Learn how to take more alluring portraits using the minimum number of studio lights. This quick guide will show you how to set up your portrait lighting piece by piece to achieve a timeless, classic look.
It’s surprising how many of the great modern famous photographers, such as Mario Testino, and the best photographers from earlier eras, such as the master of Hollywood glamour, George Hurrell, used just a couple of studio lights to achieve some of their most iconic images.
Although some amateur photographers are concerned about using studio flash kits, the great advantage is that it gives you complete control – unlike daylight, which can change at just the moment you thought you had it right!
If you’ve never used studio lights before, it’s best to work with a model who you know will be patient with you. This will enable you to experiment and discover exactly what each studio light does – as just a small movement in the position of each one can completely change the ambience of your picture.
Always return to your camera position after changing the light, to see what the change looks like from there. Try different types of light, such as umbrellas, soft boxes, dishes and snoots.
The great advantage when shooting digitally that photographers like Hurrell didn’t have is that you can take a shot after each change to see exactly how the light’s beginning to build up; and if it’s right.
Besides the lights, don’t underestimate the effect a reflector or two can have on the quality of the finished result.
With these you can soften the shadows created by the main light, illuminate areas such as under the chin and nose and, depending on the reflective surface, make the light harsh or soft.
A simple studio lighting setup
The studio photography cheat sheet below illustrates the simple setup we use to shoot the portrait at the top of this page. Simply click on the infographic to see the larger version, or drag and drop it to your desktop.
Setting up your studio lights step-by-step
Now that we’ve shown you a simple setup for your studio lights that works in a wide number of scenarios, our next cheat sheet shows you the effect on the portrait at each stage of the set-up process.
Final tips on…
Don’t over light your subject. Start with one flash head and build up the light slowly to achieve the look you want.
If you use a short telephoto lens it will give you more space to position your lights and reflectors.
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