Studio Lighting 101

studio photography
Fabian Frey

A studio is a room where a photographer, painter, sculptor, or any other artist works. Lighting can be defined as the equipment in a studio used to produce light and shine on the subject. Put the two together and you have studio lighting.

While using natural light can be more than enough in some scenarios, more often than not you’re going to find yourself wanting proper lighting for your photographs.

Especially when it comes to portrait or product photography. Finding the right light to illuminate your subjects can be challenging and expensive.

Here’s a quick guide to understanding light, and to building your own studio with perfect lighting.

Guide To Studio Lighting

Lighting a subject is not as simple as simply shining your flashlight at them. There’s different types of light and different way to distribute light.

Soft light vs Hard light.

Soft light comes from a more diffused, further away, less direct light source. It blends or blemishes imperfections on skin.

It can be produced from a cloudy day, sunlight shining through a white window curtain, bouncing a hard light off a reflector disk or by diffusing it with a soft box. It’s less dramatic than hard light, but also more forgiving on a model.

Hard light comes from bright, close up, direct lights that cast strong, definitive shadows on your subject. Such sources of hard light include the sun on a bright sunny day, a spotlight, a flashlight, or a direct flash straight from your camera.

Hard light tends to show more imperfections if used incorrectly. When handled properly it can be used to increase contrast and drama in a portrait.

Temperature and White Balance

Understanding temperature and white balance is crucial to setting up your studio lighting.

White balance is the method of removing false color casts. This way an object that appears white in person will also appear white in the photo. In order to achieve the correct white balance you need to have the proper color temperature in your lighting.

Color temperature is measured in Kelvin and varies depending on your source of light. For a lighting studio you will want to find fluorescent light bulbs that range around the 3000K mark.

Diffusing Light

In order to make light more soft and less bright you are going to want to diffuse it using items such as softboxes, umbrellas, or reflector disks.

A soft box is a photographic device to diffuse light.  It consists of a light source inside of the soft box with a reflective surface on the back and a diffusing material, typically white in color, on the front.  

The light can either be a continuous light or flash activated. The diffuser will prevent hard shadows from forming on your subject and blinding them.

Umbrellas properly light your subject by giving you a broader throw of light. There are two types of umbrellas: reflective and shoot through.

Reflective umbrellas have a shiny interior that bounces the light back onto your subject for a softer light. Shoot through umbrellas diffuse the flash or light source that is pointed at your subject to make the light not as intense.

Reflector disks are used to bounce the light off a surface so as to not hit the subject directly. If a light is too strong it can often be beneficial to bounce it off another surface to reduce its intensity.

Lighting kits

Now that you’ve got a basic understanding of what it takes to properly light your subject, you need to find the proper gear to set it up. Luckily online sites like Adorama, Amazon, or B&H Photo already have lighting kits available to make the process easier.

Here’s a list of affordable and useful lighting kits out there now.

  1. LimoStudio Portrait Studio Continuous Lighting Kit LMS103
  1. Linco Lincostore 2000 Watt Photo Studio Lighting Kit
  1. Fovitec StudioPRO – 3x 20″x28″ Softbox Lighting Kit

Setting Up Your Lights

Now that you have a general idea on lighting and you’ve decided which lighting kit you are gonna buy you are probably wondering how to set it all up and why is it that most kits come with three lights?

Most lighting kits come with three separate lights because of what is known as the 3 point lighting technique. Essentially the technique uses three lights; the key light, fill light and back light.

The key light is the main light shining on your subject. It is usually to one side of the camera illuminating the side of the subject you are trying to capture and creating some shadow on the other side.

Illuminating Your Subject

The fill light is on the other side of the camera and is much softer and less bright than the key light.

Its main purpose is to remove any harsh shadows produced by the key light. The softer light happens by placing it a little further back or further diffusing the light.

The back light illuminates your subject from the rear. The main purpose of this light is to add some definition to your subjects outline and separate the subject from the background.

If you only have two lights try to focus on setting one up as the key and the other as your back light or fill light depending on the results you are looking for.

If you only have one light at the moment make it your key light and use other light sources to achieve the look you like.

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