Saturday, March 04, 2006

Basic Studio Lights

First, I'd like to thank Walter Matthews for pointing out that I forgot to mention mirror lock-up as another option to consider for low-light shooting. It really is a good way to eliminate the mirror-induced vibration which can affect shots at slow shutter speeds.

Next, I'd like to give some basic information on studio lighting. With the advent of digital photography and the instant feedback it provides, I think more and more people want to try taking studio photos in the comfort and convenience of their own home. Where such undertakings fail is in the lighting technique--a camera's built-in flash or even a flash in a hot shoe gives terrible lighting and/or distracting shadows. Personally, I generally find a side-shadow the mark of a amateur using flash, unless that's what the photographer deliberately intended.

At the very low end, one of the best things a photographer can do when doing portraits with only a simple hotshoe flash is to get a flash bracket and connecting cord. The bracket raises the flash and centers the flash with the lens when the camera is in "portrait" orientation (i.e. the camera is turned sideways). This isn't an option for point and shoot cameras though.

More expensive, but nevertheless excellent options include:
  • Continuous lighting solutions--these are lights which are always lit, sometimes called "hot lamps" and include a variety of light types like fluorescents, incandescent bulbs (think: household light bulbs), halogen bulbs, and other high intensity lamps.
  • Monolights--these lights combine a powerful strobe flash with a powerpack into one unit, often with a modeling lamp to help gauge how the flash will cause shadows or interact with other lights.
  • Power Packs and flash heads--these are lights which are connected via a cable to a central power pack, and can be quite powerful depending upon the powerpack.

There are advantages and disadvantages to each of these lighting types. Continuous lights can get pretty hot and they are generally not daylight color balanced, which means you have to do a custom balance. However, you can get continuous lights fairly cheaply if you have a very tight budget--see this website, for example:

Monolights are more expensive. Avoid eBay cheapies like the Britek. I have a set and I burned out one of the monolights in about 6 months. It actually caught fire during a shoot. If you need an inexpensive, reliable monolight try

For powerpack units, a good place to start is with Novatron.

The latest things I've seen involve whole panels which can act like flashes or continuous lighting using compact fluorescent bulbs instead of hot lamps.

And when you get your studio lights, you also need to think about light modifiers--ways to soften, concentrate, or alter light to meet your needs and intentions. That's a whole new topic by itself, but generally to start off with your choices will involve umbrellas, softboxes, barndoors, and/or grids/snoots. If you're just starting off, umbrellas are a cheap and easy way to learn, and you can add the other items later as you get more experience and more money.


At 5:50 PM, Anonymous Mark Abraham said...

Nice Job... another great source of inspiration for studio lighting setups can be found on the Fred Miranda Lighting Forum.. a fantastic thread follows, be prepared to spend a few hours reading through it.


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