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Studio lighting on a budget

Studio lighting on a budget - Despite what some experts say, you don't have to own five studio flash heads to produce high-key lighting.

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Studio Lighting and Flash

Words and pictures Philip Weston


If you want to take ultra modern style portraits with the pure white backgrounds, but think you can't because you only have one studio light think again. Experts may tell you that you need five lights comprising main or key light, fill light, hair light and at least two background lights, and who on earth can afford five studio flashes? The secret lies not in throwing money at the idea, but at flexing the old brain power. The only photographic equipment you'll need in addition to your single light is a meter capable of measuring whatever your light is to within a half f/stop accuracy. Use an ambient light meter if you have a continuous light source or a flash meter if your light is some sort of flashgun.  The only other thing you will need, which can't be home made is a single mirror tile which will cost you about 3 from most DIY centres - and even that isn't actually vital, it just adds the finishing touch.

One plus none makes five...
The aim here is to get the absolute ultimate out of the light you have rather than restricting yourself because you can't afford more equipment. I will show you how to effectively get five light sources out of a single one - better still, from a single one with a bog standard reflector. Like I said, throw some brain power at the matter instead of your flexible friend!

Here's the initial layout. Your subject in front of a white background, a single light source off to one side to give you the classic Loop or Rembrandt lighting depending on how far off camera you place the light.

The photo below shows you the result you will obtain. It's nicely exposed with good flesh tones, clean whites and a sense of three dimensionalism, which you never get with the light source directly above the lens. OK so it's not beautifully lit because the shadows are A) very hard edged and unflattering and B) very dark and lacking in detail.

A single Bowens Esprit with 8' Maxilite reflector placed to left of camera pointing at both subject and background.

Look at the close up below and notice that while the texture and crispness of the jacket are nicely rendered, the shadows on her left cheek are less than ideal and the way the skin is rendered is unlikely to win you any friends. I can assure you that model Annette really does have lustrous hair on both sides of her head, not just her right side - soft, smooth, youthful skin both sides too! You need to do something about the hard edged shadows.

Detail from Picture 1 - note the hard edged shadows which are totally lacking in detail, also the unkind rendering of the skin texture.

The normal way of softening shadows is to diffuse the light - usually with a soft box or umbrella, but here we are going to save on expensive equipment and still get the same effect. Take four garden canes or similar tied together at the ends to make a rectangle and spread a bed sheet over them to form a diffuser. A white cotton one will do and the older and thinner it is, the better. What you are trying to do is cut the directional nature of the light from your single standard light source without losing too much of the volume of light. If you can bear to spend a teensy amount of money then a couple of layers of muslin does the job beautifully, but a thin white bed sheet is perfectly adequate. Even better if it has been washed several times in pure soap flakes as optical whiteners used in some washing powders can give very strange colour casts.

Twiddly bits
You've probably guessed that we are going to place this diffuser screen between the light source and the subject. However, what we're going to do is place it so that although light falling on the subject passes through the diffuser, light falling on the background doesn't.

The diagram below illustrates the point. The effect of doing this is that the light on the subject is diminished while that on the background stays the same.

An the image below shows what happens. The subject is now underexposed. Adjust the exposure so that the subject is correctly rendered and the background will become lighter as if by magic.

With the diffuser in place between subject and light, but NOT between background and light, the background remains the same density but the subject is now very underexposed.

At this point you will have to make some adjustments of the relative positions of light, diffuser and subject because what you want is a situation where the background is 2.5 f/stops brighter than the subject. If your meter will allow you to do this, the very best way is to take a reflected light reading of the background and an incident reading of the subject. The reason for this is that the reflected reading takes into account the colour of the background while the incident reading of the subject is independent of colour and reflectivity. Achieving this 2.5 f/stop difference means that when you set the correct exposure for the subject, the background is rendered 2.5 f/stops brighter.
   If your meter does not allow you to take reflected light readings, use it in incident mode, both at the background position and at the subject position and adjust diffuser and light until you get the same reading at both positions. If you can only take reflected readings use the meter directly at the background, onto an 18 percent grey card at the subject position and aim for the same reading at each position. Starting with a white(ish) background, you will now have a true white background for your images. In the photographs here, I have deliberately left creases in the background so that you can check that nothing has been fiddled afterwards.

Correcting the exposure on the subject by opening the camera aperture 2.5 f/stops also brightens the background. Notice the creases are still visible as in the earlier photos.

When initially positioning your light, keep as much distance as reasonably possible between it and the background to minimise the amount of fall-off from one side to the other. It then becomes a matter of moving the subject and the diffuser panel until you get that 2.5 f/stop difference between subject and background. Don't expect it to work right in the first position.

Bouncy, bouncy
OK, we have our main light and our background properly lit, but the side of the subject nearest the camera is still rather dark - this is easily rectified. Just as raw light is spilling past the far edge of the diffuser panel onto the background, it's also spilling past the front edge. All you need is a simple reflector. Because it is raw light that we are bouncing, the reflector doesn't need to be a high efficiency surface so no need to buy a special silver Lastolite or equivalent. In fact that would be counter-productive because the bounced light would be harsher than that passing through the diffuser. Effectively, if you use a high efficiency reflector you would change the lighting from short lit where the nose shadow comes towards the camera to broad light where it goes away from the camera and the result would be less three dimensional. Either a double layer of bed sheet over four more garden canes or a sheet of white hardboard placed to bounce this light back onto the subject will fill in the shadow areas nicely.

This illustration shows this positioning

Mirror, mirror on the wall...
... but it's easier if you have it on a light stand. Up to this moment, we have achieved the effect of two background lights, the main or key light and the fill light all from a single light source. Piece de resistance time - let's have a hairlight. Remember that old mirror tile we acquired? If we position that diagonally across the set from the light source, we can catch the raw light spilling over the top of the diffuser and bounce it back onto the subject's hair. Because the light is travelling so much further, it's diminished in volume and a high efficiency reflector is needed to kick sufficient back onto the subject. Hence the mirror tile.

Bowens Esprit 125 fitted with honeycomb grid so no direct light reaches the camera. On the right, a mirror tile fixed to a light stand with a Photoflex expansion clamp reflects the light back into the lens. Applying the same principle to the lighting arrangement here gives us a free hairlight.

As a final touch let's add a spot of colour to the hairlight by placing a filter over the mirror. This can be anything you like, transparent coloured candy wrappers taped together, whatever. As long as it is transparent and coloured you can use if. Do be very aware that light is passing through this filter twice; once on its way towards the mirror surface and again on its way out to the subject. Use something too deeply coloured and you'll get little effect at the subject.

This diagram shows positioning of the mirror tile

On the left, hairlight obtained by bouncing raw spill light back onto the hair with a mirror tile. On the right, a pale straw coloured filter was placed over the mirror surface to give a more pleasing effect. Because light passes through the filter twice, the effect is doubled.

With the background pulled taut to eliminate the creases and clipped to the support stands, the finished image still only uses a single light source.

And that's all there is to it we have saved the cost of four lights, three stands (ideally you need a spare one for the mirror tile to save ages trying to balance it) and a load of aggravation. Best of all is the fact that because you have only used a single light source, there is no possibility of more than one set of shadows and no way that you can get the secondary 'light' more powerful than the main light. All it needs is a bit of thought and a small amount of juggling. Need more studio space? No you don't, all the pictures here were taken in my perfectly ordinary smallish modern living room. Go for it!

If you are using a cloth background (mine was a piece of 108 inch wide calico from the local haberdashers which I bleached), don't forget to iron it! It's deadly boring, but essential unless you are illustrating the point that additional lights haven't been used!


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excellent / i will give it a try


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Fentastic!!!! Great piece of work...I'll try

lots of Chinese readers love this artical!! Thanks for sharing!

do you mind if I translate this artical into Chinese and link to my blog www.dest1ned.cn, which is a non-profit personal small blog . and of course I will note the origin at the first begaining. Please send me (bryan78128 at gmail.com) or reply my reply here if you don't mind, or you do. Thanks in advanced!

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