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  • Writer's pictureRuss Tierney

the Key Light - building a multi light studio set up for photography portraits.

Updated: Sep 27, 2022

Building a multi light studio set up for photography portraits

the Key Light

Hey, it's been a minute.. I shot these months ago, cut them together, and I only had one to do, but life happened, and I never finished them, 'til now! Talk about slacking! Actually, a big shout-out to you lot, because while events are slow the UK over with the cost of living, which affects our studio days also, independent studio hire picked up, and I had a bunch of commissions come in, so priorities kinda took over.

I think these may be difficult to flesh out (he said - strap in, it's gonna be long), as it's more about just introducing the light placement to you if you've not used light in such a way before, plus with this first one, it's pretty much covered in the lighting patterns 101's. I've not reread any of them, so forgive me if we're repetitive, but let's goo.

This is your first and main light, your key light, the creator of the lighting pattern. You do not need to place it as I have with the closed loop lighting pattern, but it offered a good amount of shadow on the far cheek which will help emphasise the lights we'll add in later - which is also the reason I chose a beauty dish over say a soft box, where that light spread would be, well, softer.

As also mentioned in the video, a common misconception in the studio is that ambient light will play a big part in the final image, and studios need to be as dark as possible. While that may be true with really reflective materials, or if you choose to go the extra mile and turn most lights off just to be sure (mirrorless cameras these days that can pretty much see in the dark, so it's far easier to), it really has little effect given just how powerful studio lighting is. I quite often see it with photographers who haven't used studio lighting much before, and who are used to natural light. They question why their in camera light meter isn't matching up with their required settings.. simpily put, your camera is reading the available light in the room and has no idea what the strobe lights are about to do. An easy mistake to make, especially if you're also used to using speedlite flashes too. These small flashes that you put on your camera's hotshoe will often also have a TTL (Through-The-Lens) metering feature, which means they talk to your camera's light meter to determine the amount of flash to output on to the subject, in which case, your in camera meter plays a big part.

In the studio, however, you're typically looking for the highest possible control and quality, and for that, we need to shoot manual, so we are completely in control of our exposure triangle; our three main and manipulable settings that affect the exposure of any given image:

Image taken from - check them out!

Why ISO is important

While it's a tool to be utilised if needed, typically your best quality comes from the lowest possible ISO setting to avoid 'noise'. Studios may have lots of ambient lighting, but it's still surprising lowlight on the most part (unless it has huge skylights), so your camera's meter will up your ISO settings to deal with it, but that's assuming of course you're not in a mode such as Shutter or Aperture priority, where the camera will change those settings according to the available light. Even then, in a lowlight situation, they may only go down so far because of lens limitations before it kicks your ISO in to life too, and often, those setting will be less than ideal!

Why Shutter speed is important

I've mentioned previous that photography strobe lights typically have sync speed limits, usually around 160 or 200, so in the studio, I'm usually aiming to be at 125 to avoid that being a problem. This is why we shoot in manual mode to ensure consistency, because while cameras are clever bits of kit, they're not quite at the level of the human brain, or they just have zero way of knowing what it is you're trying to achieve, to the point they don't know you're using studio lighting, as suggested above. We also want control of the shutter so we know we're getting a sharp image, because if it goes too much the other way by leaving your shutter open for a longer time, then ambient light may become a problem. A longer shutter allows in more light, and if you do have enough ambient light, then it will be visible in the image, or worse, it may cause camera shake from handholding which will result in blur. Having a low shutter speed with flash can be used creatively however, this is called dragging the shutter, and it works in such a way that the flash duration is so short that if that light hits your subject cleanly, it will freeze them sharply, and then any movement you/they do after the fact will be exposed by the ambient light, so you can get creative movements/blurs. Choosing those ambient light placements and their exact exposure output on the image relating to your settings etc, can get some wonderfully creative, experimental, yet still reasonably controlled images. Even then, however, you want to know what the shutter speed is exactly, so you are in control and not risking it going too high or too low, and all while tweaking it for your desired effect.

Why your aperture is important There are a few factors that influence the background blur in an image, such as the lens, zoom and distance you are from your subject, but the most obvious is your choice in aperture. More importantly, the aperture controls just how much is in or out of focus near to the focal plane in which it has focused. Are you personally focused? You're probably going to need to be, as wording this is not fun! Let's say you're shooting a few people, and you want them to both be in focus, but one person is half a step behind the other, then their focal planes will be different. Upping your aperture from a low number will give you a larger focal plane, thus meaning that more distance both in front and behind your focal point will be sharp. Your aperture is also a potential creative choice too, which again, is why we need to be in control of it for both practical reasons and for our own creative output.

The perfect studio settings? Back when I was reading up on this stuff, people used to say it was f14, 1/160 & ISO100 - most people coming in to the studio these days look to between f8 - f11, and as already mentioned, going above 125 on the shutter can present sync problems on occasion. The reality is, it's all your choice! You are in control, or at least you should aim to be, with the only exception being that you're bound by physics and have to work around your space and equipment limitations, but then that's ultimately your main aim in understanding, and as your as job as a photographer.

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