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Using Cheap IKEA Lights For A Photography Shoot That Won't Break The Bank

Learn how you can use inexpensive IKEA lights to capture portraits and still life shots at home.

|  General Photography
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There’s a lot written about spiffy (and costly) new light sources for photography these days. The likes of the Wescott Ice Light staff and the latest camera-top LED devices are wonderful but are they necessary? After all, you can buy a rechargeable, portable LED workman’s light for £30, and IKEA, along with other suppliers, is increasingly offering LED lamps for every use. The wonderful thing is that these are getting brighter as well as more efficient and long-lasting so that they are making our homes nicer to be in.

And, the really good news is that they are also a good source of illumination for photography! As well as the lamps to fit existing sockets, there’s an ever-evolving range of standards, desk lamps and simply quirky devices that you can plug in around the house. So, why not add a little beauty to the home? And, having done that, why not harness the light for a few pictures?

At this stage, I should point out that there are other suppliers of lighting equipment: it’s simply that the IKEA range is a really good and accessible source of very varied, high quality, and reasonably-priced fittings.

One other thing before we start: forget everything they said at the camera club about sticking to ISO100. If you want to work handheld, which is always likely to allow more flexible and free-flowing portraits, you will need to be looking at 3200 or 6400 and wide apertures. Digital noise is not necessarily your enemy – I tend to view it as a positive creative choice, breaking up detail and softening complexions and contrasts.


How Did I Discover Reasonably Priced House Lights Can Be Used For Photography? 

I have realised that my fascination with domestic lighting for pictures dates back to one particular day. I was taking pictures of a model who was also interested in working behind the camera (and this is what she does these days) and talking about the need for elaborate light sources (or not). In a show-off moment, I said that we could shoot a set of pictures using a rather ugly reading light that came, I think, from Habitat 20-odd years ago. I put it on a bedside table, and off we went: ten minutes and 80 frames later, we had a useable set of erotic portraits. Looking at this now, it’s so old-fashioned – designed for an ordinary tungsten bulb in a cheap aluminium reflector: retro in the dated, early Sixties way, rather than the stylish Thirties style.


Using A Miniature Focusing Spotlight

Miniature Focusing Spotlight

IKEA light set-up at home for portrait shoots.


I’m going to begin with the first IKEA light I bought specifically for photographs. Long discontinued, it’s the sort of thing that you may have lying in a cupboard, or find at a car boot sale. It cost under £20 and is a miniature focusing spotlight: it came with a set of lenses, gobos (metal discs with patterns cut in them) and other optical devices.

I have left most of these on one side, but the light itself is screwed to the top of a bookcase in a bedroom, casting dappled light down onto a double bed. It came with screw clamps for fixing, but it’s far more securely attached now: appropriately, to the top of an IKEA bookcase. The gobos are held by screws into a frame, so it would be possible to make more, though the halogen lamp and condenser focusing make it advisable that any DIY replacements are made of metal, not card or plastic!

There doesn’t seem to be anything like it available currently – but then, it’s an ugly little thing. It’s just that the light is wonderful!


'Vikki' captured with the lighting setup above.


Using A Simple Floor Lamp

Duderö and figure (April K)

April K with the Duderö lamp and some digital processing. 


Next in line comes the Duderö – with a name like that, I had to buy one, really. It’s a floor lamp, with a wire-and-tissue construction around a central column and a pair of LED lamps. Still in the range as I write, it’s something that brings a gentle glow to a living room in the evening, and provides a tall source of gentle light that I find makes a wonderful prop for pictures with its feminine curves. Beware, though, of exposures: including the lamp will give a very wide tonal range, and you’d be well-advised to shoot RAW so that you can pull highlights back from whited-out to gentle in processing!


Using A Desk Reading Lamp 

Desk lamp for still life work

Jansjö reading lamp lighting spoons.


Going much smaller, the Jansjö reading lamp (£10 in white, or in trendy bronze it’s £12) offers a way to light very small scale still life (or maybe very close-up portraits…). It has a built-in bulb, a single LED, that is OK for reading – I had an earlier version in 2011 which I used as a bedside lamp for several months, and LEDs keep getting better and brighter.



A reading lamp used to light cutlery. 


Portrait with bedside lamp

The set-up showing how a reading light can also be used for lighting portraits (model: Misuzu).


Portrait lit by a reading light

Misuzu lit by the reading light.


Splash A Bit More Cash

Of course, if you want to go silly, and give your eyes a treat along the way, you can go right to the other end of the market. Ageing eyes in the Duder household mean that we’ve blown rather a lot of money on a pair of ‘Serious Readers’ – British-made lights developed and made to be as elegant and functional as is humanly possible. They actually make switching on and adjusting a reading light a pleasure in itself.


Now Comes The Technical Bit

Irrespective of where the light comes from, there are a few pieces of camerawork that need attention…


White Balance

You will probably want to adjust this after shooting, whether you use AWB (automatic white balance) or a manual setting. Digital copes with some sorts of light, notably tungsten, far better than film ever did, but the sort of lamps I’ve described are not necessarily going to have a colour balance that matches any traditional source. Follow Julia Margaret Cameron’s system for focusing (have a quick Google), and adjust it until it looks beautiful.



Focusing is not going to be absolutely straightforward. If you can select the area the camera uses to focus, make sure that you select a single cell, and place it over the nearer eye of your subject. Depth of field will be minimal (the low light level will mean you are working at a wide aperture), so getting focus spot on is important. If you have an electronic viewfinder, manual focus with that same area magnified may well be most accurate.



Exposure won't be that simple either as you will have light and dark areas, especially if the light itself is in the frame. When the light is so unevenly distributed in the frame, any form of autoexposure will give varying results as you alter the composition. Experimenting in Manual is the best way to do it, starting with what the meter suggests, and then looking carefully at the image you get, and the histogram on the back of the camera. When these are right, so that the subject isn’t either burned out or too dark to see, leave the exposure alone. It’s a common mistake to set the camera to Manual, and adjust it for every shot – the results are the same as on auto, but take longer to get wrong. So long as the subject remains the same distance from the light, the exposure will be constant.

Beware, though, of altering that distance too much. The Inverse Square Law means that moving a light source from one foot to two feet from a face will not halve the light, but cut it to a quarter.

I hope that all of this convinces you that you don’t need to spend a fortune on lighting to get interesting results and that you can, maybe, take some portraits or still life pictures this evening, whatever the weather…


More From John

As well as showing you how you can save money on lighting, John has also written a really useful tutorial on setting up a home studio on a budget for ePHOTOzine - go check it out. 


About Author: John Duder 

John Duder celebrated fifty years since developing his first film at Christmas – on Christmas Day 1967, the only present that mattered was a developing tank and chemicals, so that he was able to develop a negative film in the morning, and process a film for black-and-white slides in the afternoon. He doesn’t remember Christmas dinner – but he was only 14 at the time.

A way of saving money developed, so to speak, into a lifelong obsession.

John still has and uses a darkroom, and specialises in black-and-white images, portraits and nudes. He’s been a member of ePHOTOzine since 2003 and joined the Critique Team a few years ago.

Now retired from his day job, he is keen to share his cumulatively acquired knowledge and experience (CAKE) with others: and who can resist CAKE?

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tonyguitar Plus
7 77 37 Canada
25 Jan 2018 8:31PM
I enjoyed this interesting story and ideas. In the same theme, I discovered $2 to $4 [ one and two pound ], led lights at the dollar store and was pleased with the daylight temperature of these low cost lights. They made a world of difference in macro coin and flower images. I couyldn't believe this surprising bargain. TG
dudler Plus
16 996 1552 England
25 Jan 2018 9:26PM
Yes indeed - LED lights are getting better and cheaper all the time: and are becoming quite wonderful bargains.

I have seen comments suggesting that the colour spectrum is poor, but my results suggest it's fine: the lighting that gives really iffy results - and often catrastophically so with film - is fluorescent. I find it interesting that one of the two lights we bought from Serious Readers uses LEDs, while the other uses a halogen lamp. Both are excellent, in every respect.
tonyguitar Plus
7 77 37 Canada
25 Jan 2018 11:52PM
Here is the Two pound$ led light and I hope you can find them where you live. TG192803_1516924147.jpg

Holding similar led torch in left hand and Pentax Ks2 in right hand.
So easy to get many variations just by moving the light a little. This 24 led array came with 3 AA batteries. TG
tonyguitar Plus
7 77 37 Canada
25 Jan 2018 11:56PM
This one is even brighter but has fewer large leds behind a yellow " sun light " filter.192803_1516924589.jpg

mistere Plus
6 4 3 England
20 Jan 2019 12:03PM
Another very useful article John. Lots of ideas and good advice.
I've purchased some very reasonable (£6) Rolson LED worklights.
They've come in very handy on a quite a few occasions. Small
Light , magnetic and with a couple of power settings. I keep them in my camera bag,
Just in case. SmileSmile

dudler Plus
16 996 1552 England
20 Jan 2019 2:28PM
Now, that's something I haven't yet added to my kit...

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