Don’t Be Scared of Studio Lighting

Softboxes were placed very close to the model here, meaning there is very low contrast between the specular highlights and the diffuse value, giving flattering, evenly lit skin.

To clarify, this month’s Photography Concept on Friday is not a self-help guide for photoaugliaphobics ( people with a fear of glaring lights – of course I looked that up ) – it’ll centre more around the basics of studio lighting and the basic properties of light. If you’re interested in a bit of studio lighting but don’t know where to start, or would like to know at least a little before you begin, then this month’s PCoF is for you. 

Specular Highlights and Diffuse Value

Softboxes were placed very close to the model here, meaning there is very low contrast between the specular highlights and the diffuse value, giving flattering, evenly lit skin.

Now it’s very easy to go into too much detail too quickly with studio lighting. I am writing from the point of view that you have never seen or considered the principles of lighting before, so please don’t roll your eyes too far back into your head if any of this seems obvious. Everyone starts somewhere – I started to improve my studio lighting the moment I got these concepts into my head.

Specularity refers to an object’s shininess. If you imagine a snooker ball in a pub (or snooker hall, if you’re a more reputable sort than myself), the bright white spot on that ball is the specular highlight of the ball.

Diffusity refers to how evenly spread out light is across an object. The more diffuse the light, the less contrast there is. This is represented by a more gradual transition from light to dark across an object. An object with a strong specular highlight has a higher contrast value around that highlight, as the brightness of the object changes much more suddenly.

In Short – Specular Highlights mean more contrast, Diffuse Lighting leads to less contrast.

Now, let’s look at a situation where we control the light source- we’ll ignore the different properties surfaces can have for now, to keep it simple (a snooker ball is a lot more reflective than human skin, for example. If your skin is as reflective as a snooker ball, see a doctor).

Controlling Light

There are two factors we should keep in mind for basic control of lighting. These are the size of your light source and the distance of your light source from the object being lit.

Size of Light Source

The size of your light source determines how it lights the object in question. Assuming the distance is the same, let’s look at the difference between a torch and a softbox (which look like this).

A torch has a very focused, directional beam – the light isn’t very diffuse. When you use a torch in the dark, it only lights the small area you point the torch at. On our imagined snooker ball, this creates a strong specular highlight, giving high contrast to the ball. If we replace this with a softbox, a much larger light source, we create a light source with more diffuse, spread out quality. This will lessen the contrast on our snooker ball, and light it more evenly than the torch will.

In Short – The larger the light source, the more diffuse the lighting, giving us less contrast. The smaller the light source, the more focused the lighting is on one point, giving us greater contrast.

As an extra point if you’re not confused yet – the more diffuse the light, the darker it is, due to the light available from the light source being spread more thinly.

Distance of Light Source

Due to the Afro of Doom in this pic, I had to move the light sources much farther away. This has led to a greater contrast between the specular highlight and the diffuse, which is why we see the stronger highlights on the bridge of the nose, for example. To combat this, I used my large light source for the face and brought the smaller one in for the hair.

The distance of the light source shares many qualities with the size of the light source, seeing as they are almost exactly the same thing as far as your camera is concerned. The closer the light source is to your subject, the larger it is and the further away it is, the smaller it is. Therefore, all the qualities pertaining to size of light source apply here also. There are two differences, however.

The first, most obvious difference is that the closer the light source, the less far the light has to travel, meaning the light is stronger.

The second, less obvious difference, is the difference between the specular highlight (high contrast area) and the diffuse value (low contrast area). The closer you place the light source, the less difference there is between the specular highlight and the diffuse value. The farther away you place the light source, the greater the difference there is between the specular highlight and the diffuse value.

In Short / To Simplify – All you really need to keep in your head here is that the farther away you place the light, the more contrast you will have between the shiny bit and the non-shiny bit. As you put the light closer, the difference between the two will be lessened, allowing for much more even lighting. So, for even lighting, put your light source closer. For higher contrast, move it back.

Oh Sweet Lord My Brain What Have You Done?

Essentially, explaining the basics of lighting is the equivalent of explaining the offside rule in football – it’s actually fairly simple but once you start trying to explain it, it sounds horribly complicated. It’s really not. What I suggest to you is, take this mini guide, go and rent some portable studio lighting (when I rented mine a few years ago, it only cost me £40 for a week), find some unsuspecting victims (or snooker balls) and try this stuff out. It’s not nearly as daunting as you might think. Go on, get some studio lights and try it yourself, it’s fun!

In the future, I’ll do some more lighting write ups, if people have found this useful. Just remember, if you’re still having trouble with the difference between size of light source and distance of light source, use this handy, cow based reference.

Perfect Portraits

An example of a studio lit portrait. Portraiture, face pics, mush captures, gob snaps. In today’s PCoF (it’s what all the cool kids and hip youngster-dudes are calling Photography Concept on Friday) we’ll be dipping our toe into the gigantic swimming pool that is portraiture. It’s a metaphorical swimming pool. Into which we metaphorically will be dipping our metaphorical toe. Got it? Good. I can feel myself starting to waffle already, so I will resist the charms of loquacity and press on.

A natural light portrait - this ladybird wanted in on the action. No I did not pin it to her thumb.

Essentially, there are two sides to portraiture: lighting and, for want of a less hateful phrase, ‘people skills’. Lighting is a massively complex subject, and there are many, many blogs, books and videos out there to teach you the basics and more. I’m going to focus on the ‘people bit’, as repeating basic lighting theory is horribly boring and can be found elsewhere. Not only that, but the actual interaction with people and how you get the best out of them is the bit I actually enjoy.

First, however, I will briefly look at a couple of technical basics that you should follow to take your portrait from 'holiday snap on your mum’s compact' to 'ooh, very professional!', whether that's Venture Photography-style light and bright or far more whimsical magazine-style images.


In most cases, the eyes should be the focus of any portrait (in most cases), so ensure that the eyes are in sharp focus. Anything less and you should be throwing it away, I’m afraid. Composition is also of the utmost importance. The ‘rule of thirds’ (as explained by our very own Duncan Howsley here) should be kept in mind at all times. Of course, don’t be afraid to break the rules every now and then if it works for the shot.

Finally, on the subject of composition, pay close attention to your backgrounds. If you’re not shooting someone against a plain background, you really want to avoid having anything too busy going on behind your subject. There’s nothing worse than getting home after a shoot and loading up that shot you were so pleased with, only to find that there’s a double decker bus growing out of the side of her or his head.

Even if your portrait is well lit, technically sound, in perfect focus and head object-free, if the subject of the shot looks awkward and uncomfortable (unless that’s the intention of the image, of course) the image is, essentially, a big ol’ failure. So how do you get them to act natural?

Relaxing Your Subject

An example of a studio lit portrait.

First off, talk. Talk, talk, talk. Give your subject directions on what to do. Give them positive feedback, even if it’s going horribly. You’ll find that the more you praise (‘good’, ‘that’s great’ and ‘yeah that looks really nice, let’s do a couple more like that’), the more their confidence will build.

Not only that, but talk to them in general. Show an interest, get them chatting, perhaps between lens and lighting changes. Not only does this help you get a bit more background about the kind of person they are, it helps them to relax a little more. Finally, don’t be afraid to tell them when they’re doing something wrong, just do it constructively. Tell them what is working, but that they’re doing a thing with their eyebrows that looks insane, and oh Lord it needs to stop. Except more constructively than that.

I often find that people get very dry-eyed and ‘blinky’ after a relatively short space of time, so a little trick I like to use is getting the sitter to close their eyes while I compose and then asking them to open their eyes and look into the lens. Not only does this keep the subject more relaxed, it adds a bit of movement to the equation, meaning that there is less of a posed look to the shot.

An example of an "on location" portrait for a magazine.

In general, movement is good. Although it can feel cheesy, getting the sitter to turn their head into the shot can also remove some of that stiff, posed element, as they spend less time keeping their head perfectly still. To avoid blinking, I sometimes count people in, so they know when to not blink. Check with your subject whether they like this or not, though, because I find some people are straight up terrified of a countdown and will pull crazy, panicked faces.

Don’t spend too long framing your shot – get used to framing quickly. The longer you make your sitter wait for you to take the photo, the more anxious they become, and the less natural and relaxed they will look. Just imagine being on the other side of a dSLR with two large softboxes pointed at you, waiting for a good four or five seconds for a flash to go off, trying to keep your eyes open and a fixed smile on your face for the duration.

A nice, cheeky one is to tell your subject that you’re just ‘testing the lighting’. This doesn’t have to be a complete lie: you could indeed be experimenting with your lighting setup. This little trick sometimes has the effect of the subject completely relaxing, in a ‘oh, well this shot doesn’t even count’ sort of way and you can snap them while they’re totally off guard. Sneaky, eh?

Another studio image, captured during a quiet spell.

Finally, make sure you switch up the poses quite a lot. Not only does this allow you to get a good idea of the subject’s best side, it also allows you to keep them busy and distracted. This will make them forget about the fact that there’s a camera pointed at them, as they’ll be busy taking on the directions you’re giving them. In short – practice, practice, practice. The above advice is the most relevant for very simple headshot setups with ‘normal’ people, or anyone whose job doesn’t involve being photographed five times a week.

Good portraiture, in my opinion, is essentially about tricking your subject into forgetting that there’s a camera pointed at them, even if it’s just for a split second. The examples in this article, shamelessly taken from my own portfolio, have been chosen because I think they all reflect that philosophy in some way.

So, on your ‘to do’ list this weekend – grab an unsuspecting friend and have a portraiture session with them. See what you get out of it! You might just get hooked.