An introduction to studio lighting

When it comes to photography lighting, the move from natural light to studio flash is a definite step-up, but there’s no disputing the extra creative freedom it allows.

Understanding the basics of studio flash lighting will help ensure a smooth transition; the same way understanding fundamentals like aperture, shutter speed and exposure will help you switch from Auto to Manual Mode.

This includes understanding the difference between continuous light and flash; different power systems like monobloc lights or power packs; flash power and how to adjust it; and how flashes are triggered. If you don’t yet understand these concepts, I clear up some of the common misconceptions relating to these in the video above.

You’ll also find many of the concepts covered here explained in far greater detail in our Lighting Theory & Equipment class: Types of studio lighting.

Types of studio lights
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Types of studio lighting

The fundamental workings of studio lights

This photography class explains the fundamental workings of studio lighting, the advantages and disadvantages of different systems and what each type is best suited for.

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Types of studio lighting

Speedlites

For many, speedlites provide an introduction to using flash because they’re easy to use to and relatively inexpensive. They can be used on or off-camera, but because they aren’t as easily modified as studio lights, they don’t offer the same level of control or creativity. They also don’t provide the same sort of power as studio lights. However, they do offer a fairly fast flash duration, which means they can be great for freezing motion.

In our Advertising, Product and Still Life course, you’ll see how I use speedlites to capture some amazing product images, which goes to show that if you understand light, you can use these handy little lights to great effect.

Canon speedlite

Studio lights

Also referred to as strobe lighting, studio lights offer the most versatility when it comes to photography. Although they’re more expensive than speedlites, studio lights offer much more versatility and control. They have a far greater power output than speedlites and some brands even allow you to control the temperature of the lights. They’re also available with a range of modifiers; from simple umbrellas to more professional-level fresnels.

Studio light flash

Continuous light

As the name suggests, continuous lights offer a continuous light source, unlike studio lights, which provide a flash to illuminate the subject. Although they’re commonly used for many genres of photography, I personally don’t find continuous light nearly as precise or versatile as studio lights. I’ll discuss the reasons for this next.

Continuous studio light

Continuous light vs flash

A common question I get asked is “Why do studio photographers choose to use flash instead of using continuous light?” There are a number of reasons for this, which you’ll also see in the video.

Power is the main reason professional photographers generally favour flash. You can get an incredible amount of extra power from a flash than what you’d generally get from a continuous light.

That power, which we see in the form of a bright flash, only lasts for a very brief instance, but because we're only taking a still photo we usually want more light because it allows us to get more depth of field, use different modifiers etc.

This brief flash also allows us to freeze motion. When using continuous light, you’re dependant on the shutter speed to freeze flash.

Another disadvantage of using continuous light for studio photographers is that you really need to work in the  dark, which means you have to have the ability to darken your studio. You can't take pictures with continuous light if you have other forms of ambient light pollution like daylight coming through your windows or your existing lights in the building. So, you need to cut all of that out to make any form of continuous lighting effective.

Modeling lamp vs flash

Modeling lamp vs flash

Another misconception with studio lighting, as I explain in the video, is about where the flash is coming from and where the continuous light is coming from.

In some of our videos it looks like I’m using continuous light, but this is actually because I have the modeling lights on. The modeling light simply allows me to get a general sense of the lighting and see what I’m doing.

In the video I clearly show what the modeling light is, where it is and where the flash comes from, and it’s very important to understand the differences between these.

Monobloc lights and pack lights

The next thing to understand when it comes to flash lighting is the different power systems. There are two main power systems for studio lights: monobloc lights (or monolights) and pack system lights, and I show the differences between these in the video.

You’ll immediately see that the monobloc light is significantly bigger than the light that uses a power pack. This is because the power supply - the capacitors that charge up to burst the power of flash out - are inside the head of the light. Although they’re usually bigger than pack lights, they aren’t as powerful, as I explain in the video.

Monobloc lights on location

One of the main advantages monobloc lights have over pack systems is the ability to use them on location without having to worry about finding a power source. While some monolights plug directly into a power supply (like the one I show in the video), you can also get ones that have a lithium battery that slots into the light, which allows you to use it in the studio or on location without any cables.

Pack lights, on the other hand, rely on an external power supply — a power pack. This means that generally a pack system offers a lot more power because they're a lot bigger, they can hold bigger capacitors. We can also plug different lights into one pack and control all of them independently.

Studio lighting for fashion photography

Another advantage of pack lights is because of the smaller lamp heads, when you're putting them in big modifiers they tend to be more stable because they're not as likely to tip over as easily. When you use heavier lamp heads like monobloc lights you often need to put a few sandbags on it to keep it stable.

Power and joules

Not all studio lights were made equal, and one of the key things to consider is power.

As you’ll see in the video, the pack system I use, the broncolor Scoro pack, offers a power output of 3200J. That means it's capable of 3200 joules output of power.

Joules vs watts

The term joules refers to an amount of energy whereas watts refer to a unit of power.  One joule is equivalent to one watt-second. In this instance, the term joules will be used to refer to the power output of a light.

With the system shown in the video, the broncolor Scoros, I can have that all come out of one flash if I want or I can distribute three different lights across three different channels asymmetrically.

Asymmetrically means I can split that power of 3200 joules  up into any ratio I like. I can have 100 joules on one lamp, 100 on another and then 3000 on the third lamp if I want. I can mix it and blend it around. If you've got a symmetrical pack you may find you can only split it equally, so for example 1000, 1000, 1000.

You’ll generally find the power rating for a light written somewhere on the lamp head. But what does 800 joules, for example, actually mean? I often get asked whether to go for an 800-joule, 400-joule or 1200-joule… Everyone seems to think there's this massive, massive difference between them but actually, there isn't that much between them.

I go into this in more detail in the video, but basically the difference between an 800-joule lamp and a 400-joule lamp is only one stop. It's exactly the same as the change in ratio of stops of ISO for example. So, if we used an 800-dual lamp at f11 then we would need to shoot a 400-dual lamp at f8 to get the same exposure, or increase the ISO from 100 to 200.

Joules on lamp heads or power packs are basically the same in f-stops, so  compared to a 400-joule lamp, an 800-joule is one stop more powerful, a 1600-joule lamp is another stop more powerful and a 3200-joule pack is another stop powerful. You just need to think about it in f-stops.

You’ll find a complete detailed explanation of flash power in our class Understanding flash power, where I also clearly demonstrate the relationship between f-stops and studio light power.

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Understanding flash power

Understand flash power & take control

Everything you need to know about flash power, including the relationship between f-stops and studio light power, power ranges and what influences power.

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Power range

While we're on the subject of f-stops, it’s also important to mention the power range of studio lights.

Different lights and lighting systems have different power ranges, as you’ll see in the video. On a pack like the broncolor Scoro, I may be able to go from power 10, which would be equivalent to 3200 joules of power on a 3200J pack, down to power 9, which would be half of that at 1600 joules, and all the way down to as little as 0.5, which is about 3 joules.

Studio lights power pack

On monobloc lights the range isn't usually as great, but it can still be pretty good. You can see the power range differences between the pack lights and monobloc lights in the video, but overall a pack system usually offers greater versatility when it comes to power range and joules control.

One of the common misconceptions about studio lighting is the actual difference in light when changing the power. For example, if you used power 8, many people often think that a one-stop drop in light would need to be power 4 but that's not actually how it works with studio lighting.

This is explained in more detail in the video, but basically to get the same exposure as at f11 and power 8, we would either have to change to f8 and power 7, or f16 and power 9.

Triggering studio lights

Unlike speedlites, where simply pressing the shutter button triggers the on-camera flash, studio lights require a triggering device. This goes on top of the camera, usually sits on the hot shoe, for example, and then when you press the shutter button it sends the signal to the pack or to the receiver and that will fire the flash at exactly the right moment.

Lighting equipment to get you started

Simple studio lighting setup

Now that you understand the basics of studio lighting, you may be asking what studio lighting kit you actually need to get started.

At the very least, you can get great creative results using just one studio light — even just one bare bulb studio light! Once you’ve got your light, the next step is to think about what type of photography you enjoy. This will help you determine what modifiers, lighting stands and other accessories you’ll need.

To help give you a better idea of what equipment you may need, I’ve listed a few of our classes below that use minimal equipment for you to take a look at.

I hope this has helped clear up some of the confusion about studio lighting. Remember, you can also find a complete guide to studio lighting in our Lighting theory & equipment course.

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We have one of the most comprehensive courses on studio lighting, where you'll find everything from explanations on lighting theory to demonstrations of different modifiers. Below are just a few of our popular courses related to studio lighting.

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