How Many Lights Do You Need for a Photography Studio?

There are few things more irritating than a picture that turns out too dark; it can alter the look of the whole photo and taint any photo taken in those conditions. So exactly how many lights do you need for a photography studio to make sure this doesn’t happen to your photos?

At a minimum, you need at least one key light for a photography studio, but additional fill lights and background lights are also handy to have. Fancy lights like hair lights, rim lights, and accent lights can help achieve specific effects but aren’t strictly necessary.

In this article, I’ll be detailing some of the classical studio lighting styles, why they’re important, and some other relevant photography tips.

Photography Light

How Many Lights a Photography Studio Actually Needs

If you have nothing else but a camera and a subject, you’d still need a source of key lighting. The light can be sunlight, overhead light bulbs, or other special studio lights designed for primary lighting. 

If you’re new to photography, your best bet is to start shooting outside. Until you know how to adjust and use lighting to your advantage, natural light is the easiest, most convenient type of all-purpose lighting. For indoor shoots, you’ll need a main – or key – light source.

Fill lights and background lights are also very useful and would come behind key lights. With those three together, you can easily change the dynamics of the photo. Place a fill light above and to the side of a subject and you can get a much different effect when you vertically adjust the key lighting.

What you need depends heavily on the type of work you’re doing. For controlled indoor portraiture, a compact softbox can be an awesome key light presented at eye or chest level. However, they can be a little pricey. A simple lamp can suffice just as well, and often at a fraction of the price.

It’s also essential to think about your ambient lighting. For controlled indoor shoots, you’ll need more lights and to have them precisely set. When you work outdoors, however, your shot will always use the ambient light; this is where fill, accent, and other minor lighting effects really shine.

Why Is Lighting Important?

Lighting is the main crucial variable in photography because it determines how many or how few bright spots and shadows are in a photo. This can make the difference between a warm, gentle picture and a cold, harsh one. Lighting essentially creates the atmosphere and tone of the photos you take.

Therefore, it’s vital to manipulate natural and artificial lighting to get the perfect lighting.

Good lighting creates vibrant, lifelike photos with striking contrasts and impeccably set moods. Lighting can be utilized to convey a sense of emotion to viewers. For example, a dark picture sets a gloomy atmosphere and a richly warm golden light evokes happiness and contentment.

What Is the Best Lighting for Photography?

There’s no single best source of lighting for all photography, but many people love the ‘golden hour’ that uniquely occurs during sunrise and sunset. That may not be what you’re after in your photos, however, so you may wish to try artificial lights for your project.

The best thing about photography is that while people have many preferences, that’s all they are: preferences. 

There’s no best or worst light because all of them are useful in certain situations. Some lights are great as a primary source, while others may be more useful as an accent or fill lighting.

Types of Studio Lighting

Different types of studio lighting provide different aesthetic foundations for photos. How light is presented interacts with the subject and the ambient environment to drastically change the feel of the photo.

Broad Lighting

Broad light is when the subject faces one side to the light source and the other side directly away. Broad light is handy for making narrow faces seem full in thoughtful scenes. Broad lighting isn’t recommended for faces that are already full.

Flat Lighting

Flat lighting is the most basic type of light: a light directly facing the subject. Flat lighting isn’t great for portraits because shadows can highlight imperfections like wrinkles and blemishes on the face. Flat lighting provides a more well-lit and ‘raw’ feel.

Backlights

Backlights are placed behind the subject of a scene and are the master of dramatic effects like fog and defined edges. These are usually just used to establish a specific feeling. Backlights aren’t good as a standard lighting source because the details of the subject are shrouded in relative darkness.

You can use reflectors and umbrellas in the background to illuminate undesirable shadows and add some contrast to the photo.

Split Lighting

Split lighting is a very interesting lighting technique that illuminates one side of the subject while leaving the opposing side in darkness or shadow. The light is presented perpendicular or at a 90° angle to the subject to achieve this effect. Split lighting is more aggressive or assertive, and can be used to highlight the confidence or beauty of the subject. 

Split lighting can be further toyed with to achieve very specific effects, like shadows on the eyes or lower face to create mystery.

Butterfly Lighting

Butterfly lighting is a general lighting type where the light is above the face and directly centered on the face. This was also called Paramount lighting because it was heavily used by Hollywood during the 1930s. Butterfly lighting is the lighting of choice for portraits, where it highlights the cheekbones with shadows and slims most faces.

Butterfly lights can create a butterfly-shaped shadow below a subject’s nose when directly centered. Virtually all people are flattered by this light in photographs.

Soft Lighting

Soft lighting is created by using umbrellas or softboxes as well as just putting a light close to the subject when the surroundings are dark – soft light highlighting subjects in a grey, overcast photo while taking advantage of contrast.

Flash vs. Continuous Lighting

Flash and continuous lighting are both useful for different situations and visual effects.

Strobes

Strobe or flash lighting is very powerful and can produce a wide range of different effects as you tweak the output settings of the flash. Flash lighting is very useful for highlighting the subject of a photo without compromising the ambient lighting in the rest of the photo. This helps keep a ‘crisp’ feel.

The disadvantage of strobe lighting is that it can’t function as a primary source of lighting. Flash might be great at night, but it won’t make night into day.

Continuous Lights

Continuous lights are nothing fancy – as the name implies, they’re always on and provide a stable and typically stationary source of primary lighting. In recent years, LED lights have taken the world of continuous lighting by storm because they emit a stable and even source of light, although its spectrum isn’t as high as strobe lighting. Continuous lighting is always necessary and helps set the contrast that occurs with any strobe lights.

Lighting Roles

Some lights are big, bulky, and put out a lot of light. Others are out of the way or tucked in a corner, and these are just as important. Many different lights fill different roles in how photography takes place and influences the final quality.

Key Light

Key lights are the most important light because they function as the main source of light in a scene. Key lights can be anything from a strong lamp to a flashlight. The main role of a key light is to provide the overall exposure effect on the photo, while other lights will fill and provide background contrast. If you have nothing else as far as lighting, you need a key light first.

Fill Light

Fill lights are a fun way to fill in the dark areas of a photo and provide a balanced exposure. Fill lights are typically less bright than key lights, and help create shadowy effects on faces especially. This technique helps provide a sense of dimension to photos.

Fill lightings are essential if you’re backlighting a photo because the lack of front-facing light will create a shadowy effect on your subject. Fill lighting helps achieve a reasonable level of light in all directions.

Background Light

Background lights are very useful for reducing and softening shadows cast from a subject against a backdrop. Background lights are usually placed near the back of any light setup, and usually will be less bright than a key light for the scene.

Diffusion

This isn’t a type of light but the crucial factor that determines how light falls on the subject and surroundings. Even diffusion evenly casts light on a subject with minimal shadows or overexposed ‘hot’ spots of light on the subject. Low diffusion can produce dramatic shifts in the contrast between the subject and background.

Rim Light

The rim light is more of a special lighting technique, where light is placed behind a subject and faces nearly perfectly forward. This creates a unique halo effect around the edges of a subject, creating a mysterious atmosphere.

Hair Lighting

Hair lighting is a special type of lighting added above a subject’s head, trained on the hair. Hair lighting accentuates the subject and helps add subtle depth to a shot. Hair lighting can help boost the perceived production values of a particular shoot or set. Notably used in interviews or portrait photos, but not that useful for long shots.

Ambient Light

Ambient lighting can be your best friend or worst enemy. You can’t replicate naturally perfect ambient lighting, but you can help improve conditions if they’re rough. Brighter lights can lighten up the lighting from a dim and cloudy day.

Using Lighting Modifiers to Maximum Effect

So you’ve got your lighting and everything is good to go. Or is it? Turns out you forgot to make use of the many tools used to modify the characteristics of light. These can help soften or otherwise alter how light appears.

Umbrellas

You’ve probably seen these on movie sets, where light is attached to a large metallic umbrella. Umbrellas are specially designed to soften and diffuse the quality of light coming from an off-camera light source. Umbrellas provide very general lighting that can be further manipulated through other tools and techniques.

Softboxes

Softboxes are a type of special enclosure that diffuses the light within in a very diffuse and pleasing way – the effect is similar to light streaming through a window. The insides are designed to reflect light in a very particular way, and the boxes are usually made of nylon or polyester. These are traditionally named for the rectangular window and light quality provided.

Softboxes give controlled and focused light, while umbrellas are more of a general aesthetic lighting option.

Softbox

Fluorescent and LED Lighting for Studio Photography

LED lights have become very popular in the past few years, and many people are making the switch from fluorescents as they offer greater efficiency and performance at an affordable price. But what are the differences between the two as far as studio photography goes?

Fluorescent Lighting

Fluorescent lighting is most widely used for lighting commercial spaces like stores, clinics, and malls. Smaller and curved CFL bulbs adapted from regular fluorescent bulbs offer clean white light perfect for softboxes. Fluorescent bulbs run cooler than traditional tungsten bulbs but may become slightly warm during use.

Fluorescent lighting became popular because it was a relatively cheap solution to mass lighting in large commercial areas. It provides decent levels of light but isn’t favored for studio work without diffusion because of the green/blue cast it usually gives photos.

LED Lighting

LED lighting is a new and highly efficient ‘replacement’ for CFL bulbs – LED bulbs reportedly last four times longer than CFL bulbs. Another nice benefit is that LED bulbs stay cool at all times compared to other bulbs. LED bulbs are competitively priced and commonly becoming cheaper than CFL bulbs in some cases.

LED lights provide a harsh white light without diffusion that highlights imperfections on subjects – they’re generally unflattering. Diffusion with a softbox and perhaps a fill light would moderate the picture while retaining the light’s strength.

For more information, check out this article:

Final Thoughts

Light can be captured and manipulated in so many ways for a camera, but only a key light is strictly necessary to get started. Fill, background, and other lights are useful for creating larger ranges of effects.

For more information, check out some of my other articles:

Sources

Vinnie

I'm Vinnie, and I'm here to support you to create your own studio at home, whether it’s for photography, recording audio, podcasts, or videos!

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