What Lighting Is Needed for Studio Photography?

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If you’re new to studio lighting, it is easy to get intimidated by the amount of stuff you have to learn. The jargon alone is enough to make your head spin. Fortunately, none of the things you need to be successful in the studio is particularly complicated; there is just a lot of it. The purpose of this article is to serve as a primer to introduce you to some of the most basic studio lighting equipment and terms you will need to navigate a photography studio.

Natural lighting will not always meet the requirements of a professional shoot. Sooner or later, most photographers need to learn studio lighting.

This will allow you to create the exact studio lighting scenario sought by your client. And you’ll be able to develop consistency from image to image. Here’s everything you need to know about studio lighting equipment and tips.

A little warning: Some of these terms are used differently by different photographers. Others get interchanged with one another. While it can be confusing at times, it’s not necessarily wrong. However, it is helpful to know about when you hear someone refer to a flag as a gobo or refer to ambient light as continuous light.

Decide Which Lighting Equipment To Buy

Whether you’re a hobbyist or a professional, understanding that light is a vital part of the outcome of your images is crucial. Gaining extra light can be an easy fix, whether from a window, a lamp from your living room, or a professional lighting kit. In some cases, you will need the latter for its convenience and the ability to control the lighting in your situation.

It can be not clear to decipher which photography and lighting equipment might be best for you to utilize and potentially invest in for your business. To simplify things, ask yourself: what are your primary needs? What is your purpose for using artificial lighting? These two questions can assist in shaping which lighting kit is best for you.

Types Of Light

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There are many types of photography lights used in the studio at a variety of price points. The lights you choose will depend on how much power you need and will be influenced by your budget.

Luckily, there are cheaper photography lighting brands like Godox. They put out some decent equipment for an affordable price. If you understand how photography light works, you don’t need top-of-the-line gear to get the best results. You can invest in more expensive photographer lights as you develop your career and get higher-paying clients.

Here is a rundown of the most common studio lighting equipment.

Strobe Lighting

Strobe lights are a type of flash lighting that dominates the world of studio lighting. When we talk about studio lights, we’re often thinking about strobe lights.

A strobe light can be a mono head, such as the Neewer SK300, which houses the battery and light in one compact unit. Or it can be a light that needs to be hooked up to a high-powered battery. With both of these types of strobes, the strength of the flash output can be controlled. Their power can be measured in watt-seconds. Certain studio lighting situations require more flash output than others.

A much larger scene like a group portrait might need double that or extra lights. When buying or renting strobe lighting equipment, you want to make sure you’ll plug it into the studio’s wall without tripping the lighting. However, some strobes do not need to be plugged in. They are battery operated and can be used outdoors as well.

These days, you can buy a powerful strobe at a low price. It’s not the power that makes one strobe more expensive than another. It’s often the build quality/durability and the quality and consistency of the flash output. With strobe lights, you need a syncing device that will help you sync your strobe to your camera.

A studio strobe is a dedicated flash unit. They can sometimes be referred to as a monobloc or moonlight. Usually, mains powered, more battery-powered offerings are being brought onto the market all the time. Power output between models can vary greatly, with cheaper strobes offering as much power as a cheap third-party flashgun. Monolights are self-contained strobe units that include power sources, reflectors and stands.

The main advantage to monolights is that, with them, there is no need for an extra power generator because all of that is contained in the head of the lamp. Each strobe monolight should be 150+ watts so that they are powerful enough to light your subjects.

Strobe monolights are mainly used in studios but are incredibly versatile and portable if purchased with a case. Although there are many different ways to use artificial lighting and a whole slew of starter and advanced-level kits for you to research and invest in, the starter kits mentioned in this article should get you well on your way to creating fantastic studio images in your home or on-the-go studio.

If you’re going to invest in a lighting kit, we recommend that you buy at least two light sources so that you have ample light when you need it. Having a set of two lights will allow for more versatility in your lighting setups and, by extension, more creativity and professionalism in your photography.

Continuous Light

Also known as “hot” lights, continuous lights for photography don’t “flash”. Instead, they are a constant lighting source. They allow you to see precisely how the light is falling on your subject before pressing the shutter.

This is a tremendous advantage for products or other types of still life photography. But continuous lighting has not been as popular as flash units. They have less power. And matching the light to other ambient light sources that can influence the scene is a challenge. Another disadvantage is that they can get boiling, hence the nickname “hot lights”.

LED lights are changing the face of continuous lighting. They don’t heat up like other continuous lighting does and provide a high quality of constant light—the best LED lighting equipment costs in the thousands, rivalling the price of the best strobes.

Continuous lights serve the same lighting functions as strobes, but they don’t flash. Instead, they are high-powered lamps that can usually be fitted with modifiers in the same way as strobes. While primarily associated with video, continuous lights still have their place in stills photography. There are many LED lights coming onto the market at the moment, and many of them are viable options. The spotlight moniker comes from the fact that they tend to get very hot. Be careful with modifiers that sit close to the bulb as they present a fire hazard. This does not apply to LED lights.

Continuous lighting is primarily valuable for product and still life photography or video. A considerable advantage of this type of lighting is that you can visualize how your light will appear in your image before you begin shooting, making it easier to adjust your lighting quickly. This type of lighting is excellent for beginners because it lets you manipulate your light more manually and is very cost-efficient compared to other models of lighting kits.

There are three major types of continuous lighting bulbs: fluorescent, tungsten & LED. All types generate great results, so choosing which to use is mainly a matter of personal preference.

Fluorescent is generally easier to find in studio lighting and does not overheat, so most studio photographers use it. LED is a safer option than tungsten because they tend not to overheat as much. Regardless of which balanced colour bulbs you use, remember to set your camera’s white balance to Auto or precisely according to the type of bulb you’re using to generate accurate colours.

Take your continuous lighting kit one step further by purchasing an adjustable power kit. An advantage to these kits is that you have even more control over how much the light source exudes in your environment. This will allow you to manually manipulate your light even more than just a one bulb continuous lighting kit. Utilize these kits so you won’t have to remove bulbs to adjust the amount of light you want.

Flashgun/Speedlight

Flashguns are any small light with a hot shoe mount for placing on top of your camera. They are highly portable, and some come with reasonably high power outputs. Although their versatility is ultimately limited to their size and power output, they are still a handy tool for any photographer interested in off-camera lighting.

Speedlights are external flash units that can be used along with umbrellas and softboxes to disperse light. They are faster than regular flashes and can be very versatile. It is best to use speedlights for stills, product shots, or action shots at weddings and sporting events.

Speedlights are incredibly lightweight and portable, making them great alternatives for setting up quick but effective on-the-go studios. Flashguns are small but competent light sources that are invaluable for mobile studios.

Speedlights are a type of small flash used in and out of the studio. They provide light, or in the case of outdoor daylight, add fill light. They are a relatively weak power source compared to strobe lighting. They emit about 1/4 of the power that the average strobe can output.

They also produce a narrow beam of light due to their small size. This can result in more complex shadows and a more artificial look. That being said, they are relatively inexpensive. Several speedlights used together can produce excellent studio lighting. They also offer a light, portable option with a lot of versatility. Speedlights such as the Geekoto Flash are compatible with most DSLR brands. You can also buy more expensive, camera-specific ones, for example, the Nikon SB-700.

Speedlights can be mounted on your camera’s hot shoe to provide an on-camera flash. For best results, speedlights should be fastened to a light stand and used off-camera.

Light Functions

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Key Light 

Your key light is the leading light with which you are shaping your subject. This will usually be the brightest and most prominent light in your scene.

Fill Light

A fill light reduces the intensity of shadows created by your key light, thereby decreasing the overall contrast in your scene.

Rim Light/Backlight 

Rim lights light your subject from behind to help separate them from the background. Often, rim lights are positioned so that only a sliver of light is visible on the sides of your subject.

Hair Light

Hair lights are used to add emphasis to your subject’s hair. They can also be used to help bring up the exposure of your subject’s head if it is blending into the background.

Ambient Light

This is any light that is present before the addition of any other lighting sources. This could be from a glow in the room or daylight from a window or outside.

Modifiers

Umbrellas

Umbrellas usually come in silver or white and can be attached to your strobe via amount. By firing the strobe into the umbrella (which reflects the light to your subject), you create a much larger light source that makes a softer light. Although mostly directional, umbrellas can have many spills, and they aren’t the most accessible modifier to control.

Umbrellas are your most basic modifier. They are suitable for soft, diffused light, but they are hard to control.

Translucent Umbrellas/Shoot-thru Umbrellas

Translucent umbrellas don’t reflect light but are instead made of diffusion material you aim to light through. This softens the morning, much in the way of other modifiers, but without the benefit of directionality. Translucent umbrellas also provide soft light, but they aren’t as directional as softboxes.

Softboxes

Softboxes come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Once attached to your light, a softbox acts to shape and soften the light to be more flattering. Softboxes also tend to be quite directional, and they are easy to control and further modify. Softboxes are the workhorse of the photographic studio, and they come in all shapes and sizes.

Strip Boxes

Strip boxes are softboxes, but they are long narrow rectangles that produce a much narrower beam of light. These are great for lighting a subject from behind for a rim lighting effect. Striplights are a valuable type of softbox that offer very directional light.

Octaboxes

Also, a type of softbox, an octabox, is octagonal. The rounder light source helps shape the light for portraits. Octaboxes also tend to be quite large, making them an ideal modifier for portraits.

Reflectors (The Modifier Kind)

The reflector is a modifier that goes directly on your strobe. They channel the light at a specific angle for very directional light. They are also a challenging light source. Most are designed to take a variety of grids. Reflectors, like this 110-degree reflector, provide a very directional and complex light source.

Snoots

Snoots are modifiers that are designed to focus your light on a very narrow beam. They are great for both hair lights and background lights. Snoots direct your light into a very tight and controlled beam.

Barn Doors

Barn doors are fitted with two to four flaps for you to adjust the aperture the light is let through manually. These flaps can help you narrow the focus of your morning on a specific aspect of your subject (such as their hair), or they can be used to flag the light from hitting a spot that you don’t want it to.

Beauty Dish

Beauty dishes are directional modifiers that are somewhere in between soft and hard light. They are great for beauty photography (hence the name) as well as fashion and portraiture altogether. They often come with grids and diffusion socks to give you even more options to use them. Beauty dishes offer a contrasty light somewhere between hard and soft.

Grids/Honeycombs

Grids are modifiers for your modifiers. Placed on a reflector, or softbox, or beauty dish, they narrow the beam of light further and help to ensure that the light is only falling on your subject (or where you want it to). Grids allow you to modify the directionality of your light further.

Gobo

A gobo is placed in front of a light source to change the shape of the morning. This can be as simple as narrowing the beam and be as complicated as creating complex patterns. The easiest way to explain this is to imagine a Venetian blind with light streaming through. Now imagine the design on the wall. The blind is acting as an effective gobo and shaping the light.

CTO Gels 

Colour correction gels are used when you need to correct the colour temperature of a given light. For example, if you have a gridded beauty dish that is particularly warm (like mine), and you want to use another light as a hair light, that second light might be very relaxed compared to your key light. By placing an orange CTO gel on your hair light, you can match and balance the colour output of both lights.

Colour Gels

You can also use gels towards a creative end. You can gel your lights to produce just about any colour that you want to.

Reflectors (The Reflective Kind)

Reflectors are an essential part of any studio kit. These allow you to reflect light from your crucial light back onto your subject. They are a means of creating a fill light without using a second dedicated light source. Reflectors come in many shapes and sizes, from the ubiquitous 5-in-1 reflectors to fancy tri-flectors sometimes used in beauty portraits. Reflectors and diffusers are two vital tools for shaping and controlling your light in the studio. Also shown here is a reflector stand.

Diffuser/Scrim

A diffuser is a piece of translucent material that you place in front of a light source to alter the shape of the morning or reduce the light’s intensity. Some diffusers do both.

Flags

Flags are used to block (or flag) light from falling in your scene where you don’t want it to. You can use them to stop excess light from falling on your background, or you can use them to reduce the exposure on the parts of your subject that aren’t the focal point. For example, use flags to help underexpose everything from the neck down in close portraits. This helps to ensure that the face is the main focus of the image.

That’s A Start

While this list is not, and can never be, a complete list of studio lighting equipment, it should serve as a decent primer to get you started in the world of studio photography.

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