We shed a little light on what you need to create images with a little external lighting.


The Wistro AD180 Flash kit provides portable flash power and includes a flash head and power pack plus a standard cone reflector, two reflector diffusers, a flash stand with built-in tripod mount, a shoulder strap for the PB960 power pack and a storage bag.

While many subjects are best suited to available-light photography there are times when optimal results can only be obtained when you have total control over the direction and intensity of the light shining on the subject.

It’s easy to recognise when the camera’s built in flash no longer delivers the result you want. Close subjects are over-exposed, subject features appear flat and lifeless, unattractive shadows present problems, and backgrounds can be either deep black or interrupted by reflections from shiny objects behind the subject. External lighting can correct all these problems.

Today’s studio lighting kits are usually straightforward to set up, affordably priced and more portable and versatile than ever before. But you still need to clarify the main reasons you want studio lights:

What subjects will they be used for?

Will you be shooting stills only or stills and video?

Will the subjects be still or moving?

How large an area do you need to cover if you’re shooting interiors?

How dependent will you be on mains power?  

Fortunately, you may not require a complex and expensive system; most modern DSLRs and advanced CSCs provide the ability to control a number of remote flashguns wirelessly. Even basic set-ups can provide the degree of control available with an entry-level studio lighting kit. More complex set-ups can include light modifiers and backdrops for producing professional-looking results.

What Kind of Lighting?

Most photographers begin with an accessory flashgun then progress to a basic kit with potential for expansion. Flashguns have the advantages of portability and affordability.

Setups based on flashguns are ideal for environmental portraiture as they don’t rely on mains power. They’re also a good choice when storage space is limited and when equipment has to be carried long distances to a shooting location.

Stepping up from flashguns, you have a choice between continuous and flash lighting. Traditional tungsten (incandescent) lighting has been largely replaced by fluorescent or LED lights. They’re equally easy to set up and manage and both can provide good results.

Exposures are usually longer with continuous lights, making them more suitable for ‘still life’ subjects. Their main advantage is that you can see the end result before taking the photograph.

You can adjust the position of the lights and view changes on the camera’s monitor before a shot is taken. Continuous lights can also be used for shooting video clips.

Flash lights use very fast shutter speeds, making them ideal for freezing action.

Most studio flashes include modelling lights that can be used for visualising where the light will fall on the subject. In some cases, the intensity of the flash output will be reflected in the strength of the modelling lights.

Basic Kit Components

Regardless of whether it’s based upon continuous or flash lighting, at the heart of every basic studio kit are three main components: a backdrop; at least one light source; and at least one light modifier. You may need some way to attach the backdrop to a wall or stand and will require extension cords for lights that use mains power.

Most kits include collapsible stands and umbrellas. Some provide backgrounds and stands for holding them. Many are supplied in carrying cases, which are usually be made from canvas-like fabric, although some larger kits come in wheeled ‘trolley’ cases.

Backdrops: Seamless paper is a popular background material. It’s sold in rolls with lengths varying from about 11 metres to 30 metres and widths between 1.3 and 3.5 metres. Fabric backdrops are also available and tend to be more durable. Some have textured patterns, while others are reversible with different colours on each side. Backgrounds may be self-supporting or supplied with cross-bar stands from which they can be hung.

Lights: Most lighting kits are based upon two main lights, which can be of any type, provided they use the same technology. The main light provides the primary source  of illumination and usually covers a relatively wide area. You may need an accessory such as an umbrella or softbox to spread the light and minimise harsh shadows.


The Hypop YouTube Kit includes two 125W 5500K Colour Temperature Daylight Bulbs to provide a continuous light source for shooting on-location along with a pop-up fabric backdrop, light stands and collapsible soft-boxes that connect to mains power.


The Elinchrom D-Lite RX One Set To Go includes two small but robust D-Lite RX ONE digital compact flashes with modelling lights, reflectors, stands and two Elinchrom umbrellas. Also included is the handy EL-Skyport SPEED radio trigger that supports complete wireless control of the flash system.

The second light is used to differentiate the subject from the background. It is normally positioned to the side or rear of the subject, where it can be pointed at the subject’s hair (a ‘hair light’) or the background. Background lights are usually broader and may have holders for coloured filters or gels.

Light Modifiers: There are plenty to choose from, the most popular being reflectors, concentrators, diffusers and gobos. Reflectors re-direct the light from a source that can be anything from a studio light to light from a window or door. Typical reflectors include umbrellas, flat panels and crinkled foil. Many umbrellas are reversible, with different colours on each side (usually silver/white).

Concentrators channel the light into a single beam. They’re often used with hair lights and include snoots, grids and barn doors (which close over the light source).

Diffusers do the opposite, spreading the light and reducing its intensity. They may be made from translucent plastic, scrim or fabric. Softboxes are among the most popular diffusers, along with flat translucent panels.

Gobos absorb light. They normally consist of a screen or mat covered with dark fabric, such as velvet and are popular with outdoor portrait photographers for suppressing glare from a low-angle sun.


A more sophisticated kit for serious photographers who want a versatile studio system is the Gemini 400 two-head kit from Bowens. It includes two Bowens 90cm silver/white umbrellas and two 120 ° wide-angle umbrella reflectors. The kit is supported by two Bowens ‘Handy Stand’ lighting support stands.


The Inca Pro iLK1 includes a 2-metre lighting stand and a 40-inch white umbrella with removable silver/black cover. A universal cold shoe is included with the umbrella holder for fitting a flashgun.

Lighting Tips

Careful positioning of lights with respect to angle and distance from the subject will enable you to achieve good results. The main light source is usually placed close to the camera, often above the lens to provide most of the illumination. A second, less bright light goes to one side to provide modelling.

Move this light and see how it changes the look of the subject. A third light can illuminate the back of the subject to make it stand out from the background. Alternatively, it can shine on the background itself.

Flashguns used as the main light should be placed off camera to avoid harsh shadows and blown-out highlights. A second flash can be used to ‘fill-in’ shadows caused by the main light. Reflectors can help illuminate shadowed areas. Take test shots to check your set-up and be prepared to move light sources when the subject isn’t lit properly.

For portraits, study old publicity shots of Hollywood stars from the 1940s and 1950s. Some of the most accomplished photographers of those days laid the groundwork for lighting styles that have since become classic, such as:

Split lighting places one half of the subject’s face in the light and the other in shadow. The main light is positioned at 90 degrees to the side of the subject with a reflector or lower-powered supplementary light on the opposite side. The eye on the shaded side of the face should ‘catch’ some of the main light.

Butterfly lighting is named for the butterfly-shaped shadow created under the subject’s nose by placing the main light source above and directly behind the camera. It’s popular for ‘glamour’ shots and portraits of older subjects as it de-emphasises wrinkles.

Broad lighting describes any set-up where the subject faces slightly away from the camera and the main light falls on the side of the face nearest the camera. This type of lighting makes a person’s face look wider.

Short lighting illuminates the side of the face turned away from the camera, leaving more of the face in shadow. It’s slimming and flattering for most faces.

Catchlights are bright spots in the subject’s eyes, produced by reflections of the light source. They add a sparkle of life to a portrait.

Moving a light closer to a subject will intensify the light; moving it away weakens it. Remember the intensity of any light source falls off with the square of the distance from it, so moving a light from one metre away from a subject to two metres distance reduces its intensity to one quarter of the closer position.

Lighting – Partner Links

This is an excerpt from Photo Review Issue 61.

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