How To Take A Classic Three Light Studio Portrait With Hardware Store LED Light Bulbs

Dec 3, 2015

JP Danko

JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada. JP can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water, or use a camel as a light stand. To see more of his work please visit his studio website blurMEDIAphotography, or follow him on Twitter, 500px, Google Plus or YouTube. JP’s photography is available for licensing at Stocksy United.

How To Take A Classic Three Light Studio Portrait With Hardware Store LED Light Bulbs

Dec 3, 2015

JP Danko

JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada. JP can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water, or use a camel as a light stand. To see more of his work please visit his studio website blurMEDIAphotography, or follow him on Twitter, 500px, Google Plus or YouTube. JP’s photography is available for licensing at Stocksy United.

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Hardware Store LED 3 Light Portrait Key Light Camera Setting Portrait Child

When I was getting started with photography, I knew that I had to learn how to light a subject indoors, but I couldn’t afford studio strobes – or even a hot shoe flash.

I ended up learning how to use artificial light by re-purposing a set of three 500 watt halogen work lights.  They turned a room into a sauna, constantly blew fuses and occasionally melted down my DIY light mods, but they taught me how to visualize light.

So when I was putting together my second studio lighting class at Skillshare, I though that it would be fun to return to my roots and photograph a classic three light studio portrait using hardware store LED light bulbs.

In this article I will show you how its done.

Hardware Store LED Portrait Gear

Let’s start with our LED light bulbs.  I previously wrote about DIY Video Lighting With Hardware Store LED Light Bulbs here and I used the same bulbs for this three light portrait.

For the lighting setup, I used three lights: a key light, a fill light and a hair / rim / background light.

Here is an overview of the entire setup.

Hardware Store LED 3 Light Portrait Setup

Key Light

The key light is a PAR 38, 17 watt LED spotlight ($37.99 from Amazon), daylight balanced to 5000 kelvin and rated at 1250 lumens.  This particular LED is a high CRI bulb (more on that shortly). I simply wired a light socket to the top of an umbrella holder that was supported by a light stand.

Because this LED bulb has a fairly compact beam angel of 40 degrees, I used a white shoot through umbrella as my key light modifier.

Hardware Store LED 3 Light Portrait Key Light

Fill Light

The fill light is a BR40, 17 watt LED spotlight ($26.99 from Amazon), daylight balanced to 5000 kelvin and rated at 1400 lumens.  Again, I just used a bare light socket inserted into the top of an umbrella holder that was supported by a light stand.

This bulb has a wide 110 degree angle beam spread, so instead of using a light modifier I aimed it straight up to reflect off of the ceiling to provide a relatively soft room fill.

Hardware Store LED 3 Light Portrait Fill Light

Hair Light / Background Light

The overhead back light is doing double duty as both a hair light and a background light.  The hair / background light is an A21 format 17 watt LED omni-directional bulb ($29.99 from Amazon), daylight balanced to 5000 kelvin and rated at 1600 lumens.  To mount this light overhead, I used an aluminum work light clamp ($8.50 from Amazon).

Hardware Store LED 3 Light Portrait Hair Light

Camera & Lens

I used a DSLR for my hardware store LED light bulb three light portrait, but because we are using a constant light source (hot lights), any camera would work fine (including a mobile phone camera).

I also used a Sigma ART 50mm f/1.4 lens.  (One of the big advantages of using constant lights is that because they are much less bright than strobes, you can use fast lenses and shoot wide open for maximum bokeh.)  But again, almost any lens would work for this setup – even a standard 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens.

However, if you are taking a portrait, a zoom lens with a longer focal length will produce less lens distortion – and if you are zooming in on a kit lens you might have to use a high ISO setting to compensate for the relatively small f/5.6 aperture.

Camera Settings

To set you camera settings, turn off all of your portrait lights except for the key light.  Now set your camera to manual and dial in a good exposure for the key light.

In my case, I set my camera to:

  • f/1.4, 1/60th of a second, ISO 400

Equivalent settings for different lens apertures would be as follows:

  • f/2.0, 1/60th of a second, ISO 800
  • f/2.8, 1/60th of a second, ISO 1600
  • f/4.0, 1/60th of a second, ISO 3200
  • f/5.6, 1/60th of a second, ISO 6400

All of the LED light bulbs that I used were rated to daylight at 5000 Kelvin – so I set my camera’s white balance mode to Kelvin and set the color temperature to match (5000K).

Hardware Store LED 3 Light Portrait Key Light Camera Setting

Next, set the power of your fill light.  LED lights can be dimmed with a dimmer – but in my case I didn’t have one available, so to control the power of my fill light relative to the key light I moved the light physically closer or further away until I got the amount of fill that I wanted – just slightly underexposed.

Hardware Store LED 3 Light Portrait Fill Light Camera Settings

And finally, I set the power of the hair / background light.  I couldn’t move this light closer or further away, but I could control the intensity of the light by carefully angling the beam to just barely catch the back of my model.  Alternatively, I could have used a dimmer or placed a piece of tissue paper or other diffusor over the light to cut down the relative brightness.

Hardware Store LED 3 Light Portrait Hair Light Camera Settings

Finished Three Light Studio Portrait With Hardware Store LED Light Bulbs

With the lights and camera all set, here is what the finished three light studio portraits looked like – using only hardware store LED light bulbs:

Hardware Store LED 3 Light Portrait Key Light Camera Setting Portrait Child

Hardware Store LED 3 Light Portrait Key Light Camera Setting Portrait

A Note About CRI for LED Light Bulbs

The only LED bulb in this setup that is a high CRI (color rendition index) bulb is the key light.  I specifically set this bulb as my key light because I knew that it would produce the best colors in the finished photos.

With all three lights on at the same time, it is not immediately apparent that there is a color difference between a high CRI LED light bulb and a standard LED bulb.  However, after looking through my test shots of each individual light, there is in fact a significant color difference between the high CRI bulb and the others.

The high CRI bulb produces a nice rich color palate – as you would expect.  However, the colors produced by the standard LED bulbs are noticeably muted and dull, which is especially noticeable in the skin tones.

Here are two other articles that better explain the importance of CRI when using LED light bulbs for photography and video:

“Not All LED Panels are Made Equal. Here’s How To Tell The Difference”

“Cheap LED Lights: What is CRI and Does It Matter”

Learn More

If you want a more of an in-depth explanation of this studio lighting setup (and two more studio lighting setups) – I just released a full online class on Skillshare that covers everything in detail.

We arranged for 100 free enrollments only for DIYP readers – just click here (first come first serve).

Or, if you miss the free enrollment, don’t worry – you can also get a free month of Skillshare premium classes that includes access to this class and other photography classes on Skillshare – just click here.

And if you are interested to learn how to take a one light studio portrait, there are still a few free enrollments available for that class – click here.

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JP Danko

JP Danko

JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada. JP can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water, or use a camel as a light stand. To see more of his work please visit his studio website blurMEDIAphotography, or follow him on Twitter, 500px, Google Plus or YouTube. JP’s photography is available for licensing at Stocksy United.

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6 responses to “How To Take A Classic Three Light Studio Portrait With Hardware Store LED Light Bulbs”

  1. JeanLuc LaBarre Avatar
    JeanLuc LaBarre

    Thanks for posting JP.
    Readers need to be aware that using LEDs this dim is possible but tricky.
    Without flash 1/60 is going to a bit slow to freeze subjects. You’re going to get movement unless they’re absolutely still. And a kit lens zoomed in to 55mm will max at f5.6, so you’re going to get noise too since you’ll need to be at a pretty high ISO.
    Thanks again.

    1. JP Danko Avatar
      JP Danko

      Yes you’re absolutely correct – I should have mentioned that a good option is to use a tripod.

      If you’re photographing a stationary subject – even a person – you can go down to a shutter speed of 1/8th without blur (unless you catch someone mid-blink – back in photography school most of my portraiture course was done with big tungsten bulbs at 1/8th).

      For a kit lens at f/5.6 the camera settings would be f/5.6, 1/8th second, ISO 800 which would be a better option than ISO 6400.

  2. Mark Rejhon Avatar
    Mark Rejhon

    New tip….

    As of 2016 IKEA now sells really cheap high-CRI bulbs (CRI >90) for as little as $4.99 Canadian ($6.99 and up for dimmable).

    I think they are too warm-white color for portrait photography, but they are the best ‘cheap’ LED bulbs I’ve ever come across and they now look the same as regular Thomas Edision style 60 watt lightbulbs in photos, if you need to light up at warmer color temperatures without making a room uncomfortably hot —

    These bulbs do, however make wood (e.g. cabins) look pretty lovely if you’re taking pictures of log cabin environments and the surroundings around a fireplace. (Ironically, this would often be winter, where you want incandescent warmth, but I’ve noticed how many woods behave better with warm color temperatures)

    Beware of older 2014 and early-2015 bulbs still on IKEA’s shelves labelled “CRI 87” or “CRI 83”, so make sure you look at the rear of the bulb package to make sure it’s “CRI >90” or “CRI >93” on the rear of its package. Those are telltale signs those are 2016-model-era bulbs. Sometimes they’re mixed in with older-manufacturing-runs so definitely look at the packages.

    1. JP Danko Avatar
      JP Danko

      Thanks Mark! I knew it would just be a matter of time before high-CRI bulbs were mainstream.

  3. oldclimber Avatar
    oldclimber

    The CRI is a sticky wicket; it seems designed to simulate to human eyes an effect of a full balanced spectrum natural light, comparable to sunlight, but higher quality bulbs have dealt with the problem by striving for a continuous spectrum, while cheaper OTC bulbs arrive at their higher numbers by tweaking the three usual colors in the LED unit, arriving at a simulation which may have serious gaps in the spectral continuum. I personally find most LED bulbs to have a mysterious “Deadzone” feel, where I call the effect “gray light” – regardless of the ostensible K temp. everything looks rather lifeless. I don’t know if this is a result of those missing color wavelengths, but it’s a possibility. LED colors are emitted in discrete wavelengths, versus the manner in which old stage lighting was achieved, using color filters in front of tungsten bulbs which emitted full spectrum but too heavily red/yellow. Three separate units could be directed and dimmed to give the desired final color, but always a more complete spectral band was involved. Just some random thoughts. Either way, using the white balance read from a correctly designed white card (not any old white, or old gray exposure card) is the most critical step.

  4. M Ark Avatar
    M Ark

    Superb information. Thank you.