Working with studio lights can be a daunting process for many photographers. Many find the studio to be a place of fear and anxiety where the sanctity of natural light has vacated and the hauntingly, horrific wasteland of light stands, strobes and modifiers is all that remains.
So how does one meander there way through this alien landscape and find a corridor of comfort in which they can relax? The simplest and often most powerful way to navigate this network of nerves is with a go to one light set-up that will provide a never ending reservoir of great imagery.
Early on when I started shooting with studio lighting, I was always overly concerned with the light. Sounds like a strange comment, huh? You must be thinking, “Of course he should be concerned with the light, it is studio lighting.” As intuitive as that thought might sound, I was always so focused on my light source that what I never paid attention to was the shadows created by the light.
In studio lighting, it is the transition of light to shadow that provides depth, beauty and interest to your photos.
Is this a hard transition with a distinct line and harsh contrast separating the two? Or is it a soft, gradual melting of the light into the shadow? This transition zone is what should be the focus of your attention when getting into studio lighting.
How do these shadows change with a large, soft light close to your subject or a small, harsh light placed several feet from your subject? These are concepts that need to be experimented with and understood and the best way to do it is to practice.
So let’s go ahead and give you a place to get started and begin to nurture your studio skills.
Keep it Simple
The best way to get started with studio lights is to keep it simple. This means one light and one light only.
That way if you don’t like what you see while you are shooting, you only need to adjust, move, or tweak one thing. You will not be fiddling around with everything and getting lost in the set-up. You will be able to keep your attention on your subject and the shoot. Also, use a large, diffuse light modifier that throws light like a hand grenade at your subject such as a shoot through umbrella (no smaller than 36 inches).
My favorite go to light modifier for these cases is a Westcott 5 foot Octabox. I recommend using a large light source so that you can light both your subject and your background at the same time. Also, I recommend a diffused light source to soften the quality of the light and prevent extreme hot spots on your subject. Make it big, cause really, its okay if the light seems to go everywhere when you are starting out.
Okay, we have picked a light source, now where do we place it?
Without getting into too much physics, basically the closer the light source is to your subject the softer the light will be, giving you a nice gradual transition from light to shadow.
Subsequently, the farther the light source is from your subject, the more harsh the light gets and you get a harder transition form light to shadow.
Ultimately, you should try both scenarios to learn more about how it changes the look of your portrait. To start with, however, I recommend keeping the light source within three feet of your subject as a softer, more diffuse light is more flattering to your subject.
Also, in terms of light direction, you cannot go wrong with a traditional loop lighting pattern (named for the shadow created by the nose on the cheek) where the light is placed at roughly a 45 degree angle to the side and a 45 degree angle above your subject.
Here is a basic diagram of a simple set-up I frequently use.
Think Before You Shoot
Now before you set the power on your lights, think about what you want the portrait to look like and what sort of depth of field you will need.
If it s a simple head shot and you want a nice shallow depth of field with the eyes in focus and the rest of the photo gently blurring into a beautiful bokeh, then choose a wide open aperture of f/4.0.
If you have props and other elements in the portrait that you need in focus, then choose a smaller aperture and a broader depth of field of f/11. ISO should be set as low as possible to prevent noise. Shutter speed is not much of a factor with studio strobes as the flash is illuminating everything, so I would keep it set just below your sync speed at something like 1/160 sec. Thus, let the aperture you want dictate the shot.
Now, you can either adjust the power of the strobe till it reaches the proper exposure for your shot, or if you want to get even more detailed you can go ahead and use a light meter to set the strobe at the exact aperture you require.
Experiment and Learn
Now go to town! Shoot away! Move the light a little to the left or a little to the right. Bring the light farther form the subject or so close it is almost touching the subject. Experiment and learn. Stop worrying about making mistakes. That is how we learn and get better.
What is the worst that can happen? We get a series of horrible captures?
I do not know about you, but as a photographer I have had plenty of shoots that have been disappointing. Big deal!
Study the bad shots to figure out what went wrong and try again. Learn to embrace your mistakes and I promise you that improvement is not far away.