Creating Effective DIY Studio Lighting With Household Items

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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

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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.

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Make-shift softbox

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.

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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.

Light painting

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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.

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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.

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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!

Read more from our Cameras & Equipment category

Lea Hawkins is an Australian photographer working mainly in the areas of portraiture, fine art, and for the local press. Her work has been published, exhibited, selected and collected - locally, nationally and internationally, in many forms. All shot with very minimal gear and the photographic philosophy that it's not so much the equipment, but what you do with it. You can see more of her work at www.leahawkins.com

  • This was taken using cookie sheets as reflectors. It still blows my mind! The cardboard box and aluminum foil idea is genius!

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  • Lea Hawkins

    Cookie sheets! Brilliant. As an added bonus, you can bake cookies on them! Thanks for sharing Kristyn.

  • Great article Lea! I totally agree with experimenting. I still have not been able to purchase a lighting source so I have learned to make the best of available light to include what I add. Here is my example of using a kerosene lantern. I also used a postal flat rate box that I cut a 12×12 section out and glued a piece of wax paper over the cut out to diffuse the light a little. Water drop action in my wife’s 9×13 lol, no flash… 90mm, f/2.8, iso 12800 (<— yes no flash very high iso, Lightroom to the rescue, I have a cleaner version of this too) Also I use a car sun visor sometimes as a reflector even though it is a little harsh. One side is silver, the other side is gold.

  • Lea Hawkins

    Thanks Patrick. What a lovely soft light in that shot, your experiments obviously paid off. I hadn’t considered a kerosene lamp before, a little concerned my tendency to knock over things + flammables + a naked flame = setting myself/model/house on fire, but it’s such a lovely looking light I just might risk it!

    Great tip with the car sun visors too.

  • Thank you, Lea. I should definitely say be aware of your placement when working with flames and would not want to read about someone burning their subjects/house/studio. I was fortunate to center mostly on the kitchen counter for this. Experimenting is fun and when I learn the most. I am on a tight budget and am in no rush for lighting yet (forces me to keep the creative thinking flowing).

  • Lea Hawkins

    Really pleased you enjoyed the article Patrick. Wholeheartedly agree with experimenting being fun and where you learn the most. I think if I had started out with all the fancy pants gear, I wouldn’t have got nearly as creative with my photography. It really has nothing to do with gear but what you do with it, as your droplet photograph demonstrates.
    As for burning subjects, so far I’ve only had one person set on fire, but it was on purpose and with a qualified pyrotechnician!

    Thanks again for your input, keep up that experimenting!

  • Justasia Lehmann

    I like to use an elastic and a tissue to soften my speedlight or the on-board flash. An index card is also good for help in bouncing flash and works well on both a speedlight or on-board flash. I have not done it yet, but plan to experiment with different colored fabric instead of tissue over my flash…

  • Kim Martinez Sanders

    Beautiful capture, Patrick! May I ask what the shutter speed was?

  • Thank you, Kim. I feel silly now because I thought I included it up above but did not. This was captured at 1/1000. I wanted to go faster to get that crisp look but was really pushing the noise limits with high iso. I learned a few valuable lessons from this experiment though. When I opened the curtains to let the light in then I was able to get that super crisp look at a faster speed and lower iso but the “mood” was missing. Lea’s article is spot on for keep experimenting and a few of her ideas may come in handy for a couple projects in mind (hopefully, not all my experiments end in success but the knowledge is invaluable).

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  • Lea Hawkins

    Good tips Justasia! I’ve done the tissue thing, but not the coloured cloth. I have used cellophane though. Good luck with your experiments!

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  • absolutely stunning…i’m blown away by all the gorgeousness and sweet details! i’m so glad i stumbled upon your amazing work as well.

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  • Lea Hawkins

    Wow, thanks Taposy! Really glad you like it!

  • Lea Hawkins

    Thank you!

  • Day Tooley

    Using a 50-cent votive from the Dollar Store.

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