Photographic Studio Lighting

This article is aimed at people who want to learn the basics of studio work. It has no pretensions and isn't intended for the experienced. There are a number of far better resources suitable for people who have progressed beyond the basics.

Being natural with artificial light
Before any of us can even begin to understand studio lighting we have to think about what lighting is, or even to go back a bit further and think about what photography is!

The word photography is from the Greek and means "Drawing with light" and I think that's a pretty good description of what all successful photographers do!

When we use artificial light we are basically drawing with light, and we are normally using the light in a way that makes it look natural.

How many lights?
So how many lights should you use and where should you position them? Well, there's no simple answer to that one, but for most subjects a good starting point is to use just 1 light and to position it in a natural position, where the sun might be in relation to the subject - perhaps fairly high and coming from behind the camera and a bit off centre, perhaps quite a lot off centre. Shades of Rembrandt perhaps? Well, that's pretty simple lighting, but there's nothing wrong with simplicity and if I was as good with my cameras as Rembrandt was with his paintbrushes.... but this can sometimes be a bit over-simplistic, because Rembrandt could 'adjust' the natural shadows to get the effect he wanted, and if we want to do the same then we have to use extra lighting, or to fill in the shadows to make them less obvious. One way of doing this is to place a second light set at less power. If we overdo the power there will be no shadows at all, which can make the lighting very flat and boring or, even worse, we can create a second set of shadows, which makes it look very unnatural - 2 suns!

If you only want to lighten the shadows to a limited extent you can use a reflector board instead of a light, but there is a lot of light loss when you use a reflector because the light from your key light reaches the subject first, goes past it to hit the reflector, bounces off the reflector losing power in the process and then loses more power travelling back to the 'dark side' of your subject, so if you want to use a fairly strong fill light to lighten shadows a lot you will probably need to use a second light. So you need to have 2 lights? Well, 3 would be a lot better, because with many of the best pictures you have backlight or sidelight as well as front lighting, and you may need lighting on the background as well, so having more lights available does help - but don't get carried away and don't just don't use them all just because they're there!

Rembrandt wasn't the only painter to use a single light source, and many very good photographers only use a single light too, especially for portraits. Because most of my shots are fairly complex product shots I often use quite a lot of lighting, but there are many shots on which I have used only one light.

Your subject
So far I've ignored subject matter. The reason for this is, quite simply, that for many shots subject matter simply doesn't matter! The principles of studio lighting hold good whether your subject is a portrait, a commercial still life or almost anything else.

Of course I'm being a bit simplistic really - a still life setup can benefit from a complex and very precise lighting arrangement and it can have it too, after all it isn't going anywhere... but a fashion shoot, which might benefit from equal care, has to have a fairly simple lighting set simply because there is too much subject movement to allow really precise lighting.

Where should you place the lights?
I said that I wouldn't talk about equipment, but equipment can be relevant to this section, and so I think it needs a mention... My pet equipment hate is lighting stands. They're a pretty simple piece of kit, normally a simple tripod with extending sections, on top of which balances (hopefully) an expensive and fragile light head. The problem with lighting stands is that they're never able to go low enough, or high enough, and they always seem to be either too heavy to lift or too light and unstable to take the weight of the light.

How is this relevant to the positioning of your lights? Simple really, most people (especially me) are naturally lazy, and tend to place the lights where the lighting stands will let us place them, in much the same way as tall photographers tend to take most of their photographs from a higher viewpoint than shorter photographers. To make the most of our creativity and our equipment, we need to place the lights where they will work best, even if this means buying extra low or extra high lighting stands, boom arms or anything else that may be needed!

So where SHOULD the lights go? If the key light is placed very close to the camera it will give very flat lighting, just like an on-camera flash, which may not be the effect you want. If you move the light upwards and to the side you will get better modelling - your subject will take on a less 2-dimensional look. Move it even further to the side or further up and the modelling effect increases, but shadows become longer and the need for fill lights becomes more likely. Of course, you don't need to have the key light in front of your subject at all - it could be right at the side of your subject, in which case it will give very strong, directional lighting and will illuminate only a fairly small part of your subject (you can of course use a weaker fill light on the dark parts).

Or the light can be placed immediately behind your subject, illuminating only the background and giving a silhouette effect.... Or it can be behind the subject and bounced off it, giving a halo effect... The 'standard' advice is to place the key light above and to one side of the camera, and this is 'safe' advice because a lighting set-up like this is very unlikely to produce a really bad photo, and for many subjects it can produce a very good one - but the result is unlikely to be very 'different' or creative.

Until fairly recently amateur photographers who don't have the Polaroid film backs needed to assess the effects of creative lighting have tended to play safe with their lighting, but digital cameras have changed all that and we can now afford to experiment with the positioning of our lights as never before!

So where should the lights go? Sorry, but this is for you to learn by experiment. By all means take 'banker' shots, with the lights arranged as suggested by books on lighting, but take experimental shots as well, learn the limitations of your lighting equipment, the flare characteristics of your lens, and the different effects you can get from positioning your lights in non-standard positions. Sorry I can't be more specific but I don't want to provide you with a set formulae for producing standard, boring studio photos.

Hard lighting or soft?
The great thing about using studio lighting is that you have total control over both the direction of the lighting and the effect of it - but what effect do you want, and how do you achieve it? There is a general view that portraits of women should be lit softly, with diffused lighting.

Is that view right? It depends on the subject and on the effect you want to achieve. If your subject is perhaps not young, or has very sharp features, or scars, or poor skin, then soft, diffused lighting will often show her at her best.

The key light at say 45 degrees up and 45 degrees to her best side, with the fill light slightly lower and 45 degrees to the other side, and perhaps 1/2 stop or one stop less brightness than the key light, will help. And a piece of white card held horizontally under the chin will help to kill shadows even more - but what if your subject is young, has perfect skin and wonderful features? You'll get a far more striking shot with just the 1 light and her complexion will stand the close scrutiny caused by the shadows.

And if your subject is a man he may look a bit too 'soft' if the lighting is soft! Another factor to be considered is the film medium - how much contrast can it handle, without losing detail in the highlights and shadows? The lighting contrast will normally need to be less with transparency film or digital than with colour negative, and black & white can handle a very wide range of contrast.

Reflections and highlights
With a portrait the only highlights you'll normally see is the catchlight in the eye and the sheen on the hair caused by a well-positioned hairlight. In theory, there should only be one catchlight in each eye, but that is less important for you if you can doctor your images on computer, and easily remove an unwanted catchlight. Catchlights are a direct reflection of the light that causes them, so if you are using a light with a large square softbox close to your subject then the catchlight will be large and square too. Subject to the need to position your key light in such a way that it suits your subject's features, it's a good idea to position it fairly high. The catchlight will then be high too, and will make the eyes look larger.

Catchlights in still life shots are often seen as a fault, but in my view they are just as important to the shot as shadows - they are an aid to good composition, they attract the eye and they can bring an otherwise dull shot to life provided that they are positioned where you want them to be. And there should be nothing hit or miss about their positioning.

Here is a simple professional tip on how to position your reflections/catchlights on a still life shot:- First, set up your shot properly, make sure that the camera is exactly where you want it to be and that the lighting is where you think it needs to be. Now place a small, naked light source in front of the camera lens, on its exact axis. It doesn't matter how far in front it is, but it does matter that it is exactly in line with the lens. My own preferred light source is a candle. Now walk around the back of your set, you will need to increase and decrease your own height as well as moving left and right. When you can see a reflection of the candle flame exactly where you want it to be you have found the exact position where a light needs to be! To place a reflection at that point, simply position a light in the exact position of your own eyes.

Making the lights hard or soft
And how do you achieve soft or hard lighting anyway? The softness or otherwise of the light depends largely on the size of the light relative to the subject. Any light, placed right up against the subject, will light it softly, and a light a long way away will produce harsh, directional lighting. The sun is a good example of this - it's very big but it is also about 93 million miles away. If there are no clouds the sunlight will be very harsh, simply because the source of the light is very small, in relative terms. But on a cloudy day, with the sun hidden by clouds, the clouds act as a giant diffuser and the whole sky becomes a very soft source of light. To get a similar soft effect in the studio we need either a very large light source fairly close to the subject or a smaller light source VERY close to the subject. We normally achieve a larger light source by using an umbrella or softbox, which simply makes the light bigger, and diffuses the light. And we achieve a smaller light source by restricting the light with an accessory such as barn doors, a snoot or similar, or just by moving the light further away. Moving lights closer or further away can cause some problems though, unless you can adjust the power of your lights over a wide range you may find that you have too much power with the light very close or not enough if it's a long way away.

Camera magazines often advise people to reduce power by moving the light away, but as you see from the above this is poor advice unless you also fit a large softbox to your distant light to increase its relative size and soften its effect. I'm not a cynic of course, but there are some people out there who believe that camera magazines are so terrified of upsetting their advertisers that they won't tell their readers that they need lights that have a wide range of adjustment. People like me however, who think that that can't possibly be true, simply assume that they haven't a clue when it comes to studio lighting! The only real answer is to have lights that have a wide range of adjustment, but you can help matters along by increasing output by using a narrow-angle reflector (which will give a harsher light anyway) and you can reduce power by using neutral density filters in front of the light and/or by using some neutral-coloured cloth in front of it - but a word of warning - don't place any combustible material in front of a source of heat - be sure to switch the modelling light off!

So far, I've briefly mentioned where the lights might be positioned with frontal lighting, but most professional studio shots are either almost completely or very largely backlit. The light comes from behind and adds that something extra to the edges of the subject to 'lift' it from the background. Most product shots are done this way and so are many portraits, especially the hair. Backlighting is very worthwhile, but is slightly more difficult. In particular it is more difficult to adjust the effect and to get the exposure right, but if you are using either digital or polaroids this isn't a problem.

Backlighting also has it's own equipment needs. For a start, you need to make sure that if a light is pointing more or less towards the camera then the light doesn't hit the lens, which will cause flare and ruin the shot. An easy solution is often a honeycomb, or grid, which fits over the front of the light and which shields stray light, preventing it from hitting the lens, unless it is pointed directly at it. There are a number of different honeycomb options available, depending on the field of light spread you need and on the angle at which the light is pointed. Another option is a barn door attachment, simple swivelling doors that fit on to the reflector and stop the light from going where it's not wanted. A cheaper, do it yourself option is a snoot - a piece of stiff black paper, shaped into a cone shape with the larger end fixed to the reflector. All these accessories work, although in slightly different ways.

There are though, two other equipment considerations. If you are backlighting your subject you will usually get better results, with less risk of flare, if you avoid using zoom lenses. The reason for this is that zooms have a large number of elements, and the more elements in the lens the greater the risk of flare caused by stray light. The other bit of kit you really must have is a lens hood. The ones supplied for zoom lenses are often useless because they have to work at the wide end of the zoom without causing vignetting and so are simply too small to be of much use at longer focal lengths. My best lens hood is a bellows type, which can be adjusted to length and even tilted.

Click here for page 2

Garry Edwards is a commercial photographer who also provides training courses in studio photography to both amateur and professional photographers. Please click here for details of his courses (

Return to the Help Centre

Photographic Studio Lighting