Studio Photography: Types of Light

by John H. Siskin

Calumet Travelight 750
Calumet Travelight 750
© John H. Siskin
All Rights Reserved
My favorite light source is strobe. I would rather use the strobe than daylight because I have much more control. Not only can I control the power of the strobe I can manipulate the character of the light. A professional strobe actually has very few controls. Strobe power output, model light output, on/off for the model light, on off for the internal slave and power, and not every strobe has all of these. The most important control is strobe power output; on some strobes this is the only control! Not only is it the most important control; strobe power is the most important factor in what strobe to buy.

One of the biggest reasons that I think power is so important is that I diffuse the light from the strobe in order to make the strobe act as a large light source. This enables me to create smooth light with diffused highlights that has a smooth long transition into shadow.

Woman with tart.
Woman with tart.
© John H. Siskin
All Rights Reserved
Strobe light is created when a spark jumps through a tube of Xenon gas. This is the reason that the light has such a short duration, about 1/1000th of a second, but sometimes as shot as 1/50000th of a second. This means that you do not need to use a tripod to shoot people with strobes, even if you are a little shaky. Another wonderful characteristic of strobe is that they are the same color as average daylight. This makes it easy to use strobes to fill in a daylight image or to match an indoor shot to the window light.


Beeler Job, final Image
Beeler Job, final Image
© John H. Siskin
All Rights Reserved
Both Strobes and daylight and tungsten bulb have a continuous spectrum. This means that if you put the light from any of these sources through a prism to create a rainbow there are not black areas where the light drops out. Many other man made lights have this problem. This can cause colors to reproduce inaccurately even when the light looks useable.

Daylight has the tremendous advantage of being readily available and free. It is easy to see daylight; you donít need to previsualize it as you do with strobes. Day light is hard to control, it often take 12 hours to move the light source to the other side of the set. But iif you are in the right place at the right time daylight is awesome. I really like mixing daylight with strobe out doors to create a softer light that still sparkles. Flash fill is a wonderful way to take pictures.


Collin with Trees
Collin with Trees
© John H. Siskin
All Rights Reserved
Tungsten lights, first a definition, tungsten lights have a filament and the filament is inside a bulb; the light bulbs in your house are tungsten lights. When these bulbs were made specifically for still and movie use they were made to run at very high temperatures so there would be more blue in the light and so the light would be brighter.

If you make a light to run that hot in a regular style bulb it will start to change color in just a few hours and fail very quickly. There are household style bulbs available for photography. They fit in fixtures by Smith-Victor and other companies. These are very inexpensive and they can be good tools for learning how light works, but since they do not have stable color they are not great for professional usage because their color shifts.

Then, there are also quartz bulbs, which are more useful!


Smith-Victor Barndoors
Smith-Victor Barndoors
© John H. Siskin
All Rights Reserved
I had such a wonderful time with these when I shot film. These bulbs have stable color for as much as 60 hours. Because you could run exposures of more than a minute with film and you didnít have to light the whole shot at the same time there were many creative things you could do. I am attaching a shot I took with two quartz lights and a Kodak slide projector.

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About Author / Instructor / Photographer, John H. Siskin
Photography Instructor: John H. SiskinJohn Siskin is a commercial and fine art photographer who makes architectural, portrait and macro images. He has worked for General Motors and Disney Studios. He teaches the BetterPhoto course An Introduction to Photographic Lighting and is the author of the book Understanding and Controlling Strobe Lighting: A Guide for Digital Photographers.

In addition, he teaches studio lighting black and white photography at Los Angeles Mission College. His studio is in Reseda California and more of his work can be seen at www.siskinphoto.com

His work has been part of many exhibits. His photographs have been shown at the Brand Library, 2nd City Art Gallery, Haroldís Gallery, Farmani Gallery, and The Atelier. He has been a participant in the Valley Studio Tour several times.

John has published quite a number of technical articles about photography. His articles have appeared in Photo Techniques, View Camera, Studio Photography and others. He has written about photographic lighting, building lenses, framing, photographic lab work, building cameras, as well as some more speculative photographic subjects. Since he is so well versed in photographic subjects, he is often hired as a consultant by businesses.