Studio Lighting: How to Build a Light Set-up

Studio Lighting: How to Build a Light Set-up

Studio flash photography often appears to be complicated and confusing for the new photographer.  The tangled, twisted mess of light size, power, angle, position, direction, etc… can be daunting to say the least.  Not to mention the need for extra equipment such as backdrops, light stands, modifiers, reflectors and the lights themselves. Wow! Already seems like too much huh? You might find yourself thinking, “I can just use the giant light source in the sky that is available everyday and be done with all this other mangled mess of an armamentarium.”  At times I would not disagree with you, as the natural light from the sun is hard to beat and is in great abundance, however, when I look at how much my understanding of light and shadow has improved from my many unsuccessful studio lighting shoots, the value of learning this sort of lighting is tremendous. And yes I did say “unsuccessful shoots!”

Strangely enough, when I got started with photography, studio lighting was one of the areas in which I was most interested. Not the easiest place to start I can assure you, but  it definitely does not need to be as awkwardly bemusing as it first appears. Now this article is not meant to be a full on detailed description of what lights or modifiers to buy or an in depth scientific analysis of the inverse square law complete with physics equations and Einstein like theorems.  It is more of a reason of why to get started with studio lighting and to break through any mental barriers that might be in your way.  I promise you, once you get your feet a little wet and wild in the studio, you will not only love it, but also find that you have a better eye for light even when you are out at the wee hours of the morning trying to capture that perfectly beautiful sunrise.

To shoot my studio work, I use simple, durable yet economically feasible equipment.  I currently use a set of Alien Bees strobes from Paul C. Buff. There are a lot of other brands of strobes out there, but these have worked well for me and fit within my budget.  Now, you do not necessarily need to use strobes. Westcott has their Spiderlite TD continuous lighting system that also could suffice. Basically any system of lighting can work fine. You could use a couple of lamps with a shower curtain liner to diffuse the light if you want. Don’t get too hung up on the equipment at first, but try to understand how to position and control the lighting to get the desired results.  I am trying not to get pulled into a discussion about equipment, but admittedly some equipment is required. In order to move on, I would recommend getting a good book or two on studio lighting to give you a thorough description of some lighting basics. Two that I have personally found useful are Master Lighting Guide for Portrait Photographers, by Christopher Grey or Basic Studio Lighting: The Photographer’s Complete Guide to Professional Techniques, by Tony Corbell. There was also a nice post here on DPS recently called One Light Portraits: Simple Elegance, by Rick Berk.

Whew! Let’s move on and get into some of the nitty gritty of setting up a studio portrait shoot. Lately, I have been working on some creatively themed portrait shoots as a personal project.  The basics of what you need for a shoot are simple. You need a background and a willing model or subject. This can be a plain wall in your house and a close friend or even some fabric taped to the wall with a bowl of fruit on a table in front of it. My theme was fire, so first I went to the fabric store and found an interesting black/grey charred looking swath. A quick aside, if you want to find some really cool backgrounds in the U.S. go to a fabric store around Halloween and they will have some really great stuff.  Next, I got a hold of a local model, the fabulous Brittney and set-up a time for the shoot. I also hired the amazing Dina Bree Nast a local make-up artist here in Denver, Colorado. I must say, and this is just my own opinion, but if you have never hired a make-up artist for a shoot, you have to try it as the results are spectacular and it will reduce your post-processing time tremendously.

Okay, the date, model, MUA and backdrop were set. Next and most importantly, how do I design the lighting set-up.  A little planning goes a long way with a studio shoot. When you are just getting started you do not want to have to deal with moving a lot of lights around or having your subject face the wrong way and have shadows in places where you do not want them. A sure fire way to avoid this is to first give your subject a stool or a chair to sit on. This will keep them in one place at the same distance and proximity from your lighting set-up and your background. Secondly, stick to one lighting set-up and limit the shoot to it. You want to focus on getting the shot that you want and not be constantly worried about fumbling with the lights. If you are more focused on the lights and everything else going on with the equipment, you will not pay attention to getting a great pose and expression and let’s be honest, the lighting can be less then perfect if you capture the right moment.  Finally, you would like to have an idea of what sort of depth of field at which you would like to shoot. If you want the background slightly blurred go with a wide open aperture of f/2.8-f/4. In my plan for this shot, I chose f/8 as I wanted to capture a bit of the look and texture in the background as I felt it complimented the shot. Additionally, I keep my ISO low which for my Nikon is 200 and my shutter speed I usually leave at 1/125 of a second. Thus, my camera settings are set already and I have not even taken a shot yet.

I always start my lighting set-up with the position and exposure setting of the main light or the one that will be responsible for lighting the subject.  In this shot, I already know I want my aperture around f/8 so that I can capture that background detail. This already let’s me know where I want my main lights exposure to be set. Now, there are two ways to set the main light’s exposure. You can use a light meter or you can wing it by taking some practice shots and checking your histogram and adjusting accordingly. Either way works well even though many people have opinions about one way or the other. Personally, I use a combination of both. So what about position of the light?

To start out with, I think using a glamour or butterfly lighting set-up (named for the shadow pattern created beneath the subjects nose) is very easy and is incredibly flattering for the subject. To achieve butterfly lighting the main light is set directly in front and slightly above the subject with the light angled down toward the subject. As a beginner, having the light directly in front of the subject is useful cause if the subject turns their head one way or the other they will still always be within the range of the main light. I used a 36-inch strip softbox in this set-up placed about 2-3 ft from the subject in the horizontal position to achieve a narrow, soft beam of light that would not spill onto the background very much. Then I took a few shots to see what it looks like.

As you can see with just the main light, the subject is adequately exposed, however, I cannot see the background and the subjects dark hair blends in so much with the background that you cannot see the outline of her hair. What does this tell me? I need to light the background as well as the hair to separate her from the background and gain some depth to the image. Since my theme was fire, I wanted to incorporate some colors that would support the theme. This made me think of reds, oranges and yellows. So to light the background I set a strobe just up off the floor angled up at the background with a standard reflector attached, however, I decided to place a red acetate gel over the light to give a little color to the background and support my theme. To set the power of this light I turned off my main light and took a few practice shots with only the background light on to see how it looked and adjusted the power of the light until I liked the look.

Here you can see with only the background light, I have a nice subtle red glow to the background that also brings out the interesting texture to compliment the fire theme of the shoot. The background light also wrapped around the subject just a little bit, likely bouncing a touch off the white surface of the softbox in front of her, giving a red tinge to the shadows. If I did not want this extra red in the image I could have moved my subject farther form the background, but I liked the effect so I left it alone.

Next, I needed to separate the subject’s  hair from the blending into the background.  I set up an additional light right behind the subject just below her shoulders and directed it with a standard reflector at the back of her head. I decided to add a yellow acetate gel over this light to hopefully give a bit of a fiery glow to the hair. Again I turned out the other lights and I took a few shots to see how it looked and adjusted it as needed.

As you can see, I now have a nice burning glow that highlights the outline of the hair and separates the subject form the background adding some depth to the image. I also get a little more of the yellow light reflecting of the strip softbox and filling in the shadows of the face with a bit of a golden tinge. When I looked back at the photo of the main light by itself I decided that this slight tinge would add some warmth into the shadow area and really compliment the photo. I have to admit this was a happy accident as a result of the light set-up.

Next, I took a few shots of just the background and hair light together to check how the two looked combined.

What do you think? A pretty nice combination that provided the shot with the fiery look I wanted, while also serving to bring out the background and help the subject stand out. To be critical, I was not pleased with the illumination of the subjects right ear, but I figured I could work with angles possibly to make it more subtle. Finally, I turned the main light back on and took a few more shots to see how all three lights looked together. I was very pleased with the result and felt that the little bit of red and yellow that spilled over into the shadows of the subjects face really helped to compliment the look and bring it all together.  At this point the light and camera settings were never touched and all I had to do was shoot and make sure I got the pose and expression I wanted, which when working with someone like the experienced Brittney was super easy. Is the light perfect? Definitely not, but it all comes together to produce a nice unique portrait.

I hope by going through my thought process step-by-step for this shot and by showing the effects of each light separately that it gives you a little insight into working with studio lighting and how you can construct an image one light at a time. Having total control of the lights is a bit scary, but once you start taking some baby steps with it, I promise you it will make all aspects of your photography better. Studio lighting is all about the direction and intensity of light and how it transitions and compliments into shadow. Wait, isn’t that what all photography is about? So go ahead and jump in head first. Inevitably, you will make a lot of mistakes, have many over and underexposed images, and end up with plenty of shots of which you are not proud, however, you will also absolutely get some fantastically, fascinating photos and learn a lot about the the interplay and visualization of light and shadows.  Plus, let’s be honest, don’t we have these same problems with any shoot? Any shot involves the light, background and subject and how we decide to capture and expose the image. Being able to control the light should actually make getting a great capture easier.

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Alex Smith is a photographer and blogger out of Denver, Colorado. He is cofounder of the blog that is dedicated towards making better photography easier for everyone. More of his work can be viewed at

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