Mistakes to avoid when using studio lighting

I’ve been a photography educator for more than 12 years now, so I’ve seen pretty much everything when it comes to common mistakes relating to first-time studio lighting users. From relying on a light meter to shying away from understanding the physics of light, here are nine mistakes you should try to avoid when using studio flash or strobe lighting.

1. Not understanding the physics
of light

Inverse Square Law diagram

Photography can be considered both a science and an art, with basic principles of physics governing the practicalities of recording light, how we direct and modify it, and also the human biological visual responses to the mood of an image. All of this together contributes to the outcome and overall success of an image.

If you really want to understand how to use studio flash, you do have to make the effort to understand the physics of light. The term ‘physics’ may sound scary, but it doesn’t have to be. You don’t have to understand everything, but there are a few key concepts that will serve you well.

Useful concepts include:

  • Inverse-square law
  • Angle of incidence
  • Angle of reflectance
  • Hard light and soft light
  • Direction of light
  • Colour theory
  • Diffusion and specularity
  • Reflectance and dispersion
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2. Being afraid to experiment

Fashion photography by Karl Taylor

When it comes to using natural light, people seem to have no problem experimenting with light - side lighting, backlighting etc. But when it comes to studio light, many photographers want a ‘formula’. Instead of experimenting to see what results they get, they want to know that if they use a particular light in a particular position at a particular power setting, that it will work and guarantee success.

The truth is that it isn’t that simple. I often get photographers asking how far away a light was, what power settings I used, or for lighting diagrams of a shoot. But none of this matters unless you’re shooting in the exact same scenario, with the exact same equipment, shooting distances, modifiers, space, reflectivity etc.

These sort of questions demonstrate that people are too afraid to fail, but we need to fail to learn.

You shouldn’t be afraid to experiment with your lights, it costs us nothing to take as many images as we want, so there’s no need to rely on the same go-to lighting setup time and time again.

3. Relying on a light meter

Photography exposure using light meters

For some reason, even though we’re working in the digital age, many photographers still rely on using a light meter to tell them how their images ‘should’ look. If you want to get creative you shouldn’t be taking direction from someone or something else.

Having moved away from film (largely), it costs us nothing to experiment and take multiple images until we’re happy with the result. Your eyes should tell you everything you need to know about the exposure of an image and your creative vision should determine what camera settings to use and the amount of light you need. To learn how to determine the correct exposure in an image without using a light meter, I recommend watching our ‘Measuring light and achieving the correct exposure’ class.

Although I used to use a light meter when I started my professional career, I haven’t used one in about 15 years. There are two main reasons for this: creativity and speed, which I talk about more in a previous post.

4. Lighting from the front

Berries food photography
Feta cheese food photography

The first thing so many photographers do when they first start with studio lighting is to stick their light in front of the subject, take the photo and then wonder why everything looks so boring and flat.

The direction that light comes from can have a big impact on how an image looks. Typically, side lighting emphasises texture and form, while front lighting produces flat, two-dimensional looking images. This is one of the first things I show you in my ‘Introduction and understanding light’ class, and it’s an important concept to understand, as I pointed out earlier.

I don’t tend to use frontal lighting as my key light when shooting. More-often I used side or backlighting as the strongest light in the image, both of which help enhance form and texture. You’ll see how food photographer Anna Pustynnikova and I commonly used backlighting in our food photography classes, and how I often use side lighting to shape products such as lipsticks or glasses, for example.

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5. Relying on shutter speed

Professional splash photography

Another question I often get asked is what shutter speed I’m using for a shoot. Once you understand the relationship between shutter speed, aperture and flash, you’ll realise that it’s not shutter speed that freezes motion when using studio flash, but rather the flash itself.

This is often something that confuses those new to studio photography, but it’s a very important concept to understand. When it comes to freezing motion using studio lighting, flash duration is much more important than shutter speed.

6. Lighting from too far away

Image

A lot of the time I see new photographers using their lights at some distance from their subject, like they’re scared to get too close. But if you want the best results, sometimes the only option is to get close. Often when I’m shooting, whether it be product or portrait photography, I’ll have the light right up next to my subject, even almost touching.

Remember, the distance of the light away from the subject will have a great impact on the final result, so if your light is too far away, you’ll be unnecessarily limiting yourself and making things more difficult than they need to be by creating uncontrollable reflections on any gloss surface.

7. Not understanding the importance of shadow depth

Shadows are extremely important in photography, especially when it comes to visual perception. They are the element that provides contrast and depth as well as mood. There are very specific techniques, such as global illumination and controlling shadow fill and colour, that have a huge impact on the quality of your images.

Most photographers don’t fully understand these principles and tend to ignore the quality of shadows. You can learn more about this in almost any of our classes on Karl Taylor Education, but I'd recommend looking at our live photography shows archive as a starting point.

8. Choosing the wrong modifier

Whisky bottle photography by Karl Taylor

It goes without saying that the choice of modifier for a shoot has a big impact on the final result, which is why it’s so important that you don’t just grab the nearest softbox and assume it will work.

Think about what you’re shooting, the shape of the subject, the type of light you need and the mood you are trying to convey to help you determine what modifier you should be using. For example, if you’re shooting a bottle of wine, a small octabox wouldn’t be the best choice, the same way a parabolic reflector won’t work if you’re photographing reflective sunglasses.

If you don’t have the best modifier for the job, think about how you may be able to modify your light source to make it work. For example, if you have a large octabox but need a stripbox, you could try flag the light to create what you need. This problem-solving approach leads me to my next point…

Try to understand why we have different modifiers and their purposes - knowing the tools goes a long way.

9. Using ‘lack’ of equipment as an excuse

This is something I’ve discussed in-depth in a previous post, and I also addressed it in a past live show: One Light Challenge Product Shoot.

One light lipstick product shot

Lipstick shot using one light.

Lipstick product shot by Karl Taylor

Lipstick shot using six lights.

In that live show, I proved that it was possible to create a high-end product shot of lipsticks using just one light. Product photography is a notoriously challenging genre of photography, and people often feel you have to have an endless amount of studio kit to achieve professional results. While I do sometimes use five, six or even seven lights for product shoots, I also sometimes use only one or two. It all depends on the shoot.

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It’s not about what equipment you have, but more about how you use the equipment you do have. You have to think about how you can apply your knowledge to get the most out of your equipment and overcome certain problems.

That may require moving your lights to overcome light fall-off dictated by the inverse-square law; using long exposures to combine multiple lights or even modifying your modifiers to make them work better. Think logically about what you’re trying to achieve and try to solve one problem at a time. When you work this way, you’ll find things suddenly seem much more manageable.

If you’ve found yourself making any one of these mistakes — that’s OK. Learning about studio lighting can take years of work. Even the best professional photographers will tell you they’re still learning. The main thing is to keep practising and working on your skills, and what better place to start than Karl Taylor Education.

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