Studio photography is easy because you can get exactly what you want.
Studio photography is hard because you can get exactly what you want.
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
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
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.
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
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.]
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
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
article on how our university system is affecting economic growth.]
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" 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
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).
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
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).
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
There are various radio
slaves (e.g., Bowens, Morris, and Quantum) that also perform this function,
possibly better in a large studio or outdoors.
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
Sekonic supposedly makes some great meters too, but I haven't tried them.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.