Mastering studio lighting can feel like a Herculean feat when you’re just getting started. Like any aspect of photography, it requires patience, practice, and plenty of mistakes before it comes naturally. In an effort to shorten your learning curve, we’ve rounded up 10 common issues that beginners encounter and how to fix them.
Lighting setups can be as simple or complicated as your heart desires—or your shot requires. However, before you can begin to think about how to use your lights creatively, you need to understand how they work on a technical level.
1. Exceeding the Maximum Flash Sync Shutter Speed
You are trying out your new strobe and everything is going smoothly. You check your images mid-shoot and are horrified to discover a black line at the bottom or the side of every photo. What happened? Is your sensor broken? Is something obstructing your lens? Is there a ghost in the room? Among the most common, and often alarming, mistakes novices make when using strobes is exceeding the maximum flash sync speed of their camera. Doing so can result in shadows from your camera’s shutter curtains disrupting your image. This is easily fixed by checking your camera’s manual to see what its max sync speed is and making sure to stay at or under it.
But what if you want to use your strobe for freezing fast motion? Luckily, lights with high-speed sync (HSS) capabilities allow you to work at much faster shutter speeds. Make sure your camera and trigger are also capable of HSS and you are good to go. To learn more about different sync modes, check out Bjorn Petersen’s article on flash.
2. Relying on TTL Metering
Don’t get me wrong, TTL is a beneficial feature to have in a flash. If you are in a situation where you have no time to set up or there’s just a frantic working pace, it can save the day. However, just as experienced photographers use manual settings on their cameras to achieve exactly the results they want, the same is true of lights. What separates a skilled photographer from a lucky photographer is repeatability. When you set up a light in manual mode, you know exactly what you are going to get every time it fires. While theoretically, photographing the same scene in TTL mode should result in the same settings on your light, often there is just enough variation to make you want to pull your hair out when reviewing images in post. Using TTL metering will also slow your refresh times, consume more power, and run the risk of potentially being “confused” by modifiers with disastrous results. If you intend to use your lights regularly, put in the work and learn how to set them up manually. It is worth the effort.
3. Underestimating the Value of a Light Meter
OK, you understand the benefit of manually setting up your light. Now what? To avoid wasting time guessing or fumbling through trial-and-error exposures, you should invest in a light meter. Unlike shooting with natural light, you cannot use your camera’s internal metering system as a starting point, since your flash is triggered as your exposure is being made. Many newer light meters can wirelessly trigger your strobe to calculate precise readings. Click here for a useful video on how to use light meters.
4. Forgetting to Balance Mixed Light Sources
The most challenging lighting scenarios for photographers are those that introduce light sources that cannot be adjusted. This is a common frustration when working on location or covering an event. How do you achieve consistent white balance when working in a reception hall with incandescent lights or an office with fluorescent overheads? The solution is to focus on what you are able to control—your light. Gels can be used to match the color temperature of a variety of light sources roughly. It is as simple as attaching or taping the correct gel over your light. If you find yourself battling ambient light on a regular basis, invest in a color correction gel kit to simplify your life in post. An alternative solution is to use a bi-color LED light that can be adjusted to match its environment.
5. Ignoring the “Other” Temperature of Light Sources
Anything that produces the amount of light necessary to make a photograph is eventually going to get hot. Continuous lights are the worst culprits, with tungsten lights being notorious for contributing unwanted heat to film sets. LED and fluorescent lights are considerably cooler, but you still want to make sure the vents on your light are always uncovered to prevent overheating.
Even strobes and flashes can get hot! Be careful not to leave modeling lights on for too long because they may overheat your light or damage modifiers. This is particularly true of units that use incandescent bulbs for modeling lights, which can easily melt plastic or burn holes in modifiers if left on for extended periods of time.
The remaining mistakes can only be considered such if you are unaware that you are making them. Aesthetic decisions are subjective, and rules are regularly bent or broken in the name of making successful photographs.
6. Forgetting to Fill
One of the keys to successful lighting is balance. High-contrast lighting can create dramatic images when such an effect is desired, but generally speaking, you don’t want large portions of your subject falling into shadow. You can achieve more balanced lighting by adding fill light. This can be accomplished using additional light sources, reflectors, or bounce cards. To learn more about balancing light sources, check out my article on three-point lighting.
7. Losing Detail to Black Backgrounds
Black backgrounds can be great for soaking up light and establishing a mood in your photograph. They can also be somewhat tricky to negotiate if your subject happens to be dark in color. Clothes, hair, and even skin tones can blend into dark backgrounds if they are poorly lit. Hair lights are the simplest means of establishing subject-background separation for portraits. Position a small light above and behind your subject. Exact placement can be adjusted to achieve your desired effect. The important part is that you add enough light to distinguish the edges of your sitter from their background. For full-body images, strip softboxes can provide targeted separation.
On the other end of the spectrum, if you are photographing your subject in front of a strong light source (e.g., bright window), you run the risk of losing detail in the highlights of your image. Over-backlighting can lend an ethereal effect to an image as edges appear to dissolve into white light. Depending on your scenario, there are two solutions to this problem: reduce your backlight or increase the rest of your lights. If you are battling natural light, you can’t necessarily turn down the sun. Diffusion can help, as long as it remains out of your shot. Otherwise, the simplest method is to turn up the light source in front of your subject to establish balance in your exposure.
9. Creating Distracting Catchlights
Catchlights provide an extra spark of liveliness to portraits, drawing attention to the eyes of your sitter. However, some catchlights can be downright distracting. Subtlety is key. Unusually shaped lights and reflectors can produce catchlights so distracting that they compete with your subject for attention or, worse, introduce a cartoonish effect to your image. This can be a tricky issue to navigate since catchlights are ultimately the byproduct of your lighting setup. The best solution is to be aware of the effects that your lights and reflectors will have on catchlights while setting up your shot. Unmodified lights and silver reflectors will produce the most intense catchlights. Adding fill with a white reflector or using a modifier can produce a more muted effect.
10. Using the Wrong Modifier for the Shot
There are countless modifiers available to shape your light exactly how you need it to achieve the effect that you want. This also opens up the possibility of using the wrong modifier for a particular image. One of the most important considerations when choosing a modifier is size. You don’t want to (unintentionally) light only half of your subject. Choose a modifier that will adequately cover your subject.
On the other hand, you want to control where your light goes. Grids and flags can be used to direct your light and reduce spill. Specialized modifiers like beauty dishes work wonders when used properly. However, when misused, they can create awful shadows or produce unwanted contrast. Click here for an introduction to umbrellas, softboxes, and beauty dishes. Check out this article to learn about using flags and scrims.
What mistakes did you learn the hard way when learning how to light your shots? Share your tips in the Comments section, below!