When I first started to experiment with controlling the light, I couldn’t afford to splash out on studio gear just to experiment, so I improvised with what I could find around the house, or acquire for only a few dollars. Some improvisations were, let’s just say, less successful than others. But some did produce good results. Some DIY studio lighting I still use, even though I now have a studio setup.
Let’s start with an easy and free lighting method, because free is my favourite price!
Use a table lamp
This shot was taken with a table lamp. Most of us have some sort of lamp around the place. Any kind will do. They come with their own diffuser, the lamp shade, and are easy to move around. You can adjust height with boxes, books, or anything stable you can find. You can experiment with alternative lamp shades as well as different strength, variety, or colour of light bulbs, or the number of lamps you use.
Lamp lighting usually isn’t very bright so you might need a tripod or somewhere solid to put your camera. For the image above I had the model hold the lamp and move it around slowly as I fired away, getting her to go even slower or stop when things were looking good.
For the shot below I put the green glass dish directly on top of a lampshade, in front of an abstract painting. It’s all about experimenting.
While lamps were great, I really wanted to try soft box style lighting, so I had to get a bit more creative. The portrait below of friends and their dog was lit using a large open cardboard box lined with aluminium foil and placed on its side. I then shone a bright halogen work-light into the box, and softened the resulting light with a white sheet held up in front of the setup. Off to the side was a similar setup using a lamp with the shade removed, a smaller foil lined box, and a white pillow case.
It’s not a perfectly lit portrait. I was just starting out with portraiture and it was my first attempt with my DIY softboxes, but the results were encouraging enough for me to keep experimenting.
Try different things – experimentation is key
I went on to using regular white umbrellas, of the rain repelling variety, to diffuse the bright bulbs used for household outdoor lighting. I’ve bounced the light from an array of heavy duty flashlights, into a foil lined rain umbrella, all attached to a tripod with about a million miles worth of gaffer tape. I’ve used metallic cardboard sheets from the newsagent, or foil covered boards as reflectors. There were many experiments, some good, some not so much, and some were surprising.
Basically you just need a light, or two, and something to diffuse or reflect/bounce the light, or both. Preferably without setting fire to anything. Work-lights and other really bright bulbs can get surprisingly hot. It’s best not to have flammable things like sheets or cardboard too close and have something protective underneath if the light is placed on surfaces.
If you are not so keen on lining boxes and hanging sheets, you might like to try light painting.
Apart from the emanating beams of light which were added later in Photoshop, the rest of this image, shot in my kitchen, was lit with only a two dollar LED light from the junk store. This was a complicated shoot, which had to be lit and shot several times, then blended in Photoshop. But you don’t have to go to that extreme. With a bit of experimenting and practice you can light a subject this way in one single shot.
There are many interesting and informative articles about light painting here on dPS. I highly recommend having a browse through them if you’ve never tried it before, but I’ll just run you through the basic idea here.
You’ll need a tripod (or somewhere solid to put your camera), a completely or almost completely dark room and a cheap little flashlight, or LED light. This is what I used for the shot above, a two dollar press button, night light.
A slow shutter speed is necessary to give you time to paint. I usually start off with a shutter speed of about 20 seconds, ISO 400, aperture at roughly f/11. Then adjust from there, depending on the subject and light brightness. Once you are all set up, turn out the lights, shine your flashlight on your subject while looking through viewfinder to get your focus, then click the shutter and start painting your subject with light.
You’ll have to move in close and run your light around only a few inches from the areas you want to light. That means being in front of the lens when the shutter is open, but the camera will only pick up what you shed light on, so as long as you don’t accidentally light yourself up, you won’t show up in the shot.
Try a bit of side lighting, play around with different lengths of exposure time, different light sources. If the light shines directly into the lens, you will get what I call ghost lines, which can be used deliberately as I did in this shot below.
While these methods are obviously not a replacement for studio lighting gear, they are an effective alternative that can produce some surprisingly good results and allow you to take a bit of control over your lighting without forking out more than a few dollars. It’s also very fun and even though I now have a properly equipped studio, I still sometimes love to play around with a simple table lamp or two dollar torch (flashlight).
Feel free to share any photographs you created with DIY lighting setups in the comments, I’d love to see them!