STUDIO SHOOTS – Master your lighting setup ~Dave Stabley

Just the thought of “Studio Lighting” setups can make some photographers cringe and back away in fear. There is all the technical “stuff” you need to know to shoot in the studio, like the “inverse square law,” “reciprocity,” and that “angle of incidence/angle of reflection” thing. Then there is all that expensive equipment you NEED to buy, and learn to use, before you can even get started.

Let’s face it, if you just wait for a nice day, not too sunny, not too cloudy, you can grab your model, go outside, find an interesting background and get some beautiful shots. Right?

All you need to do is be patient, and wait for the right weather conditions… hopefully the model will also be available when that occurs. You can wind up with great shots, without the technical hassle, and save a bundle at the same time. What’s wrong with that approach? ANSWER: You give up all control to fate, circumstance, luck. You can’t really control the time of the shoot because you don’t know what the weather is going to be like that day – at that time. Is it going to be sunny, or cloudy and overcast? Is it going to rain? Windy?

If you are a serious photographer, you need to know how to shoot in the studio. Believe me when I tell you this, with a little practice, you will come to love the control you have and the results you get . So let’s start with the simple stuff. The least complicated place to begin, is with a one light set-up. That single light system will provide an endless reservoir of great imagery. Most of you have been shooting with a flash, this will just take that idea to the next level.

In studio lighting, it’s the transition of light to shadow that provides depth, beauty and interest to your photos. Do you want a hard transition with a distinct line and harsh contrast separating the lights and shadows, or do you see it as a soft, gradual melting of the two? This transition zone is what should be the focus of your attention when getting into studio lighting, because you can control it.

The distance your light is from your subject, and the size of the modifier on the light will determine how these shadows change. 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).

Light Source
My favorite light modifier is a Westcott 7 foot Parabolic Umbrella. I recommend using a large light source so that you can light both your subject and your background at the same time. I also recommend using a diffuser on the light source to soften the quality of the light and prevent extreme hot spots on your subject. These Westcott umbrellas produce an incredibly beautiful, soft light, and they are really inexpensive… around $100. Okay, we have picked a light source, now where do we place it?

Light Placement
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 from light to shadow. Ultimately, you should try both scenarios to learn more about how it changes the look of your portrait. A good rule of thumb is to place your light source the same distance away from the subject as the size of the modifier – a 24″ softbox should be about two feet from the subject. For this
seven foot parabolic, start around 5 to 7 feet away and you will find it produces a softer, more diffuse light which 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.

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, or lower.

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 just shoot! Move the light a little to the left or a little to the right. Bring the light farther from 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.

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