Studio Lighting And Modifiers
Photography isn’t a cheap pursuit and it’s all too easy to spend a huge amount of money on equipment, but a lot of it will end up being unused unless you buy it for a specific purpose. Before getting out your wallet, think about what you want to achieve with the kit, and only buy what you will definitely need to get started with – you can always add to it later. If you’re going to set up a permanent home studio, it makes sense to get proper studio lights, but if you want more flexibility with regards to your location, it’s probably better to get a set of flash guns instead, which you can use in a similar way to studio kit but which are much more portable.
Studio flash kits are available from just a couple hundred pounds right up to the thousands. All feature the same basic ability to produce a burst of flash at a pre-determined power level, but you’ll get more control, better build quality and additional features if you go for higher-end versions. Studio flash usually comes with modelling lights, which are lower intensity bulbs that stay on throughout the shoot. These can help when you’re deciding where to position the flash heads relative to your subject, as you will get an idea of how the light will fall on their face and body.
A cheaper alternative to studio flash is continuous lighting, which uses daylight-balanced fluorescent bulbs which remain on the whole time. These take some of the guesswork out, as you can see how the lighting will look, but lack the power output of flash, restricting you to higher ISOs, wider apertures and slower shutter speeds.
Do you intend to always shoot at the same location or will you need to move your kit around? Some studio lights pack away into carry cases, so also consider portability if you aren’t going to be always working from the same place. If you plan to be working outdoors, you’ll need battery packs to power your kit, while extension cables almost always come in handy for indoor shoots.
Flash bulbs can stop working without warning, so always take spare ones with you. Avoid moving lights when they’re still hot from use, as this is when they are at their most delicate.
Kits typically include stands for the lights and one or more modifier attachments per light, such as umbrellas or softboxes. These light modifiers subtly alter the quality of light, so choose a kit with the right accessory for your purpose, or be prepared to buy extra attachments. Common light modifiers include:
These are commonly used for close-up portraits as they have a unique combination of soft and hard lighting which can show off makeup really well and make the skin sparkle. However, if your subject has anything less than flawless skin and makeup, then using this accessory will highlight those imperfections.
These ensure that the light doesn’t soften and spread, by keeping it in a narrow, directional beam which is strongest at its centre and weaker at the edges. They enable you to light a specific area of the shot in a more subtle way than is achievable with a snoot.
These are the most popular with portrait photographers, as they produce a soft, diffused light which is very flattering. They can be square or rectangular, and the larger the size the softer the light will be.
These produce a small beam of hard, directional light similar to a spotlight. They are best suited to rimlighting or used as a hair light.
These concentrate the light into a narrow beam, minimising how much gets ‘split’ outside of that beam. They are ideal for lighting backgrounds and hair or as a rim light, but are quite harsh and unflattering for faces.
There are two versions of umbrella modifier; translucent ones, which act as a diffuser and which you can shoot through, facing the light towards the subject; and ones where the light faces away from the subject and is bounced back onto them from a reflective white or silver-lined brolly. White produces a softer light, while silver reflects back a more powerful but harsher light.
Rather than having cables connecting your camera to the lights, a wireless trigger system will give you more freedom of movement and far fewer tripping hazards. Choose between infrared models (which require the receivers to be in line of sight of the triggers) and radio models (which require a clear channel so the signal isn’t obstructed).
Flash guns offer more powerful and flexible lighting than built-in, on-camera flash. If you’re willing to use the flash on manual mode, you won’t need to spend much at all. If you want the camera to set the flash, then you’ll need to invest more in a flash gun which is compatible with your camera model. Either way, the more you spend, the more features and power you get.
If you are planning to use flash guns as an alternative to studio lighting while on location, you may want to invest in more than one, so you can mimic multiple light studio set-ups. If you’re going to use the flash guns off camera you’ll need stands for them so you can position them at the desired height, and wireless transmitters/receivers to trigger them remotely.
It’s also well worth investing in some light modifiers, such as mini softboxes or umbrellas, to improve the quality of the light that falls on your subject, and colour gels so you can match the white balance of the ambient light if you wish (without them, flash guns emit daylight-balanced light). For shoots when space is limited, you can buy a very affordable reflector panel a called Rogue Flashbender, which attaches directly to the head of the flash gun and contains reposition-able rods that allow you to mould the panel into different shapes to suit the lighting effect required. You can add on a diffuser to the panel, which in combination greatly increases the size of the light source and softens its quality, compared to using a flash gun on its own.
When using studio flash, the camera cannot determine the exposure for you, as the lighting will be different when the shot is taken. That’s why you’ll need to use manual mode for studio photography. To help you gauge what the camera settings should be, you can input your chosen ISO into a light meter, and ask your subject to hold the device in front of their chin while you trigger the flash. The light meter will show which combination of shutter speed and aperture will give a correct exposure. If you want to use a different aperture setting, you can increase or decrease the f number using the up and down arrows and the light meter will adjust the recommended shutter speed accordingly.
Enter these settings into the camera and you should get a correct exposure straight away. You’ll only need to take the light meter reading once, unless you change the power settings of the lights or the distance between the subject and the lights.
Light meters can be used in any lighting situation, not just for flash. They are more reliable than your camera’s built-in metering scene, which just measures light reflected from the scene and is easily tricked by high contrast scenes or those with uneven lighting. Because a light meter is held within the scene, it measures the light falling on the subject, enabling you to get more accurate exposures in-camera first time, rather than guessing, adjusting and fixing in post-production.
The price range for these small pieces of kit falls mainly between £20 and £200; however you do get what you pay for in terms of build quality, reliability and extra features, such as the ability to measure ambient light and artificial light at the same time, so the two can be compared and balanced.
What do you want to be visible behind your subject? If shooting on location, you may want to have the environment around you visible. For indoor shoots, you may want a cleaner background, such as a plain white, black or coloured backdrop. You can buy fabric or paper rolls which are made specifically for photography use; the size you’ll require depends on whether you want to be able to capture full length shots as well as close ups, and how many people you want to photograph at any one time.