When you first dive into photography lighting equipment, you’re bound to feel massively overwhelmed. Studio lighting seems complex, it’s full of confusing jargon, and it certainly isn’t designed for the beginner.
But here’s the truth:
While photography lighting might seem complicated, it’s actually pretty easy to get started – assuming you have the right teacher. That’s where this article comes in handy; I aim to share all the photoshoot lighting basics, so that by the time you’re done, you’ll have a strong understanding of both studio lighting equipment and the accompanying vocabulary.
Let’s get started.
Types of light
A studio strobe, sometimes referred to as a monobloc or monolight, is a dedicated flash unit. Strobes generally use cords, though more battery-powered offerings are brought to the market every day. Power output between models can vary greatly; cheaper strobes offer about as much power as cheap, third-party flashguns, while class-leading strobes are some of the strongest lights in the business. For this reason, strobes are the most common studio light used by professionals.
Continuous lights serve the same function as strobes, but they don’t flash. Instead, they are high-powered, constant lamps that can (usually) be fitted with modifiers. While associated with video, continuous lights still have their place in stills photography. LED lights are currently flooding the continuous light market, and many of them are viable options for stills shooters.
Note that continuous lights are sometimes referred to as hotlights – because they tend to get very hot. Be careful with modifiers that sit close to the bulb, as they present a fire hazard. (This does not apply to LED lights.)
Flashguns are small lights that mount on top of your camera. They are highly portable, and some come with reasonably high power outputs. Although flashgun versatility is ultimately limited by size and power output, they are still an extremely useful tool for any photographer interested in off-camera lighting. They’re also less expensive than dedicated studio strobes.
In this section, I discuss lighting roles. In other words, what do different studio lights actually do? How many studio lights do you need? And where do you point them?
The key light is a main light; you use it to create the overall lighting effect. Generally, the key light is the brightest and most prominent light in your scene.
A fill light is positioned in reaction to the key light. It reduces the intensity of shadows created by the key light, thereby decreasing the overall contrast in your scene.
Rim light illuminates your subject from behind, generally with the goal of separating the subject from the background. Often, rim lights are positioned so that only a sliver of light is visible on the sides of your subject.
Background lights point away from the subject to light the background. Not all studio lighting includes background lights, but like rim light, it’s a nice way to create subject-background separation.
Hair lights are used in portrait photography to add emphasis to your subject’s hair. They can also be used to help bring up the exposure of your subject’s head if it is blending into the background.
Ambient light refers to any light present before the addition of your studio lighting. It comes from lights in the room, daylight from a window, cracks above the door, etc.
Modifiers go between the light source and your subject, with the goal of changing the quality or intensity of the light. A modifier might harden the light, it might soften the light, it might reduce the light, or it might create unique lighting patterns.
Umbrellas look like, well, umbrellas, except they’re not designed for rainy-day use. Instead, photography umbrellas come in silver or white and are attached to your light via a mount. By pointing a studio light into the umbrella (which reflects the light back to your subject, as displayed in the photo below), you create a much larger, softer light source. Umbrellas are technically directional, but they can have a lot of spill, and they certainly aren’t the easiest modifier to control.
Umbrellas are your most basic modifier. They are good for soft, diffused light, but they are hard to control.
Translucent umbrellas/shoot-through umbrellas
Translucent umbrellas don’t reflect light like the umbrellas discussed above; instead, they’re made of a diffusion material that softens the light. Simply point your light into the a translucent umbrella to get a beautiful, even result (though with practically zero directionality).
Translucent umbrellas also provide soft light, but they aren’t as directional as softboxes, below.
Softboxes come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Once mounted, a softbox shapes and softens the light to become more flattering. Softboxes also tend to be quite directional, they are easy to control, and they can even be adjusted with additional modifiers (such as grids). Softboxes are highly versatile, so they’re an ultra-popular studio accessory.
Softboxes are the workhorse of the photographic studio, and they come in all shapes and sizes.
Octaboxes are special octagonal softboxes; the rounder result is useful for shaping portrait lighting. Octaboxes tend to be quite large, creating especially soft, flattering light that’s perfect for portrait photography.
Not to be confused with handheld reflectors (discussed below), reflective modifiers mount directly to a studio strobe. They channel the light in a specific angle for very directional light. Reflector light is very hard, and most reflectors are designed to take a variety of grids.
Barn doors are fitted with two to four flaps; these allow you to block and shape the light to create different effects. For instance, barn door flaps can help you focus your light on a specific aspect of your subject (such as the hair), or they can be used to prevent (flag) the light from hitting a certain spot.
Beauty dishes are directional modifiers that sit somewhere between soft and hard light. They are great for beauty photography, fashion photography, and portraiture. They often come with grids and diffusion socks to give you extra options.
Grids are modifiers for your modifiers. You place them on a reflector, softbox, or beauty dish to further narrow the beam of light – to ensure the light is only falling on your subject (or on some other, desired location).
A gobo goes in front of a light source and changes the shape of the light. A gobo might simply narrow the beam, or it might create complex patterns.
(Confused? Imagine a Venetian blind with light streaming through. Now imagine the pattern on the wall. The blind is acting as an effective gobo and shaping the light!)
Gels are colorful, translucent sheets that fit over your light. Thanks to gels, your lights can produce just about any color imaginable (for all sorts of creative effects!).
These are color correction gels, used when you need to correct the color temperature of a given light. For example, if you have a gridded beauty dish that is on the warmer side and you want to use a second, cooler light as a hair light, you’d place a CTO gel over your hair light. That way, you can match and balance the color output of both lights.
Not to be confused with reflective modifiers (above), reflectors allow you to reflect light back onto your subject. They are a way to create fill light without a second dedicated light source. Reflectors come in many shapes and sizes, from the ubiquitous 5-in-1 reflectors to fancy tri-flectors sometimes used in beauty portraits.