Lighting – Where To Begin

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Tattoo by JD Photography

One of the most intimidating things to venture into in photography is studio lighting. At one point or another we all feel a bit limited by using only ambient light or light from our pop-up or external flash, and we begin to entertain the thought of getting a few lights. So we start to research, and we come across a veritable universe of terms like strobes, constant lights, softboxes, hot lights, cool lights, pocket wizards, umbrellas, snoots, barn doors… there are so many options and configurations, gadgets and gizmos, that things can get very overwhelming very quickly.

So! I’m here to help you get started and make your way through it all one step at a time.

There’s a lot you can do with one light.

If you’re already a proud owner of an external flash, you probably already know this. So, a great way to get yourself started is to simply buy some accessories for your external flash. Get a stand (something like this one from Manfrotto), get an umbrella (something like this Westcott) or a softbox (something like this ALZO), attach them to your external flash, and play around. Position the light in various ways around the subject and see how it effects your photography. Essentially, a setup like this is very similar to a setup for a strobe light, so this is a great way to introduce yourself to studio lighting.

There are single light kits available that provide all of the accessories you need to hit the ground running. If you’re looking for a continuous light – one that you can turn on and off and not have to worry about syncing with your camera – something like this Photography Studio continuous lighting kit is a great place to start.

If you want to try out a strobe, Cowboy Studios has a lot of different options like this strobe umbrella lighting kit that includes a light stand, a strobe flash, a sync cord and power cord, a model light, and an umbrella, all for just $85.00 at the time of this post.

As you’ve probably guessed, the photograph at the beginning of this article was taken using a single strobe.

A three light setup for high key photographs

Progress to a three light setup.

You will find a lot of photographers, photography publications and photography websites talking about the “basic three light setup”. This refers to:

- A key light – this is the foundation of the three light setup and is positioned first to illuminate the subject.
- A fill light – this light fills in the shadows and provides overall illumination of the area around the subject.
- A separation, or “kicker” light – this pulls the subject out and separates it from the background

The great thing about a three light setup is how flexible it is. Pretty much any type of light can be used as a key, fill, or kicker light. Of course, some lights are specialized for these particular roles (we can’t make this all TOO simple, after all), but in general you can get great results from any combination of external flashes, strobes and continuous light sources, directed with softboxes, umbrellas, and reflectors.

There are a huge variety of three light kits that you can purchase that contain everything you need to set up a basic and flexible studio. Some even come with backgrounds and frames. This CowboyStudio light kit contains three strobes, two softboxes, a barndoor, a snoot, and reflectors for $285.00 as of the date of this post. This CowboyStudio Softbox Lighting & Boom Kit is on my own wish list.

(The photo of the studio at the beginning of this section demonstrates a trio of lights set up for a high key portrait effect.)

Additional Resources

For advice on how to make three lights work together, check out this great article by which demonstrates the use of each type of light, and some positioning tips.

Strobist is also a great resource – they’ve posted a tutorial on how to use a Pocket Wizard (the gizmo that’s used to sync all of your strobes), and their blog in general is fraught with all sorts of lighting tips, tutorials, and expertise.

Finally, check out this great “Basic Three Light Setup” video by Mark Wallace over at

Once you’ve mastered single light and three light configurations, it gets much easier to build upon that knowledge. Before you know it, you will have mastered the art and technical skill of studio lighting no matter how complicated or simple the studio!


A couple of items to note – there’s a new poll up on the main page, please make your opinion known!

Also, in case you missed it, I posted the winner of our giveaway yesterday on our Facebook page!

Photo credits (in order of appearance):
- “Tattoo” by JD Photography on Flickr Creative Commons.
- “Studio in the RAW: High Key Set-Up” by Alan Antiporda on Flickr Creative Commons.

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