Beginning Studio Lighting

First of all, you must decide what types of lights to purchase. There are two basic types: Tungsten or Strobes. Tungsten lights are continuous photofloods, which tend to generate a lot of heat. Strobes are flash units. I personally use strobes and really like them. More specifically, I use the Alien Bees B800’s. I love these lights and find them really easy to use. Your strobes will come with something called a “modeling light.” This modeling light is there to allow you to see where your light will be. It goes off when you fire the strobe, and comes on again a second later, letting you know that the strobes are ready to be fired again. The modeling light gives off very little heat compared to the tungsten lights.

Whatever brand you decide to purchase, make sure that they will allow for lighting accessories such as softboxes and umbrellas, barndoors (plates that attach to the front of your lights) and snoots (a long tube – most often used as a hair light). These accessories enable you to control where the light goes. The manufacturer of the lights you choose will more than likely also sell light stands, which you will also need.

You can get started with as little as one light, but make sure that you have some sort of reflector to provide fill light. Reflectors are available from professional camera shops (online or off), but a large piece of white foamboard or cardboard will do the trick as well (and is much less expensive). After your business gets going and you can afford more lighting, you can add a fill light, a hair light and some background lighting as well. You will need umbrellas or softboxes to go with your main and fill lights.

Main Light: The primary lighting

Fill Light: Fills in the shadows created by the main light

Hair Light: Separates the hair from the background

Where should you place your lights? Generally speaking, the closer the lights to the subject, the more harsh the lighting. The further away you place your lights from the subject, the more diffused the lighting will be. When using my main light with a softbox, I generally place the main light approximately 4 to 5 feet away from my subject (slightly above the subject’s eye level) and off to the right of the camera. I place my fill light slightly further back (on the subject’s eye level) and on my left. Remember, your subject should be at least 4 to 5 feet away from the background to reduce shadows. If you are using a hair light, it should be above and behind the subject’s head…but experiment with it to find the placement you like best. You will definitely need to use either barndoors or a snoot for your hair light to keep it from shining into the camera’s lens.

For portraiture, you will want to use a lighting ratio of 3:1, meaning that your main light is approximately 1-2/3rds f-stops brighter (or stronger) than the fill light. A 2:1 ration means that your main light is 1 stop stronger than the fill light. The hair light should be one stop stronger than your main light. The same goes for background lighting if you want a bright white background. This is another reason I like my alien bees so much: they are really easy to adjust. You can simply move a switch on the back of each light to set it, and it is easy to get that 3:1 or 2:1 ratio. You will want to keep the room lighting (table lamps, overhead lights, etc.) to a minimum.

For my set up (I use the Canon 20D and the alien bees B800’s), I set my camera to 250 and 13, my main light at ΒΌ power, and my fill light at 1/16 power and I get great results. I would recommend just playing around with your settings until you find the ones that work.

We’ve covered the basics here, but you still may want to invest in a good book on studio lighting to further your knowledge.

Props For Studio

Some of my favorite props have been and 1890s tricycle, a 1910 iron and wood sleigh, a white wicker sleigh/bassinette and a couple of faux marble columns. The wicker sleigh made it easy to prop up wobbly babies and when leveled with foam and a blanket, supplied a nice base for tummy shots. Of course we couldn’t do without the ubiquitous baseball.

The marble columns came plain white plastic so I painted them to simulate real marble. First I prepared four buckets with white, light gray, darker gray and black water paint. Latex is fine. I placed the bare column on a large plastic sheet and quickly painted one side of the column with the white paint. A handy hose set at fine mist then wets down the
Wet paint. Applications of the light and dark gray latex and sprayed with water allows the colors to blend naturally. After all sides are completed, a feather dipped in black latex and drawn randomly along the surface supplies the final touch. A c oat of clear acrylic will protect the surface for many years.

For Communions, I cut a 30 inch circle out of heavy cardboard. Making an X from two rectangular pieces of cardboard, I stapled the circle on top, creating an instant round table. Cutting a piece of white Dacron for a table cloth that just reaches the ground results in beautiful natural folds. On top can be placed a bouquet of flowers, a candle, missal or white gloves and placed in the near background of the Communion picture.

One prop that has many uses is white nylon tulle. Used to cover flower arrangements, antique boxes or any accessories in the background, it imparts to these artifacts a smoky ethereal atmosphere. The lowered contrast and softening of detail allows more emphasis to be placed on the main subject while adding interest to the composition. The white tulle is especially effective on a near white background. Large amounts of tulle can represent clouds or water.

For a rustic look, several four foot weathered barn boards can make a country look background for children’s head shots. This easily made prop can be stored in a small area. A small section of white picket fence can be part of a beach scene or a Huckleberry country look. An eighteen inch long log with rough bark provides a handy place for young feet or to straddle. A taller log is handy for resting elbows and log sitting.