Ah, blogging in the wintertime. The light fades quickly, and bloggers scramble to take photos before the darkness of evening strikes. But guess what, you guys? You don’t have to worry about lighting any more! Three years ago I decided to invest in some lighting equipment for my Etsy shop so I wouldn’t be shackled to shooting during daylight hours only, and also so the quality and crispness of my photos could improve dramatically. It took me quite a while to figure out what the heck I was doing and what equipment I should buy. So I thought I’d make it easier for someone else starting out in studio lighting to understand what to purchase, how to set up a photo shoot, and how to effectively use lighting equipment to mimic daylight.
Here are a few tips and tricks for lighting your blog and product photos using artificial lighting- plus, tips for utilizing window light if you don’t have the money to put towards a lighting setup just yet.
The photo above was taken using only artificial lighting from my studio strobe flashes. Because of the brightness of the lights I used in my setup, I was able to take the photo at a higher shutter speed, at a lower ISO, and at a wider aperture, increasing the sharpness and quality of the final image. Without artificial lighting, I’m forced to shoot on sunny days, near a window, and still have to deal with issues like shooting at a high ISO (decreases image quality), using a low f# (found in expensive lenses, and makes it so only one point of the image is in focus), and worrying about camera shake with a low shutter speed. Check out the equipment I use below, and then take a gander at how I set it all up.
Strobes vs. Continuous lighting: Some photographers choose to shoot with continuous lighting, but I don’t because it uses a lot of energy and puts out a lot of heat during a photo shoot. Strobe flashes put out bursts of light only when you take the photo, and then recharge for the next photo. This is more energy efficient, but it also isn’t great for action shots, because if you take a photo too quickly after the previous one, the strobes will not have charged yet, and the subsequent action photos will be dark. So, strobes- great for product photography, not toddler photography. Also, the bright flashes probably aren’t good for babies. But this isn’t portrait photography tips, it’s blog and product photography tips!
Bouncers & Diffusers vs. Light Umbrellas: When I started out on my studio lighting adventure, I bought a lighting kit that came with umbrellas. I wish I hadn’t. I quickly found out that the umbrellas weren’t going to give me the even, diffused lighting quality I desired, so I bought these two big softboxes instead. Well, time went on and I found out through trial and error that even the softboxes weren’t giving me that diffused lighting that one might find in a bright, white, open space. Since I couldn’t afford to rent out a studio space with the openness, big windows, and white walls I wanted, I began to experiment with bouncing my strobe lights off of large white foam boards in my own living room, and loved the look I got. The only problem was bringing home the huge pieces of foam board from the store (I borrowed my parents’ van), and then storing them at home when I wasn’t using them. Finally, I purchased two huge reflector/diffuser rings that collapse for easy storage, and I couldn’t be happier! The light I get from them is pure white, and they’re super easy to use.
Below you’ll find the equipment I use the most with links for buying them on Amazon. They are inexpensive compared to better brands, but they’ve served me well. This is all you really need for a nice studio set up for nighttime blog photo shoots and product photography in your own home. The prices listed below are what I pay with my Amazon Prime membership- the prices may be different for non-members.
- TWO STROBE FLASH LIGHTS / $62.48 each
- REMOTE TRIGGER + TWO RECEIVERS / $32 for the set
- TWO SUPER CLAMPS / $29.99 each
- TWO COLLAPSABLE LIGHT DIFFUSER/BOUNCERS / $58.95 each
- TWO PAIRS OF LIGHT STANDS WITH CARRYING CASES / $30.96 for a set of two
To get started, set up your subject how you want, but I like using a white backdrop (either white paper, mat board, or foam board) and a white “table top” I made for photos. Now set up four light stands, and screw your strobe flashes onto the top of two of them. Attach the remote receivers into the backs of the flashes and set their frequencies to match each other and to match the hot shoe flash trigger (found in the set I linked to above) that you’ve slipped to the top of your camera where an external flash might go. Set one light directly to the left of your photo setup, and point it towards the photo. You can vary the height of the light according to your desires, but I like this side light to be situated lower that the other light. Now, look at the dial on the back of that flash you just set up, and make sure it’s set as low as it can go. Place the second light diagonally in front of the subject you’re shooting. The photo shows this light situated somewhat close to the subject, but in actuality I shoot with it a bit further away, in front and to the side of the subject. Point the light upwards and away from the subject, and set the dial on the back to mid-range.
Now, pop open the two collapsable diffuser/reflector rings. The diffuser/reflector ring that I linked to above is great because it’s actually 5 things in one- it has a gold reflector, a silver reflector, a black “flag,” a white bouncer, and, if you unzip and remove the cover, it reveals a white light diffuser. Put the super clamp on top of your remaining two light stands, and attach the diffuser on onto one stand, and the reflector on the other stand by fitting the straps of the reflector rings into the super clamp. You will use the white light diffuser in front of the side light, just about two feet away from the light, in between the strobe flash and the subject. Position the white reflector/bouncer (these terms are interchangeable for my purposes) in front of the other light, which should be pointed towards the reflector/bouncer and away from the subject. This setup will result in a soft light coming in from the side, and a nice, even light coming in diagonally from the front of the subject. The front/diagonal strobe should cast light that is slightly brighter than the side light, creating natural looking shadows in the final image.
When you take photos using this strobe flash light setup, you will need to practice and experiment with the settings on your camera. Because the strobe flashes are way brighter than the lighting in the room, the light meter on your camera won’t help you select your camera settings. You should definitely have your camera on a manual setting, and start with your shutter speed set somewhere between 150 and 200, because that’s the speed that should sync with the speed of your strobe flashes. Use your camera’s manual to see how to change the shutter speed on your camera if you’re unfamiliar with the manual setting. Your f# can be low if you wish (as long as your strobe flashes aren’t too bright), but I like to keep mine around f/2.5-f/3.0, so that there is still a nice depth of field, but more of the photo is in focus than what you would get with a lower f# like f/1.4. Once you have the shutter speed set to around 180, and your f# is where you want it, then take a few photos, adjusting your ISO until you get the lighting just how you want it. Your ISO will probably end up being really low, which will result in some very high quality images.
Don’t be afraid to play around with the positioning and power level of your flashes until you get the shadows just how you want them. I like to move the strobes out further than my setup photo shows, but you might not be able to do that if you’re working in a small space. If you have pure white ceilings, you might try pointing the front light up to the ceiling to bounce the light off the ceiling for a really nice diffused light. Just be aware when bouncing light that if what you use to reflect the light isn’t a neutral white, it will cast its hue onto your subject matter.
Owning lighting equipment has literally changed my life as a DIY blogger. I can now take photos and work on projects whenever is convenient for me, regardless of the light (or lack thereof) that’s coming through my windows. If I start photographing a subject in the morning, but finish photographing it in the evening, my artificial lighting setup guarantees consistent lighting in all of my photos. But if you can’t afford to acquire this whole setup right away, I would definitely suggest starting out with a light bouncer/diffuser like this. It’s a good size, it’s portable, easy to store, and will give you a perfect neutral light in your photos, unlike the warm white of foam board. All you need is some natural light!
On a typical day, especially in the Summer when the light is brighter, I shoot photos using only the light from the largest window in my house. I set up my subject on our dining room table, which I push close to the window. If the light coming from the window is very harsh and bright, I place a diffuser ring in front of it the offending beam of light. I prop up a white mat board behind my subject and then set up the white bounce side of my other ring reflector opposite of the window, so that all of that beautiful light can bounce back onto the darker side of my image.
Above you can see three unedited versions same image, taken within minutes of each other using the same exact settings on my camera. The first image uses just the light from my window, which creates a nice image, but uneven lighting from one side of the image to the other. It would do in a pinch, but I prefer a brighter image without such dramatic lighting. So for the second image, you can see how different the same setup looks using the white bounce side of my ring reflector. It seems like I took the photo in a gorgeously lit room, but in actuality the lighting in my dining room is less than ideal, so the ring reflector is my photographer’s life saver!
The third version of this image uses the “black flag” side of my ring reflector, which creates a moodier image. The black flag absorbs light from the left side of the image, resulting in dramatic shadows, a lighting effect known as chiaroscuro. This look is great for use with dark backgrounds and a sumptuous subject matter, like chocolate cake drizzled with ganache and topped with a luscious ripe cherry. Yummm! Chiaroscuro is great for emphasizing drama, but seeing as how I’m probably dramatic enough without dark shadows, I usually prefer brighter images for my photography, so the white bounce gets used most often in my work.
I hope this guide has been helpful for any beginning photographers or bloggers who are looking for more flexibility in their work and studio arrangement! This post is the beginning of a photography miniseries on Making Nice in the Midwest which is designed to help bloggers make their work even better. I originally planned this series to be an online class available for purchase, but instead of asking you to pay for the class, I thought I’d make the content available to you for free, but I’m sharing the equipment I use with affiliate links. If you enjoyed my tips and want to purchase your own equipment, doing so by following the links in this post will give me a small percentage of that sale and help pay for more content like this at Making Nice in the Midwest.