A FEW THOUGHTS ON STUDIO LIGHTING – DIRK BOSHOFF
The purpose of a having a studio is to provide a space in which you can control lighting and environment. I think it is this control that I enjoy the most. As all the variables are in your control, the success (and possibly failure) of a shoot lies with your skill and creativity, not outside factors beyond your control or manipulation. If you would like to explore the wonderful world of studio photography then why not consider enrolling for our Studio Photography Course?
On the lighting side, your studio photography should be aimed at the management of contrast through the interplay between highlight/mid-tone/shadow. This management process determines the mood, three-dimensional perception of the subject and its texture. This is the main advantage of woking in a studio. The dominant disadvantage of studio photography is the restriction of background and environment, and by implication; the context of the subject. Many people starting out with studio tend to work with simple, single tone backgrounds with few props and sets, as these tend to get expensive. After a while the images become static and agonisingly similar if you don’t actively aim to make every shoot different.
Space is the biggest factor when considering setting up a studio. This space is directly related to the type of subject you are photographing. When assessing a room for its potential as a studio, consider the focal length of the lens you will be often using as this determines the angle of view. This angle of view will determine the size of backdrops and your distance to the subject. In portraiture and fashion, the length of the studio will determine if you can shoot full-length shots with a standard-telephoto. In commercial, table-top type photography a squarer room is often better as it allows working space around the subject to position lights.
A higher ceiling also assists with top-lighting and lower angle shots. With regard to lighting, I suggest rather more lower watt-second lights rather than one or two very powerful lights. As flash exposure is controlled with aperture, very powerful lights will have the effect of always restricting you to deep depth of field. Powerful work lights to assist with focusing, radio triggers to eliminate excess cables and lots of plug points are essential. As the purpose of studio lights is to carefully manipulate lighting direction, quality and fall-off; accessories such as honeycombs, beauty-dishes, poly-boards, flags, barn-doors and lots of extra stands are extremely useful. Variety is the spice of lights.
A temporary studio in the garage using a few lights and a cloth or vinyl backdrop is a great place to start off. I believe that with a creative approach and a bit of ingenuity, almost anything can be done in a garage studio. I have used my garage and lounge more than once for an impromptu shoot.
If there are windows in the space you have chosen, get some black cloth and screen it off. Often too much ambient light can restrict you creatively. If you don’t have studio lights, using a few speed-lights and diffuser cloth can supplement for your lighting set-ups. As there are no modeling lamps, a bit of trial and error is required, but light is light, you just have to manage it. If you only have window light available, then a reflector and diffuser. Skill and a bit of experience are far more useful than piles of gear.
This food image was taken on a beach at Marlin Lodge in Mozambique, but lit with three SB800’s and a few diffusers
As an image is made up of only two things; colour and contrast, the control of these two factors is paramount. Much of this can be done through good lighting, meaning that the camera you have is good enough to start with.
The common practice is to set your white balance to flash, picture style to neutral and a shutter speed that is a little below the maximum sync speed (somewhere around 1/125th). I find this a good place to start, but a little narrow-minded. Experiment with different colour temperatures and their respective colour shifts and picture styles that manipulate colour and contrast. The one common practice I would whole-heartedly agree with is to shoot RAW as this will allow you to manage these effects in post more carefully. The greatest potential that studio lights offer with regard to colour is when the flash is used in combination with the modelling lamp to manipulate colour in localised areas of your image.
With regard to lenses, I love my 24-70mm f2.8 as it is versatile, fast, sharp and with very acceptable distortion. The one aspect that many people starting out in photography fail to appreciate with regard to lenses, is the contrast and colour rendition that a particular lens delivers. My 24/70 delivers both of these in bucket-loads.
I don’t believe in a particular set-up when it comes to lighting, I prefer that for every subject there is a lighting set-up that works with the subject. To learn a range of set-ups will always restrict you to those. A far better philosophy is to learn all there is about light, its subtleties and behaviour and then make your own lighting set-ups that suit the subjects you are photographing. I have photographed with everything from a small torch, through studio lights all the may up to a 10 000 watt light that I built myself. It just depends on what you need. There are a few basic set-ups that work well for me and I will often use them to start with in a shoot. I suggest a Key/kicker set-up on your subject and try and light your subject independently from your background as often as possible as this will allow you far more control in both colour and luminance between your background/foreground.
With the progressive merging of video (continuous light) and photography (continuous light and flash), much of the terminology has become a bit muddied, depending on whom you speak to. In continuous lighting you find Tungsten Fresnels, blondes and Redheads that are all hot (physically and in colour temperature), HMI’s that run warm but are white through most of the spectrum, Fluorescents (both normal and high frequency, flicker free units) that have a range of colour temperatures and LED panels which are cool and also mostly white through most of the spectrum. With incandescent lighting, much of the electromagnetic radiation is released in the form of heat and are very poor in a lumens/consumption ratio, whereas LED and HMI lights radiate mostly just light, meaning their consumption is far better for the amount of light they produce.
In a strictly studio sense, available light in the form of sunlight can be either an aid or a hindrance. When working with flash and flash is being used as the dominant light source, it is sometimes difficult to asses where exactly the flash will fall as the modelling lamps in the flash are being overpowered. This makes flash positioning and ratios more difficult to judge, particularly if you don’t have a handheld lightmeter. Added to this is the fact that too much ambient light may limit your lighting styles and flatten out contrast. A studio that cannot be darkened off may also restrict you with other creative options such as painting with light or slower shutter speeds combined with flash. Inversely, having available light can assist with many shoots, particularly if you are working with continuous light.
I think the greatest challenge is to make the images unique and different from shoot to shoot. You can quickly get stuck in a rut and many of the shots start looking the same, but for the content. I like taking simple portraits of people that are uncomplicated by props and accessories…that’s a challenge.
Keep it simple. If you can use just one light, then shoot with just one. With every light you add, you need to manage the ratio of brightness between the lights, often flattening the contrast if not used correctly. If you feel you need more than one, add a light, but one at a time.