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If you’re new to studio lighting, it is easy to get intimidated by the amount of stuff you have to learn. The jargon alone is enough to make your head spin. Fortunately, none of the things you need to be successful in the studio are particularly complicated, there is just a lot of it. The purpose of this article is to serve as a primer to introduce you to some of the most basic studio lighting equipment, and terms you will need to navigate a photography studio.
This is not a comprehensive list, and with new tools and techniques being invented all the time, it could never be.
A little warning: Some of these terms are used differently by different photographers. Others get interchanged with one another. While it can be confusing at times, it’s not necessarily wrong. However, it is useful to know about when you hear someone refer to a flag as a gobo or refer to ambient light as continuous light.
Strobe – A studio strobe is a dedicated flash unit. They can sometimes be referred to as a monobloc or monolight. Usually mains powered, more battery-powered offerings are being brought onto the market all the time. Power output between models can vary greatly, with cheaper strobes offering as much power as a cheap third-party flashgun.
Continuous light/Hotlight – Continuous lights serve the same lighting functions as strobes, but they don’t flash. Instead, they are high-powered lamps that can usually be fitted with modifiers in the same way as strobes. While mostly associated with video, continuous lights still have their place in stills photography. There are a lot of LED lights coming onto the market at the moment, and many of them are viable options.
The hotlight moniker comes from the fact that they tend to get very hot. Be careful with modifiers that sit close to the bulb as they present a fire hazard. This does not apply to LED lights.
Flashgun/speedlight – Flashguns are any small light with a hot shoe mount for placing on top of your camera. They are highly portable, and some come with reasonably high power outputs. Although their versatility is ultimately limited to their size and power output, they are still an extremely useful tool for any photographer interested in off-camera lighting.
Key light – Your key light is the main light with which you are shaping your subject. This will usually be the brightest and most prominent light in your scene.
Fill Light – A fill light reduces the intensity of shadows created by your key light, thereby decreasing the overall contrast in your scene.
Rim light/backlight – Rim lights light your subject from behind to help separate them from the background. Often, rim lights are positioned so that only a sliver of light is visible on the sides of your subject.
Background light – As it says on the tin: background lights light the background.
Hair light – Hair lights are used to add emphasis to your subject’s hair. They can also be used to help bring up the exposure of your subject’s head if it is blending into the background.
Ambient light – This is any light that is present before the addition of any other lighting sources. This could be from lights in the room or daylight from a window or outside.
Umbrellas – Umbrellas usually come in silver or white and can be attached to your strobe via a mount. By firing the strobe into the umbrella (which reflects the light back to your subject), you are creating a much larger light source which creates a softer light. Although mostly directional, umbrellas can have a lot of spill, and they aren’t the easiest modifier to control.
Translucent Umbrellas/Shoot-thru Umbrellas – Translucent umbrellas don’t reflect light, but are instead made of diffusion material which you aim the light through. This softens the light, much in the way of other modifiers, but without the benefit of directionality.
Softboxes – Softboxes come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Once attached to your light, a softbox acts to shape and soften the light so that it is more flattering. Softboxes also tend to be quite directional, and they are easy to control and further modify.
Strip boxes – Strip boxes are softboxes, but they are long narrow rectangles that produce a much narrower beam of light. These are great for lighting a subject from behind for a rim lighting effect.
Octaboxes – Also a type of softbox, an octabox is octagonal in shape. The rounder light source is useful for shaping the light for portraits. Octaboxes also tend to be quite large, making them an ideal modifier for portraits.
Reflectors (the modifier kind) – The reflector is a modifier that goes directly on your strobe. They channel the light in a specific angle for very directional light. They are also a very hard light source. Most are designed to take a variety of grids.
Snoots – Snoots are modifiers that are designed to focus your light in a very narrow beam. They are great for both hair lights and background lights.
Barn doors – Barn doors are fitted with two to four flaps for you to manually adjust the aperture the light is let through. These flaps can help you narrow the focus of your light on a specific aspect of your subject (such as their hair), or they can be used to flag the light from hitting a spot that you don’t want it to.
Beauty dish – Beauty dishes are directional modifiers that are somewhere in between soft and hard light. They are great for beauty photography (hence the name) as well as fashion and portraiture altogether. They often come with grids and diffusion socks to give you even more options in how to use them.
Grids/Honeycombs – Grids are modifiers for your modifiers. Placed on a reflector, or softbox, or beauty dish, they narrow the beam of light further and help to ensure that the light is only falling on your subject (or where you want it to).
Gobo – A gobo is placed in front of a light source to change the shape of the light. This can be as simple as narrowing the beam and be as complicated as creating complex patterns. The easiest way to explain this is to imagine a Venetian blind with light streaming through. Now imagine the pattern on the wall. The blind is acting as an effective gobo and shaping the light.
CTO Gels – Color correction gels are used when you need to correct the color temperature of a given light. For example, if you have a gridded beauty dish that is particularly warm (like mine), and you want to use another light as a hair light, that second light might be very cool compared to your key light. By placing an orange CTO gel on your hair light, you can match and balance the color output of both lights.
Color Gels – You can also use gels towards a creative end. You can gel your lights to produce just about any color that you want to.
Reflectors (the reflective kind) – Reflectors are an important part of any studio kit. These allow you to reflect light from your key light back onto your subject. They are a means of creating a fill light without using a second dedicated light source. Reflectors come in many shapes and sizes, from the ubiquitous 5-in-1 reflectors to fancy tri-flectors sometimes used in beauty portraits.
Diffuser/Scrim – A diffuser is a piece of translucent material that you place in front of a light source to alter the shape of the light or to reduce the intensity of the light. Some diffusers do both.
Flags – Flags are used to block (or flag) light from falling in your scene where you don’t want it to. You can use them to stop excess light falling on your background, or you can use them to reduce the exposure on the parts of your subject that aren’t the focal point. For example, sometimes, I like to use flags to help underexpose everything from the neck down in close portraits. This helps to ensure that the face is the main focus of the image.
Light stands – Simply a stand to hold your light source. Ensure you have one that can hold the weight of your light. A high-powered, dedicated strobe requires a lot more support than a speedlight.
Dolly – A light stand with wheels. Most useful.
Boom arm – A boom arm is a light stand that you can position at any angle between completely vertical and completely horizontal. These are useful to get your lights high up and also to place your light at angles a traditional light stand wouldn’t be able to manage. You can mount different varieties of boom arms to other light stands as well as permanent fixtures like walls.
Reflector Stand – A dedicated stand designed to hold a reflector in place.
Background/backdrop – A backdrop is any surface that you place your subject in front of. These range from paper and vinyl rolls to bare or decorated walls to pieces of painted canvas.
Background stand/support – Any support system designed to hold a backdrop in place. These can be free standing or wall mounted.
Clamps – Clamps and other fastening devices come in all shapes. You can (and should) use these to hold all manner of things in place. Backgrounds, flags, reflectors, gels, and many, many other things need to be held in place. For example, bulldog clips are indispensable for holding canvas backdrops up, whilst double-headed clamps can affix to a table and hold a flag or reflector.
Rails – In bigger studios, you might see lights fixed to fittings on the walls and ceiling. These rails allow you to move your light relatively freely around a space without the hassle of a light stand.
They also help to keep cords out of the way of you and your subjects.
Quality of Light – Quality in this instance refers to the physical characteristics of light. These include shape, intensity, and color.
Lighting pattern – A lighting pattern is a specific technique in which a light is placed in a prescribed manner for predictable and established results. Examples of these include butterfly lighting, Rembrandt lighting, and split lighting.
PC Sync Socket/Cable – The PC sync is a means to connect your camera to a flash with a cable. You can use this option in lieu of triggers.
Triggers – Triggers are devices that allow a camera to communicate with your lights and ensure that your flashes fire while the shutter is open. These range from very basic models with just one function, to complex devices that allow for full control over the settings of multiple lights.
Slave mode – In slave mode, a flash will detect the light from another flash via a sensor and fire. This is great in situations where you have multiple lights, but only one basic trigger.
Mount – A mount is the means in which a modifier is attached to a strobe. A lot of lighting manufacturers have their own proprietary mounts associated with their systems (Bowens, Profoto, Elinchrom, etc.) So you will need to ensure that any modifier that you buy will fit the system that you own.
Modeling light – Many strobes come fitted with two bulbs. One is a flashbulb, where your strobe light comes from, and the other is a modeling bulb that is on whenever the strobe is not flashing. This makes it easy for you to see what the light is doing to your subject. As a bonus, if you’ve cut out all ambient light (like you should in a studio environment), modeling lights give you the ability to see.
While this list is not, and can never be, a complete list of studio lighting equipment, it should serve as a decent primer to get you started in the world of studio photography. If you feel that I’ve missed something important, please add it in the comments below.