BUSINESS Equipment Lighting & Composition

Setting Up Your First Studio – Getting Your Lights Right

There are, of course, many ways of getting started with such a venture. Depending on one’s interests and the girth of one’s wallet, photography studios can range from small and bare-boned to huge and state-of-the-art. For both instructional clarity and financial reality we have written this chapter to reflect the lower end of that scale. That’s to say our suggestions are geared toward the putting together of a modest studio adequate for making small- to medium-sized product and still life shots and three-quarter-size portraits.

A relatively small, but well-equipped, home studio such as this one is more than adequate for most small- to medium-sized photographic assignments.


What sort of lights should I buy? That’s one of the first questions to ask yourself when you start thinking about putting together your own studio. Your answers will, of course, depend largely on the kind of photography you want to do.

Take, for example, Marilyn—a charming and truly talented photographer I met some years ago. Her passion was shooting still life pictures of colorful fruits and vegetables. I was totally amazed by the magnificent images she composed out of nothing more than a few artfully arranged tomatoes, strawberries, or some other salad in the raw.

What was also amazing was how simple the studio in which she turned out her masterpieces was. Marilyn worked on a small table in her minuscule kitchen pantry. Her entire lighting “setup” consisted of nothing more than a sun-filled window and a couple of old gooseneck office lamps.

Her modifiers included some reflectors and gobos she made from foamboard, a couple of diffusers fashioned from an old shower curtain, and a small collection of colored gels. These she held in place in front of her lights with “stands” she cobbled together from clothes hangers, wooden dowels, tape, plastic cable ties, and binder clips.

By no stretch of the imagination could this set-up be called a “professional” studio. Yet, truth be known, it most certainly was one. It was one in which a gifted photographer using minimal gear produced truly wonderful pictures time and time again. Now, I tell this story to make a simple, yet important, point. The best way to begin planning your studio is to do what Marilyn did. And that was to ask herself a simple question—“What sort of pictures do I want to make?”

By Marilyn’s account, she was indeed fortunate. She was blessed with being sure of the kind of photography she wanted to do from the earliest days of her career. As an art student she had been exposed to still life paintings done by the masters. And, as she put it, she was “blown away” by them. From then on she knew exactly the kind of images she wanted to make.

And what about you? What sort of images do you want to make in your studio? Are you most interested, for example, in starting a portrait business? Or are you perhaps more interested in product, fine art, and scientific or some other photographic avenue?

Once you have decided on at least a tentative answer to these and similar questions, you have taken a major step forward in planning your studio. Once you have decided what kind of pictures you want to start out by making, you can then begin sorting out the gear you will need. And as you do that, one of the first kinds of gear you will probably consider are lights—and which ones you should get? And that’s what we shall turn to next.


What kind of lights should I buy? How many of them do I need? These are among the questions we hear most often from students and other beginning photographers who are thinking about setting up their own studios. And, let’s face it, the answers to them are more than just a little important.

Not only do decent-quality lights cost a good bit of money—if, from the very beginning, you have the correct lights you need to make the sort of pictures you want to make, your studio shooting days will be off to a good start

What Kind of Lights?

There are several different kinds of lights from which to choose. And while it is true that “light is light,” different photographers often use very different ways of producing it. One of these is as a continuous, or “always on” beam. Another is as a flash—or momentary burst of light. The flashes we like range in size and power from small hot-shoe models to large, powerful studio strobes. The continuous lights we favor are produced by either fluorescent or LED sources.

Both continuous light sources and flashes are available in prices ranging from modest to very expensive. In this chapter we will concentrate on mid-range, modestly priced lights. If, however, cost is no object to you, we suggest you consider equipping your studio with high-end studio strobes. These can provide considerably more light than their less expensive cousins.


Most of today’s hot-shoe flashes are powerful enough to be useful in many studio situations—especially when you “gang” several together. In addition, there are a wide variety of modifiers available for them. However, on the negative side, high-quality hot-shoe flashes are expensive. In addition, they do not have modeling lights—a feature we find very helpful.

For these reasons—unless you are planning to do a good bit of shooting outside of your studio—we suggest spending a bit more and buying medium-price-range studio lights instead. This is especially true if you intend to make pictures of relatively large subjects, such as full-bodied portraits or product shots of larger items such as furniture or appliances. Such flashes produce more than enough light for that sort of shooting.

Several brands are available, and all provide a good bit of light at a relatively low cost. Called “monolights,” these units are compact, relatively lightweight, and easy to set up and use. Plugged directly into standard wall sockets, each has a battery, flash tube, modeling light and controls built into its head (below). And, as is the case with hot-shoe flash, monolights can be remotely controlled by radio triggers. Some models even come with builtin radio transceivers.

Monolights, such as the one shown here with its reflector removed, are a reasonably priced and extremely serviceable lighting choice for many studios.

As is the case with all photographic gear, we suggest you research any lights you are considering before making any purchase decisions. And while we are on that subject, we cannot stress too strongly how useful the web is when one is in the market for any photographic gear. User reviews, manufacturer write ups, and technical information, and more are all there—all available to help us photographers make informed product decisions. And equally useful, the web is also well stocked with “tutorials” showing different ways to use a wide range of lights and the various modifiers that work well with them.

Continuous Lights

If you plan to shoot video, or just simply prefer working with continuous light, we suggest one of two choices—fluorescent lights or LEDs. Because, other than in small arrays, LEDs are quite expensive, we recommend that unless you can get by using small LED arrays, you choose fluorescent lights. Several types are available, ranging in price from moderate to expensive. And once again, a little time spent searching the web will go a long way toward helping you to buy the lights that best fit both your needs and your budget.

How Many Lights?

Once you have some idea of the sort of lights to buy, you can move on from quality to quantity. Looking back at our own experience, we suggest that you should start off with at least two lights, and if your wallet can stand the extra strain, three.

While it is true that you can make great pictures with just one light, two gives you much more flexibility in lighting your subjects. In addition, when you have three lights at your disposal, you have the option of using two of them to illuminate your subject, and the third to light some other part of your scene, such as its background.

Later, you may well want to add even more lights to your arsenal. We have, for example, acquaintances that regularly use six, eight, or even more lights when shooting. Obviously, equipping a studio for such large-scale mega-light photography becomes very expensive very quickly.

Fortunately, however, in many parts of the country you don’t have to go broke just to try your hand with this sort of high-intensity lighting. That’s because well-stocked lighting equipment rental companies now serve a surprisingly large number of areas. And if you are really fortunate, you may even find fully equipped rental studios that are only too glad to rent you a place where you can experiment with multiple light set-ups at reasonable prices.


It’s hard to overestimate the importance of having sturdy, good quality light stands. Nothing is more disconcerting, or potentially more expensive, than having your shoot interrupted as a poor quality light stand falls over and smashes into your subject—be it human, or your best client’s prized product prototype.

With that in mind, it’s a good idea to always buy the best quality, most robust, light stands your budget allows. Not only are such stands less likely to fall over at embarrassing moments; they also tend to stand the test of time well. For example, I have used my favorite set of stands regularly for the last 25 years, and they still work just as well as they did the day I bought them.

At the very minimum, any stand you are considering should be able to support heavier lights than you usually use at heights higher than you normally use them. You may also want to buy stands with built-in wheels. These make it easy to move them around even when they are holding up lights and heavy accessories such as booms and counterweights.

It’s also important to check the construction details of any stand you’re considering. Do its legs spread wide enough apart to provide stability? Do the setscrews loosen easily when you want them to, and, on the other hand, do they stay set firmly in place once you have tightened them? Does it appear that any of the stand’s parts are made of overly thin metal or easily breakable plastic? Is a tough, durable case available for the stand you’re considering? One or more “No” answers to the above, and you should probably consider a different make of stand.

Finally, it may well pay you to consider buying one of the fully integrated, modular lighting systems now available from several manufacturers. A major advantage to using stands that are included in such systems is that all the various components that are part of them can be easily fitted together into a wide variety of different configurations. Such compatibility can make your job both quicker and easier when you have to set up for a complex shot.


A lighting boom is an important accessory—and one we suggest you buy in your first round of purchases. When shooting, it is frequently necessary to suspend things such as lights, diffusers, and gobos above our subjects, and using booms is often the best way of doing that.

Often attached to light stands, some boom assemblies are sold separately. Others are offered as part of boom and light stand kits. Such kits will often cost you a good deal less than if you buy booms and stands separately.

Excerpted from Light Science & Magic: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting, 5th Edition by Fil Hunter, Steven Biver and Paul Fuqua © 2015 Taylor and Francis LLC, All Rights Reserved

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