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Studio lighting tips - A beginner's guide to continuous lighting techniques

By Edited Dec 19, 2015 0 0

When taking photographs in a studio environment there are two types of lighting a photographer can use, being strobe lighting or continuous lighting. In this article we are concerned with the latter method. As its name suggests continuous lighting is where the light source is either off or on. By default continuous lights cannot be on standby waiting for you to trip the shutter for the exposure. This is not the case when using strobe lighting as the camera can automatically turn the light on for exposure and then turn it off again once the exposure is complete, which cannot be done when using continuous lighting methods.

Any form of lamp can be used for continuous lighting from an in descendant table top lamp, to a fluorescent tube light and everything between. It should be noted that all artificial light sources have a different colour temperature. The human eye is sophisticated and can balance out artificial lights, however a digital camera cannot. A digital camera’s sensor is just not that sophisticated and images taken under artificial lights will contain an unrealistic colourcast unless the settings are changed to compensate for this. All modern day digital SLR cameras have specific settings for artificial lighting so colourcasts should not present any problems. You just have to remember to use the right setting before the photograph is taken. The best continuous artificial light source has to be daylight balanced bulbs, which are balanced to 5,000k – 6,000k, i.e. the same as daylight. Daylight balanced bulbs can be very powerful and produce a lot of controllable light, which is essential in the studio environment.

Continuous lighting is perfect for beginners and those first starting out using artificial lighting. With the lights constantly illuminated it is possible to move them around the subject and easily seeing how placing the lights in different locations and changing the angle of the lights affect the frame. It is also possible to see whether the light is hard or soft, where the harsh shadows are and how the subject is lit prior to taking the photograph. All of this information can be used to adjust the lighting to create the desired effect. Because of the way strobe lighting works the above is not possible, therefore it is difficult for beginners to visualise what the final image is going to look like.

As we all know from keeping our houses lit light bulbs do tend to burn hot, and this is also the case when using continuous lighting methods. Because of this it is important that nothing touches the bulbs during the photo shoot. As a consequence special care needs to be taken when using lighting accessories, such as soft boxes, light tents, diffusers etc. as there is the real risk of fire in these situations. Continuous lighting bulb manufacturers have tried to alleviate the fire risk by producing bulbs that burn cooler than ones a few years did, but the fire risk is still present and precautions need to be taken.

When photographing still life and products the fact that continuous lights burn a little hot should not create too many problems, however there is one exception to this. When photographing food the heat produced by continuous lights will melt frozen and chilled foods, which will ruin the photographs if shooting, say ice cream. Some food stuffs may also dry out and wilt, which may also ruin the photo shoot. Because of this photographers have to be disciplined, organised and work fast when carrying out food photography using continuous lighting.

If you are on portrait photography assignments, be it human or animals, the heat produced when using continuous lighting methods may also create some issues. Animals are likely to get hot, restless and start panting, which is going to make the shoot more challenging. When dealing with human models make up is likely to run and the models are likely to get red faced under the heat of the lights. The models are also likely to sweat and are likely to become uncomfortable and restless too, which will also make the photo shoot more of a challenge. In these circumstances strobe lighting is preferable.

Whilst strobe lighting might be preferable to continuous lighting it may not be possible. There is a steep learning curve in gaining experience with strobe lighting techniques and some beginners and amateur photographers may not have the time and patience available for this. In addition, strobe lights are more expensive than continuous lights and many beginners and amateur photographers may not have the funds available to buy expensive strobe equipment. If, for whatever reason, strobe lighting is a definite no goer there is no need to worry as continuous lights can still be used to good effect.

When dealing with humans, and animals for that matter, it is important to put the models first. It’s simple, you look after them and they will look after you. As you already know it is the additional heat that is the problem when using continuous lighting, therefore the key objective is to get in, take the photographs and get out as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Planning is the key in these situations. Before the day of the shoot think about the images you want to achieve, the props you are going to need, how you will pose the models and the lighting set up. Sketch it all out and get familiar with what you want to do and how you are going to achieve it. To be even more efficient and ensure you don’t miss anything draw up a checklist of all the images and take this on the day of the shoot to tick off as the shoot progresses.

On the day of the shoot set up the lights and pop off a few test shots to nail the settings and the exposure. This needs to be done before the models even arrive at your studio. You need to be prepared and rehearsed so that when the models arrive you can get them in to position, turn the lights on and fire of the frames as quickly as possible. If you do encounter problems with the timing, and in reality this often happens during shoots, then make sure you have regular breaks whereby you can turn the lights off and allow them to cool down. It is also an opportunity for the models to take five, cool down and reapply their make up as necessary. All of this will make a more enjoyable shoot.

Continuous lighting is not the ultimate in lighting techniques however it is more than adequate for enthusiasts. It is worth noting that it is possible to get some excellent photographs using cheaper and user friendly continuous lights, so unless you are a professional or semi professional photographer there is no need to use strobes.

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