How to create lighting setup and operate with lighting sources in the studio

October 21, 2013   107814 views

To introduce you to one of many studio lighting setups I use, and most importantly to show the sequence and the nuances of photography lighting, I took the most obedient, and most importantly immovable model – the mannequin.

studio photography softbox lighting setup

Photographers regularly use a mannequin when giving lessons on photography lighting setups, so I decided to follow tradition and show you the process of doing so using a mannequin. The aim of this lesson is to create a studio photography lighting setup for a full body photo with dramatic but soft lighting, with detailed shadows and a beautifully lit background with a noticeable focus of light behind the “model”, creating volume and giving the whole picture compositional completeness. As you know, any nice photography lighting is a series of successive actions by the photographer, who appears to work on an automatic, intuitive level, but this ease of working is preceded by making numerous decisions, creating algorithms and building their own rules of lighting.

Therefore, I will try not only to give you the complete solution – “do this and that”, but to explain every action to compare them with yours - to discuss, understand, see whether you agree or not, and then put them into the treasury of your knowledge and your skills that I hope you will find useful and significant. I made these photos with a medium 50 mm lens, but we could say that the main picture you see at the beginning of this article is shot with a 200 mm telephoto lens as this has been cropped from the original picture.

As a fashion photographer I work with Profoto equipment and here I used two Profoto D4 2400 watt/sec generators with three light sources. You will see two strobe heads in the pictures, but there is another one (used for fill light), which is directed to the opposite wall of the model. It unfortunately would never be seen in my photos.

For convenience, I will show one photo in every part of the article, so you can browse through them to see what changes occur in this lighting setup, and then read my detailed comments next to each of them. It is worth mentioning that the pictures were not corrected in the RAW-converter, except for a small adjustment of colour temperature, and are presented to you in the form in which the picture is visible in the RAW-converter.

So, here we go:


studio photography softbox lighting setup softbox reflector

Firstly, let’s look at this initial image. I just directed the softbox to the model, putting it on her left-hand side. (I’ll use “our side” terms, although when in the studio working with the model, I tend to operate using the “model’s side”, waiting for the clear, exact response to my commands). Too often, photographers use softbox lighting as an easy source of soft light, not really thinking about what a great instrument is in their hands and what to do in order to manage the light it provides! They often place the softbox in a position that covers the whole model. Therefore, we have made the decision (or if you haven't, now is a good time to do so) to use all the equipment as efficiently as possible, try to analyse what we see, and identify ways to effectively figure out the areas we are not satisfied with.

So, what do we see?

- The task of lighting the model has been solved only partially. The upper part of the model is much more intensely lit than the lower part. Although we do not always have to light the model completely from head to foot, in this case, in order to get a perfect picture we have to do it very carefully, lighting every area of the model.

- The right side of the model (again, if we look from our side) has fallen into deep shadows. This is a “blonde model.” What would happen if we put a real model into this studio lighting setup? We'd get absolutely black, uninformative shadows.

- The background is dark and flat. Even a soft shadow in the lower right corner of the background does not help the situation. It looks more like a careless, negligent style of lighting, not a pleasant image of light and shadows giving volume and a nice view to the picture, which is what we want.


studio setup fashion light softbox photography lighting

So, once we are aware of the kind of problems we have in the first image, we then need to solve all our difficulties step by step.

The first thing we must do is to put a clear, audible key light on the model. My concept of working with photography light has these fundamental principles: to be able to put a key light on the model with a single lighting source. To have the right angle of light according to our task (to have the whole model covered with just one light). To make sure the light doesn't require adjustments using any additional light sources. To have the kind of light that works well with the background and surrounding objects, or on the contrary does not interfere with other sources that we could add to this lighting setup. You can see how many characteristics fit into my concept of the correct key light.

To fulfil it, we should move the light source up and down, tilting, rotating around its axis, achieving all of the above requirements for key light.

But first, let’s look how our key light works with the background and just turn it around on it's axis towards the background.

You can see that the picture of the light on the model has not changed, simply that the light intensity has become slightly less. We see that the beam of light is directed at the background, and therefore the model is taken slightly out of the light and is now standing in the field of gradients surrounding the spot of the softbox lighting.

The background is a little bit more lit up at the top left, while the right-hand corner becomes much darker.


softbox lighting in full body studio lighting setup photography

Let’s turn the softbox in our direction. We can see that the background becomes darker – the light from the softbox is now directed to the other side of the background. The model stays at the edge of the softbox lighting spot and the light on her becomes slightly darker than in the original photo. However, it is clear that the style of light has not changed much on the model - it corresponds to the initial image. It can be seen that the distribution of the light becomes better on the model, the coverage of the light on the feet is not so very different from the top part of the model as you can see in the original picture.

It is easy to explain: the softbox has a gradient from top to bottom, but when we turn the key light away from the model’s face, “her” legs are still in the light beam, which is wider than the narrow part on “her” face level.

You will understand the geometry of light if you try to move light sources, noticing all the nuances of the light style, the light distribution, the beam, the shadows etc., and bring all this knowledge in to your practice. Then in your real work, you will be able to operate virtuosity with light and get the efficiency that you need.


studio lighting setup, softbox light in studio photography

Let’s return to the initial position of the softbox, but tilt it slightly downwards.

I often position the softbox like this, for many reasons.

The first reason is that I wish to illuminate the model with the most soft light I can get. Remember, the closer the light source, the more soft light we get. So I try to move the softbox as close as possible to the model, selecting a position where it distributes the light along the entire length of the body. I tilt the softbox down, and the model is no longer working in the field of the light spot but rather in the gradients that surround the spot of light. If we did it differently  and set the softbox perpendicular to the model, in order to illuminate the whole model, the softbox would have to be at a greater distance and the light would become a much harder and wider.

The second reason - my wish to keep the light source above eye level. So many photographers, seeing that the lower part of the model is not covered with light, begin to lower the soft box, but when the light falls below the eye level they get an ugly picture of the light on the face. It is very unusual that light coming from below would be flattering for a model. As I said, I try always to put a light source above eye level and I prefer to tilt the softbox downwards rather than lower it.

The third - the style of light on the model. In such a setting, I get a softer light on the face of the model, and more dramatic light on its middle and lower parts.

The fourth - the shadow in this style of lighting usually falls on the feet and does not go far to the background, spoiling the light pattern on it.


studio softbox lighting setup of photography light

I tilt the softbox down and lower it a little bit. You can see that the light falling on the model covers the legs and it has the same intensity both on the chest and face.

I must say that I am much more comfortable with using a rail system, because it allows me to work with light with wider possibilities: changing it's position, tilting it to any angle and putting it over the head of a model.

However, I chose not to use the rail system here in order to demonstrate possibilities of photography lighting setups with the equipment that is available in every studio. Despite my desire to tilt the softbox as far down as possible, I was limited with the stand – the base of the softbox rests on it and does not give the possibility to tilt it any further down. So I stopped at the lowest possible position, resting one of the edges of the softbox on the stand.


Full Body studio Lighting setup fashion light softbox photography photography

I am still continuing to work with the position of the softbox. The height of the softbox is now very low. If I lowered the softbox below this point, I would get a situation where the model’s face would fall out of the light, and in most cases, as I said, we must ensure that the light source stays above the eye level of the model. Otherwise we would get a very unsightly picture.

Without changing the height of the soft box, I’m trying to achieve an effect where the light is evenly distributed on the model as much as possible, and secondly, illuminate the background as little as possible. I usually use a type of lighting that doesn’t affect the background. I will work with the background later, putting additional light sources on it but for now we have to ensure that the background is out of our light range.

Using the softbox in this position, as presented in the picture, I have enough soft light on the model and an almost black background that is now suitable for any lighting.


Full Body studio Lighting setup light softbox photography

The background on the previous photo was still slightly lit by the soft box, so I have to introduce new equipment in the lighting setup – the black flag.

I must say that a skilful handling of such accessories like flags, scrims and frames distinguishes advanced photographers from amateurs just beginning their careers. The presence of a wide range of flags etc. allow every advanced photographer to get full control over lighting equipment - to darken some parts of the lighting scene, form the beam shape, lower the power of light, close the camera lens from lighting sources – all these things I do with flags. So if you want to make a big step in photography you should learn to work with all pieces of equipment that are presented in the studio, which will give you new ways to work with light.

But let’s look at the picture. I have put this black flag near the back side of the softbox. It removes only the light from the softbox which goes to the background, it is not altering the light on the model. The flag is set up in such a way to be behind the scene, and is placed very near the softbox so that there won't be any hard shadows in the picture. When we move the flag from the softbox, the light and shadows from it become harder and more noticeable. So the best solution is to keep it as close to the lighting source as you can.

I found a position to place the flag where it reduced only the light shining on the background, and I got the light strip at the level of the model’s feet, stretching from the left to the right hand side of the picture. Although if I decided that I wanted to remove this line, I could do it without touching the light on the model.


photography studio lighting setup fashion softbox   studio lighting setup fashion softbox photography

studio lighting setup fashion softbox photography   studio lighting setup fashion softbox photography

The second important source in my lighting setup is the fill light. The aim of using a fill light is (not being seen in lighting scene) to add some light that will illuminate the dark side of model, to pull out the details and to get the information in the shadow areas of photos.

Requirements for this kind of light are very clear and easily articulated. The light should be as soft as possible, make  no shadows on the background and surrounding objects, have no colour or tint and be as far away from the model as possible so that it covers all areas of the photograph. The best solution is a reflector directed at the opposite wall from the background. If the reflector is set directly behind the photographer and turned towards the back wall, this solution will give us a soft light coming from the camera, and will evenly light the whole scene.

I often use the terms “slightly” and “little”, not because I don't know the exact values of the power of the light, but because for every type of photography, for every colour, type of background, the colour and brightness of the clothes on the model, the hardness of the key light, and for the style of picture, these values will vary considerably. So I attempt to use different values of power, looking at the image on the screen (I always use the computer screen connected to the camera) and adjusting the fill light appropriately to see what will work best for each specific photograph.

In this case, I reduced the power to minimum, then gradually increased the power of the fill light, one stop at a time, in order to choose the most appropriate value.


studio photography lighting setup fashion softbox reflector   Oleg Ti. Full body lighting setup. Part 3

studio lighting setup fashion softbox photography   Full body photography lighting setup

In the pictures presented above, you can see only the fill light. I turned off the key light in order to see how the fill light works. The reflector is directed to the back wall behind the photographer and I, as well as in the previous series of pictures, increased the power by one stop to see how the intensity of the fill light changed.

It should be noted that such a photography lighting setup using the reflected light from the walls of the studio, is quite common in my practice. That’s why I like to work in studios with white walls. After all, you can put black flags around the model. Eliminating the unnecessary reflections in a white studio is much easier than adding suitable reflections from dark or black walls, meaning you have to dramatically increase the power of lighting units and therefore receive various tints from usually not neutral walls. Using the reflected light gives us so many advantages, one of them being that you can change its direction and softness very quickly.

In this case, I was limited by the dimensions of the studio (it was just 9 meters of length, a small studio for me) and there wasn't much distance between the lighting unit and the wall, so I was unable to get very soft light, but you can't see the shadows on the background behind the model. The lighting on the model is not soft and flat enough, so I moved the fill light slightly to the right so it worked more on “the shadow side” of the model - opposite to the left side, which is getting the key light.

If it isn't possible to shoot in a white studio, the photographer can put a big oktabox or softbox behind their back, directed towards the model, which can also be quite effective for getting appropriate fill light.


studio lighting setup softbox photography light

The choice is made - the value that we see between the first and second images. Compare it with the lighting that was made without the fill light.

The shadow side of the model is now not just darkness, but shady areas with existing, visible information on them. At the same time, the pattern of the key light is saved, it is no less visible than the photo taken without the fill light. The background is a little grey and is evenly lit.

We don't often need an absolutely black background, and in this photo I have a background that is slightly lit, which we could imagine not as a clear white sheet but as a tinted page of the album we will fill with our beautiful lighting.

The photo has become more similar to the picture we see with our eyes. The dynamic range of the camera is narrower than what human eyes have. We often see a nice picture in the studio with our eyes, with a very wide range of tones, but when we shoot, we get a picture with completely overexposed areas or vice versa, parts of it falling in to darkness. Thus applying the fill light, we push our picture dynamic range into the dynamic range of the camera, making it the same as what we see with our eyes.

In general, it is clear that the picture broadly consists of what we set out to achieve, however, I do not have a good and well-lit background. That is what we are going to get.


studio lighting setup softbox photography light reflector

Lighting the background is no less important than lighting the model. That’s right, a beautifully lit background gives volume to photos, creates compositional perfection, highlights and emphasises certain parts of the model, adds dynamic style to the picture and generates interesting colour solutions.

Here I would like to use a light that will give a distinct, but soft and feathered spot on the background, so using a reflector with a honeycomb grid would be great to use for this.

In that case, the lighting source should be as far from the background as you can get it, but it is not always possible because of the dimensions of the studio and the width of the stage. The further away we move the lighting source from the axis perpendicular to the background, the more we change the shape of the circle spot formed by the honeycomb – one edge of the light spot would be softer than the other, which isn't good for harmony and composition with the vertical frame.

For me, the ideal solution is to use the background light on a rail system or a boom, just above the model’s head. The difference of the shape and hardness of the upper and lower edge of the spot will not be so noticeable, but here as in the case of key light I have used a stand, which is possible in any studio.

I placed the reflector such a way that it was as close as possible to the axis of the lens, but knowing that I’d use the extra frost frame I moved it slightly to the right so that they would operate comfortably together. I chose a very narrow honeycomb grid to get a very small and sharp spot behind the model. This was suitable for me because I knew that I would be using a diffusion gel with the frost frame, which would made this spot wider and softer.


Creating full body studio lighting setup with fashion photography light


To soften and widen the light spot, I placed the frost-frame in front of the reflector with a diffusion gel covering the entire frame.

I often use this solution when I need to soften the hard light and blur the border. It is regularly used by filmmakers because they generally use strong lighting, but in the world of photography this isn't so.

I use wide diffusion gels whose width is 122 cm - suitable for the frame I have in the studio. There are larger frames and special fabrics that have the ability to work in strong wind but provide the necessary softness. However, all of this equipment is usually made for location usage and in the studio this size of frame is fine.

In the picture you can see I have used the frost frame at a reduced size, just 1 metre by 1 metre, made specifically for transportation in a car as a standard 122 cm frost-frame does not fit.

In this case, the frost-frame with the diffusion gel has been moved closer to the reflector so you can see just a little change on the spot but nevertheless you can see the different between pictures – the spot has become wider, the border of spot has become softer.


Full body studio lighting setup with fashion softbox photography light

A more significant difference is obtained when I moved the frost-frame away from the reflector. The width of the spot of light on it increases, which means that the diffusion effect would be greater.

It is exactly this attribute that attracts experienced and advanced photographers. Depending on the distance from the reflector and the size of the light spot formed by the honeycomb, as well as the type of diffusion gel you use and the degree of its transparency, we can significantly change the characteristics of light. As in the case of reflection on the walls, this is an excellent tool that allows you to control the hardness of the light. In contrast to the soft box which has a poorly controlled light, this solution provides additional controls. I always recommend this to beginners who want to learn the great technique of studio lighting: in the studio leave only reflectors, flags and frost frames with diffusion gels. At first, you should make a promise not to use softboxes for a month, working on all the creative and commercial shoots only with this set of tools. A month later, hardly anyone would return to using softboxes as the ability to control all the nuances of all the characteristics of the light would be more attractive than the simple, but primitive solutions you get using softboxes.

Here we see that the spot has become more blurred, it's borders expanded, but how it is presented in the beginning of this article is still far from ideal.


Full body studio lighting setup with photography light

Wanting to make the spot wider and the borders of it even softer, but not being able to continue to move the frost frame away of the reflector (it will be visible in the picture), I begin to move the reflector away from the frost frame, increasing the spot of light on the diffusion gel, thus diffusing the light on the background more and making the borders of the light spot more blurred.

However, we must not forget that we are able to change not only the distance but also with the size of honeycomb. Usually each manufacturer has a set of honeycomb grids with different diameters of the cell, and sometimes you can even change the transparency of the diffusion gel – the more transparent the gel, the less soft light we get.


Full body studio lighting setup fashion softbox photography light

When I use a reflector to illuminate the grey background, I get a neutral-grey colour. Typically this colour of background looks lifeless and cold. Even for our model, that has an “ivory” coloured body, it looks the same in contrast to a neutral grey background. So to eliminate this, I put the cosmetic gel (184) on the reflector lighting the background. Although it is designed to correct model skin colour (this is a topic for another lesson), I pretty actively use it to colourise the background. Having the skin tones in the spectrum, the background light slightly “warm”, means that it's tone goes well with the model.

If I need to enhance this effect, I can add additional gels, sometimes using three, having already fairly saturated colour in the background, but in our case, given the “paleness” of our model, such a light interference filter is sufficient.


lighting photography setup with softbox

So let me analyse the results.

As result of this manipulation we got a nice, balanced image performing all of the tasks:

A. We have got a pattern of soft light on the model.
B. We distributed the light evenly on the model from head to feet.
C. We worked well with the details in the shadows.
D. We covered the background behind the model using focused light ,giving it a nice coloured and blurred style.

Try to repeat this simple, at first glance, lighting setup, to bring your work with light to automaticity. This time and effort spent on this will pay off with fast, competent and detailed work in combat shooting mode, when you don’t have time to think about the light for hours and where you have lots of another things to pay attention to!

Good luck!