BetterPhoto Q&A
Category: New Questions

Photography Question 
Jeffrey S. Langloss
BetterPhoto Member Since: 8/18/2005

New with Studio Lights

I just got a set of studio lights and am looking out to set them up to not blow the subject out. I have three 160wps stobe lights and can power them for 1/8 to full. I can use either a square soft box, siler or gold umbrella or a softbox umbrella. I have tried the 45 degree method but my problem is how far away to you put the lights? I tried close say 3 feet with one light in the softbox and subject was blown out.

Help please and thanks in advance

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12/20/2008 5:50:25 PM

Pete H
BetterPhoto Member Since: 8/9/2005

My wish is to NOT seem like I am blowing you off; so please read on.

First,it sounds like you have plenty of light and some decent light modifiers to make some great shots.

Artificial lighting is a much more complex subject than shooting in natural light.

Short answer?

If you have little or no experience with strobes I suggest you start with ONE light. Trying to use three lights with little experience is like driving a high performance sports car. You will probably spin out and not know what exactly caused the spin.

If you are using a DSLR, you can start with trial & error. There is nothing wrong with this method if you are willing to work a little.


Draw a simple diagram of the light positions..height..output...what sort of modifier you used..Umbrella?..Lightbox? Size of the modifier. Position of camera..f/stop.

Shutter speed in a studio setting is mostly irrelevent unless you exceed the curtain sync speed..keep it around 1/250th or a little slower for a DSLR.

I could draw you diagrams etc of where to set the lights, output, camera position etc; but what will you have learned? Little!

Apply logic Jeffrey. If the subject is washed out there are only a couple reasons for this. Too much light being your basic starting point. Reduce the light source output or close down aperture. Remember, start with one light!

I will give you a cook book setup.
This is FAR from how you will use lighting setups once you begin to see the interaction of light.

At this point, you need to learn exposure..NOT modeling, NOT shadow formation, NOT back drop colors, NOT back drop lighting..E-X-P-O-S-U-R-E...start getting the exposure bang on without having to resort to image editing to compensate for a poorly lit subject.

Have your camera AND lights equidistant AND at the same height from your subject. In this setup, all you are trying to do is learn exposure w/o the variability of light positioning.

Start with ONE light slightly left or right of camera position. Shoot. Too bright? Reduce the strobe output or close down the aperture. Too dim? Do the opposite.

Next, fire ONE strobe at 45 degrees to the subject. Don't worry about the shadows yet...get the lit side of the subject in perfect exposure.

Come and post a few shots for all here to look at..we'll let ya know how you're doing.

Here is a short list of what studio photogs consider when shooting with strobes. Many here do not give it a second thought anymore...we've done it for years and we continuse to learn.
My reason for the list is only to show you that you should not try to tackle too much at once..all these things come with a price..The price of admission to good lighting techniques is practice time.

1) Exposure
2) F/stop
3) Light position or positions.
4) Color of strobes.
5) Color mods using gels on strobe
6) Scrims, gobos, umbrellas, softboxes
7) Hair lights
8) Bare buld Vs. diffused
9) Combo of bare & diffused
10) Height of light
11) Catch light positions
12) Beams, focused, open, pans
13) Subject positioning
14) Color temps w/ natural light
15) Back drops..colors, position
16) Backdrop material, texture etc...
17) Grids
18) Camera positions
19) Mixed lighting

Bored yet? LOL

Start simple..ONE light.

all the best,


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12/20/2008 7:51:02 PM

Alan N. Marcus   Place subject and camera and compose and focus.

Set your zoom quite high so camera-to-subject distance falls at about 80 ~ 120 inches. One chief mistake is to work in too close. The best portraits are likely achieved when this distance is slightly greater than you would expect. Focus on the subject’s eyes.

Using the silver umbrella fixture, place this lamp at lens height nearby camera. Makes little difference if lamp is right or left of camera. Set to 1/2 power. Measure distance lamp-to- subject and record. Call this distance “F” as this is the Fill lamp” Using just this one Fill lamp, (all other lamps off) shoot a series of exposures using just the middle f/stops of your camera. These are f/8 and f/5.6.

Check camera manual to ensure the shutter speed you select will synchronize with electronic flash. Likely this will be 1/60 or 1/125 or 1/250 sec. With electronic flash, the shutter speed is not a major player as to exposure because the flash fires and quenches very fast and shutter action lags far behind. Shutter is only a factor if it fails to synchronize or if it remains open for an extended period allowing ambient light to record along with the flash. Keeping the shutter as above mitigates the introduction of ambient light.

Examine results of the series; if over-exposed repeat the series at 1/4 power. If under exposed, re-shoot at full power. In other words by trial and error find correct exposure for one light set-up. Your goal is to end up with an aperture of f/8 ~ f/5.6.

Success with this one-light experiment! Set Main lamp. Place at a 45° angle as measured from an imaginary line drawn camera-to-subject. In other words, off to the side half way. Makes no difference if you place on right side or left -- for giggles place on same side as part in subject’s hair. Use the silver umbrella; set the power exactly the same as the Fill lamp. We are placing the “M” lamp (Main). Place this Main lamp high to simulate afternoon sun. Multiply distance “F” by 1.4. Example distance “F” equals 80 inches times 1.4 = 112. This is subject-to-lamp distance for “M” lamp (Main).

This math places the Fill and the Main to deliver a 3:1 lighting ratio. Main and Fill are identical except for distance.

The addition of the second light has little effect on exposure. Likely you will need to stop down the aperture 1/2 stop or so.

Best of luck,

Alan Marcus (marginal technical gobbledygook)

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12/20/2008 10:47:02 PM

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