Studio lights might look technical and high-end, but they’re actually extremely easy to get the hang of. In fact, the majority of consumer-level flash heads have an on/off switch, a power dial, and maybe one or two other buttons, so you should be up to speed within half an hour or so. Not only this, but your camera settings will be identical for virtually every portrait image you ever take. This is because unlike natural light, studio heads give a very consistent power output every time they fire.
So it doesn’t matter if it’s summer or winter, morning or evening, sunny or cloudy – your settings remain identical. If you find you want to increase the amount of light on your subject’s face, just tweak the power dial on the light, or move the lights nearer or closer. There’s never any need to tweak camera settings. In the six steps below, we show you the best settings to stick to. They’re chosen to give you the optimum image quality that your camera and lens will allow...
1. Position your lights
Find a clean background and ask your subject to stand around 6ft in front of it. Set the heads up on light stands and connect them to the camera via a cable or wireless triggers. Turn off all the other lights in the room.
2. Add a modifier
A softbox, umbrella or beauty dish will help to diffuse the light from the bulb for a more flattering result with softer shadows. Most kits come with modifiers, but if not you can buy them very cheaply. An umbrella is the least expensive option.
3. Set light output
Turn the lights to around 1/2 power by adjusting the power output dial. Once you start shooting, you may need to adjust this if the light is too bright or too dark on the subject’s face. Your lights should be about 3ft from the subject.
4. Turn on ‘cell’
If you’re using a second light, ensure the ‘cell’ switch is turned on, causing it to fire when it sees the first light flash. This way, only one light needs to be connected to the camera. Also turn on ‘lamp’ to activate the modelling light.
5. Select camera settings
Working in manual mode, select an ISO of 100 where the sensor performs best, an aperture of around f/8 where the lens is sharpest, and a shutter speed of 1/160sec. You should almost never have to change these settings.
6. Alter background distance
By moving both your lights and your subject towards or away from the background, you can change how bright or dark it appears. You can make a simple white wall look white, grey or black depending on its distance away.
This article was first published in the June 2016 issue of Practical Photography - download back issues here.