Inexpensive Studio Lighting


Starting out in photography can be an expensive proposition. The cost of a camera, lenses, backgrounds and props can add up to thousands, even tens of thousands, of dollars. There are ways to minimize these costs while achieving the goal of high quality images. This article will focus on inexpensive lighting for portrait photographers.

As I stated in my last article, I am a minimalist. In most situations I use one main light in my studio, occasionally adding a hair light or a backlight as needed. A beginning photographer can set up an inexpensive studio using only one main light, a large soft box, two stands, a couple alligator clips and a reflector.

The most important aspect of your studio lighting setup is the main lamp. Choose a lamp that has enough power to fill your studio subject even in difficult conditions. The odds are good that you may also take this light with you when you shoot a wedding or other event. Having more power than you need for studio work will make your equipment more valuable. A monolight is also very effective, which is a strobe with a built in power supply, enabling the flexibility to plugin to a regular household outlet. Using a monolight is not only convenient but also cost effective, as you do not have to purchase a separate power supply. I recommend purchasing a light that is 440 WS or more, like the Britek HS2000. In most conditions I shoot with it on half power but I have used the higher setting when shooting weddings. I have not had any problem with vignetteing (dark outer edges) even in large groups photographed in very large rooms, like church sanctuaries. The 660 WS lights by White Lightning are also great, but they do cost more. In a small studio I’d put my money into the Briteks or another inexpensive brand. You do need to be slightly more careful with the lower priced strobes, but in general are made of less resilient materials.

In addition to the main lamp, you will need a soft box to diffuse the light. I prefer a soft box to an umbrella because the diffusion of the light removes the need for a backlight that would traditionally remove harsh shadows from the background. This also produces the look of a softer light source. Soft boxes come in many sizes, but I personally prefer a large one. Anything larger than four feet by three feet is very effective for both group and close up photography. I use an octagonal soft box that is five feet in diameter, as it produces a high quality source.

There will be situations where you will want to add directional light. One common situation is photographing a dark haired subject on a dark background. In this case you would want to add a hair light or fill flash. A reflector is a cost effective alternative to a fill flash, which can be purchased from any photo supplier. For ease of use I prefer a 36” to a 48” reflector, or can substitute white foam core board (available at any craft or office store). Hanging black foam core board on a stand also makes a great light blocking material.

To set up your new lighting equipment you will need light stands. Lights with soft boxes are heavy so it is a good idea to get a sturdy light stand that will rise to at least 10 feet. I set my light at about ten feet and shoot from directly under it. I like to add casters to the bottom of my stand for easy re-positioning and quick changes when I decide to shoot with Rembrandt style lighting. For safety, use a sandbag at the bottom. Light stands are top heavy and fall over easily. Your second stand can be smaller, and a six-foot stand will hold a reflector well. Although it’s not completely necessary it is much easier to attach a reflector to a stand with an arm. You can purchase one or take a five-foot long by one-inch diameter dowel and drill a hole in the middle of it. Put this on top of your stand and use a regular nut to secure it. This should cost about $5.00, and gives you a much more stable platform to hang your reflector from. I use common alligator clips from the hardware store to hang my reflector.

When shopping for lighting there are a lot of options. I have been very successful finding low cost and effective lighting on E-bay. You will also be able to find kits that reduce the individual cost and may give you an extra fill light or accessory. Look in your local paper or camera shops for used equipment, too. In general, plan to spend about $100 for your light and another $100 for the soft box. The rest of the equipment should be readily available for $200. So, a $400 lighting budget for your initial studio set up is reasonable.

OCmodshop’s photo journalist, Laura Hunter, is a professional photographer who has owned a portrait studio for the past eleven years. Laura holds a masters degree in photography and travels internationally as a profesional photographer. Laura writes articles for beginners and hobbyists hoping to further their skills. Laura also works part time as a model and actress.
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