Friday, January 23, 2009

How to buy Lighting Gear and Equip a Home Photography Studio

Lighting is by far the most difficult thing to learn about photography, and makes more difference in a photograph then any element besides the subject. The word "photography" comes from the Greek (phos) "light" + (graphis) "stylus", "paintbrush" or (graphĂȘ) "drawing", together meaning "drawing or painting with light." Lighting takes years to learn to do well, and there are hundreds of books written on the subject. This article will only scratch the surface on the topic, but there are links and book references at the end that will give you direction on where to look for more information.

Your eyes have a much greater ability to adjust to the differences between light and shadow than film or digital sensors do. Your eyes can look at a bright area of a landscape, but also take in all of the details in the shadow areas of that landscape. Film and digital sensors cannot. If you expose for the bright areas, the shadow areas will not have enough detail. If you expose for the shadow areas, the bright areas will be over exposed and the highlights blown out. The ability of a camera to capture a wide range of light levels is called dynamic range. A typical point and shoot or entry level digital SLR (single lens reflex) camera has a dynamic range of 6 f stops. A medium format digital back such as a Phase One or Leaf can have a dynamic range of 12 f stops. But even with these more expensive (up to $32,000 for the digital back alone) camera systems, the dynamic range cannot come close to matching that of your eyes.

Reflectors - Cheaper and as Effective as Lights

Much of photographic lighting is designed to deal with this problem of dynamic range. Because a digital sensor cannot capture both the bright areas and the dark areas of a picture at the same time, photographers will add a “fill light” to soften shadows and make them less dark. The simplest and cheapest light you can buy is not a light at all, but rather a reflector. My first reflectors as a beginning photographer were bought at Kmart or Wal-Mart, and were just sheets of white, gold or silver poster board – cost, $2.00. More professional versions of reflectors are the round collapsible reflectors found in photography stores, by companies such as Westcott or California Sunbounce.

The way that these reflectors are used outdoors is by having your subject stand with the sun lighting one side of their face, and bouncing the light from the reflector into the shadow side of their face. Experiment with the placement of the sun and the reflector – sun directly behind the person, left or right behind the person. Then have them face directly into the sun, and have them hold the reflector at waist level to bounce the light back into the shadows on their face.

Indoors photographers use various reflectors for different purposes. Some photographers make reflectors called “flats”. These are often 8 feet tall and 4 to 10 feet wide, and often can fold down the middle so that they can stand by themselves without support. Calumet makes a reflector system with PVC pipe frames that are 8’ x 4’ that have legs to make them stand. Fabric can be purchased to go on the frames in white, silver, gold, black, translucent, and various other colors.

You can make your own diffusion flats and reflectors if you wish. Diffusion flats are usually white cloth over a frame, or just hung from light stands or the ceiling. Lights are put behind the diffusion flat, and the cloth softens the light and makes the shadows have a soft edge. Reflector flats are often made of two pieces of foamcore or sheet rock painted white. The two 4’x 8’ pieces are attached so that they can form a V shape, and thus be free standing.

The ways these large reflectors are used are simple. The main light goes on one side of the subject, and the reflector goes on the other side to fill the shadows. The main light could be from a window, a continuous light source such as a tungsten or household light bulb, or from a strobe. Usually the light source is defused through a softbox, umbrella or cloth to soften the light, but hard light with a reflector is nice, too.

Product photographers use reflectors as well, but they tend to be much smaller and more controllable. Some product photographers bounce light where they want it with small mirrors. I have made a system of reflectors out of silver “mirror” cardboard that I bought at an art supply store. I cut the paper into long strips between 4” and 10” wide, then folded them to make triangles that would stand on their own when taped or glued. Although these work well, I prefer LightRight reflectors as they are more adjustable due to their sliding magnets on the back.

I use a system of small reflectors that come from LightRight for food and product photography. These are cardboard silver reflectors made with a shiny silver surface on one side, and a white surface on the other side. The reflectors have a sliding magnet system that allows me to angle the light anywhere I wish. I usually use two strobes with softboxes, and one hard light focused through a grid (a round metal disk that allows light to pass through a honeycomb pattern, focusing the light and keeping it narrow). I usually will bounce the light from the hard light back into the shadow side of the product with a LightRight reflector.

Don’t own any photography lights? You can do product photography with just window light and three or four LightRight reflectors. Defuse the window light with a white sheet or curtain; place your product on a paper or cloth background, then bounce the light from the window into the shadow side of the product with your reflectors. It works great!

Types of Lights Used in Photography

There are two main categories of lights used in photography, continuous lights and strobe or flash. Some photography instructors suggest that a beginning photographer start with continuous lights to learn how light works, then advance to strobes after they gain confidence. In the continuous light category, there are tungsten lights made by companies such as Lowel and Photoflex costing about about $500 to $1.200 for a basic kit.

The advantages of tungsten lights are as follows:

  • As with all continuous lights, you can clearly see where the light and shadows fall. You can add lights and reflectors to make the lighting setup you need.
  • They are bright, affordable, and a good choice if you are shooting something that will not be bothered by the heat, and that doesn’t move. In other words, products , furniture and items to be sold on eBay are good prospects for tungsten lights
  • If you want to shoot both video and still photography, tungsten is a good choice

The disadvantages are as follows:
The color temperature is 3200 degrees Kelvin, which is an orange colored light. Although by doing a good white balance on your digital camera you can compensate for this in a dark room, in a room lit with sunlight you will come up with difficult lighting situations.

They are very hot. You can burn yourself easily, make people sweat and their makeup run, and make food dry out and melt. Use gloves when handling hot lights.

They are not as bright as flash, and do not stop action. You will need to work at larger apertures with less depth of field then flash, or work at higher ISO ratings (thus more noise in your pictures) than flash.

Even cheaper then tungsten lights, photo floods by makers such as Smith Victor A basic lighting kit can be had from stores like B and H Photo or Calumet for $250 to $500. Photo floods can be 3200 Kelvin or 4800 Kelvin depending on if you use the white or blue colored lights. They work mostly like tungsten lights, but the bulbs have shorter life spans, and the kits have fewer accessories available. If you are just starting to experiment with lighting, just want simple lights for product photography, or if you work black and white, these might be a good choice for you.

The better and more expensive type of continuous lights are daylight balanced fluorescent lights. These lights are cool, can be used in daylight, and have a soft beautiful light. However, they are not very bright, and it takes large and expensive light banks to meet many photographic requirements. Makers of daylight balanced fluorescent include Kino Flo, Calumet and Photoflex. Photoflex has lights that can use both fluorescent and tungsten bulbs, making them much more versatile. As fluorescent lights cannot produce hard light, some photographers mix strobe with fluorescent daylight balanced lights for a unique look.


Strobe lights are the choice of most professional photographers, for the following reasons:
  • The stop action well, freezing the subject so that the subjects are not blurred in the picture
  • They are cool, as they are only on while the picture is being taken
  • They are daylight balanced, so there is no problem with white balance on your camera, and you can use them in situations where there is window light mixed with your strobes. Unlike tungsten or photo floods, you can also use them out of doors to fill the shadows caused by bright sunlight.
  • Most professional flash units have tungsten modeling lights, thus you have the advantage of both types of lights in one unit. The modeling lights allow you to see where your lights are falling, and make decisions about how many lights to use and where to place them.

In addition to the obvious on-camera battery powered flash units, there are two main types of studio flash units – those linked to a power pack by cables, and mono lights which have the power generator built in. Some of the more popular makers of strobe units are Bowens, Broncolor, Dyna-Lite , Elinchrom , Photogenic, Profoto, Speedotron. Some inexpensive but powerful mono light strobes are made by White Lightning, and are very popular with beginning professionals. Most photographers prefer to use power pack units in the studio, as adjusting lighting ratios is easier when you don’t have to physically go to each light separately as you would with mono lights. Mono lights are more practical for location work, as you can put them a wide distance apart, and hide them easily within a setting.

Light Modifiers

The secret to great photographs is lighting control. Light modifiers allow you to put the quality of light where you want it, and keep it away from where you don’t want it. The following are light modifiers commonly used with flash in a commercial photography studio.

Softboxes: built like a dome tent, these light modifiers soften and defuse the light, taking the hard edge off of shadows. They have a reflective surface inside such as white or silver, and one or two pieces of cloth over the light for diffusion. Softboxes are the most important light modifier tool you can buy as a commercial photographer, but they are often overused, resulting in photographs that are flat and featureless.

Softbox grids: These are cloth honeycomb modifiers that fit on the front of a softbox. They keep the light from going where you don’t want it, and make the light travel in a straight line.

Reflectors: These are metal cone-shaped modifiers used for reflecting hard, undiffused light, or for bouncing light into an umbrella or off or through a light panel. Reflectors come in various shapes and sizes, and can focus light in broad or narrow angles.

Beauty dishes: Although it is technically a reflector, it has a shield in front of the flash bulb that bounces the light back into the dish. It is a broad, hard light often used in fashion and portrait photography.

Reflector grids: These are metal disks that fit on the front of reflectors. They have a honeycomb pattern that allows the light to pass through, but in a more focused, narrow beam. Grids come in various degrees, such as 10, 20, 30 and 40 degree grids, with the higher number being a broader beam of light. Grids are useful for hair lights, rim lights, back and side lighting with food and products, and can keep lens flare from ruining your picture.

Barn doors: These fit over a reflector, and have doors on them that can open or shut, keeping the light off of areas where you don’t want it.

Snoots: Focuses the light in a narrow, round beam

Umbrellas: Hugely popular with portrait photographers for years, they have been replaced by softboxes in many photographers toolbox. However, they are inexpensive, and you can shoot through them for soft, defused light, or bounce light off of them for a little harder light. They come in white, silver and gold. They do not have the control of a softbox, as the light goes everywhere.

Flags: These are black cloth stretched over a metal frame. They are used for keeping light off of areas, such as when you use a color gel on your background light and don’t want white light to dilute the color. If you are trying to create shadows in your picture, flags are very useful.

Gels: Colored semitransparent plastic film that goes over a reflector or light to change the color of the light. Warming gels are very popular in fashion and glamour photography, red, blue and purple gels are often used in annual report and industrial photography. Many photographers will put a colored gel on their background light, so that the background fades from one color to another.

Building and Equipping a Home Studio

The space you use should have white walls, otherwise you will make color casts on your photographs. You should be able to get the room totally dark, perhaps by putting blackout cloth over the windows. This is to see what you lights are doing. Ceiling height of 10 feet or higher is best, but if you have your taller portrait subject to sit rather than stand you can get away with an 8 foot ceiling. Home studios are often built in garages or spare bedrooms. A 12’ x 14’ bedroom is big enough for tabletop photography and portraits of one person, a 16’ x 20 garage can be used for portraits with two or three people, table top and most other kinds of studio photography.

Basic Home Photography Studio Equipment list
  • Sturdy tripod
  • Background stand (two light stands with a pole on top of them is typical)
  • A light stand for each light you have
  • Two or more lights
  • Two softboxes (preferred) or two umbrellas (cheaper)
  • Two reflectors for your lights, and two grids
  • Reflectors as needed
  • Folding table for tabletop photography
  • Background paper and materials
  • Metal clamps (large clothes pin style)
  • Camera
  • Computer and photo editing software

Basic Beginning Professional Photographers Equipment List
  • Sturdy tripod
  • Background stand (two light stands with a pole on top of them is typical)
  • 5 to 10 light stands (at least two Matthews C stands to be used to hold flags)
  • 3 to 6 lights
  • 3-5 softboxes of various sizes
  • Two grid reflectors
  • One beauty dish (if you plan to do fashion or portraits)
  • Folding table for tabletop photography
  • Background paper and materials
  • Carrying cases for location work
  • Various reflectors and diffusers
  • 3-6 flags of various sizes
  • Gels
  • Metal clamps (large clothes pin style)
  • Gaffer tape
  • Cinefoil (matte black aluminum material to modify light)
  • One barndoor
  • 1-3 snoots
  • At least two cameras (what if one fails on an important shoot?)
  • 3 or more lenses (I use a macro, 17mm – 40mm zoom and 24mm to 105mm zoom the most on my Canon DSLR)
  • Textured materials for product photography – stone, bamboo, wood, rocks, art paper
  • Computer and photo editing software

My professional studio is equipped with 14 studio strobes, 16 light stands, 8 softboxes, 50 or more reflectors, 10 flags, etc. I use a Profoto D4 power pack with 4 light heads as my primary studio light, and 4 Profoto mono lights on location. At times I shoot a big enough area on location that I have to take all of my lights - about once a year. I have a battery powered Speedotron system with 2 heads that can produce 1500 watt seconds of light without being plugged in. It is great for shooting in the park or on the beach, or in industrial settings without power. See becoming a professional photographer for more information.

Websites about lighting and photography This is an amazing resource, you could spend weeks here and not cover everything. Great lighting training, but really plugs Photoflex products. Good general photography information.
Books on photographic lighting

The Lighting Cookbook: Foolproof Recipes for Perfect Glamour, Portrait, Still Life and Corporate Photographs (Photography for All Levels: Advanced) by Jenni Bidner and Jen Bidner

Professional Portrait Lighting: Techniques and Images from Master Photographers (Pro Photo Workshop) by Michelle Perkins

Light: Science and Magic: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting by Fil Hunter, Steven Biver, and Paul Fuqua

The Complete Guide to Light & Lighting in Digital Photography (A Lark Photography Book) by Michael Freeman

Posing and Lighting Techniques for Studio Portrait Photography by J. J. Allen
And for advanced photographers one of my favorites

Lighting and the Dramatic Portrait: The Art of Celebrity and Editorial Photography by Michael Grecco

Starting a home studio
How to Start and Operate a Digital Portrait Photography Studio by Lou Jacobs

The Business of Studio Photography: How to Start and Run a Successful Photography Studio by Edward Lilley

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