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How to Use Strobes and Studio Lighting
© 2006 KenRockwell.com

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Xmas 2005 Doggies

Why studio strobes? So it looks like I used no lights!


DEAL: $400 for a three-light strobe set.



I covered lighting equipment itself on my Strobes and Lighting page. Here's how to use it. See also Product Photography.

How to Connect Them to Your Camera

They come with a long cord to plug into your camera's PC flash sync socket. I don't use this because the cord is a pain and usually guarantees someone, probably yourself, is going to trip on it and smash the camera to the ground. If your camera lacks a PC terminal you can get Nikon's AS-15 coupler for $19 to slip in the hot shoe. PC is the term used for the standard circular flash cord connector used since the 1940s. It's not related to personal computers.

I prefer to trigger my strobes with an optical slave plugged into the strobes' power pack. I trigger the slave with any on-camera manual flash.

I use a $30 Novatron 4030 slave on my Novatron power pack. I use the built-in flash of my D70 or D200 to trigger it! I set my D70's or D200's flash mode to manual to eliminate the preflashes. Try a lower manual power setting to save batteries and have faster recycle times. At 1/4 power the D70's internal flash recycles as fast as my studio strobes. If the strobes don't fire at the lower power settings then increase the power setting of the trigger flash. Of course the studio strobes fire at the same power for the same exposure regardless of the trigger flash setting.

This is another reason pros love built in flash. You can't do this with your 1Ds-II, D2X or Hasselblad unless you weigh them down with another flash! Yes, the D70's and D200's built-in flash can be used as a sender for just about every brand of wireless slave, except of course RF versions.

Instead of a pop-up flash you can use a regular flash or wireless trigger (Vivitar, Wein, Morris, etc.) that slips into the hot shoe. Of course any old crappy manual flash can be used as a trigger. Watch that it's not so old that the trigger voltage is so high it blows out the D70. Just put a voltmeter across the old flash's hot shoe connections and avoid it if it's around 300V!

Don't worry that the teeny built-in flash will mess up the the lighting from your big strobes. It has so little power it won't affect anything, and if you worry you can check this by turning off the strobes and trying a test shot. If you're really paranoid you can cover the built-in flash with an opaque IR-pass filter or tape a white card in front to deflect the light away from the subject and towards the flash power pack.

The only catch is that your power pack or remote sensor needs to see the on-camera flash. Personally I curl a piece of translucent Scotch Magic tape over the pop-up flash to ensure plenty of light goes to the side and my power pack. If you use a more powerful shoe-mount flash as the trigger it will be better at triggering the strobes around corners, since the bigger flash will have enough output to bounce all over the room and hit the slave.


Nothing is changing shot-to-shot. The lights are sitting on stands. I use manual exposure. Studio strobes only do manual exposure.

I set exposure by trial and error on digital cameras. There's never any mystery when you look at the LCD, so even though I have a flash meter, trial and error is more accurate.

For film use a flash meter, or cheat and use your digital camera! See my page on Using a Digital Camera as a Light Meter.

Nikon F2AS Black

Example shot with my Novatrons, my D70 and these same techniques

Sync Speed

Set your shutter to its rated flash sync speed.

Sometimes studio strobes, especially if you're using a few lashed together with optical slaves and a fast 1/500 sync, are slow enough to require a slower sync speed (like 1/250 or 1/125) to capture all the light of all the strobes. Use the fastest speed which gives you a full exposure. Speeds too fast will work, but lose light.

Some cameras with electronic or leaf shutters can be shot at speeds much faster than rated sync. These will give less exposure because not all of the strobes' burst is captured. These can stop action. My strobes work fine with my D1H and D70 even at 1/8,000, although there isn't much light captured. These digital cameras have an electronic shutter.

Focal plane shutters, like film SLRs and the latest digital cameras like the D200 and D2X and 5D, will only expose the entire image at the rated sync speed or slower.

It's OK to set slower speeds if you want the ambient room lighting included.

Light Placement

Stobe set-up

I put an umbrella on each side, set to equal power, and one behind and shining down.

This is art. Photographers spend decades perfecting this.

I haven't. I just put two big umbrellas on opposite sides of my subject and one naked light shining down from behind and above to highlight the hair and shape of the subject. You might want to add a gobo (something to block the light) to keep the hair light from shining back into your lens and making ghosts in your camera. This is how I photograph everything I shoot with my strobes, from lenses to people.

Novatron Setup

Making the product shot of the Nikon 300mm F/2.8 ED-IF

There is no right or wrong. Just play until you love the results. Real photographers are always playing with lighting and not cameras. Lighting is far more important than the camera.

It's not just the light's brightness that's important. The light's character is extremely important. Photographers are also always playing with diffusion and other ways to modify the light. You can build many diffusion and light modification devices yourself in addition to buying them. Our eyes and brain are extremely sensitive to light's character, which is exactly how it curves around a subject. Play and have fun!

Classic Rembrandt lighting puts a stronger light at the upper left and a softer fill light on the right.

Beauty light, which takes years off your subject, often adds a fourth broad rectangular light a little below your camera and shining up on the subjects face to fill in wrinkles.

Butterfly light uses four frontal lights, two on each side and on top of each other. The two upper lights are brighter. Seen in a subject's eye these four lights look a little like a butterfly's outstretched four wings.

We haven't even covered color. Photographers place colors sheets of plastic called gels over lights to change their color.

If you really get into playing with this be sure to document it by stepping back and making a photo of the setup.

White Balance

Most flashes and strobes match daylight.

Avoid the AUTO setting. Your camera may get fooled and try to balance to the ambient light of the room!

Hot lights are tungsten, unless they are painted blue to match daylight.

Since nothing's changing I usually make a manual white balance reading off a gray or white card.

You also could make a shot of the gray or white card for reference later. You can use a simple technique in Photoshop to correct WB regardless of how you had it set if you have a shot of a card. See Fixing White Balance.

Set this once on the shot of the card, then for each subsequent image you can recall the same settings by holding down the Control key (Mac) when opening the Levels command. I find it easier to set this correctly while I'm shooting.

Eye Catchlights

You can recall your lighting setup by looking closely at the reflections in a subject's eyes. Even in the small doggie photo above you can see the two lights I used and that the left was brighter than the right.

This analysis technique doesn't always work when looking at the published work of others. Often the catchlights are fixed in Photoshop.

Complex lighting setups give complex catchlights. It's more natural to have a single catchlight, not a cluster of them. We only have one sun.

Have fun!


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