Studio photography

Many photographers prefer to shoot in a studio rather than use natural light and it is all but understandable because in a studio you have greater control over the light. When shooting outdoors under natural light conditions, all you can do is take the light into consideration but you cannot mould it. When you are in a studio and the light is poor, you can increase the power of the flash, or if the light is too strong, you can dim it, you can move it further away or closer to the object, a little to the left or a little to the right, you can add a second, third or fourth source of light. With the help of modifiers – honeycomb grids, spotlights, reflectors, umbrellas, softboxes, and filters, you can have light which is more direct or more diffused. In general, unlike outdoor photography, studio photography offers you unlimited opportunities to achieve different effects. Working in a studio is not hard, as long as you follow certain rules.

And so, where to begin? Continuous or strobe lighting?

Both have their advantages and disadvantages. The advantage of having continuous light is that you see things the way they will look in the photograph. The disadvantage is that it has less power, which requires more open apertures and leads to lower resolution. Some lamps (neon, LED) partially cut out some frequencies of the light spectre. Other lights like halogen lamps emit not only light, but also heat, and are not suitable for use in small rooms at close distances, especially in warm weather. Very strong continuous lighting could irritate the eyes of the model and they would squint.

The advantage of strobe lighting is that its colour temperature and spectre frequencies are very close to natural light. It does not emit heat. It does not blind because it lights up for fractions of the second and the model has no time to react. The disadvantage is that you do not see things the way they will look in the photograph and you have to measure its power beforehand. Despite that, most photographers prefer strobe lighting to continuous lighting, which is better-suited for shooting video and not photography.

Two softboxes and a spotlight in the hair

When we shoot in a studio with strobe lighting (flashes), the camera must be used in manual mode (M – manual). Any other mode will force the automatic systems in the camera to adjust to the surrounding light, which will be different from the one emitted by the flash.
In manual mode the automated settings are turned off and you set the main parameters – aperture, shutter speed and ISO.

We usually set ISO to its lowest setting because the light will be strong enough. Shutter speed does not matter much, either, because the light impulse from the flash is very short, somewhere within the range of a couple of hundredths of the second. It is best if the shutter speed is set to the flash synchronisation speed of the camera for external flash. If you do not know what it is for the respective model or brand, you can simply set it to 1/125 sec and never bother about it again.

The aperture is the instrument we use to determine exposure times when shooting with a studio flash. Depending on the distance between the flash and object and on the power of the impulse set for the flash (with the help of the potentiometer on its back) we can determine the right aperture. This you can do most easily with a flash meter – a device measuring the power of the light impulse of the flash.

You hold the flash meter with the white semi-sphere pointed at the flash. It should be as close as possible to the object you are going to shoot. You activate the flash with the remote control and the indicator of the flash meter will display the respective aperture value.

Once you have set the three values – aperture, shutter speed and ISO, you are ready to shoot.

With the help of modifiers (accessories placed in front of the flash) you can modify the light.

For portrait photography we use most often a large parabolic reflector (with a diameter of 50-70 cm) and a honeycomb grind in front. It is also called a beauty dish. The relatively large area of the reflector combined with the directed light of the honeycomb grid makes this type of lighting particularly dramatic, almost theatrical. A beauty dish can be used separately or in combination with other accessories, usually a backlight to produce a contour and create additional volume and a background light, if needed to light up the background.

A beauty dish positioned to the side and behind the model.

A beauty dish facing the front and a mirror.
A softbox at the front and a slow shutter speed which does not dim the light of the lamp.

Three portraits with a beauty dish pointed up:

One flash with a reflector, a honeycomb dish facing the model and a mirror at the back and to the left projecting his shadow on the wall.

The disadvantage of the beauty dish is that the beam is relatively narrow. It is difficult to have more than one person. Because of the narrow beam the beauty dish is not suitable for full-body portraits. Also, because of the directed flash, you must be very particular about the position of the model. Slightly more to the side and there will be big, dense coarse shadows on the face. Therefore you have to be especially careful with the shadows on the faces judging their position with the help of the pilot lamps of the flash. Pilot lamps are ordinary lightbulbs which cast continuous light and help you to focus and show you where the shadows will be and what they will look like. They are turned off for a second only during the shooting itself when the flash is activated.

The following photographs illustrate the use of softboxes.

The light from softboxes with umbrellas is softer. The example above is of two softboxes – one on the left, stronger by about two stops (two aperture stops) and fill-in light on the right.

The difference between an umbrella and a softbox is negligible. Both accessories diffuse the light and produce softer light. In this case the light is diffused enough to allow for shooting full-body portraits. The model has greater freedom of movement. You can also shoot larger groups of people and this type of lighting is better for group family sessions.

The softer light produced by the umbrellas and the softboxes is suitable for advertising, children and baby photography, corporate portraits, fashion, clothes, etc.

We can achieve some interesting effects in the studio if we combine strobe and continuous lighting and move the camera while shooting at slow shutter speeds. The strong light from the flash fixes the object, while the less intensive light combined with the movement of the camera produces a double image leaving trails.

In both photographs we have a flash with a softbox and exposure time of 1 second.

If you use directed light from reflectors with honeycomb grids positioned behind and to the side of the model, you will have beautiful contours against a dark background.

My job as a portrait photographer is to seduce, amuse and entertain.
Helmut Newton