Intro to Studio Photography — By a Beginner for Beginners

Go from no studio experience to being able to control light in a few hours

Hugo Ahlberg
Jul 9, 2017 · 6 min read

(Update: Part 2 is up: Shooting Blade Runner inspired portraits using colour gels)

Model: the very patient Megan Crabtree

Recently I purchased an off-camera flash and started experimenting with studio lighting. I have shot natural light for a couple of years and like many others I was quite intimidated to try off-camera flash photography but I decided to take the leap. It’s so much fun, and I couldn't not believe how easy it was! I wish I had tried it sooner. It might be cliché but the concept of going from “taking a photo” to “making a photo” is really something different. Working with studio lights where you are able to fully control the light and therefore the image, is truly incredible — I almost feel like I’m falling in love with photography all over again.

This is the first post in a series where I’ll document my learning process to not only accelerate my own learning, but to invite others to follow along and hopefully learn something as well. I got started by learning from so many other photographers* openly sharing their knowledge online, so I’m thinking this as a way to give back to the community. These posts will contain behind the scenes kind of stuff like the lighting setups, post-processing before and after, camera settings, my learnings, etc. My goal is to be as transparent as possible with all my mistakes as I learn. Since you are reading an article about studio photography, I’m going to assume you already have some experience with photography and know your way around your camera and concepts like shutter speed, aperture and so on.

Again, this is a learning process so bare with me. If you have any feedback or tips, please do share in the comments or on Twitter.

A note about style — My photography is very much inspired by master cinematographers like Jeff Cronenweth, Darius Khondji et al. whose styles are very dark and moody. So don’t expect to see many of the trendy California-sun-drenched-happiness photos in this series!

Ok, enough introduction.

Getting started: the gear you’ll need for starting with studio photography

In short, all you need is a flash speedlight and an umbrella. After doing some (too much) research online I bought a cheap but decent umbrella and a Godox speedlight with a flash transmitter to go with my Sony a7rII camera. (If you are shooting with Canon/Nikon/Fuji etc you need to find a flash that works with your camera).

Minimal viable studio setup

The total for this, not including the actual camera, is $250 (even cheaper if you buy second hand), and it’s more than capable for a getting started kit. In fact an umbrella like this—being the cheapest light modifier you can get—it’s actually super versatile once you learn how to control it.

A study of light: the first hundreds of crappy shots

I had read up enough already to know that I needed to set my camera and flash to (M) manual so I could learn how this all worked in practice. For me it doesn’t matter how much theory I read until I actually try it myself.

Yep. Lots of lousy photos. It’s ok. Process!

I asked my girlfriend Megan if she could take a seat on a chair, and then I just started shooting. Changing the camera settings, the flash power, moving the light around her, tweaking the angles and so on. I took hundreds of images — I wasn’t trying to take a great picture but rather just study how the light behaved. Having said that, I was lucky to get a few good shots, one which I’ll now go into how it came to be.

The light and camera setup

The setup was rather simple. The flash was mounted onto the light stand pointing into the umbrella, causing the light to bounce and become diffused (making it softer). I had the umbrella on a stand with the flash positioned slightly above her head and slightly behind her to get this sort of “appearing from the darkness” effect. The flash was not pointed directly at her, but angled just in front of her. This is called feathering and it is a powerful and fundamental technique to control how light lands on your subject. (Read more about feathering in this article by Brian McNamara).

Illustration by Megan Crabtree

My camera settings
Shooting with my Sony a7rii and a 55mm prime lens, the shutter speed was 1/500s at f/8, ISO 400 (yep, someone already told me I made a mistake —I should have shot at ISO 100 to reduce noise and save flash power. Such a newbie mistake!). Note however, these settings will completely vary depending on your lightning situation, so don’t try to copy these. Instead, just play around and experiment with various settings and see how the picture changes.

And to finish it off with some very light post-processing

I can sit for hours to tweak colours and what not, but here I kept it super simple. The umbrella was visible in the top left, so I just painted it out with the mask brush in Capture One which I just picked up (It’s a raw-photo editor similar to Lightroom, but faster and better suited for studio shoots— more on that in an upcoming post). Then I tweaked the exposure a bit and added some colour grading to make it look more cinematic and in the style of the cinematographers I mentioned in the intro. Later in this series I’ll get more into post-processing. Stay tuned.

Left: Straight out of camera — Center: Masked out the umbrella — Right: Colour graded final image.


My biggest takeaway from this initial stab at studio lightning was that it’s not at all as scary or hard to get started as it seemed, in fact it’s quite the opposite — I only regret not trying it sooner. One thing I would do differently (besides using the right ISO setting) would be to try to reduce some of the light reflections in the glasses using a few tips I got from by Joe Edelman.

I encourage you to buy a speedlight and an umbrella and try out studio lighting for yourself. I hope I this article has shown it’s not hard to get started, especially if you go about it with a more trail and error approach rather than trying to figure out the exact settings. Let me know if you have any questions or feedback in the comments.

Update—Part 2 is up:

Coming soon in this series (maybe)

If you liked this and want to see more you should consider tapping the Follow/Like buttons I suppose. And you can find me here:

Many thanks to Benjamin Wilkins, Megan Crabtree and Emily Cheng for making this better!

Hugo Ahlberg

Written by

✌🏾Visual Interaction Designer / Prototyper @Airbnb. Previously @IDEO, @HyperIsland. Photographer 📷→

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