Super-soft lighting in small home studios
Mar 10, 2021
Super-soft lighting in small home studios
In this article I’ll explain a beautifully soft lighting setup that can be achieved in almost any sized space – In fact, this setup actually takes advantage of very small rooms and the tight spaces of home studios!
In recent months, many of us have struggled to get back into the studio to shoot. Lock-downs and safety concerns surrounding large teams of people have made certain photoshoots pretty tricky to achieve whilst still being safe. But whilst we wait for things to get back to ‘normal’, I thought I’d share a lighting setup that actually takes advantage of small shoot spaces. Maybe you can’t get back into the studio and maybe you’d prefer to shoot in a controlled space like your own home. What are some of the disadvantages/advantages of that?
Tight quarters is one thing, but low ceilings can be a real pain too. But is there a way we can use that to our advantage somehow?
In this setup I play with a clever little setup that uses the restrictive confines of your own home to your advantage, and this technique can be achieved in almost any size space!
What you will need
- 1 Large White Sheet (approx 1.5m x1.5m minimum) – A white bed-sheet is also absolutely fine.
- 4 Strobes/Speedlights (you can do this with less lights if need be though)
- 1 Large Softbox – This doens’t have to be huge and even a small soft box will work here.
- 2 Open Reflector Dishes
- 1 Gridded Reflector (honeycomb grid)
- 2 CTO Gels
- 2 Additional Light Stands
- 2 Crab Clamps
- 2 Crossbars (any pole will do and you can even use broom handles if you need to)
- 1 Backdrop
Yes, I appreciate that seems like a ton of kit and it is, but you’ve probably already got most it tucked away somewhere or you can substitute some bits with other items you have around the home. The crossbars can be replaced by almost any pole or even a broom handle. The large white sheet is super-cheap to pick up if you don’t have one, but a white bed sheet will honestly be just as good. Plus the CTO gels, although not particularly common, may even be lurking in a pile of gels or multi pack somewhere.
There is also one odd item in here that many of you haven’t heard of, and that’s the ‘Crab Clamps’. I love these things and if you don’t already have some, I’d urge you to get them as they’re only a few quid (freedom-bucks) each.
And lastly, (as I ALWAYS get asked this), but yes, you can do this setup with Speedlights if necessary.
First and foremost, let’s look at how everything is laid out in the small space and then I’ll explain some tips and things to bear in mind as you’re setting this up.
Step by step…
Note: We spoke about the restrictions of social distancing at the start of this article and how that might keep you out of a busy studio. If you’re shooting from home, it may be advisable to set everything up prior to inviting your subject into the small room with yourself. Once everything is in place, you can situate yourself further away to take the shots and then invite the subject in.
Firstly, let’s get that backdrop up and out of the way. You can use whatever backdrop you want here, but a grey or muted tone background will likely be best for the colour we’ll be adding to it later. Plus: If you like the look of my backdrop in these shots, ‘good news’ as this is a cheap DIY one I made and it’s very easy to do. If you’re interested, here’s a link to how I made it ‘DIY Mottled Backdrop’
Whatever you end up using though, simply place the backdrop at the back of the room and fairly low to the ground as our subject will be sat down for this shoot.
The White Sheet
The likely next logical step is the white sheet, and it’s this sheet that will give our subject a beautiful soft top-light. As we’re cramped on space and we’re stuck with low ceilings, we’ll want to have our white sheet about half way up the height of the room. Our subject will be sat down for this shot so we’ll want the sheet to be suspended above them and just high enough to be out of shot. Just make sure it’s also low enough so as to allow the light to be bounced off the ceiling around it.
I’ll just say that bit again;
The lights will be bounced off of the ceiling and you are not firing the lights directly through the sheet.
It’s up to you how you suspend the sheet above the subject, but for me, I just used two crossbars on top of lightstands either side of the subject. The crossbars were also held in place by crab clamps affixed to the lightstands like you can see in the image above.
It’s now time to setup the four lights.
The Two Soft Lights
Place two lights either side of the white sheet and point them up towards the low ceiling above. These two lights should have open dish reflectors attached to them so that we can spread the light over the ceiling as much as possible.
The light will then come back down through the white sheet and result in a beautifully soft light that has been double-diffused.
The Back Light
Next we can add the light that is going to be behind the subject. Attach a grid to this light (barn doors will also be fine here), place it just above shoulder height of the subject and point it so that it’s firing over their shoulder and almost back into camera where you will be taking the shot. Be sure to attach a CTO gel (colour temperature orange) to this light too. I’ll explain more on this later.
The Key/Fill Light
The job of this light can be a little confusing at first as it appears to be a key light, that is placed next to you and pointed straight at the subject. And although this light is adding some front illumination, it is also acting as a fill light for our large soft top light as well. As I mentioned, place the softbox next to you and keep it at a height so that it can shoot light under your white sheet and onto your subject.
Lastly, add a CTO gel to this light. If you’re not sure how to gel a softbox, take a look below for an easy solution.
Some of you may not have encountered CTO (colour temperature orange) gels before so I’ll briefly explain what they do. All light has colour to it in the photographic world. The sun has a colour, candles have colour, flash has colour and so on. A CTO gel is made in such a way so that it can change the colour of one light to match the colour of another. For example, if you have a tungsten bulb illuminating part of your shot, and then you want to add some flash to it, you’ll quickly notice that they are two different colours when you take your shot. The tungsten light appears far warmer or more orange than the colder or bluer flash does. To match these two colours in the same shot, we place a CTO gel on the flash and now when we take the shot, the tungsten and flash lights appear to be the same colour.
This sounds a little more complicated than it is and although photographers rarely use these colour temperature gels today with modern strobes, the TV and cinema industry still use them a huge amount.
Attaching Gels to Softboxes
Many people think you need huge sheets of gels to use them with soft boxes, but thankfully that isn’t the case and you can just as easily use small sheets of gels to colour your softbox too.
To gel a softbox, simply open up the front of it by removing the front diffusion cover. Then tape the smaller gel sheet over the flash tube. As long as the flash tube is covered by the gel, it doesn’t matter whether you have your gel on the inside or outside of the softbox. One word of caution though; some of you may have older style strobes that have tungsten modelling bulbs. BEWARE: These bulbs get extremely hot so I’d advise having your modelling bulbs turned off or simply unscrew them and remove them like I’ve done here to make it easier to attach the gel flush to the flash tube.
The Self Promotion You All Knew Was Coming…
If you wanted to get yourself some CTO gels, or any other gels for that matter, I do sell comprehensive gel packs via the studio website. Follow this link here for more info Jake Hicks Photography – Gel Packs
The more experienced readers among you may have been curious as to how we’re going to deal with the orange colour cast that only some of the lights in this set are casting, thanks to the CTO gels. To answer that, let’s first look at the camera settings I was using.
I shot these images on a 105mm prime at f2. The shutter speed was my usual 1/125th and the ISO was set to the Nikon D850 lowest setting at ISO 30.
I personally don’t think that info is of particular importance though, as this shot can be achieved with any number of varying settings. The more important factor here is the white balance, as when I shot this, my camera was set to around 3500 K.
In the final shot I ended up warming it up a touch (increased the Kelvin value) in Lightroom and exported it at 3800K, but the ‘colder’ Kelvin setting here is to counter the warmer orange CTO gels.
Look again at the background in this shot…
See how it appears a blueish colour, even though you may have noticed the background is actually grey in real life? It now appears blue due to me shifting the Kelvin of the overall shot in camera.
Once more, look again at the shots and see how the front of the model is slightly warmer in tone thanks to that softbox with the CTO gel inside.
Also, look at the beautifully soft light from above and how that falls on the subject. See how it separates on the subject as it falls on the forehead, cheekbones and nose? Then see the warmer tones beneath that on the cheek hollows and neck?
This is how we’re separating those two lights, not only because of their placement, but the model position and pose within them.
There is one last thing that I’ll mention about colour temperature here, and that’s the fact that this should appear colder in appearance that it actually does. I set the Kelvin to around 3500K, this shot should be very blue due to that right? Although you’d be right to assume that, I think you’d be surprised how large the region of ‘usable’ white balance is in a shot. You can have a shot at 3500K-5000K and it still look okay. Yes this image may look blue in normal circumstances, but with us mixing a very large soft light in this setup, you can actually get away with a lot more than you might think. Play around with the Kelvin in camera, but remember that you can always tweak it later in post, so don’t get too hung-up on it.
The Final Shots
Take a look below at some of the final shots from this setup and simply click on any to enlarge them.
I’m sure many of you may be wondering ‘what the hell the big streaks of orange across the models face is all about and how they got there’. This is actually a simple in-camera technique and is not added in post, but the orange streaks are appearing because I’m holding a wineglass in font of my lens. The colour of the streaks wouldn’t ordinarily be that strong, but remember, we have that light behind the model pointing back to camera with a CTO gel on it. It’s that apparent orange light that is picking up on the wine glass in front of the lens and causing that effect.
If you’d like more info on this technique then you can check my article on ‘Foreground Flare’ as that goes into it in a lot more detail.
The eagle-eyed among you may have also noticed that there appears to be a variety of visual differences in some of these shots. Elements like red streaks or blue undertones and these are the result of me testing various lens filters….. but that will have to wait for another day ;)
Points to remember include:
Use the small space to your advantage and turn the entire ceiling into your light source – But remember, this really only works if your ceiling is white, or at the very least, a neutral colour.
In a small space with low ceilings, you’re likely be stuck with the subject being sat down. – But if you have higher ceilings and you think you have the room to place the white sheet higher whilst still being able to bounce light off of the ceiling, go for it and stand them up.
Manage your Kelvin – Be sure to dial down the white balance a little as this will allow you to get some colour on that background, without actually adding any colour back there. Plus, dialing the Kelvin back a little will help to neutralise some of the orange tone from your CTOs.
Work with the subject and guide the pose – Nearly every half-decent lighting setup requires your subject to work their pose with the lighting. Having your subjects chin-up and allowing that soft light to fall on their face will often produce great results with this setup.
Add the finishing touches – Don’t be afraid to add some extra elements in-camera, like the foreground flare. You have that back light pointed towards you, why not take advantage of it by holding something in front of the lens too.
As always, thanks for checking out this article and spending a little bit of your day with me here. I hope you found it useful and if you left with a little more knowledge than when you arrived, it’s been worth it.
If you have any questions or comments or if something doesn’t make sense, then by all means fire-away in the comments below and I’ll do my best to answer what I can. Thanks again and I’ll see you in the next one.
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About the Author
Jake Hicks is an editorial and fashion photographer who specializes in keeping the skill in the camera, not just on the screen. For more of his work and tutorials, check out his website. Don’t forget to like his Facebook page and follow him on Instagram, too. You can also sign up for the Jake Hicks Photography newsletter to receive Jake’s free Top Ten Studio Lighting Tips and Techniques PDF and be sure to download his brand new, free 50-page studio lighting book. This article was also published here and shared with permission.
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