Bill Pierce's
Nuts & Bolts 
"Hot Lights"

In the last few weeks, three news photographers have asked me how to light something in a studio, or a studio created on location. Studio shooting is sometimes necessary---a quiet place to take a portrait or an illustration that makes something clear and understandable. In the hope that you are in the studio for these reasons and not to produce an economical substitute for a news event---here are the basics. 

Main Light
The main or "key" light is the primary source of illumination for the picture. It's the most important light and often the only one that is needed. There are two decisions the photographer makes about the key---its position and its size. 

The closer the main light is to the lens, the smaller the size of the shadows that it produces. The farther off the axis of the lens, the more prominent the shadows. 

The smaller the light (spotlight, portable flash), the sharper its shadow edge. The larger the light (umbrella, soft box or bounce light), the more gradual the transition from highlight to shadow. 

(It should be said that "small" and "large" are judged from the position of the subject. A tiny insect, having its close-up taken, can look into a small flash and see it as a giant skylight. The shadow edge in your "insect head shot" will be very soft.  The sun is very big.  It is also very far away and appears to us as being very small. Significantly bigger than most soft boxes, it still produces a sharp shadow.  On a more practical level, this means that the shadow edge of an umbrella or soft box can be very soft if it is very close, and quite sharp if it is far away.) 

Thus, you have two controls with your main light---position and size. If you want to minimize shadows and textures to produce a flattering head shot---place a large light, close to the lens. If you're photographing a golf ball and want to show its little craters---place a small light off the lens axis. 

Of course, the lighting effect is under your control. If you want to make the golf ball look like a flat white disc---place a large light close to the lens. If you want to show off the craters on the face of your portrait subject---place a small light off the lens axis and a quick retreat. 

Fill Light
Because a single light, close to the subject in a studio, does not have the same level of natural fill as a more distant light with fill light bouncing from a variety of surfaces, you may want to lighten the shadows with a second light.  Since this light should not produce shadows of its own, you already know what you need---a large light close to the lens. 
Background Light
Because your main light is close to the subject, falloff between the subject and background are far more extreme than they are in the non-studio world. Therefore, you need a light to bring up the level of illumination on the background. Once again, producing no shadows of its own. 
In order to create separation between the background and the subject, you can also use a backlight to edge the subject. Since this light is pointing in the direction of the lens, to avoid flare, it is usually a relatively small source that is easily controlled---a gridded strobe head, a spot with snoot or barndoors, etc. 

Stupid Suggestion: Now comes the stupid suggestion. To learn lighting, use tungsten and halogen lights. Still photographers tend to stick to electronic flash. But, I remember being knocked out by the studio portraiture of a young photographer who lit his subjects with household bulbs in hardware-store-type aluminum reflectors. (I also know some old pros who use tungsten.) When you can see it, you really can be more creative with it. 
The movie industry has provided us with a lot of lightweight location gear. Lowel-Light makes a huge variety of location gear. Probably the most popular are: (1) the Tota light, a small, rugged flood with a folding gull wing reflector that provides a variety of light patterns and bulb protection when the unit is being transported; (2) the Omni light with a parabolic reflector that can produce a beam angle from 16 to 53 degrees with a standard reflector. Bigger units, smaller units, soft boxes, even focusing spotlights with fresnel lenses, and an unbelievable range of accessories are all available. 

Arriflex has also introduced a line of fresnel spots from 150 to 1000 watts. Also, in the "affordable" category are the DeSisti focusing fresnels and LTM Peppers. The Peppers are the smallest of the fully professional focusing fresnels. And for sheer economy, the photoflood units of SP and Smith Victor have given a lot of people a start, and continue to find a place alongside more expensive gear. 

By the way, you'll soon learn why all of these units are called "hot lights." If you are going to use them on location, be sure to schedule a cool down time while you gather your caption info. 

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