This was originally published on ‘Couv’ Camera, December 8th, 2016, by Rod Sager
Back in the film days studio lighting was a critical part of making any kind of serious studio stills and certainly a big part of shooting portraits. Modern digital cameras are somewhat adept dealing with difficult and complex natural lighting. The “need” for studio lights has been reduced. Reduced, but not eliminated.
There are many ways to control lighting; reflectors, conditions, location, etc. But studio lighting allows you to control light where you are, when you want, and how you want. Over twenty years ago I bought a small Norman 500 watt studio lighting kit. At the time I had access to a large brick and mortar studio with 6000 watts of lighting and every studio widget your heart could dream up. Thanks Seawood 🙂 But I wanted a little set I could take on location and just have for home. Well, I still have that vintage Norman 500 set. It has to be at least 35 years old because it was already an aged specimen when I bought it. It still does the job and with the modern digital gear I don’t really need a ton of power. I have three heads and of course since it is flash-based I can use my two Canon Speedlites or my old Sunpack 422 for additional lights.
For shooting stills I have always preferred strobes to hot lights, largely due to the “heat” generated by the latter. Video users are locked in to the hot lights of course.
I use a really simple setup for the most part. Crude but effective. A portable Background stand and a few backgrounds. I have a neutral grayish Muslin, a couple of Chroma Key Greens and a few rolls of assorted seamless paper. The little Norman kit or something similar from Speedotron or other quality makes is fine. At least two heads. Light stands and assorted accessories to mount them. Umbrellas or soft boxes to create that dreamy soft light, and I recommend a flash meter as well.
In general two lights facing the subject and a third providing a back light or hair light. Sometimes I like to add a fourth light to cancel the shadows against the background if it is a light background.
The two forward lights are designed as a primary and fill light. The primary light will expose the subject to the level you desire. The fill light generally is going to be anywhere from 1:1 all the way down to 1:3 depending on the mood you wish to create on your subjects features. For a really dramatic and edgy effect, eliminating the fill light is an option. In the photos here, the fill light was 1 stop softer than the main, for a 1:2 ratio. This was intended to maintain soft lighting and minimal shadows but still allow for some depth. Using a 1:1 main to fill ratio can create a flat and two-dimensional looking image. This can be good if you are trying to de-emphasize prominent features or if you are using a shorter focal length lens.
Generally on a full frame camera, 85mm is the shortest focal length I prefer to use for portraits. Again, unless you wish to create some drama in the image. All of these images were shot using the Canon 5d Mk II and a 24-105mm L lens between 85-105mm. The f-stop was around 5.6.
In the digital universe you can get away without having a flash meter. You could just play around with the lights snapping test shots until you get the desired look. I like to use a flash meter. To do this I turn the main light on only and stand in the spot where the model will be. Holding the flash meter up to my face with the meter pointed at the camera I fire the strobe. The flash meter will fire the strobe when you push the button and measure the light. To get the desired f-stop you may move the strobe closer or further from the subject or change the power setting to that particular head. My lighting setup only allows for full and half power so I am limited to a stop without moving the head. Next, the same exercise with the main light off and the fill light on. Now using the power settings for the fill light or by moving the light, you can set the ratio. In the case of the two sample images here, the main light wanted f 5.6, the fill wanted f 4.0. The camera lens was set to 5.6.
The back light or hair light will depend largely on the subject. A blonde in a white blouse will need a soft back light 2-3 stops under the fill light, where as a brunette in a dark blue blouse might have a back light equal to the fill light.
There are two ways to synchronize the strobes. Bear in mind that studio lights are not electronically connected to your camera. There is no automatic or TTL operation here. Your camera will be set on manual with the shutter speed somewhere within the synchronization range. The Canon 5d Mk II can synch with flash up to 1/200th of a second. The slower the shutter speed the more ambient light can effect the photo, for better or worse. Most strobes are color balanced to simulate day light conditions around 6000K. Ambient light indoors is often much cooler and generally mixing color temperatures is a bad thing. A faster synch speed helps in that regard. The 5d mk II has a PC synch connection allowing me to plug it directly into the power pack running the strobes. Some cameras do not have a PC receptacle and one can utilize a hot shoe adapter to achieve the same result; or use a light slave unit. If the latter is used, buy a good quality slave unit. Also the slave is actuated by an on-camera flash, so be sure to set the on-camera flash to a minimal manual setting such as 1/16th or 1/32 power, so it does not upset the lighting balance. Better yet swivel the head of the on-camera flash away from the scene and keep the power pack slightly behind the camera this way the on-camera flash is not involved with the exposure. I prefer a PC cord connection personally.
Strobes can be very harsh light. The reason we use umbrellas and soft boxes is to make the light soft and fluffy. Fluffy? Sure, why not? Ideally we want our light source big and close. Think of a bright sunny day and how harsh all those shadows are. They can wreak havok on your subject’s face. Then think about a cloudy day and how there are almost no shadows at all. The cloud cover acts like a big soft box in the sky. The direct pin point light of the sun is spread out over the whole of the sky softening the harshness of the light. Yes, it is less bright, but the light is fluffy 😉 A flash unit is like the sun on a really small-scale. The umbrella or soft box will make like clouds, and spread the light out, making it deliciously soft. Bear in mind that the bigger the box the softer the light. Also larger umbrellas and soft boxes will “consume” more of your light thus requiring the light to either be close to the subject or a wider f-stop, or more power. Closer to the subject is generally a good thing. The closer the light source is to the model the softer the light will be. Since I am limited to a measly 500 watts, a giant 4 x 6 foot soft box would suck up all the intensity, so I use a more modest 2 x 3 foot box for the main and a 24 inch umbrella for the fill light.
The pictures here had the soft box just about 3-4 feet away from the subject and the fill umbrella was about 4-5 feet away. For these pictures I tried something different and I think over all I like it. I stuck to just the three lights controlled by the power pack. There were no extra strobes. So I used one light to serve three purposes and it almost worked. I mounted the back light up on top of the back ground stand with a 24 inch umbrella. I angled it so it did three things at once. It provided an over the subject hair light which normally I achieve using a slaved Sunpack 422 flash on a boom. It also provided an over the shoulder back light, and it even filled in the shadows cast on the background! The part where it was not as effective was the back ground shadows. It worked a little, but not as well as it could. Since these photos have the background removed it doesn’t really matter. It was a simple three light setup and over all worked pretty decent.
Some photographers like to use a two light setup with one behind the subject and the other in front. Then a reflector is placed opposite the main light to provide fill light. This really helps if shooting in a tight spot as the two lights can be placed on a relatively narrow angle to the subject.
I recommend attending a local camera swap show and take a look at some lighting gear. There is almost always at least one guy with a bunch of lighting at these shows. I know PhotoFair always has a ton of cool lighting gear. Check it out and have fun!