Studio Lighting Essentials

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Tiffany Mueller is a professional music and fine art photographer. She has been published in multiple publications including magazines, art journals, and various photography books. She blogs at Life Is Unabridged.

Filling a studio with loads of gear can be a costly and time consuming adventure. While the amount of toys and gadgets available on todays market is beyond what most photographers will ever need, it’s still a lot of fun experimenting with them. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that a photographers gear is not what gives him talent. Many excellent photographs have been taken using just minimal gear. So, before you rush out to buy all kinds of new equipment, let’s first take a look at a few studio lighting essentials.

Lights – The age old question: Strobes or continuous lights? The answer will vary greatly and is seemingly widely based on personal preference. A strobe light, will only emit a burst of light when it is triggered to do so, usually by the camera it is synced with; whereas continuous light will emit light without hesitation until you physically turn it off, much like any household lamp. Continuous lights come in hot and cool varieties, the difference being one can get scorching hot and make for some really unhappy models and the other stays cool to the touch while delivering an unwavering supply of light. For obvious reasons, cool continuous lighting has the advantage.

Hot or cool, continuous lighting is nice because you can see immediate results of your lighting pattern, since the lights are always going. That being said, many newer strobes are being made with a “modeling light” which will temporarily give you the same benefit. Strobes and flashes will also give you a greater degree of control of light output over continuous lighting.

When choosing strobes, buy a high wattage variety. It’s impossible to make a low wattage light brighter, but fairly easy to stop down a high wattage one. Whether you prefer strobes or continuous, it’s pretty important to provide the lights with heavy duty, solid stands. Lighting is expensive, a good stand will help protect your investment from falls. You may even consider using sand bags to weigh them down.

Light Meter- Photographers seem to hold very strong opinions on certain types of gear and light meters are the subjects of many heated debates. Some argue that light meters are becoming more and more obsolete as the days of shooting on film are quickly receding. Not only are the light meters in newer DSLRs much improved, but when shooting digital you also have the capability to instantly see the results, allowing you to make any needed adjustments before shooting the image again. Others argue that this is the lazy man’s way of finding the proper exposure and prefer a light meter to get the job done right the first time around.

Unlike the meter inside your camera, a hand-held incident light meter will allow you to meter specific areas of an image such as a model’s face, shoes, or props, allowing you to average out the readings to get the ideal exposure. New photographers often find meters invaluable as they essentially take out all the guesswork and can be vital tools when shooting in certain situations.

Reflectors & Umbrellas – If your budget allows it, keep both a set of reflectors and an umbrella in your studio. Reflectors are an inexpensive way to add fill light to photographs and also give them different light temperatures depending on which color reflector you are using. When purchasing a reflector, buy a fairly large collapsible one. They are lightweight, easy to store, and can be folded down to smaller sizes if need be. If you have an assistant on hand to hold your reflector for you, excellent. If not, pick up a couple of clamps and just clamp them to a standard light stand. Umbrella’s are great for taking portraits because they bounce back highly diffused light, which softens skin tones. Some umbrellas have a black backing that can be removed to further soften the light. Again, invest in a good quality stand for your umbrella. If you’re really feeling the process of building your studio, a softbox is another type of diffuser that some consider essential to their arsenal.

Most photographers that are just beginning to build their studio will feel quite comfortable with a two light setup. Yes, more will inevitably be better, but most shoots can be done well using just a handful of equipment. Take the time to familiarize yourself with the basics before you indulge in the extras and be sure to let us know what piece of lighting equipment you couldn’t live without in the studio in the comments below.

Tiffany Mueller is a professional music and fine art photographer. Published in various publications including magazines, art journals, as well as books, Tiffany has been fortunate enough to have been in a perpetual state of travel since her youth and is currently working on a 50-states project. You can keep up with Tiffany via Twitter at or on her personal blog.

3 thoughts on “Studio Lighting Essentials

  1. Eeps

    No beauty dish? I guess that’s not really an essential but I do know a lot of photographers who use them.

    My question though has more to do with whether you mix continuous lights with strobes? Also, do you recommend speedlites? Finally, how do you balance mixed lighting sources? Great post BTW. Thanks for sharing.

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