How to Use Continuous Lighting: Light Sources


This is the first part of my series on continuous lighting. Here, I discuss the various types of artificial constant light sources you can use to create great-looking product and portrait images. Small flash units and studio strobes have their advantages, but many photographers simply feel overwhelmed when dealing with the technical issues associated with flash. If you don't already have a solid understanding of flash photography, continuous lighting is much easier to work with because you can see how the light affects your subject as you, your subject, or the lighting changes position. We'll cover lighting setups, mixed-lighting issues, and other topics as you progress through this series.

Let's begin with a discussion of continuous lighting sources that can be very useful in product and portrait photography:

Household Lamps

Whether fitted with incandescent light bulbs, compact fluorescent lights, halogen, or the new LED “bulbs,” standard household lamps, smartly positioned, can serve as effective product and portrait lighting. Controlling this type of lighting is easy; as distance and angle to the subject will help you get the intensity and modeling (the way the subject's form is defined by the light/shadow) you're trying to achieve. Since this post is concerned with light sources, we'll cover lighting setups using household and other types of lighting in a future post.

Clamp Lights and CFLs

In my eBooks and online courses, I discuss the use of cheap lights as an affordable but workable alternative to other types of continuous light sources. The utility lights, made for workshop and household use, are usually made up of four components:

  • Light receptacle
  • Light bulb/CFL
  • Reflector
  • Clamp

I prefer compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) to traditional light bulbs because they tend to run cooler and provide a good amount of light for the power they consume. A CFL that uses 42 watts of power can provide as much illumination as a 150 watt incandescent bulb. There are in fact CFLs that can produce light equivalent to a 500+ watt incandescent light.


Clamp light assembly and closeup of a compact fluorescent light (CFL).

Video illustrating how to use two clamp lights for a simple eBay-style small product shot.

The amount of light you’ll need will depend mostly on your camera’s handling of noise at higher ISO settings. As long as you can achieve your preferred shutter speed and aperture setting, your clamp light kit is producing enough light to work with.

There are a number of ways to manipulate the lighting quality and intensity of clamp lights, including: adjusting the number of lights used from a given lighting position, selecting effective lighting positions and angles for proper illumination and modeling of your subject, and using modifiers to soften the light. We'll cover the techniques used when working with continuous lighting as we move forward through this series.


Portrait created with a single clamp light. Notice the unmodified light produces significant contrast and rather harsh light, but it works well for this image of a dancer for a “backstage” look.

Professional Continuous Lighting

A number of professional-level continuous lighting solutions exist, including special single and multi-socket CFL light banks, high-output LED panels, and various halogen and tungsten lighting fixtures. These all have their pros and cons:

  • Larger CFL fixtures can use several lights and take up a lot of room when compared to other types of lighting. Outfitting such a fixture with several CFLs will also not be cheap. Finally, CFL lights are not generally suitable for use with dimmers, so adjusting a light's intensity has to be accomplished by adding or removing individual CFLs, with modifiers, or by changing the distance (which also changes the quality of light) from the subject.
  • Good LED panel lights allow for much more control over light intensity and color temperature as they have controls for both. However, LED fixtures produce much less light than similarly priced alternatives, which is to say, for good quality and lots of light, you'll be spending quite a bit of money.
  • Halogen and Tungsten lights offer traditional lighting controls (dimming, barn doors, diffusers, etc., and plenty of output for the price, but they also produce enough heat to have earned the moniker, “hot lights. ” Still, they've been around for quite awhile and are still used extensively in film, television, and stage productions.

The Tungsten Fresnel

After a long love affair with flash photography, some photographers are now finding themselves using hot lights more often in their work. These lights offer a different type of control and lighting quality than what comes straight out of a flash or strobe unit. One light that I find myself using quite often for both still and video work is the Arri 650 Plus.

Arri 650 Plus tungsten Fresnel

The Arri is fitted with a Fresnel lens which allows you to control the spread of the light beam via an adjustment knob, meaning this light can essentially serve as a spot or a flood. You can also control this powerful light with an optional dimmer switch, and modify the quality and spread of light any number of ways. One popular accessory is a barn door attachment which allows you to control the spill and shape of the light beam.

With a color-correcting filter attached, your tungsten light source will more closely match flash and daylight sources.

Fresnel lighting units, like the ones made by Arri, can provide you with many creative options when setting up scenes for your photography or video shoots. Just as with other types of lighting, you can use Fresnels as main lights, fill lights, hair, rim, and background lights.

Continuous lighting provides a WYSIWYG advantage. Here I used two hot lights to easily create a “Film Noir” look for this portrait. Behind-the-scenes video available at

This video (above) demonstrates the basic features and operation of a traditional Arri Fresnel.

Things to consider when using continuous lighting:

  • Depending on the number and power of the lights you're using, you'll probably find higher ISO settings are necessary when compared to shooting with flash/strobe lights.
  • Continuous light may cause your subject's pupils to constrict (become smaller), just as they would under any brighter lights, or outdoors. This might be preferred over the look of larger, dilated pupils when working in darker environments with flash.
  • Tungsten light sources produce warmer light than flash and other types of lighting. This is not always a problem. But other lights like CFLs and mercury vapor lamps can introduce strange color casts in your images. If you're using mixed lighting (cooler lights like flash/daylight, along with tungsten lighting) you might have to color-correct for proper white balance. This is often accomplished with gels or in post-processing. Of course, sometimes the differences in color temperature are a desired effect.
  • Some of these lights can get very hot to the touch. Be careful when handling lights that have been on for awhile, and never leave them unattended, especially around children and others who are unaware of the potential for burns. Use protective, heat-resistant gloves when handling very hot lights.

I hope you've enjoyed this introduction to artificial continous lighting. If you're primarily a flash-user, like me, you might find that experimenting with constant light sources is a great way to add new and interesting looks to your work. If you've struggled with flash photography, there's no better way to learn the basics of lighting than with continuous light.


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About Author

Ed Verosky offers instruction for photographers of all levels on his YouTube channel and at

Thank you for your article. I do have a couple questions, if I may. I have a set of hot lamps and a set of continuous studio lights with umbrellas. It appears that both take florescent “pig tail” bulbs.
The bulbs that came with the set are 45 watt and aren’t quite bright enough for me. I am weighing a few options. Changing the bulbs to 100 watt florescent, or getting new heads with sockets that accept more than one bulb. What do you suggest?
Also, I’m wondering if the florescent “pig tail” light bulbs that can be purchased at the hardware store are the same as the ones that are purchased from the specialty photography supply companies.
Thanks again.

Amy, the lights you are using are likely rated for a higher bulb than 45 Watt check out the socket and see what they will take. I suspect you can use 100Watt with no problem.

Also look for larger, “daylight balanced” CFL bulbs. Typical CFL is 2700K and horrible orange and yellow tones, while daylight balanced typically is 5000K and much closer to sunlight/flash. You can get them at hardware warehouses and photo shops locally as well as online.

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