Continuous lighting simply refers to light that doesn’t flash. When thinking of in-studio photo shoots, people tend to think of strobe lighting, although as you’ll see, this isn’t always true. Continuous light refers not only to its non-flash qualities, but also to certain types of light bulbs. These include CFL light bulbs, LED lights, HMIs, and tungsten lights. As previously stated, all of these will emit constant light. As you will see, some of the types have some overlap, because the title refers to more specialized lights of the same family.
Tungsten, or Hot Lights
Let’s start with the tungsten light, since, as you will see, it is the most familiar type. Tungsten lights are also commonly referred to as hot lights, and this is what I find myself using most often, mostly because they are readily available. Hot lights often come equipped with their own modifiers, usually in the form of a rounded reflector shade. Tungsten light is warm in color, and this is why there is a tungsten white balance setting on your camera. Make sure you use this to avoid overly warm color shifts.
There are a few glaring (pardon the pun) problems with hot lights. They are called hot lights because they tend to use a lot of energy and thus get very hot very quickly. Therefore, if you’re planning a long shoot, you wouldn’t want to use hot lights for a variety of reasons. And it you were to fit it with any light modifier other than the reflector it comes with—particularly a cloth one—it might actually get too hot and catch fire. Not only that, but hot lights can be bad for portraiture, since they will make your subject sweat much quicker than other lights, due to the heat.
The only real advantage to tungsten lights (other than their color, if that’s what you’re after) is that they are cheap, and this, unfortunately, is why I end up using them if I don’t have access to anything else. However, they also give you a more accurate representation the light that’s going to be in your final image, whereas strobe setups and other continuous lights can require more guesswork and getting used to. Tungsten lights may also be referred to as halogen lights, or vice versa.
Fluorescent lights can be mounted either on a panel or they can be what is called a CFL: a compact fluorescent lightbulb. In contrast to tungsten lights, fluorescent lights use much less power and do not pose a risk of fire or injury. They also will not overheat your model as fast, so they are better for portraiture, as opposed to tungsten lights, which are better for product photography and still-life photos.
The downside to using fluorescent light is that it can appear a lot harsher and less flattering than tungsten. It can also wash your subject out if you aren’t careful with the set-up and don’t use modifiers. On the upside, though, fluorescent lights are much safer to use with modifiers, so you can make the light quality more pleasing with a little work. Because they use less power than the tungsten light, it is also possible that, depending on what you’re lighting, you’ll need to use more lights than you would when using tungsten.
LED panels are, to my knowledge, the newest to the lighting industry when it comes to continuous light sources. LEDs not only come in panel format, but also as spots and floods, although the panels do seem more common. Like HMI and tungsten lights, LEDs can be daylight balanced, which means they are still as warm as tungsten lights but without the weird color casts. They also have the advantages of fluorescents in that they require very little energy to run. Unlike a lot of other continuous lights, they can be color balanced as needed for warm or cool tones.
HMI lights are also known by various other names, but are standard in the film industry. Like traditional tungsten lights, they give off a lot of heat and power, which, until recently, required frequent bulb replacement. Like LED, they can be daylight balanced. I would not consider this type of light as a viable option for any startup studio, due to the cost and frequent replacement needs.
Though some full lighting kits that feature tungsten can be as expensive as one HMI light, you end up with much more product for your money. In fact, some starter reflector floodlights only run from about $24-48. Of course, that is not to say that they can’t get expensive too. For example, if you purchase a high-end tungsten Fresnel, by Arri, you may wind up paying close to $400.
The cost of professional fluorescent lights is much the same, and except in a pinch, I really wouldn’t suggest using the fluorescent bulbs already present in your house. Professional lights, again, will cost a little over $100. LED lights are slightly more expensive than tungsten or fluorescent, in the middle price point. They tend to run between $200 and $500. Finally, there is HMI, which runs into the thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars.
Search around and decide what type or brand of light you feel best suits you. Start out with tungsten and fluorescent, and if you find yourself really liking the tungsten, maybe try an Arri Fresnel. Keep in mind that there are so many brands and styles of these lights on the market, so do your research and price comparisons, determine what lighting set-ups you find the most pleasing, and purchase accordingly.
The good news is that if you end up not liking a light, you will always be able to sell it, as long as it’s in good shape, but I would try to avoid that route, as you don’t want to irresponsibly lose money on such expensive gear.
Flash or Strobe Lighting
The other type of studio lighting relies on flash, and is what people readily think of when they envision professional studio lighting. Strobe lighting can be divided into two different types: power packs and monolights. When I do use a flash in-studio, I tend to use power packs.
These function with the same purpose as power packs, but are a lot simpler to learn on and figure out. This is because everything is located on the light itself. You don’t have a separate power pack, so you can just plug your light in, set it up on a stand, and go. All the settings are present on the light itself, making it easy to control.
You may think that now that you’ve got your backdrop, stands and lights, you’re ready to go. You’re almost there, but not quite. My favorite part of studio lighting is the modifiers. Modifiers allow you to more fully direct the light you’re using. With modifiers, you can make light softer, harsher, more concentrated, or more diffused. You can bounce it toward the subject to create highlights, or you can deflect it to control your shadows and the way they fall. You can affect the temperature and the look of your highlights and shadows or purposefully create and remove color casts as needed.
Let’s start out with the most common light modifier that people think of. This is the umbrella. Umbrellas can come in either black or white, and both do different things. Positioned above your light, white umbrellas allow the light to completely envelop your model. Umbrellas also help to produce much softer, diffused light, as a soft box does, but with less restraint. Due to the curved nature of the umbrella, the light will spill out along the sides, which will cause the it to bounce off all of the walls in the room. Umbrellas are excellent to start with due to the fact that they are cheap, light, and don’t require much exactness to work well. Black umbrellas, unlike their white counterparts, are used sort of like reflectors to brighten or throw highlights onto a subject. The silver (or other colored metallic inside of the umbrella) serves as the reflector, while the black directs the light inward to the reflector.
Since I’ve mentioned reflectors so much already, I figured that should be the next section. Be aware that, aside from umbrella reflectors, there are also metal reflectors (that function and look sort of like lampshades) and handheld reflectors. The lampshade reflectors often come with a basic lighting kit, and are fixed directly over the light, instead of in front or above like an umbrella is. Tilted down on the subject, the light will strike the silver metal interior and reflect on the subject, typically to provide more light on the face. Handheld reflectors are much more versatile, and can often be used in conjunction with other lighting reflectors that are directly on the lights.
These kinds of reflectors can be angled onto a subject’s face or any other portion of the body that needs to be highlighted, either by an assistant or by a boom arm (if it needs to be placed very high). Handheld reflectors come in all sorts of colors, and I have found that the most economical way to make sure you have everything you need is to get an all-in-one reflector.
For example, I have a six-in-one reflector, which can be flipped and zipped, inside and out, so you can access all of the colors it provides. It comes with: a white reflector, a black diffuser (which helps direct light away from the subject), and silver, gold, bronze, and rosy pink metallic reflectors. This way, you can pop whatever kind or tone of highlight you need onto wherever you need it with much more precision than an umbrella. Diffusers and reflectors may also be referred to as flags, and they are the same, except that flags are often larger and come on poles for easier handling. Soft Box Personally, my favorite kind of modifier is a soft box. Soft boxes are like large square or rectangular tents that can be fitted via a speed ring onto a bare light. A soft box is actually made up of two zippered pieces, an inner reflective piece and an outer diffuser.
If you leave the outer diffuser on, you’re going to create very soft, even, controlled light that is awesome for instantly flattering portraits. If you take the outer diffuser off, you’ll get a much harsher light, just as if you were shooting with a very large reflector. Soft boxes also come in a huge variety of sizes, and you’ll want to select a size based on the area you plan to cover. For most normal, small, one- or two-client shoots, one small or medium soft box will work just fine.