Small Lights, Big Looks


If you don’t have the budget to buy or rent studio lighting gear, or you just prefer to travel light, can you still get studio-style results?

The good news is that you can. The equipment will not be as functionally convenient as gear designed specifically for the job. You’ll have to get a bit creative in terms of how you piece together and use parts that weren’t conceived for this purpose. In the end, light is light—it’s how you use it and how you modify the sources that really give lighting its “look.”

Editor's Note: This is a guest blogpost by Brian Dilg, Chair, New York Film Academy Photography School

Opening photo is Day Two Hundred Ninety-nine: Ninja Time [Explored] by Stormline via the B&H Photo Flickr Group

The basis of an inexpensive, highly-portable lighting kit is the humble battery powered flash. These were designed for one primary purpose: to slide onto the hot shoe on top of a camera. You know the look from countless amateur photos. It’s what I call the 'deer-in-the-headlights' look, a snapshot aesthetic. Pros like Juergen Teller have exploited this look to great effect. More subtle uses can be achieved using the flash to supplement daylight, and to balance a foreground subject to the bright sky ('fill flash'). However, as long as the flash is a small, hard source located physically on or close to the camera, the looks you can achieve are limited.

Using Portable Flash Like a Studio Light

So how can we get that studio-lighting look from these little strobes? The differences between studio and portable strobes are mostly a matter of convenience, not aesthetic. Studio strobes are brighter, they recycle faster, and it’s easy to mount accessories in front of them.

First, we have to take the flash off the camera so we can position it wherever we want it. Next, we have to trigger it remotely. A simple PC cable is an inexpensive but fragile method. It just triggers the flash, but doesn’t communicate exposure data between the flash and the camera, so you will have to set flash brightness manually to get the desired exposure.

Tripping over a fragile cable isn’t a great way to work, especially at distances longer than an arm’s length, so a wireless radio transmitter/receiver pair is greatly preferable (albeit far more expensive). The big decision is whether to use wireless TTL (Through The Lens) systems (like the PocketWizard FlexTT5) or non-TTL. (One of the models most widely used by pros is the PocketWizard Plus Transceiver. A less expensive, shorter range option is something like the Strobie iSync 4.)

TTL essentially means that a camera and flash coordinate to set exposure automatically. If you like the look of a hard, naked flash, then the more-expensive wireless TTL transceivers may be for you. For the look we’re after, however, we need to modify the light from our portable flashes in ways that don’t work well with TTL. As in a controlled studio environment, this works best if you can wrangle your subject’s position so your exposure doesn’t keep changing.


To achieve a studio-lighting look, the single most important step, next to moving the light off-camera, is shaping the quality of the light. The most popular technique is diffusion. This is the equivalent of putting clouds between you and the sun; instead of hard shadows and high contrast, the beam of light is scattered in innumerable directions when it passes through translucent diffusion material, and the many shadows from each scattered beam blend together to form very soft-edged shadows. The light “wraps” around your subject. Result: that soft, beautiful, flattering light used by studio portrait photographers every day.

Here’s an example that I shot with just one little strobe firing through a 42” flex fill held just outside the frame. You could achieve the same result with a $5 shower curtain liner, as long as you have friends to hold it for you! I composed so the sun was just above the top of the frame, functioning as a backlight on my subject.

To calculate exposure, I first used my camera’s meter to determine the look I wanted on the background (slightly dark), then I asked my subject to step in, and adjusted the brightness of the flash until I liked the balance to the background. I prefer to use an incident light meter to measure the exact intensity of the strobe, but with the immediate feedback of a digital camera, trial and error works just fine, provided you have the time.

Effective Diffuser Size

A large, diffused source (often circular or octagonal) is the #1 feature of that studio look we’re after. The bigger the diffuser, the softer it will be. If you want to light a large subject—like a group portrait—you’ll need a big diffuser.

But size is not just affected by physical dimensions. People viewed from the top of a 100-story building look much smaller than when you’re standing right next to them. The same goes for diffusers. The closer you put them to your subject, the bigger their effective size, and the softer they become.

Note that moving the diffuser is not the same as moving the light source. Changing the distance between the light and the subject changes its effective brightness; moving the diffuser mostly changes its effective size.

Mounting Lights

Portable strobes are conveniently constructed to slide onto a camera’s hot shoe—and nothing else. To physically hold the flash, we need something like a very inexpensive adapter to mount a cold shoe to a ¼" light stand. (A cold shoe physically holds the flash without electronically triggering it. The Strobie iSync 4 has this built in.) If you can’t deal with carrying a light stand (or a tripod), you’ll need to deputize a friend to hold the flash and the diffuser. Beware of the flash sliding out of the cold shoe. Look for an adapter that can tighten and hold the flash securely.

Mounting Diffusers

There are some hardware accessories that let you mount studio softboxes in front of portable strobes (like the Aurora Z-bracket, sadly discontinued). A much more portable and inexpensive solution is simply to pack a collapsible reflector (often called a “flex fill”) that contains a diffuser, like the 42” Impact 5-in-1 disc. They're inexpensive, light, and small, and they also contains reflectors that you can use with any light source. (I find hard silver and soft white surfaces to be the most useful.) Unless you can count on having an assistant, I recommend packing a light stand and bracket to hold your reflector in place. Lastolight makes a nifty bracket that holds both a flash and a flex fill.

Here’s a little trick about firing strobes through a diffuser: Since you can’t see what a strobe is doing until you shoot the picture, you want to be sure that your light source is using the entire diffuser surface. You do this by adjusting the electronic or mechanical zoom (i.e., dispersion angle) on your flash, and adjusting the distance from the flash to the diffuser, if necessary.

To visually confirm what you’re actually getting, take a picture of the surface of the diffuser, and you’ll see exactly how the strobe is lighting it. (You may need to darken your exposure for this test.)

Adding an Edge Light

The last element we’re going to throw in to mimic the studio look is a second strobe. Although the aesthetics of lighting is a vast topic, here’s a very simple, classic formula for lighting a face with only two lights: remember the “X.” Put your main (‘key’) light on one leg of the X, your other light (your “edge light” or “rim light”) on the other end of that leg, 180º opposite, and position your camera on the other leg of the X. Your subject faces the space between the legs of the X. (See diagram)

You’ll note that the camera is facing the shadowy side of the face. Remember this: light reveals; shadows conceal. The drama is in the shadows. The purpose of the key light is fundamentally to illuminate what you want your viewer to see. The purpose of the edge light is to separate the subject from the background clearly. Alternate light and dark areas, and you’ll maximize the three dimensional quality of your subject. Light everything from the camera side, and everything flattens out.

You’ll need a radio receiver (or a less expensive optical slave) for each strobe, but only one transmitter connected to the hot shoe or PC socket on your camera.

Here’s a money-saving tip: When you take a portable strobe off-camera and use it manually (no TTL), any flash will do. You don’t need to pay for the expensive brand name strobes that are supposedly the ideal companion for a camera body. You don’t even need a Canon-compatible flash for a Canon camera. You’re simply triggering the flash, not communicating exposure data. Any brand of flash will work with any camera with non-TTL connections, as long as you can connect it to your PC cable or wireless radio slave. Save your money. Buy flashes that are bright enough to light your subject, but do make sure that they have a variable zoom and adjustable brightness. Short recycling time is also helpful.

While diffusion is the most popular way of modifying a point light source, it is certainly not the only option. Light can be made extremely directional using a grid (check out the very affordable Vello models). Another favorite accessory is a beauty dish, which makes your light fairly directional but softens it somewhat, and also gives it a circular shape whose reflection beautifully echoes the shape of the eye itself. (Check out the Interfit Strobie mini beauty dish for portable flash, used in this example image.)

And don’t discard hard, unmodified light; it is an aesthetic that deserves just as must exploration as anything else.

“Studio Lighting” with No Flash

The last thing I’ll point out is that you can use two simple flex fills to turn harsh sunlight into a beautiful studio-lighting look using the same principles. Here are two basic ways to do this:

1) Use the direct sunlight as a back light or edge light, and bounce it back as a soft key light using a soft white reflector. (Example shown)

2) Use the sun as a soft key light by angling it through a diffuser, and use a hard silver reflector to bounce it back as an edge light. It doesn’t get any less expensive or simple than that, and the results speak for themselves.