your studio, you might be able to use the sunlight coming in. The color temperature of sunlight varies from about 2000K at sunrise to 4300K in the early morning to 5800K at high noon in midsummer. [Note: the sun streaming into a window is different from what you get if you take your subject out into the open. "Daylight" is a combination of sunlight (around 5500K) and skylight (approx 9500K), averaging to around 6500K in the summer. Clouds or shade push the color temperature much bluer, up towards 9000K, though an overall overcast is usually 6000K.]

Hot Lights

Once you know how much light you need, decide whether to go hot, warm, or cold. "Hot lights" are traditional tungsten or Metal Halide Iodide (HMI) lights that burn continuously. The big advantages of hot lights are

  • you can always see what you're going to get, even if you mix with ambient light. In the film days, you wouldn't need Polaroid tests, fancy meters, and a good imagination. In the digital age, you can spend more time looking at the subject and less time at the back of the camera.
  • you can use hot lights with movie, video, and scanning digital cameras

Not too many still photographers use hot lights, though, because they have the following disadvantages:

  • heat. Thousands of watts of heat that make the photographer sweat, the models sweat, and the props melt.
  • tungsten color balance. Kodak makes some nice tungsten color slide film but if you don't like it, you'll have to filter your lights and lens like crazy to use your favorite color films.
  • limited accessories. It is much easier to control a light source that isn't hot enough to light paper on fire. You can experiment with electronic flash without burning your house down. With hot lights, you must make sure that your diffusers, soft boxes, umbrellas, etc. can handle the heat.

HMI lights are mercury medium-arc iodide lights that burn at a color temperature of between 5600K and 6000K. They produce about 4X the light of a tungsten bulb with the same wattage because less energy is wasted as heat. Also, you don't have to waste energy and light filtering to daylight color balance. That said, if you get yourself a 36,000 watt Ultra Dino, you won't exactly be shivering in the studio. The smallest HMI lights seem to be about 200 watts.

[Hot light anecdote: In 2009, I hired a summer intern, who had finished three years studying film and video production at Emerson College, to work with me on a series of videos for people learning to fly helicopters. He brought his own equipment to the first day of filming, including some "work lights" from Home Depot. To get a clear image of the instrument panel, he positioned these lights directly behind my $3000 Sony high-def camcorder. Within a minute, the camcorder screen melted and the entire machine was nearly hot enough to catch fire. The experience inspired me to write an article on how our university system is affecting economic growth.]

Warm Lights

Suppose that a clever person invented a light bulb that was just as bright as an incandescent ("tungsten") bulb, but used much less electricity and therefore ran much cooler? Fortunately for photographers, this invention exists. It is called the fluorescent light bulb. For most of the 20th Century, fluorescent lights had a spectrum that was too peaky to give natural-looking color with film cameras. In the 21st Century, however, there are all kinds of fluorescent bulbs available, including very bright compact fluorescent bulbs with a reasonably high color rendering index (CRI) and daylight color temperature. If you put five 100W equivalent CFL bulbs together, you get the light output of a 500W "hot light" without much more heat than the modeling light of a cold strobe (see below). It is possible to use "warm lights" with soft boxes and other light control attachments that are designed for strobes.

The most popular warm light is the Westcott Spiderlite TD5/TD3 series. I've used these with good results for both still photos and video. Breaking down these lights for travel and setting them back up is more time-consuming than with either hot or cold lights. The CFL bulbs are too fragile to remain in the fixture and have to be taken out and put into cardboard boxes (where they may break anyway).

With some warm lights there is a potential for uneven illumination when using faster shutter speeds, e.g., 1/500th of a second. Fluorescent lights have a certain amount of flicker that human eyes average out, but the camera shutter could catch the bulbs as they in a dim part of the cycle. Consequently, warm lights or strobes will likely be better for fast-moving subjects.

Note: Do not confuse the Spiderlite TD5/TD3 with the original "Spiderlite", which uses a conventional halogen bulb.

My dream warm light does not seem to exist. Let's consider that a very common studio light control technique these days is the softbox (see below), which generates a shadowless diffuse light from a large rectangular surface. Can we think of any shadowless diffuse bulbs? How about conventional fluorescent tubes? Imagine taking eight 36" long bulbs. You would now have a bright diffuse 24x36" rectangular source of light (not very different from a light table). Tubes are a little more rugged than the CFL bulbs, so it should be possible to transport the light box with the tubes installed. As far as I can tell, nobody sells a light like this for mounting on light stands. Perhaps it would be too heavy, in which case we'll have to wait for the next frontier... LED-based warm lights. Lightpanels makes some of these already but the price-performance is not competitive with other technologies as of 2010.

Cold Lights

Josh Hilberman

"Cold lights" are electronic flashes, much more powerful than the ones on your camera but basically the same idea. Studio strobes come in two flavors: monolights and powerpack/head systems. The business end of both is the same, a flash tube surrounding an incandescent bulb. The incandescent bulb, usually around 100 watts, is the "modeling light," used by the photographer to judge lighting effects and ratios. These aren't very effective if the ambient light in the studio, e.g., from windows, is high. In the old days, most photographers would burn a few Polaroids to make sure that the lights are properly set. In the digital era, the easiest way to preview is with a digital camera directly connected to a computer, with each new exposure displayed on a big LCD monitor.

A monolight has a wall outlet on one end, a flash tube on the other, and a big block of capacitors in between. These are nice for location work because you don't have have a lot of cables running around. Using several monolights together isn't as much of a problem as you'd think because (1) good monolights have a 4 or 5 f-stop output adjustment control, and (2) most monolights have a built-in slave so that when one fires, they will all fire.

In a powerpack/head system, you have one big heavy capacitor-filled power pack and a bunch of relatively lightweight heads connected by high-voltage cables to the powerpack. You can adjust the lighting power among the heads and also the overall light output. These are the most flexible and most commonly used studio flash systems. Flash power is specified in watt-seconds (joules), somewhat confusingly abbreviated as "w/s".

Choosing a brand of studio strobes is a similar process to choosing an SLR camera system. If you buy the wrong brand, you may have to scrap your entire investment as your ambitions grow. In the world of monolights, Sunpaks are cheap (around $300 each for 500 w/s or in a 1600 w/s kit), have been around for a long time, and allow stepless power adjustment over a 5 f-stop range. Sunpak makes an interesting combination monolight/softbox called a DigitFlash that is probably ideal if you're sure that you never need a hard light. If you feel like spending twice as much money for the same power output, there are monolights from a lot of professional strobe vendors that will possibly accept a wider variety of light-control accessories.


In powerpack/head systems, Novatron should be the cheapest system you consider. Anything cheaper probably won't work in the long run and won't fit any of the standard light control accessories. Novatron sells kits that include cheap umbrellas and light stands in a big plastic case. You can use these to go on location as long as you're not worried about some big-time professional walking by and calling you a girlie-man because you don't have Speedotron. Example kits range from 240 w/s, two heads to 600 w/s, three heads. The main problems with Novatron are that (1) the packs only have adustable power output over a 2 or 3 f-stop range, and (2) the heads won't take more than 500 or 1000 w/s of power.

If spending 2-4X as much money per w/s is acceptable, you will no doubt be very happy with Speedotron Black Line, Norman, Dyna-Lite, Broncolor, or Calumet systems. These allow you to pump 2000 or 3000 w/s into a single head, adjust over a 5 or 6 f-stop range, have more powerful modeling lights, and are presumably more reliable in heavy use. Many of these systems offer interesting zoom heads that allow adustment of the light cone angle.

Warning: there is a brand of mail-order flash called White Lightning (Paul Buff) that is sold as X watt-seconds for N dollars. These supposedly aren't such horrible flashes but the claimed watt-seconds figures are absurd. The true output is something like X/2, which means that their monolights aren't any cheaper than other cheap brands.

Note for high speed photography: Studio flash systems generally take between 1/200th and 1/1500th of a second to dump out their light. This is fast enough to freeze much motion but won't stop a bullet or give you a perfectly sharp splash. Studio strobes were designed for relatively long illumination times because color film suffered some reciprocity failure at the very short exposure times of on-camera flashes that aren't working hard. In other words, Kodak and Fuji did not guarantee that film photographers would got correct color balance at 1/50,000 of a second because the red, green, and blue layers of the film respond differently to being illuminated for so short a time. Options for high-speed photography are (1) use an on-camera flash set for 1/32nd power, or (2) get a studio strobe system specifically designed for stop-motion capability, e.g., Profoto (and add a trigger system from Kapture Group).

Light Control

M and Ms.

Whatever lighting system you get, make sure that it is reasonably popular. Otherwise, you won't be able to get any accessories to fit. You need to be able to control whether the light is hard or soft. Hard light is generated by a small and/or far-away light and results in strong shadows. Examples of hard lights are the sun (not small but quite far away) and bare bulbs. Soft light is generated by a large diffuse light and results in shadow-free images because there are many paths from the light source to the object. Examples of soft light are an overcast sky, a north-facing window close to the subject, a bulb reflected off an umbrella placed close to the subject.

Another dimension to control is diffuse/specular. A diffuse source contains light on many different angles whereas specular light is organized in parallel rays. Specular light doesn't bounce around the studio filling in shadows and lowering contrast, spilling onto the background, etc.

Old-time photographers relied on silver umbrellas to get a somewhat softer light source. With white translucent umbrellas, you can use them like a silver umbrella and bounce off them (losing about 1/2 the light, which will go through and away from your subject) or push the light through them, which results in slightly harder light with the same 1-stop loss. However you use an umbrella, you'll generally get a diffuse light source.

The modern religion is the softbox, a reflector-lined cavity covered with a white diffusion fabric. The best of these, e.g., the PhotoFlex MultiDome, allow you to remove the front fabric to get a "sort of hard" light, to place or remove an interior baffle to get a "slightly less soft" light, and to warm up the color of the light with a gold reflector. Because softboxes surround the light head, you lose much less light than you would using white umbrellas. Note: the M&M image at the upper right was done with a softbox.

Some photographers put a big grid over the softbox to create a large specular source. Louvers create the same effect but only on one axis. An inexpensive honeycomb grid will turn a strobe head into a specular light source, albeit not a very large one. Photographers who use these tend to use many, "painting a scene" precisely with pools of light. Strobe head grids are $50-75 each or sold in sets with different light angles for about $200.

Snoots sit over a light head and turn it into a very small light source. These are usually used for hair lights. You can stick a small honeycomb grid over the snoot to tighten up the cone of light thrown by the snoot and also make the light more specular.

Barn Doors are black metal flaps that sit around a strobe head and keep the light from going where you don't want it to go. This is Hollywood technology from the 1920's. If you really want to control the angle of the light cone thrown by your head, you should probably get a zoom head or a bunch of grids.

Reflectors are really too general purpose to be called "studio equipment" but they are essential studio items and, if cleverly used, can eliminate the need for additional strobe heads. A favorite of mine is the PhotoFlex Litepanel, which is a huge sheet of gold/silver reflector, white diffusion fabric, or black light absorber in a plastic frame. You can light through this and turn it into a huge softbox, bounce off of it to bring the contrast ratio closer to that magic Kodak 3:1, or take it outside and have an assistant hold it to filter the sun. Another essential item is the disk reflector (e.g., Photoflex Lightdisc) which stores compactly but springs open to a large round reflector with a steel frame. I usually buy them white on one side, gold on the other.

The most important word in studio light control is "gobo". Hardly anyone knows what it means, but you can't beat the mysterious sound. It actually is short for "go between" and refers to anything that you stick in between the light and the subject to cast a shadow, diffuse the light, or whatever.

More: see the Photoflex Web site for a wide range of standard professional products. If you really want to understand the art of lighting, read books written for film makers and also look at old black & white movies (before they had color, they used lots of interesting gobos to add shadow patterns on white walls and other boring surfaces).

Flash Triggering

With hot lights, there is no need to worry about triggering the lights; they're on all the time. With strobes, the camera has to tell the strobes when to fire. This is traditionally done with a sync cord. Sync cords come in many lengths and are available coiled or uncoiled. The one thing in common that they all share is that someone will trip over one and probably pull something expensive down onto the floor. It is much better to use a wireless trigger of some kind. I have had good luck with the Wein infrared trigger system, which consists of a small on-camera hotshoe-connected flash with a filter over the front that only passes IR light. The other half of the kit plugs into your strobe powerpack and waits for the IR pulse from the on-camera unit, then triggers the flash. If you want to go fully wireless, you can get a mini Wein trigger that plugs into a flashmeter.

There are various radio slaves (e.g., Bowens, Morris, and Quantum) that also perform this function, possibly better in a large studio or outdoors.

Flash Metering

Only a handful of cameras, e.g., certain Rolleis and Contaxes, have been manufactured with the capability of metering flash exposure with a through-the-lens in-camera meter. The standard practice of studio photographers is to use a handheld flash meter, a device that measures ambient light, light ratios, and calculates how many pops of a lower-powered studio strobe system you'll need to shoot at f/64 with your view camera. Even in the digital world where instant previews are available at no cost, a handheld meter is useful for determining whether or not the image is too contrasty to print easily.

Almost everyone uses a flash meter in incident mode. You start by connecting the meter to the strobes via a sync cord or a wireless trigger. You put a white diffusion dome over the meter and hold the meter in front of the subject's face, with the dome pointing back at the camera. You push a button on the meter, which triggers the flash. The meter then reports the appropriate f-stop to use. This gives you a reading that is independent of the subject's reflectance. In other words, if the subject is white the meter doesn't get fooled into thinking that it is a brighter light; if the subject is black, the meter doesn't recommend opening up two more f-stops until the subject is rendered as though it were 18% gray.

Though nobody was ever able to figure out how to use it, the standard professional meter for many years was the Minolta Flashmeter IV. Some of the truly technically adept were able to figure out what half of the buttons and switches do. Minolta rewrote the user's manual because nobody could understand the first one. Then they replaced it with the better/simpler Auto Meter VF and Flash Meter VI. Then they decided that they couldn't compete with Canon anymore and abandoned the photography business. Now we are back to Gossen and Sekonic, two companies that don't do too much besides make meters and therefore are able to concentrate on making good ones.

The Gossen Luna-Star F2 is a great example of the modern flash meter. It takes one standard 9V battery that you can buy anywhere. It only has six buttons and their functions are obvious. Without reading the manual, I was able to use all but one of the meter's modes within 60 seconds of putting in the battery. 99% of what you'd need to know from the manual is printed in four sections on the back of the meter. The meter is great for computing lighting ratios. You press the measurement button once to take a snapshot reading. You press and hold it while sweeping the meter around a scene and the Luna-Star F2 draws you a graph at the bottom of the display of the contrast range (e.g., f8-f16). Every time take a flash reading, the meter also shows you the ambient reading with an unobtrusive little bar on the same graph. Unlike the Minolta meters, you don't need a "reflected attachment" and an "incident attachment." The naked meter works to measure reflected light. Add a plastic incident piece and you can measure incident light. Add a little viewfinder and you've got a 5 degree spot meter. It is a great design and smaller than competing products. Nit: It only meters down to EV -2.5. That's a couple of stops less light than most pro SLRs but not as good as some other handheld meters.

Sekonic supposedly makes some great meters too, but I haven't tried them.

The Background


The basic professional background is seamless paper. This comes in rolls 53", 107", and 140" wide. The 53" size is too confining for photographing people, leading to stiff poses and nasty little slipups where a corner of the frame is not covered by the background. On the other hand, the 140" size is not necessary most of the time, which is why it is only available in a handful of colors. The 107" width is about 9 feet and that's a good size for most people. A roll costs about $30 and a good starter set would be white, "studio gray", and black. Colored seamless, or as we refer to it here in Cambridge, "seamless of color", tends to give pictures a Sears portrait studio look. Manfrotto makes a nice "Auto Pole" system that lets you mount several rolls of seamless conveniently (a few hundred dollars; can even be motorized).

For location work, Photek's Background-in-a-Bag system is kind of nice. These are big sheets of what looks like crushed velvet that you duct tape up against a wall. They fit into a included gym-bag.

Muslin is another standard studio background, available from amazon.com. If you want some color in a portrait background, muslin will look a lot better than colored seamless.

Camera Support

Obvious Answer #1 to the question of camera support is "Why do we need one? We're using a lightweight single-lens reflex camera and the strobes will freeze any camera shake?" Obvious Answer #2 is "Use a tripod."

Why use camera support? With hot lights, for maximum sharpness you need to ensure that the camera doesn't move during the exposure. With larger heavier cameras, a camera support will allow you to concentrate on composition rather than muscle fatigue. If you're attempting to be creative, a camera support enables discipline around camera position.

A tripod seems like the obvious way to support a camera, but there are much better options in the studio. A tripod is inconvenient. Since using the center column to adjust height reduces stability, you have to adjust all three legs to raise or lower the camera. You can't usually get really low or really high or really hanging out over your subject with a tripod because the legs get in the way.

Part of the reasons that tripods have so many shortcomings is that they are engineered to weigh less than 250 lbs. If you want the most stable support for a fixed weight, a tripod is the right design. Once you accept the idea that a camera support can weigh more than the photographer, there is more freedom of design and you'd probably come up with a Studio Stand. This is basically a heavy rigid single column off which you hang crossbar arms off of which you hang tripod heads off of which you hang cameras. There are wheels on the bottom that you can lock. The columns come between 6 and 12 feet in height and prices range from $350 to $3500 depending upon features and stability. Arkay, Davis and Sanford, Delta, Foba, and Manfrotto are the most common brands.

Light Painting

If you get bored with traditional studio work, try painting with light. If your studio can be completely darkened and your subject will hold still, the simplest way to do this is with a flashlight. Turn out the lights, open the camera shutter ("B" or "T" mode on a single-lens reflex), and walk around the subject and shine the flashlight on those parts of the subject that you wish to register on film. To make part of the subject brighter on film, hold the flashlight on that part for more time.

Light painting opens up a world of possibilities that are not available in the world of near-instant exposure. For example, for infinite depth of field, simply keep refocusing the camera as you light parts of the subject that are at different distances from the lens. To make just a portion of the subject diffuse, put a stocking over the lens while you're painting that part.

The Hosemaster was a $5000 fiber-optic light painting system that was all the rage when it came out in the early 1990s. Calumet took it over sometime in the late 1990s, but seems to have discontinued the core system.

Light painting was laborious in the film days. The photographer would spend 15 minutes painting a scene on a Polaroid test exposure and then do it all over again for the final slide. You would think that digital cameras would be infinitely superior for this application. Unfortunately, digital sensors introduce noise into the shadows during very long exposures. Cameras and digital backs with large physical sensors, e.g., at the bare minimum a Canon EOS 5D (review), might work better for light painting.

Cool Stuff

You went into the studio to have fun. Now it is time to stock up on mylar, strange oils, dead flowers, interesting vegetables, and play. If you want to spend more money, there are lots of interesting ways to do it. Rosco makes a huge range of colored filters to stick in front of lights plus fog machines ($350-700) to add mystery. A wind machine (around $500) will give human subjects that active look. Trengrove artificial ice cubes and related products will help you do that Chivas Regal ad.


Text and pictures copyright 1982-2007 Philip Greenspun

Article revised February 2010.

Readers' Comments

Add a comment

Scott Rogers , April 06, 1999; 04:18 P.M.

Photogenic Machine Co. in Youngstown, Ohio also manufactures and sells an overhead rail system for supporting your lighting in the studio.

Dick Damian , May 19, 1999; 06:10 P.M.

One should bear in mind that strobe selection is as religious an issue (at least to some of us) as camera selection. I own several white lightning strobes and really like them. The market is flooded with monolights at the moment so I am not pushing a particular brand. But I think that on a limited budget one will get more value for the money using monolights over powerpacks/light modules.

Mike Matcho , May 31, 1999; 10:38 P.M.

White Lightnings are nice equipment - a good value, reliable and powerful (f16.4 @ 10' w. umbrella). In some location situations, they can have advantages over powerpack lights (placing an accent light 30 to 50 feet away from the power packs).

Your website is terrific.

Chris Leher , June 20, 1999; 01:27 A.M.

I just want to say that I am new to the photography buisness, but I also have a wealth of knowledge when it comes to theatrical lighting. If you find anyone else who does or learn about theatric lighting, it will do wonders for your studio. I am a strong beliver in fernels and ellisodal reflectors. Experiment with gels, play with focus. They do get hot but if you have a high celing studio a portable dimmer pack, you can have a LOT of fun playing around with diffrent lights and colors. I really recomend rosco colors. They also have gel finders you can get so you can sample and find which colors you want. The one thing I really have to say when it comes to photography and all other arts.. DARE TO BE DIFFRENT! People forget this. The greats are great because they shocked and suprised the world. Just give it some thought..... Great site love it.

Steve Singleton , July 02, 1999; 06:29 P.M.

Chimera, the softbox people, publish a chart in their catalog comparing the effective output of a wide variety of studio flash equipment, both power pack/head and monolight systems. Provides useful, objective information in contrast to manufacturers' hype.

Sean Sedwards , August 23, 1999; 02:43 P.M.

Watt second / Joule ratings can be very misleading as they relate to the supplied electrical power and not the actual light output. Guide numbers are often not much better because they depend on conditions and reflectors defined by each manufacturer. A specific example of this are semi-pro monolights of similar price from two popular UK manufacturers:

The Courtenay Solapro 300 has a 300 Joule rating and a guide number of 52m @ ISO100

The Prolinca 400 has a 400 Joule rating and a guide number of 51m @ ISO100

On the face of it there's not much to choose between the two and the Prolinca is more popular because of its (irrelevant) higher Joule rating and the fact that it sits at the bottom of the much larger Elinchrom professional range. However, further investigation reveals that the Courtenay is even more efficient than it already appears and has a 1 to 1.5 stop light output advantage when measured under the same conditions. This is because the Courtenay spec. is based on a 65 degree reflector and the Prolinca on a special 52 degree reflector that concentrates the light more to improve the paper specification.

I don't know where else these models are available, but I'm sure the moral of this tale applies to manufacturers around the world. Sadly, reviewers don't often pick up on this fine, but important, detail and it's up to the individual photographer to test the products under the specific conditions that they will be used.

Chick Michael , January 07, 2000; 08:45 A.M.

Hi guys.. I seem to always run into this nagging delinquent conversations about brand "X" being better than brand "Y" and "Z" put together. Forgive the interjection (and the wet blanket statements to follow), but I've always been under the impression that the photographer will do whatever is necessary to achieve the effect intended. And, regardless of the tools used, is considered to have succeeded when that given initial intended effect is achieved.

That being said, I've often challenged students of mine to outshoot me with their expensive cameras while I use the cheapest cameras of all time... the China made "Seagull". Costing no more than US$60, I can make the fixed focal length, twin lens beast (el cheapo) perform most of my commands.

Bare basics come to mind:

Composition, exposure, timing, color balance, tonality, subject matter, just to name a few.

While I find it simply tickling when I stroll into a camera store, to hear the ever unceasing Nikon vs. Canon Wars, or the Mamiya Vs. 'Blad rampages, I cannot but feel sorry that we, have all fallen prey to the "prestigeous snob elite" bug.

"WOW! look at that BIG 600mm lens" "My Leica M6 has a custom ostrich skin leather replacement"

catch my drift?

Equipment discussions are more targeted towards the less informed, while techniques are continually learned.

Let's have a ball discussing techniques instead. Anytime...

J.R. Farrar , February 07, 2000; 03:10 P.M.

Thanks Michael!

Being new to photography, I'm trying to gain ideas and techniques from anywhere I can. I'm excellent with buying the latest and greatest, I learned this well from other hobbies, however photography is the first hobby that lets me express a more creative side, it is currently the unused one.

I am really tired of hearing this equipment that equipment and I tend to get caught up in it. I am just now starting to learn that I can change light with simple and inexpensive props in the studio. One would be surprised as how well a flash with a pocket bouncer bounced into some white poster board (hanging from a ceiling fan) will do. I was amazed! I would really like to hear more stories like this!

While I know practice is what really helps I know we could discuss some more basic techniques. As a beginning photographer do you know how hard it was for me to find someone to explain how strobes worked, setting the ratios, etc. I would think this would be at the beginning of the book!

J.R. Farrar

John-Christian Jacques , February 08, 2000; 11:13 P.M.

There is an old story of a famous English photographer called David Bailey, of the likes of Vogue, wide angle pix of the Beatles etc., who was at a camera club and asked what light he prefered using. He said "Available light". You mean daylight the class responded. "No, available light" Said Bailey. Slightly confused the class asked if he meant tungsten, or flash. "No, available light!". They were still confused. "Available light," Said Bailey "Any bloody light that's available, I'll use it!!" Get the point everyone! Don't obssess about equipment because, The camera doesn't take the photo, the photographer takes the photo!! You can take great photos in the studio with a 40w lamp bulb if you know what you're doing, even one candle!! Keep snapping.

Thom Wolf , September 28, 2000; 12:40 A.M.

When using studio flash don't forget about THE HOME DEPOT school of lighting. Hardware stores have lights, clamps, black plastic, to cover windows,etc. Corragated dryer vents cut into 10 inch lengths makes great snots for lights, its even adjustable. To tighten the pattern pull on the vent and it lengthens and makes the light pattern smaller. Also if you mix tungsten light with flash the tungsten is yellow and can be described as warm. It looks good on the background. Go to your nearest hardware store and think.

Liz Masoner , March 11, 2001; 09:40 A.M.

So nice to see somebody finally admitted tripods are not needed at all times and to admit that hot lights have some advantages. I have been a "serious amateur" for years and am finally in the process of setting up my studio. I intend to specialize in infants and children but it has been an uphill battle convincing my husband that I don't have to use a tripod to run a studio.

With kids, they do not hold still for more than a fraction of a second at a time. If I use a tripod, or anything else that keeps me from moving the camera, then I WILL miss the best shots.

Also, with hot lights (provided you have enough room to bounce them) you don't miss shots due to the flash cycle time. Some of the best faces happen just after you take the first shot. You need to be able to snap again immediately.

Thanks for the info.


Ad T , June 21, 2001; 07:33 P.M.

A few notes:

-Colored acetate/polyester/mylar/whatever in front of lights are not filters. They're gels. Filters go in front of the lens and are optical grade, while gels are made only for lights. Don't mix them up.

-A softbox with a grid does not change the quality of the light. It only restricts the light from spreading.

-Low end strobes have a wide variance in color temperature. If you plan on shooting chrome in the studio with a cheap system, and want predictable results, you had better get a color meter and know how to use it properly. It would save much trouble to just purchase the high quality strobe system. If you're a professional, you can't afford not to.

dvd wmth , September 30, 2001; 08:59 P.M.

this issue of what lights or any other equipment to buy is kind of silly. What you use is linked to how you shoot and you develop your style and knowlege of equipment through experience. In the meantime you use what you have available. Granted, its fun to use studio lights and if you've got the money and the desire, well then why not. personally id buy what the rental houses carry so i can get accessories when i need them. But its not the only way. I shoot for a living and i frequently use desklamps, florecent lights fixtures, cieling lights, or whatever. when i was starting, i was sure i needed strobes. I finally got some and as soon as i had them came to the realization that my best work happened when i used more inventive light sources. My absolute favorite light (i shoot people) is day light through a window or reflected off a wall. Sometimes I walk around until i see the light i want reflecting off a building. the point is that photography requires adaptability, inventiveness, and imagination. Not brand x or tool y. If someone needs a colour meter its because their client needs accurate color and by the time anyone is in a position to have to worry about it they will know this stuff. Saying you need piece of equipment x is like saying you need an f1 race car to drive for a living. If you want to race in the f1 circuit then yah, if you want to deliver milk then maybe not.

very happy to see this dialogue happening. The photoworld needs forums badly.

William Croninger , February 28, 2002; 09:24 P.M.

I'd like to challenge the author's comments re: White Lightning flashes. I have used one of their model 10000 units for a number of years. I find that the performance is exactly as claimed for output. Did you conduct your own tests to determine that their WS ratings were inflated by a factor of 2?

Generally, I found your site to be very helpful and informative. Your comment about Paul Buff, however, seems to qualify as a "cheap shot." I find no test data to back it up.

Jeremy Hall , April 17, 2002; 12:46 A.M.

I would just like to give a small bit of advise to those of you who want to get the best out of your flash meters: when you have a flashmeter that has variable shutter speeds and you want to find out how much the flash is blasing out, (this is especially evident with outdoor portraits) set your meter shutter speed to at LEAST 1/500th of a second. This will cancel out most (if not all) of the ambient light that will alter your readings. I specialize in outdoor portraiture, and was amazed at the difference in meter readings when I learned this. For me, it was a good two to three stop difference. You may try and get other results, but this is what I have found to be more effective.

Tom Eldred , October 17, 2002; 12:43 P.M.

I'm a first year photo major, and I've been shooting for no more then two years. With that background in mind, I found the Minolta Flashmeter-IV to be totally self explanitory (contrary to the opinion of the author, who found it to be muddled and confusing). It doesn't have too many buttons, and even without the user's manual I was able utilize most of its functions.

Robert Barzilla , February 15, 2003; 10:50 P.M.

my favorite is the one with the really bad lighting... oops, that doesn't narrow it down. The one with the guy on his toes. You just do not see enough photos with the background stand in the actual frame. LOL. As if the shadow of the man on the un-lighted backgound isn't original enough for a studio shot! lol

Jeremy du Brul , January 01, 2004; 05:20 P.M.

That's a bit of a stick to White Lightning, and an unfair one. While some of their claims may seem a bit ridiculous, I've compared my WL 600 (300 ws) to my Balcar Monohead (300 ws) and I do get about a solid stop and a half more output from the White Lightning. Also, the White Lightning is far more reliable.

As far as pack vs mono... there are advantage and disadvantage to each. I say take advantage of both, and mix up what you have. I own Balcar mount monoblocks/ heads, then I also use Speedotron Brownline as well. I have the advantage of the rock solid base of Speedotron and the finesse of the monos, along with being able to use accesories that are unique to each.

Favorite for the Speedotron: their version of the Mola reflector (22" Grid Reflector; super beauty light). Add the grid attachment with the Light Sock diffuser and you have an amazing beauty light. It's always a good idea to diffuse behind a grid for the main light. It softens the specular aspects of the effect and makes everyone look pretty amazing under it. Great for reproducing the "Hollywood Galmour" look. Don't forget your fill lights though!

ben conover , May 31, 2005; 06:09 P.M.


I am a beginner and I like it that way. I enjoy reading and learning form Photo.net. I have a good workshop which I also use for photography. I take photos of violins, the ones I make. I use four lights each with 60w bulbs. I use a backdrop and dental floss to hang the violins on. I use a tripod with my camera and Tech-Pan. The results are predictable end good for my purposes.

I think it all depends on what you want to shoot and why.


Shamrez Jan , December 22, 2005; 03:48 A.M.

Although I read number of articles on this topic but this a very concise and extremely helpful to a beginner like me. Thanks.


ben michalski , March 05, 2006; 01:21 A.M.

If anyone plans on a career in photography and has a need for studio strobes then I recommend saving up your money or beg and borrow the money to buy lighting that is consistant in color temperture...I can't stress this to much as it is critical for proper exposure.

My recommendation is either Elinchrom or Profoto. These units will last 20 years. As for the rest....????

Natasha Barabasha , April 02, 2006; 12:31 P.M.

need this forum

JuanCarlos Torres , April 04, 2006; 07:21 A.M.

I agree Elinchrom is the only way to go. Their build quality and color consistency is second to none.

Matthew Tordoff , August 07, 2006; 07:34 P.M.

Might be nice to see an addition to this article looking at low wattage'Cool' flourescent (spelling?) daylight balanced lighting. I use a couple of stand mounted 500w (equivelent) always on lights balanced 5500k and generally get good results. I also have a couple of other lights ranging from 100w (equivelent) upwards. These lights area appearing more and more in the market place and offer some advantages to traditional tungsten hotlights, mainly there not and I've already mentioned daylight balanced. They can also be very cost effective and I have even managed to make use of them when painting my ceiling on a night!

Jan Steinman , December 16, 2006; 08:55 P.M.

The separation of "hard and soft" and "specular and diffuse" confused me a bit. I've always thought these were all different terms for describing one thing -- the contrast of the light source, which is the angular size of the light source as seen by the subject. So I was comforted a bit to read some other comments to that effect.

But... is anyone going to rise to defending separating "contrast" into these two separate qualities of light? Is a grid on a softbox really anything more than an expensive gobo? I'm willing to be educated... :-)

Also, the polarization between "techno-nerds" and "it's the photographer, stupid" folks seem a bit tired. Yea, some people think having the latest and greatest will magically make them a great photographer, and others needlessly struggle with simple equipment to prove a point.

The reality is a bit of both: a good photographer's skills are amplified by good equipment! That said, I do lean a bit to the purists: technique you get you through poor equipment better than equipment will work without technique!

To that end, here's a story I enjoy telling my sometimes-equipment-mad photography students:

A photographer is eating in a restaurant. It's slow, so the waiter makes small talk, and asks him what he does.

"I'm a photographer. I happen to have my portfolio handy. Would you like to see it?"

"Sure!" says the waiter, and he pours over the beautiful work.

"Wow! These are GREAT!" the waiter exclaims, "You must have a very expensive camera!"

Taken aback a bit, the photographer responds, "Yea, I guess it's okay," and finishes his meal.

At the end of the meal, the photographer calls the waiter over and says, "That was an excellent meal! Please tell the cook I thought he must have very expensive pots and pans!"

Marina Loram , January 20, 2007; 06:04 A.M.

Thank you, that was really helpful. I'm going into a studio for my first time soon and that really helped me to get to grips with the equipment and lighting.

Eugene Cottrell , February 28, 2007; 04:49 P.M.

I have had my White Lightnings for almost 15 years. They have provided wonderful light all of this time. They even flew off the top of my family's car (while in the supplied case) and none of the three lights even got a scratch. The incandescent bulbs didn't even bust. As far as watts here and watts there they aren't the most flexible because you can only adjust 1/3 2/3 or full. but you can always move the light further away if needed!

Has anyone tried the new "ring flash" that the buff company has come out with? i am interested in it and would like some personal experience info if anyone has it!

thanks for this cool site! Eugene

Yinka Oyelese , March 06, 2007; 05:19 P.M.

Unfair to White Lightning/Alien Bees

With all due respect, several of us use White Lightning/Alein Bees lights. They are probably the most widely used lights, and the ones with the most pleased customers. Your comments suggest that they are no good. Hundreds of photo.net members would humbly and respectfully beg to differ!

Best wishes


Image World , March 20, 2007; 11:39 P.M.

Firstly can I say what a great article. A good place to start. Well done Philip. I wish I could have read some of these articles before I started as a professional photographer.

Can I say that I have run a professional studio for many years now and I have been in contact with many photographers wanting to become professionals and earn a living from Studio Photography. Most of the photographers believe you need the latest and best of all the equipment that is on the market to make a living and produce beautiful images. This is just not true. I would prefer a photographer who really knows his or her gear over someone who has the latest and greatest. Someone who is getting the absolute maximum out of their cheaper / inferior / older gear is going to get better images than someone who has the latest and greatest gear but doesn't know who to utilise it.

Photography and lighting go hand in hand. To be a great photographer you need to be a student of light. You need to understand how it works, how it effects the camera, the subject. How the studio interacts with light. Once you understand the rules you then can begin pushing the limits and even sometimes breaking the rules. We understand gravity, we are effected by gravity but we can overcome it. We can break it to produce spectacular results such as flying or jumping. What can you do with light? Can you break it? Overcome it? Bend it? Colour it? Shape it? You can do all these things and more. In a studio environment you can achieve amazing results, have fun, experiment, be creative, but most of all know your equipment, know its limits, know the best that you can possibly get from your gear. In doing this you will achieve far better results than just having the latest and the greatest.

Jim Adams , March 30, 2007; 09:31 P.M.

The 107" width is about 9 feet and that's a good size for most people. A roll costs about $30

I'm not sure when this information was last updated, but I think it's way off. I just bought a 9-foot roll of white seamless a couple of weeks ago, and with tax it came to almost $65.

Randall Paul , June 02, 2007; 10:34 A.M.

Funny I think there are very valid points here across the board. After I had my fire in my london office in 2002 I lost not only my equipment but all of my work I had done in Paris, Milan and the rest of Europe. Pissed off, I stopped shooting for two years and traveled. When I picked up a camera again during my taveling, that is what I had... A camera and a few lenses. I didn't bother with buying lighting nor could I. I have worked with many photographers to include David Bailey and had discussions with many famed photographers about this very subject. Helmet Newton said to me "Dear boy, Just shoot" I am a huge Hitchock fan who is famed for his available light useage in fact a master at it. ?think it really depends on your persoanl circumstance and what area of photography you are in and budget of course. If you are a studio based photographer with commercial clients, then of course you need your varied lighting rigs and accessories. If you are like me at the moment and just shoot what ever comes, then you can use availabe light as I do or accessorize it with what ever. Home Depote mentiioned above is a great source for all types of lighting set-ups. As far as worrying about Joules and Colour temps etc, if you are shooting digitally there are an amazing amount of cheats you can achieve if you are a good CS2/CS3 photoshop user. I guess the bottomline is... Where are you and what is available to you? I,e. Location, Subject, Environment and general circumstance. I like to shoot and never has it been perfect but it didn't stop me from shooting because the circumstance wasn't perfect and I certainly wouldn't apologize for it. If some photographer walked by and thought I was a girlie boy for not having a Broncolor set-up... Great! Seen many of those guys specially out of Germany shooting in Miami. Take their setup away from them and they couldn't shoot a paper bag. Aldo Fillai one of my favorite's is a photographer of understatment when it comes to his lighting. Simple set ups, amazing work, sets the frame and focus up, Puts his finger on the shutter and doesn't release it until the roll is spent and doesn't even look through the lense. In fact I have seen him talk to a client while the shutter was popping off not even looking at the set. Funny stuff how we approach it all like a finger print everyone is different! Here is a home depote halogen set up with a camp light Using Holly Be good RP

Randall Paul , June 02, 2007; 10:39 A.M.

Holly set up was two home depot halogens and a camp light shot with a D70.

andrew moseley , June 14, 2007; 03:31 P.M.

At the risk of sounding daft, (I have been a Press Photographer for 20years) I have the oppurtinity of shooting in a Pro studio. I have a Mamiya 645 system and RZ67, all lights and Power will be there. Problem is how do I go from there? How do I trigger all lights with camera? and although I possess a Light Meter I have never used with Studio Flash, how do I trigger meter with flash to get readings? Really stuck here Guys and Gals any assistance would be great (shoot Is in 2 weeks)

Rich Kopp , July 14, 2007; 09:31 P.M.

For those of you who have studios what is the colors of the walls and ceiling? Is everything white or do you have some kind of accent wall? I am in the process of building mine in my house and was wondering how others did the walls and ceiling. Thanks for the help.

Lauren MacIntosh , July 15, 2007; 01:00 P.M.

I would think of it : as this way how much light do I want bounce-ing around or another way to put it what controls do I want on my light: you have gloss white then semi gloss white and then semi flat white and last is Flat white: of course there are many Off white to deal with also, bone white, eggshell white , and the list goes on : your problem will bee in the fact of how much outside light will you use [if any] is the room square or is longer one way than the other:Some here may say I am nuts on some of these points but if you consider them you will control your light better:

Lance Baker , July 28, 2007; 05:24 P.M.

I realize that this article was written many years ago, but I believe that this article in very unfair to Paul Buff/White Lightning. I have used two Ultras for over 10 years and they have been very dependable and quality units.

I often use them for school pictures, taking more than 1000 images in a few hours, and they work time after time without fail.

When I did have one problem with one unit, I sent it back to the company and they fixed it free of charge even though it wasn't in the warranty period.

I don't think that Photogenic, Norman or any other manufacturer would do that for one of their customers.

As a wedding photographer, I also use the newer Alien Bees, with the Vagabond battery, as a second light during wedding receptions. All of their products have been dependable and effective for their intended purposes.

Lance Baker , July 28, 2007; 05:30 P.M.


More than two weeks have passed, but do you still need help with your setup?

Paul Korir , September 04, 2007; 07:32 A.M.

A mouthful! Now I know where I will concentrate all my reading energies. I found quite a number of the gizmos new. Anyone know a site where they have each lighting item explained?

Astrid Thiebault , September 20, 2007; 02:14 A.M.

whats wrong with the old trusty grey card to get light readings from?

Margaret LANE , May 02, 2008; 02:25 A.M.

Hi, I am not a professional. I am still learning. I have to use what ever I can find and create for lighting because I do not have the money to buy these expensive systems. Therefore I use chicken house lights with different bulbs, some regular household and some the new fluorescent bulbs they are pushing to replace old fashioned bulbs. I am still experimenting and I enjoy it. I have had to learn to use a good many things that are not bought at the camera store because I have wanted the money to buy the cameras I like. Won't do any name dropping here. I am in digital with a point and shoot and a dslr. Love them both for different reasons and situations. I just wanted to remind all that we don't always need the expensive stuff. Available light! I like that idea!!!

Bradley Brunkow , May 22, 2008; 07:48 P.M.

I have to say, this is probably the most informative thread I have ever read on the subject of "gear getting" for beginners in studio work.

To all of you, thank you so much! I have been a photographer for over 25 years, and if you can believe it, I have never done any studio work (meaning lighting). It's about the ONLY thing I haven't done.

I would like to see if I have any artistic talent; see what's possible for me to do with the right equipment. I don't know what "stuff" I'll end up with, but at least I know where to start!

I would ask one question, though: I am putting a studio together in a spare room in my basement. The room is about 30x30 feet.

I am wanting to do mostly portraits, headshots with a little shoulder. Creative stuff. Maybe some full length. No more than one person, maybe two.

The strobes wouldn't be any farther away than 15 feet in any one outward direction from the subject. I've been told that 320 is all I need for my main; I've been told it's not enough if you're stopping way up. Is 500 enough? 1000?

There is sooo much to choose from with reqards to power. I just don't have anything to guage it with, mentally. So, could someone just tell me and I can be done with it? ;)

I use a digital 35mm Canon. XTi.

My big concern is how much power to buy for the main light and how much for the fill, background and hair.

And, should I go pack or monolights?

I don't want to limit myself to being forced to stop down to get more light. I would rather have to much than not enough, wouldn't you think? I want to put a system together that I can grow into.

How much is safe (w/s)?

A good analogy would be if I had a plate of food. No matter how hungry I am, I always want to have enough, plus a couple of bites left over. You know?

If anybody has a particular conviction one way or the other, I am all ears!

Thanks again!

christopher blumenshine , June 13, 2008; 03:17 P.M.

Great, great comments. So interesting to read opinions from people all over the world!

Image World , August 14, 2008; 08:54 P.M.

Your question about what power to get in lights is a good one. Please don't get confused with the numbers on the lights thinking that it affects brightness. Higher powered lights normally mean the recycle quicker. This means you can shoot more often or shoot several shots in quick succession. If you are looking to shoot portraiture then you really don't need lights that cycle every half second. Normally in portraiture it is two or three shots in a pose then reconfiguring your subjects pose or adjusting lights to improve the shot. I run a few profession photography studios. I worked for years with one light and soft box plus umbrella. Recently I have added a second light. If it save you money you can get the lowered powered light. This won't mean your shots are too dark, it will mean you might have to wait 0.7 of a second between shots. Lights normally work around one third to half power. Please keep in mind you can always adjust your camera to increase light but opening up the aperture (lower F number) or increase your ISO setting.

One the subject of ISO settings. When I get a new digital camera one of the first things I like to do is a number of shots steadily increasing the ISO setting to see how far I can push my camera and still get a good result. For every camera I own (Canon 10D, 20D, 30D, 40D, 5D & 1DMark III) I know what is the highest ISO I can push the camera to. Having said this the best colour range and saturation you will get will be at your lowest ISO setting. A lower ISO setting on your camera means you need more light. This is easy taken care of with studio lighting because you are normally running your lights at one third or one half power. You normally have plenty of range to play with

The other way you can add more light to a shot is with a reflector. As the light is bouncing around your studio you can get a reflective white, sliver or gold large surface and bounce some light back into your shot.

I hope this helps, get a strobe and have some fun. Move lights around. Find what the rules are then go and break them! If light is the language of photography, then work on increasing your vocabulary!

I have just updated my website with newPortriature Commercial studio work. The fifth shot on the portraiture section was lit with one softbox on the lady and a 500W Halogen work light from the local hardware store on the guitar. It worked fantastically. The work light gave a nice golden tone to the guitar.

Best of luck, have some fun!.

Angela Smith , August 15, 2008; 11:27 P.M.

I have read a lot on this subject and this is the best article so far. Thank you for the wonderful article, it is extermely helpful!

Adam P , September 02, 2008; 09:38 A.M.

Thank you very much for this interesting article and thread. I have a very simple question; an answer may not be that simple though:

How to effectively measure strobe/flash light without a light meter? Someone mentioned a grey card, but how to use it with flash light? Is there a way, or is buying a meter a necessity?

Thanks in advance,

Lou deFreitas , September 04, 2008; 07:40 P.M.

Ok, love the info in this thread and the help that everyone has provided.

I have been asked to take pictures at two events for competitive cheer leading. One in Jan will be action shots during the competition and the other, in Dec, is team group and indivudual pictures.

The area for the competition shots is a mat the size of about 40x40 feet. and the group shots will be about 20 feet wide. I am confident that I will be booked for other events


I want to invest in a wireless flash setup that is both durable and will recycle quick. I currently take pictures of competitions with just an SB800 and have great results but I want to do much more. Also want to setup a studio for portriat shots so this flash setup will need to work for both.

I am leaning at Photogenic but AlienBees looks like an option.

With all the kids I need wireless to avoid somone tripping over a wire.

Any thoughts or suggestions on my goal

Steve Lowther , September 26, 2008; 07:32 P.M.

Dean Collins' Tinker Tube Book

No discussion of setting up a studio on a shoestring would be complete without a reference to the late Dean Collins' Tinker Tubes book. He created a masterful set of plans on creating highly functional lighting equipment with nothing but some ripstop nylon and pvc tubing. He generously donated his book to the public so you can download the book free:

Dean Collins' Tinker Tube Book

Image Attachment: delete this.jpg

W T , January 28, 2009; 02:47 P.M.

Steve, thanks for that tinker tubes link. I also want to chime in that I bought a WL Ultra 1200 new in 1989 and it's still going strong today. Wow 20 years went by fast.

Mike Marks , February 03, 2009; 10:23 A.M.

In my assisting days I was fortunate to work for Art Beck, one of the best still-life photographers of the 1970's and early 80's. Art followed four basic rules for all of his lighting:

1) A single source whenever possible from more or less overhead (He called it "God's light" and didn't believe in multiple sources - a fill light was sometimes used along with all kinds of reflectors, from mirrors behind beverage bottles and glasses, to white and gray cards to add controlled fill and highlights... but the feel was always of a single source, there were never any competing shadows.

2) The primary lighting source should be the same size as the thing being lit - a car should have a car sized light, a bowl of soup should have a bowl sized light, a full length portrait should have a primary light as long and tall as the person.

3) The light should be as close as possible to the subject. Putting the light close (in portraits a 3' tall head/shoulders light might be less than one foot from the subject's face) imparts a sort of internal glow that makes it feel like the light is coming from within the subject.

4) Meticulously shield the lens so none (or as little as possibler) of the light source is visible in the lens. This is like a lens hood but even more controlled.

Getting a clean white background is a challenge for many photographers. Art Beck and Walter Swarthout (who learned from Irving Penn) each did it differently. In both methods, the area not visible in the frame is masked off with black as close to the subject as possible. Beck's method, ideal for table top was to point the top light directly toward the back of the sweep (generally Formica) and allow the leading edge of the top light overhang the front of the subject... adjusting it a little forward or back to get the desired shadow and texture - the subject is visually thrust forward by what's effectively a back light - a fill would be used if necessary. The Irving Penn method, better for portraits, was to light the background separately from the subject. The subject sits or stands slightly in front of a window or doorway that's set into into a black wall. The closer the wall/window is to the subject, the less flash there will be on the subject's edge (I use the term "wall" very loosely - it could be black cards on stands. In both cases the background is brighter than the foreground - by 2 stops if memory serves me correctly. One cool thing about lighting the background separately is that it enables use of color filters on the lights that shine onto matching color paper (red on red for example) to supersaturate the color background - it's also possible to create glows such as that seen behind a mountain ridge in the desert just after sunset.

I agree with the comments that you don't need fancy equipment to light professionally. For a nice, soft, person-sized light I sometimes bounced lights off walls, or into tall pieces of foam core (maybe with a sheet across the front for further softness). Semi-translucent plexiglass can be used in many, many ways. It's worth experimenting with a deep bowl reflector that points more strongly into one area of the plexi... this can create nice soft transitions and reflections on the subject.

One thing I didn't see covered here is the different feel of strobe light vs. hot lights. The wave length of strobe is shorter so you get a faster fall off. If you want a dramatic fall off from light to dark, strobe is the way to go. If you want the light to fall off more gently, go for hot lights ... however, hot lights are not a great choice if you need to position them close to a piece of plexi).

And here's a secret for any of you who are shooting steel or chrome... using a blue fill light or blue card stock, add a thin line of blue along the edge of the metal. It works wonders.

One story worth telling here. I assisted Ken Regan at the first Live Aid. The primary shot Ken was there to get was a group shot of Bob Dylan, Madonna, Tina Turner, Mick Jagger... you get the idea... heavy celebrity shot. I set up a "studio" back stage... white seamless, umbrellas, hair light. Nothing special just competent and reliable. I tested the strobes, flashing them 20-30 times in quick succession again and again and again to insure that we wouldn't trip a fuse and lose power when the time came. Once I had things set up I was sent away to set up another "studio" on the stage itself where I shot every act before it went on (except for Madonna - I wasn't a big enough name for her - Ken took over on that one). In any case, I wasn't there to test the strobes again before Ken began the shoot. Ken gets all of the superstars positioned, takes a couple of Polaroids and then starts shooting relatively quickly... these folks aren't going to sit there for long... and after 5 or so flashes the fuse overloads and the strobes go out. Ken quickly puts on an on-camera flash and shoots 3 rolls of film... and one of those shots became the cover for People magazine. Lighting matters, but not as much as getting the shot.

Randy Schirmer , July 10, 2010; 02:13 P.M.

I keep reading comments about how anyone getting studio lights get ones with "consistent" color. Don't add a tungsten light because it's too yellow! Then I'll see a picture where the photographer describes what he wanted to get and says "for this picture I decided to go with a warmer look so I used a yellow gel over my (correctly warm) strobe."

Or a poster who says, "for serious photography, it's important to get good lighting to achieve the proper illumination." What exactly is proper illumination? It's whatever illumination that gives the photographer the look he or she is going for.

I see tons of photo shoots that have "perfect" illumination in that they have no black outs or blow outs but they are B-O-R-I-N-G!!! They are perfect only because the meter says so!

A picture of someone holding a candle as the only light is far more interesting.

It's good to understand the basic rules if for no other reason that u will understand why u have decided to break them.

Chris Davidson , July 26, 2010; 08:16 A.M.

Great article, thanks!

JAMES DESALVO , January 11, 2011; 12:05 P.M.


Great article...I like using some older equipment myself and purchased some Photogenic light pak and heads...varied lighting technique can make a subject in a single pose appear quite unique when taking multiple shots... 

latoye zinn , April 03, 2011; 06:40 P.M.

I am having a dilemma.  I own a home in which I could shoot clients.  I have turned my living room into a studio before.  My husband does not like strangers in and out of our home.  I teach school during the day and can not afford a studio space at the present.  I am still building my clientele.  My current clientele however is growing.  I have shot clients at my school and a few in their homes. Unless it is an onsite job such as a banquet..lugging gear gets rather tiresome.  I would really like suggestions or examples of studios that have been converted from small metal buildings etc. Not the ones you can purchase at Home Depot or Lowes but as if one is built on your property.  Adding on to my home is not an option either.  Thanking you in advance.


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