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Iain McCulloch

Studio Lighting

The aim of most artificial lighting is to create a general sense of a natural environment and to
emphasise the form, shape and texture of the subject. The lighting may also contribute to the
‘atmosphere’ of the image. An understanding of the characteristics of light, the types of light
source available in the studio, their features, and how they are used helps the photographer to
achieve these aims.

Lighting Characteristics

There are six properties of lighting that must be considered. This is not only true in the studio,
but in all photographic situations. The six properties are lighting quality, direction, contrast,
evenness, colour, and intensity. They are described below:

• QUALITY - This is mostly concerned with the type of shadow

that is generated by the light. Lighting quality depends mainly on
the size of the source relative to its distance from the subject.

• DIRECTION – The direction and angle of the light source

determines where the subject’s light and shade will fall. This, in
turn, affects the appearance of texture and form.

• CONTRAST – The ratio of light reaching the lit parts of the

subject to the light reaching those parts in shadow. Photographic
film cannot record as wide a range of brightness as can the human
eye. Lighting the subject in a black-and white photograph so that
the maximum contrast between light and dark areas is about 10:1
(equivalent to about 3½ stops) should allow detail to be recorded
throughout the image.

• EVENNESS – As a light source is moved away from the subject,

the light intensity decreases according to an inverse square law.
Thus, if the distance of a light source from the subject is doubled,
the light intensity reaching the subject falls to one quarter of its
original value. If several subjects are in the frame being lit by a
single source, the amount of light reaching each may vary
appreciably and the scene will be unevenly lit.

• COLOUR – Although most light sources used in photography

produce a ‘white light’, the precise range of frequencies in each
will vary. These differing frequencies will affect the colour
temperature of the light. The higher the temperature (in Kelvin),
the more blue the light. Film is designed for particular types of
light. For example Daylight Film (5500K) or Tungsten Film
(3200K). Using light with a different colour temperature can lead
Iain McCulloch
to colour casts on the negative. These can be corrected for using
appropriate filters on the camera. A colour meter can be used to
determine the actual colour temperature of the lights in use.

• INTENSITY – The amount of light reaching the subject. Intensity

can be measured with a light meter and controlled with the
exposure settings on the camera.

Subject Lighting

In general, three kinds of light are used for studio lighting, although these may be
supplemented with additional lights as required. The first of the three kinds of light is the
brightest and is called the key light or main light. This light is often set to come from above
and slightly to the side of the subject, much like the sun outdoors.

The second light is called the fill light. This light represents reflected light that would fall on
a subject outdoors. The fill light softens shadows by slightly filling them in while lightening
up the dark side of the subject. The fill light is almost always less bright than the main light,
and is often produced using reflectors. It is placed on the opposite side of the camera to the
key light and usually not as high. Some texts recommend that the fill light is placed right next
to the camera.

The third light in the set for the studio is the background light. This is usually placed directly
behind the subject aimed at the background and is used to eliminate shadows from the subject
falling on the background.

A fourth light that is often added in portraiture is the rim

light or hair light. This light is set up behind the subject and
slightly higher than the other lights. It provides a glow or
halo around the subject and helps separate it from the

Complex subjects with many planes or facets often require second, or even third and fourth,
lights. Symmetry between the lights should be avoided. Light sources should be set up at
different heights, different angles relative to the camera and with different brightnesses.

The photographer should use the absolute minimum number of light sources required to
adequately light the subject. These lights can be either continuous sources or flash. The motto
for the photographer working with studio lighting must be: keep it simple.

Iain McCulloch
Lighting Units

The light used in the studio can come from a variety

of sources. Fixed tungsten lighting units are less
expensive than studio flash units and are available as
either mains or battery powered units. The light is
produced by a tungsten filament contained in a
neutral halogen gas, and are thus often referred to as
‘tungsten-halogen’ lights (or sometimes ‘quartz-
iodine’ units). As may be expected, tungsten lights
can either be used with tungsten-balanced film or
with a suitable correction filter. Tungsten-halogen units produce a hard light, although a
diffuser can be fitted to provide soft light when required. Other accessories that can generally
be fitted include barn doors, acetate filter holders, gauze ‘scrims’ snoots etc.

Flash units provide an intense burst of light, which is

typically 1/1000 s or less in duration. They are usually
daylight balanced, and so can be used with daylight film
without correction filters, although it is worth noting that
flash bulbs can change in colour over time. Smaller units are
battery powered and clip to the camera. These include ring-
flash units that can be attached to the front of the lens.
Larger studio flash units are mains powered. Flash produces
a hard light. For soft light the unit is usually reversed into a
white reflector or umbrella. A specialist flash meter is
required to determine the correct exposure, and Polaroid
prints may be needed to check the set-up prior to the shoot.

Other light sources that may be used in the studio include daylight, photofloods and
fluorescent tubes. Daylight is much more variable than man-made light sources. The light
may vary between very hard (in direct sunlight under clear skies) and extremely soft (under
total cloud cover). Photofloods are usually designed for movie stock, and will require filters if
used with normal still film. Fluorescent tubes are especially useful with black-and-white film,
although correction filters are available for colour film. Daylight balanced tubes are also
available. As mentioned earlier, colour correction filters may be required either on the lens or
on the light source to match the colour temperature of the source to that of the film.

Iain McCulloch
Using Lights in the Studio

Lighting in the studio is an immensely flexible medium. The photographer has almost total
control of most of the lighting characteristics discussed above. There is insufficient space
here to adequately cover all aspects of the use of lights in the studio. For this reason the use of
lights in the studio will be restricted to an example illustrating the use of a single main light
on a subject without fill or background light.

As stated above, lighting can be used to emphasise the form, shape and texture of the subject.
In the case of a human subject changes in the direction of the light can have a dramatic effect.
This is illustrated in the examples below. The first set of pictures shows the effect of lighting
the model from in front, behind, above, below and from the side. The resulting images are
dramatically different. It is up to the photographer to determine exactly what effect they are
trying to achieve.

1A 0º full front
1B 180º rearward
1C 90º downward
1D 90º upward
1E 90º left side (after Kerr, 1999c.)

The next set of pictures show the same model lit by the same single light. The height of the
light is fixed at the same level in all pictures.

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2A 45º left forward

2B 0º full frontal
2C 45º right forward
2D 45º left rear
2E 180º behind
2F 45º right rear (after Kerr, 1999c.)

Once again, simply moving the light so that the subject is illuminated from different
directions changes the emphasis of the final photograph. Clearly, the choice of height and
direction of the light source relative to the subject (and to the camera) will make or mar the

Use of additional lights or reflectors would increase the photographer’s options for
illustrating the model. However, keeping the lighting simple helps the photographer
determine which features are emphasised and which are not. It also allows the photographer
to accurately place shadows where required, and remain in control of the shoot.

Iain McCulloch

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November/December 1998.

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