A 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, are 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 (affiliate) 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 (affiliate), 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 camera & flash settings
Since we’re shooting with manual flash,
we have 4 controls for our flash exposure:
– powere of our flash
(Shutter speed has no effect if we don’t go into high-speed flash sync.)
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.
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.
Photo gear (or equivalents) used in this photo session
- Nikon D3
- Nikon 24-70mm f2.8G AF-S /equivalent Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II
- (2x) Nikon SB-910 Speedlight controlled by PocketWizard FlexTT5 Transceiver & AC3 Controller
or alternately, (2x) Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite controlled by Canon ST-E3 Transmitter
- Nikon SD-9 battery pack /equivalent Canon CP-E4 battery pack
- 45-Inch White Satin Umbrella
- 45-Inch White Satin Umbrella w/ Removable Black Cover
- (2x) Manfrotto 1004BAC – tall light-stand
- (3x) PocketWizard Plus X Transceiver
- Sekonic L-358 light meter
- Tutorial video – A home-studio setup with speedlites
- A simple lighting setup for photographing the wedding formals
- Lighting setup with speedlights & white seamless backdrop
40 Comments, Add Your Own
1ron lemish says
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.
2Neil vN says
3Ty Freeman says
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?
4Neil vN says
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?
How’d you manage to get the floor white with just the one background light?
7Neil vN says
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.
9Neil vN says
10Leonard Cardinale says
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,
11Neil vN says
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”?
13Neil vN says
14Mauricio Urena says
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!!!
15Neil vN says
16Jennifer Lynch says
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?
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
18Neil vN says
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.
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?
21Neil vN says
22Barbara Brady-Smith says
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!
23Neil vN says
24Jeff Sims says
Long time follower. How would you have reduced (or eliminated) the specular highlights at the time of the shoot ?
25Neil vN says
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?
27Neil vN says
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.
29Neil vN says
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)
30Mike Davey says
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.
31Simon vail says
Great post. Would you be able to tell me how to trigger canon 600 flashes which rely on canon wireless technology remotely? You used a flashmeter but don’t say how you trigger flash. Do you have to fire the camera every time to make the flash fire while holding the flashmeter next to the model? Thank you.
32Neil vN says
If you have the Canon ST-E3 Transmitter (or even the Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite) as the master controller, then pushing the test button will give you the appropriate manual flash output.
So you don’t have to fire the camera every time you meter. Just press the test button on the Master controller.
Obviously you do have to fire the flash every time you want to meter. But this shouldn’t be an incessant thing. You get your settings, and then you continue with the photo shoot.
Keep in mind you don’t have to have your model there to do the metering. You can do all of that without someone standing there next to you.
33Troy D says
…and a room with 12′ ceilings! ;)
Good article! Thanks Neil!!
is this a paper backdrop or something else ?
35Neil vN says
That was a studio space with a white infinity curve / cyclorama wall. But you could do similar in a home studio with a white paper backdrop.
Thanks for the detailed explanation for people like me trying to set up a studio for the first time.
I have been trying to understand the flash mode (TTL or Manual) of the slave speedlight to be able to change power from the radio trigger itself.
(without going to the light stand, lower the speedlight, set the power manually to come back, check the exposure and repeat until it is okay)
I am interested in manually changing the flash power myself than leaving it to camera TTL logics in this case.
Could you kindly advise on the kind of radio trigger and the speedlight that is capable of understanding the manual power level given by radio trigger.
37Neil vN says
There are several radio triggering systems that would allow this – PocketWizard TT1 / TT5. Radio-poppers, and any of the other speedlight systems really. It would depends on what you are using at this moment.
I am currently using third party manual speedlights… Just found out that one need to have TTL sppedlights even to control flash power manually from remote/master trigger… sorry to bother you with questions so silly but wanted to know if my finding is correct?
39Neil vN says
Whether you can control the power of your speedlite from your camera or the controller, depends entirely on the brand and design of the flash. So it doesn’t have anything to do with being manual or TTL. What usually (or always?) happens is that the higher-end speedlites that offer such control, have TTL as one of the specs anyway.
I will have to check for the affordable ones for now :), i guess it might take some time to be able to work with high end gear.
Thanks Neil for all the wonderful articles.