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Why Every Photographer Should Try Studio Photography

Loop lit portrait
Naturally lit photograph of a baby/toddler
This is a naturally lit photograph of my son, Elliott. He’s sat on the floor in my front room playing with his toys. To get the light I’ve closed the curtains slightly to create a smaller light source. Smaller light sources give a harder and more contrasty light, which is exactly the look I wanted here. This is a look I’ve created on many occasions in the studio using a softbox on a studio flash.

Studio photography is something many photographers never try. They’d rather photograph in the real world with natural light. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not about to tell you that natural light photography is bad or wrong. I love working with natural light when I can.

So why should photographers who prefer the great outdoors spend some time in the studio? Because Studio photography will improve your natural light photography. Before you decide I’ve gone entirely loopy allow me to explain.

Studio photography is all about control. In the studio you have control over the background and you have control over all of the light in the scene. You choose the direction and intensity of your light and how many light sources there are. This control will get you thinking about how the light lands on a scene – whether the subject is a person, animal or inanimate object. The more time you spend really looking at the light in a scene the more you’ll learn the skill of not just looking but seeing. When you get back outdoors into your naturally lit environment you’ll take this skill with you. In the studio you’ll really learn to see light and understand it because you are forced to create your own. Creating your own light will force you to think about the finer details of where your light is coming from.

If, like me, you photograph a lot of people you will quickly learn the lighting patterns that work on human faces. The most common being known as butterfly lighting, loop lighting, rembrandt lighting, split lighting and rim lighting. These are all about getting the angle of light relative to your subject’s face right. These lighting styles can all be achieved using daylight, but they’re much easier to practice in a controlled environment.

Loop lit portrait
This is a studio portrait I created for a make up artist who wanted to show off her use of extreme false eyelashes. I’ve used a bare faced studio light to give a harsh quality to the lighting. The light is positioned slightly above the model at around a 30 degree angle, creating a characteristic loop shadow on the model’s nose. In loop lighting the nose shadow never touches the cheek shadow.

Of course, when you go back outdoors you have no control over the intensity of the light, but you can control it’s direction relative to your subject. By moving your subject you can choose how the light will land on him/her/it and how it will reveal shape and form. This is slightly harder if the subject you prefer to photograph is landscapes, but by thinking about the time of day you shoot them you can have control over which direction the light is coming from. If you’re a smartphone user there are some useful apps which can help you to work out where the sun will be at a given time of day. The app I use at the moment is called PhotoPills. For a few pounds PhotoPills comes with a whole lot of photography planning tools, although it can take a bit of working out how to use it. Another great app for landscape users is called SkyClock. SkyClock will give you precise details of when to expect sunrise and sunset so you can plan to be in the right place at the right time.

Having said that you don’t have control over the light outdoors, I should point out at this point that that isn’t entirely true. We can use flash outdoors in balance with daylight to create the look we want for our photograph. Working in the studio will get you used to working with a key light and a fill light. In the great outdoors we can use the sun as either one of these lights and create the other with flash. Fill flash will add light into the shadows on a  sunny day. We could also use the sun as a fill light and overpower it with flash as a key light. Once you understand how to light the possibilities are endless.

Head and shoulders portrait of a model in a checked shirt holding an axe over her shoulder
Here I’ve used off-camera flash on location balanced with natural daylight. Using a bare-faced speed light flash from around 45 degrees has given this dramatic Rembrandt light, with it’s characteristic triangle of light on the unlit side of the face where the shadow from the nose meets the shadow on the unlit cheek.

A lot of people tell me that they’re put off by not having access to a studio. I know of a good number of studios within a few miles of my home that I can rent by the hour for a very reasonable hourly rate. Most photographers are willing to let out their studios when they’re not using them. Photographers tend to be fairly hard up and anything which brings in a little extra cash is usually quite welcome! (Believe me, I know what it’s like to try and make a living as a photographer!) On top of that you may find that some studios also come with an experienced photographer in the next room who is only too happy to give you some help if you need it, although most will understand if you’d prefer to be left to work things out for yourself without the pressure of having someone looking over your shoulder the whole time.

Setting up a basic home studio doesn’t have to be expensive either.  A basic set up with two studio flashes and a backdrop can cost less than an entry level DSLR. All you need is a little bit of space, such as a spare room or garage. We occasionally take studio photographs of our son at home – we’ll get a couple of lights and backdrop out in our lounge for a couple of hours and then put them away when we’re finished. Set up time is around 15 minutes, so it’s no big deal.

Of course studio photography also has some other advantages. It’s unlikely to rain in your studio, and you don’t have to worry about it getting dark.

We’re running our first ever Introduction to Studio Lighting course in June. The aim of this course is to demystify everything and remove the pre-conception that studio photography has to be complicated. Rather than working in a pre-built studio we’re going to be in a local village hall, so you’ll have the opportunity to build up a studio from scratch, step by step. We’ll be joined by a (friendly!) local model, with the aim that course delegates get plenty of time to take photos throughout the day. With this in mind we’ve limited the course to a maximum of 6 attendees. We hope you’ll come and join us and improve your understanding of light. Click here for more details.

So – if you’re looking to improve your understanding of light give studio photography a go and take control of the light in your photographs!