October 30, 2011

simple lighting setup for home studio photography

This photo of Anelisa and Aleona, two of my favorite models, were taken towards the end of the evening of the most recent flash photography and lighting workshop in New York. The studio that the workshop was held in, had a white cyclorama that was just inviting to be used. As a recap of manual flash photography, I wanted to show how simple and easy a basic studio lighting setup was … and that it was quite within the reach of every photographer. Well, not the studio itself, but the lighting setup and equipment, as well as the technique, is well within the reach of any photographer.

A comment I had as feedback about this part of the workshop, was: “I was personally surprised at how little it took to create that sort of a photo.”

And that’s what I wanted to show – the simplicity of the lighting setup. Here is the pull-back shot.

Two speedlights, each with an umbrella. For a home-studio setup where you are using part of the living room or such, and you have daylight coming in through a window, you can even forego the light on the background. Just the one light in the front.

I used a 45-Inch White shoot-through umbrella (vendor) to create a large light source.

All the equipment hooked up there:
– a speedlight,
– a battery pack (to make sure the flash recycles fast enough),
– a light-stand / umbrella clamp / umbrella
– a radio trigger to have the camera trigger the flash.

The radio trigger here is the  Pocket-Wizard radio trigger (vendor), and is a simple unit that only allows manual flash. No more is needed for a studio setup. We just need manual flash capability here. Where the Plus II unit is easier to work with than the PocketWizard TT5 units or the RadioPoppers, is that the Plus II units make it easy to use a lightmeter.  (The PW TT5 and RadioPopper units rely on the camera’s wireless technology, and the communication between the Master and Slave units consist of visible light pulses .. which trigger a hand-held lightmeter prematurely, making it impossible (?) / tough to get an accurate lightmeter reading.

But to start off with, a wireless trigger / radio transmitter isn’t even essential for a basic studio setup – you could use a speedlight on the camera as the Master flash to trip the Slave unit. Many of the examples in my book about off-camera flash was shot exactly like that, without radio transmitters.

But the lightmeter makes it easier to be much more specific and precise about our decisions and choice of settings.


about the choice of settings

Since we’re shooting with manual flash, we have 4 controls for our flash exposure. (Everything but shutter speed.)
– distance
– powere of our flash
– aperture

In this case, we set up the main light a certain distance from the two models – close enough to get a wide spread of light – but far enough to get the half-length portraits at a medium telephoto focal length. (That makes for a more normal and pleasing perspective than a wide-angle view.) However, in the example at the top, I purposely exaggerated the view by zooming to 30mm on my 24-70mm lens, as I shot from below.

Aperture & ISO:
We decided on f8 @ 400 ISO … why? Because that is what we decided we needed. A medium aperture at a decent ISO that is within the capabilities of a single speedlight. Simple.

Power (of our speedlight)
All that is left is to figure out our power setting on our flash – which is set to manual output, of course. In that linked tutorial on manual flash, we used our flash on our camera to see the relationship between flash output and distance. But here we have the umbrella diffusing our flash, so the distance scale on our flash has little bearing on anything. We need to calculate our flash’s setting to give us f8 … the aperture we (arbitrarily) decided on.

This is where the lightmeter makes our life so much easier. We now hold the lightmeter close to our subjects (the two models), and trip the flash, and look at the light meter’s display. (Of course, we had set the correct ISO on our lightmeter.)  We now trigger the flash and check the aperture that the lightmeter says our flash is giving us (for that distance and ISO). Then we change our flash’s output, by as much as is necessary to get to that aperture we want.  Simple as that.

I  “count the clicks” to shift the exposure – adjusting my flash’s output by as many 1/3rd stop clicks as my aperture dial tells me.

All this takes much longer to describe than actually do. It really is simple.

For anyone who has been curious about using a simple off-camera setup like this – the equipment needed for an initial start is surprisingly little and inexpensive. The technique is really simple.  Don’t let all the wordiness fool you – it really is simple. You just need to DO it and see for yourself.

This is a topic we will revisit a few times again in the upcoming winter months. Ideal time to stay sheltered indoors and play with this.

In the image above, I had a second speedlight in an umbrella with a black backing. With this, I wanted to add enough light on the background so it doesn’t go grey, but remains white. In retrospect, I should’ve bumped the exposure from that flash up somewhat so that the background went white by blowing out a bit. It would’ve saved me some of the Photoshop effort to get a white background.



I used Shine-Off to reduce some of the specularity on the skin tones:

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use code: neilvn for 10% off

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Then on a final layer, I punched up the contrast and saturation via the RadLab filters / actions palette.

You can order the RadLab or the Totally Rad action sets via this affiliate link.


photo gear (and equivalents) used in this photo session


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{ 31 comments. } Add a Comment

1 ron lemish October 31, 2011 at 2:44 am

In ITT the pre flashes mess up the proper use of a flash meter but excuse my ignorance but I thought that shooting in MANUAL mode you can properly us the flash meter as there are no pre flashes in manual.. Am I wrong ???
On second thought even in manual mode ( without using Pocket Wizards using the Nikon electronics) the two flashes have to communicate with one another ( I assume via pre flashes ). Which assumption is correct ???…Ron Lemish Lph.


2 Neil vN October 31, 2011 at 3:21 am

The TTL pre flashes with which the camera calculates exposure is separate from the Master / Slave communication train of light signals.

Neil vN


3 Ty Freeman October 31, 2011 at 9:50 am

Is there a particular reason you chose to use speedlites, instead of standard studio strobes? It would seem that, you would get more power, as well as, faster recycle times. Or, is the purpose of this exercise to show what can be done with a very inexpensive setup?


4 Neil vN October 31, 2011 at 11:10 am

The workshop is based around on-location lighting techniques, and the equipment needs to be the type of gear that everyone has, or is accessible to everyone. Hence, speedlites.

Neil vN


5 NYBri October 31, 2011 at 11:35 am


I recently purchased some gear for off camera lighting (not TTL). I purchased two alienbees flashes, battery pack and a few attachements (octabox, beauty dish). My ‘studio’ space is limited in size so I can not create much distance between model and lights. Being a beginner I’m still in testing mode to get the right settings.

I hate to think I need more gear to improve rather than use what I have and get better, but getting the proper lighting is challenging. Do you recommend the light meter, or would you suggest I keep working with what I have.

I struggle with blown out images or just dull images from my lighting. Currently using the lights I have with triggers in a small indoor space, without a backdrop.

Anyways, this was a good read and making me question my hesitence to purchase a light meter. The histogram on camera is not effective with off camera lighting, correct?


6 carlo October 31, 2011 at 12:11 pm

How’d you manage to get the floor white with just the one background light?


7 Neil vN October 31, 2011 at 2:01 pm


Neil vN


8 Stephen October 31, 2011 at 4:18 pm

What mount is the SB-900 sitting on in the third picture from the top? The mount is between the umbrella bracket and the flash.


9 Neil vN October 31, 2011 at 4:25 pm

aaah, I’d forgotten to mention the Frio cold-shoe mount.

Neil vN


10 Leonard Cardinale October 31, 2011 at 8:57 pm

As anyone who follows your work,reads your books or attends your workshops knows that your work is simply stunning, no questions asked. If I might ask a tecky question and hopefully not disrupt the thread. I am currently getting ready to make a new purchase and my partial equipment list is: Nikon D3s, Nikkor 80-200mm f2.8, an 85mm f1.4D, a70-24mm f2.8 and a 50mm f1.4D and a Sigma 150mm macro f2.8. My question finally is would you recommend upgrading the 85mm to the G version or purchasing the 135mm f2.0 DC lens? I would appreciate your thoughts.
Thanks so much,


11 Neil vN October 31, 2011 at 9:37 pm

My suggestion would be to forego the 135mm f2 DC … it is an older design which shows its limitations now in AF speed, and optical performance wide open.

Instead, sell your 80-200mm f2.8 and get the Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 AF-S VR II. The improved sharpness and AF speed over your previous version, as well as the new lens’ aggressive vibration reduction, will mean it is a significant improvement over your current lens. And the VR would make it a more versatile lens than the 135mm f2 DC lens.

Neil vN


12 parv November 1, 2011 at 12:12 am

I just can’t get over the solid mass of black around Anelisa’s feet! Would bare flash have given some definition to “those things”?


13 Neil vN November 1, 2011 at 1:02 am

Parv … yes. more light there during the shoot, or the use of the localized correction brush in post-processing the image, would’ve brought more detail in.

The first option was outside the scope of this setup and explanation … the second option, I didn’t bother.

Neil vN


14 Raphayel November 1, 2011 at 2:58 am


Please tell Anelisa that I said she’s the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen! Can’t get enough of her photos.



15 Mauricio Urena November 1, 2011 at 6:47 am


Recently I bought the PW TT5 & Mini to set in my gear for off camera flash. My actual gear is a Nikon D90, SB-900 and a SB-600. I am figuring out how can I triggered both flashes at the same time. I used the Mini on the camera, the SB-900 on the TT5, but I could not fire the SB-600. Could you please help me and give an advice to how set up the same as the example above with my gear? Or may I need to buy another PW to fire up the SB-600? Many thanks and your models are great, excellent easy home studio tip!!!


16 Neil vN November 1, 2011 at 7:05 am

Mauricio … the simplest option here would be to get another PocketWizard to trigger the second flash.

Neil vN


17 Jennifer Lynch November 1, 2011 at 8:27 am

What Photoshop tools did you use to whiten background and floor in post-processing? What selection tool? And if you used selection tool what feather did you use? When I do this (whiten/lighten background) I always have a halo or bleed around subject. Seems far better to get it right during the shoot. Why did you opt not to do that? Wouldn’t a background light off to side like this cause uneven lighting of background? And spill on subjects?


18 Anthony November 2, 2011 at 1:51 am

Hi there Neil,

I’ve noticed you use a range of wireless trigers, could you maybe do a tangent on the different transceivers you use and why you use each of them for different occasions.

since reading your blog youve made me switch camera brands and im forever wondering which trigger to get as you seem to use so many.

could you please list pros and cons of each variant that you use as im looking at buying these next but dont know why i should by one from the other, as there is a fairly big difference in price between each of them id appreciate your advice on this




19 Neil vN November 2, 2011 at 6:20 am

Anthony … this is a tough call. There are just so many radio triggers out there, especially if you just need a simple radio transmitter for studio work – ie, no TTL capability.

For simple radio slaves, I use the PocketWizard Plus II units. They are very reliable. The RadioPopper JrX system also works really well. (I’ve used it at a few of the After Dark conventions.)

If you want TTL capability, then your options are more clear – the two big names are PocketWizard and RadioPoppers. Both have their advantages. For Canon, the choice is perhaps simpler to make. But I just received two Phottix Strato II radio transmitters which I need to try out. There’s been some good feedback about them as well.

For Nikon … it would be the same .. PocketWizard and RadioPoppers, (and a few other (Chinese) brands).

I use both. In a workshop / multi-shooter environment, the RadioPoppers work best.

Tough call. :)
It’ll be an ongoing subject here in future articles.

Neil vN


20 Jay November 2, 2011 at 9:27 am

Hey Neil

I photographed my daughter the day before this post using a similar technique. My key light was a 24in softbox, I used a shoot through umbrella for the background and a bit of rim light.

Thanks for another great post.


21 rick November 10, 2011 at 3:19 am

When using the SD-8a battery pack with the pocket wizards, how do you put the battery pack’s pc cord into the flash, and still trigger with the Pocket Wizards? Or do you need to use the battery pack’s PC plug?


22 Neil vN November 12, 2011 at 11:09 am

Rick, I’ve used the SD-8a on a speedlight without plugging in the PC connection, and it seemed to work fine. I’m sure there are valid reasons for it being there, but not using it didn’t seem to have a detrimental effect. So in this case, I’d say just use it like it is, without the PC connector going anywhere.

Neil vN


23 Barbara Brady-Smith November 13, 2011 at 10:05 am

Would appreciate same info as asked above. I have a hard time in post getting a clean background Thank you!

“What Photoshop tools did you use to whiten background and floor in post-processing? What selection tool? And if you used selection tool what feather did you use? ”

I sure appreciate all your tutorials!


24 Neil vN November 18, 2011 at 11:07 am

It will have to be a tutorial for another day then on how to get a clean white background in Photoshop.

Neil vN


25 Jeff Sims November 30, 2011 at 1:24 pm

Long time follower. How would you have reduced (or eliminated) the specular highlights at the time of the shoot ?


26 Neil vN November 30, 2011 at 3:35 pm

Jeff .. a larger, more diffuse light source would have helped.

Neil vN


27 Rodney February 21, 2012 at 3:05 am

Neil…if you had used two SB600’s…would the light produced from these flash models be sufficient to get the same result? Even with the post processing?


28 Neil vN February 21, 2012 at 5:11 am

Rodney … that would work. (Keep in mind the SB-600 speedlights can’t take a battery pack. So your shooting rate would have to be much slower.)

Neil vN


29 Angelo March 21, 2012 at 9:07 pm

Hi Neil

Sometime has passed since this tangent.
Have you had an opportunity to explain the PS process in getting the background white and crisp.
Like several others above, I’m still hanging to see it because I have some images which need this process.




30 Neil vN March 23, 2012 at 11:49 am

This book by Scot Kelby has a clear instruction on how to extract the subject from the background:

Light It, Shoot It, Retouch It (Amazon USA)

Light It, Shoot It, Retouch It (Amazon UK)


31 Mike Davey October 23, 2012 at 9:57 am

Hi Neil, a fantastic article.

I have trawled many websites, and they nearly all overcomplicate the topic of setting up a basic studio.

The fact that you can do this with 2 speedlites and 2 umbrella fills me with confidence. This coupled with the Lastolite hotshoe diffuser gives a studio and location setup for little investment.

Thank again.


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