Introduction to Studio Lighting

Intro to Studio Lighting

While this can be a detailed and overwhelming subject, when we look at it from a volume photography standpoint, it can be broken down into a few simple elements.  Once you understand these elements, you can simply replicate them (to photograph bigger events) or modify them should the situation change.

Your lighting setup should be identical each time you use it within the same event.  For example, if you use 2 or 3 stations at a school event, all three should be set up and metered exactly the same.  The subject position and camera centering should stay the same throughout the day.  There may be height adjustments as subjects ‘grow’ in height, but the distances, and therefore the light readings, would stay consistent. 

Meter your lights

Since consistency is critical, it’s essential that you meter your light settings to ensure that they are set up and producing the same amount of power on their respective subjects.  In order to do this, you’ll need to use a light meter.  Trying to keep up with the most current version of light meters is an almost impossible task since most manufacturers now update and bring out new models every season or two.  But, if you stick with well know manufacturers like Sekonic (the world leader) and Gossen, you can find a good light meter for around $200.  There are used models available on eBay and other sites, but  you always run a risk with those.  This is one of those “buy a good, solid unit, take care of it, and it will last you years…” situations.  I have some Sekonic L358 units that I’ve had for 10 years and they are still accurate and work solidly. 

Once you have your lights metered, it’s important to use an exposure target to confirm the reading and to compensate if you haven’t tuned that meter to your camera.  Since you can only tune a light meter to one camera, if you are photographing with multiple stations, you’ll get close with the meter, and then use the exposure target to fine tune the settings on Camera 2, 3, and so forth.  By doing this, you can be sure your lighting setups are consistent.  In reviewing the Histogram on your camera, it is possible that a setting is a bit underexposed, but the next setting open is a bit overexposed.  When faced with this situation, choose the underexposed setting.  Use the Price is Right mantra – “Closest to, but without going over!”

Speaking of Lights

Let’s, well, speak of lights.  In our genre of volume photography, we generally use studio strobes that ‘flash’.  Most volume photographers use studio strobes instead of speedlights (the flashes that plug into the hot shoe on your camera.)  They also use strobes opposed to continuous lights that are always on.  Times are changing and we’ll address both speedlight and continuous lights in a later module.  For our purposes here, we’ll assume you have lights, a trigger on your camera, a receiver on each light, and when you push the button on your camera, the lights FIRE with a burst of light.  Fair enough?

 There are a variety of lighting manufacturers that provide everything from super cheap and not worth much up to vastly expensive lights that are overkill for the volume market.  When you are looking to ‘Gear Up’ you should look for a good set of lights that are durable and expected to last 10 years or more.  They need to be durable since volume photographers typically take the studio to the event.  This means you will be transporting, unpacking, setting up, packing back up, and transporting back lights on every job you do.  If you have a cheap plastic set, you may potentially run into quality issues after being banged around for a few seasons.  The newest trend are lights that have battery packs you can purchase and add on to the light.  While this makes Picture Day much cleaner and safer with no cords running all over the place, you will find it makes them more expensive and you will need to make sure the battery duration will last you throughout your picture day.  If not, you’ll need extra battery packs to change out.

Each light comes with power ratings, typically listed as “Watt Seconds”.  This number specifically relates to how much light the light head (strobe) can STORE.  It doesn’t necessarily equate to the amount of light that the strobe sends out.  There are several factors (i.e. unit age, technology used, and modifiers) that make a big difference between their output.  For example, you can go through various reflector cones on your light and get different readings.  Don’t let this confuse or frustrate you.  For your general understanding, just understand that a light that is 600 WS (Watt Seconds) should basically have more potential light output than a 400 WS light with all other factors being equal.  Also, digital lights will be more efficient, meaning you will get more light from a lower WS light if it’s digital.

If you are photographing sports teams outside or in brightly lit gyms etc., then you will find that a 400 WS light probably won’t be bright enough.  Conversely, if you photograph in Daycares and are in smaller situations with the lights down closer to the subjects, a 1600 WS light won’t be able to power down to your usable range.  Bottom line?  You need to look for lights that are in line with your preferred photographic work.   In the smaller spaces, a 300 WS to 500 WS light would be better.  If you photograph groups and need a larger sets, you will need something more powerful.  A general 600 WS to 800 WS would provide you adjustment across more lights.  For each camera station, you will need one to three or four lights depending on the lighting diagram you are following.  The diagram will depend on what type of photography you are doing.  For example, are you photographing against a painted background that will remain the background for the portraits, or are you photographing against a solid green, white, or grey background which will be extracted before a choice of digital backgrounds are applied?

Layouts and Diagrams

We’ve provided for you several example diagrams that will cover a majority of situations of basic volume photography.  Our Arc Reflector Layout, a one-light setup utilizes a curved reflector to clear shadows under the chin and eyes and it’s therefore, known as an Eyelighter or an Arc Reflector.  This is a very beautiful lighting setup and many photographers market this to parents as “Magazine quality portraits…” for their school photography.  Men or women look good under this lighting, and it allows for extractions to utilize the poses with other backgrounds if you prefer. 

Our primary sports (or anything ¾ length) diagram is the Full-Length WHITE/GREEN Layout.  You can use this for headshots, ¾ length portraits and full-length portraits all at the same time.  It can be a well balanced more even lighting, or with adjustments to the side lights, it can be very dramatic for the modern ‘Edgy’ sports or first responder photos.

We’ll continue to research and write out for you various lighting diagrams each month but with only these two layouts, you can photograph probably 80% of volume photography events with only minor adjustments.  Take a look at those lessons and you’ll see the details for each.