Wednesday, March 30, 2011

An Inexpensive Studio Part 2: Lighting

Once you have some studio space you can use, and some backgrounds to work with, the next step in doing studio shooting is lighting.  There are thousands of ways you can light your studio work, so I'm going to start with some very inexpensive suggestions, and move up to ones that cost a bit more later on.  The little unassuming flash in the photo above is a great place to start, and if you're really looking to get things going inexpensively you can't do much better -- under $20.

I discovered these little gems at Adorama a few years ago -- an AC powered flash, with a guide number of 90, and a built-in slave trigger, that screws into any standard light bulb socket.  For under $20, I figured they were worth a try, and bought two of them.  As it turns out, they've been a fantastic addition to my lighting kit, and I've found all sorts of uses for them.  They're a great way to start out a small studio, as well, even if you have nothing else.  Not wanting to spend a lot of money on them, I made a simple (and cheap!) mounting block for them, made from a square cut of wood from a 2x4, a $0.99 single light socket from Home Depot, and a bit of lamp cord I had laying around.
On the bottom of the block, I drilled a hole, and inserted a long nut with 1/4" threads on the inside (also from Home Depot), whose outside hexagonal shape fits nicely into standard light stand 3/8" holes.  This nut lets me mount the block on any 1/4" tripod screw mount, or attache it anywhere a 3/8" stud would normally attach.  Total cost less than $5, and that's if you have to buy the power cord! 

The photo at right shows it on a lightstand, on top of an umbrella swivel adapter (which you can get here from Adorama), with an umbrella attached.  Set up this way, this little flash gives me an exposure of f/8 at ISO 200 with the umbrella about 4 - 5 feet away from the subject.  Adding the 40" umbrella ($17) and Manfrotto swivel adapter ($30) brought the total cost for this setup to about $80 for everything (the light stand is from the background support kit mentioned in the last article, not needed in the studio since I put up wall mounted brackets).   The slave trigger in the flash is quite sensitive, and will trigger nicely from a flash anywhere in the room.  If you don't have remote triggers, the easiest way to fire it is to mount a small shoe-mount flash on your camera, point the head of the shoe-mounted flash away from your subject, put the flash on manual control at its lowest output (say 1/32nd or 1/16th power), and fire away. 

These little flashes have plenty of power to do very good lighting on single subjects, or even groups of 2-4 people, with no problem.  They're cheap, easy to use, long-lasting (I've had my two units for over 4 years now, and they've seen a LOT of use!), and if one breaks it's only another $20 to replace (which I haven't had to do yet).  This is without a doubt the cheapest way to get set up with studio flash lighting, and the results can be darn good!  Here's an example shot with two of these flashes, both in umbrellas;  one was low and right of the subject, the other a little higher to the left, and a little further away. 

Total cost for the lighting setup for this portrait was under $150, including flashes, hardware, swivel adapters, and umbrellas.    It doesn't get any cheaper than that for studio flash lighting, period. 

There are, of course, some shortcomings in a $20 flash:  first, they don't have modeling lights, so using them you're not going to have light to focus with or preview lighting effects with.  That can be solved by making mounting blocks as I did above, but with *2* light sockets in them, side-by-side -- put a 40W incandescent bulb or a 10W compact flourescent bulb in the other one, and you've got a modeling light (keep the wattage low so the modeling light, which won't switch off when the flash fires, doesn't affect the flash exposure!).  Another shortcoming is that they don't have a variable power output -- they fire at full power every time.  You can adjust the light hitting the subject by moving the setup closer to or further from your subject, of course...or you can put additional diffusers or neutral-density filters over the flash units if you need to lower the output. 

Those little shortcomings don't really detract from a $20 flash unit that can let you start doing some really good studio flash lighting without breaking the bank.  If you move up to more powerful and versatile studio flashes later (the subject of the next article...), these cheap little lights will still serve you well as background lights, hair lights, small fill, etc.  And one of my favorite things to do with them is to use them when shooting indoor real estate shots;  since they screw right into a standard light socket, you can put them in existing lamps in homes, letting you simulate normal indoor lighting but with a lot more output than an incandescent bulb (and no problems with trying to mix the different colored light sources of flash and incandescent sources!).  Finally, if you make mounting blocks for them as I did, you get an additional bonus:  remove the flash units from the sockets, and put in high-output daylight compact flourescent bulbs, and you have yourself a ready-to-go system for continuous cool lighting.  If you're just starting out, this is a great way to get going with studio lighting without spending much money.   

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