It’s easy to grab your camera, head outside, and shoot a few landscapes. You might even tinker with your camera settings and learn something new.
But there’s no better classroom than a photography studio.
Sure, it can feel like jumping into the deep end. But that’s where your creativity and technical knowledge will start working together, rather than against each other. The good news? It’s much easier than you may think!
We’ll walk you through the basics. In this lesson, we will look at key terms to know, some benefits of studio lighting, and we’ll offer our recommendations on the best equipment to get you started.
Let’s jump in!
What is a Studio Strobe?
In the simplest terms, a strobe light is like a camera flash.
When a photographer refers to a strobe, they typically mean the whole unit: the bulb itself, the head unit where the bulb screws in, and the stand to support it.
To be more accurate, a strobe in your studio is not merely a bigger version of the flash on your camera. Although both kinds of lights will “flash” in the general direction of your subject when you take a shot, that’s pretty much where the similarities end.
In most cases, studio strobes fill your shot with light all the time, and they flash when the shutter opens. We’ll explain this more in the next section, but they produce 100% of the light in your shot, not just the fill light from your camera flash.
Strobes also determine the quality of light. They can produce bright, harsh light for dramatic shots, or soft, warm light for an altogether different scene. They’re customizable down to the smallest detail – something that your on-camera flash cannot do.
Why Use Strobes Instead of Natural Light?
Shooting with natural light has its advantages. It’s a more pleasing light, since it is what our eyes are used to seeing. It’s usually cleaner, softer, warmer, and, well… more natural.
It’s also your only option sometimes. Landscape and Travel Photographers, for example, are used to making the most out of whatever light is on the scene. Another name for natural light is “available light.” It’s just… what you get. Luck of the draw.
You can pull the curtains to change the light coming through the window, but mostly, it just is what it is.
But if you’re shooting in a studio, chances are you want your output to be more fine-tuned and consistent. Natural light is too unpredictable. It changes by the minute; cloud cover, passing cars, and the simple passage of time can drastically alter each shot in your photo session.
But removing these variables from your session aren't the only benefits you'll get from strobes.
The Exclusive Benefits of Studio Strobes
To follow are a few benefits of strobe lighting that you just can't get from natural light:
- Positioning – Your studio lights will do a much better job of lighting your subject than natural light will. When you get a handle on lighting techniques, the professionalism in your shots will immediately jump up a notch or two. Or five. A model lit from both sides with a soft rim light (a light to accentuate hair) is MUCH better than just the light from a street lamp, for example.
- Mood control – Need hard light, with dramatic shadows? Or soft light, which “wraps” around your subject? Need a special warm or cool tone to your shots? Or perhaps a vivid color highlight? You can set up your strobes and studio lighting to give you the exact results you’re looking for. Getting the shot correct “in camera” is always better than pushing your image in Lightroom or Photoshop.
- Camera setting options – As mentioned above, studio strobes fill your shot with light all the time, and they flash when the shutter opens. This allows the photographer to see what the light is doing on the subject before they take the shot. The brighter flash at the time of the shot allows the photographer to choose a wider range of camera settings, which can affect things like the depth of field or motion blur.
- Consistency – You won’t “lose the light.” Worrying about the time of day, weather, and any light pollution will go bye-bye. You can get the same results in every session, any time of day or year. This is a must-have for most product photography, for example.
- Privacy – You won’t have tourists traipsing through your shot when you're in a studio. If you’re shooting a model, this helps everyone be more at ease. This ensures there will be no interruptions to your session.
Now that you understand the benefits of studio strobes, let's look at the what equipment you'll need to get started.
Basic Equipment Needed for Strobe Photography
Most studio equipment falls under the categories below. There are several categories of advanced equipment not listed here, but that’s the subject of another lesson.
Here are the basics.
The origin point of the light. The term “strobe” usually includes the bulb and the head unit that the bulb screws into. Strobes receive power either from a wall outlet, or a large battery pack.
This includes all the add-ons that affect the way the light behaves.
The most common modifier is a soft box, which looks like a black camping tent with a white bottom. A soft box attaches to your head to diffuse the light on your subject, reducing harsh shadows and glare.
An octobox is similar to a soft box but it has eight sides instead of four. Their main use is in portraiture.
Another commonly used light modifier are umbrellas. They come in “shoot-through” and “reflective” varieties to modify nearly any light source. Umbrellas can soften light like a soft box, add directional fill light, or used to add specular highlights.
A beauty dish looks like a TV dish that is placed on your head unit. It allows the photographer to have a stronger light for dramatic shadows, but also reduces the center highlight (essentially, the direct reflection of the bulb), resulting in stark shadows without a distracting specular highlight.
Reflectors are often used to bounce light back into overly shadowed areas. They come in various sizes and colors that produce different effects.
Other Equipment Used in Strobe Photography:
Cord or Wireless Trigger – Your trigger connects your strobes to your camera, either wired or wirelessly, so they work together. When syncing your lights wirelessly (which I recommended) your trigger includes a transceiver (transmitter) and a receiver.
Light Meter – As you probably guessed, a light meter measures light. What this means for your photography is that you can determine the exact exposure settings for your session. This gets into the more technical aspects of studio photography, so we’ll dive into this in another lesson.
Light Stand – A light stand is like a tripod for your light. It allows you to position your light at any height or direction, leaving you free to move around with your camera.
Sand Bags – These are perfect stabilizers for your light stand. Placed them at the base of your stand to keep the legs from moving, or hang from the center pole of the stand to act as a ballast.
A light stand with a heavy strobe and any kind of modifier (as above) can make your lighting setup very top-heavy. The last thing you need in your studio is a heavy falling object, especially one that contains both glass and an electrical current.
Each of the items above come in a variety of prices and qualities, but they are all mainstays in every studio.
Starting Settings for Lighting with Studio Strobes
Once you have a basic setup with the equipment mentioned above (or have found a DIY alternative, for starters) it’s time to optimize your camera. You’ll want to set your camera to Manual Mode, so you can adjust the three main settings independently. (The three settings are the ISO, the aperture, and the shutter speed. )
The best starting point for studio shooting is:
- ISO 100 f5.6 SS1/125
Setting your ISO to 100, rather than leaving it on Auto, ensures that you will have minimal noise in your photo.
Setting your f-stop to 5.6 gives you a crisp image with a depth of field about as deep as your subject (usually a person, relatively close to a backdrop). You’ll also potentially get a nice focus fall-off around the edges, bringing attention to the most important part of your subject. (Pro Tip: When shooting models, the eyes should always have the sharpest focus!)
Setting your shutter speed to 1/125 of a second will let in the maximum amount of light, while being fast enough to shoot hand-held (no tripod). Unless a motocross race is zipping through your studio, you probably won’t need to shoot much faster than this. This is also approaching the upper limit of your flash sync speed, which we’ll talk briefly on in a moment.
With these settings dialed in, the only thing you’re likely to adjust is your aperture, to ensure you get the correct exposure and depth of field. (This is where your light meter comes in handy!)
A Studio Lighting “Must Know”: Flash Sync Speed
The Flash Sync Speed is where your camera settings and your off-camera strobe come together. Your strobes need to flash at the exact moment that your shutter is 100% open. If those two events are not in sync, you won’t get the full benefit of your flash, and you'll receive diminishing returns on the light provided by your strobe.
If your camera and flash are out-of-sync, you might see the internal mechanical elements of your camera showing up in your photos, rendering the photos unusable.
Studio photographers typically shoot in bright conditions, and at the widest aperture (lowest f-stop number) and fastest shutter speed that they can get away with. The Flash Sync Speed can change somewhat depending on your gear, so you must get acquainted with its limits before you start your session.
Recommended Gear for Studio Lighting
Are you ready to take the leap into studio photography?
We put together a few lists of our absolute favorite gear to get you started. Each piece is hand-selected, based on years of experience field testing each one. We have found the best gear at several price points, so you don’t have to do any guess work.
David recommends these package setups:
Budget Friendly Option:
Flash: Einstein Flash Unit
Modifier: Foldable Octobox
Sand Bag: 25lb Filled Saddlebag
Light Meter: Sekonic litemaster
Light Stand: Manfrotto air cushioned light stand
Light Stand, Optional: C-stand
Receiver: Pocket wizard for Einstein Flash
Transceiver: PocketWizard PlusX Transceiver
Optimal Power Package:
Light Kit: Profoto B1X 500 AirTTL 1-Light To-Go Kit
Remote: Profoto Air Remote TTL-C for Canon
Remote: Profoto Air Remote TTL-N for Nikon
Light Stand: C-stand
Light Stand, Super Boom: Manfrotto 025BS Super Boom
Sand Bag: 25lb Filled Saddlebag
Light Meter: Sekonic Speedmaster L-858D-U Light Meter
Modifier: Profoto 5′ RFi Octa Softbo
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