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Studio Lighting Basics

Lesson 2 of 14

Understanding the Foundation of Light

Tony Corbell

Studio Lighting Basics

Tony Corbell

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Lesson Info

2. Understanding the Foundation of Light

Lesson Info

Understanding the Foundation of Light

Stepping into the studio is always a nod thing. It always puts us at a position of being in control. Now, when you are in the studio, you're no longer a photojournalist. You are not a documentarian. You are not a report, taj photographer. You are very clearly a controlled photographer at that point, and you're creating something that doesn't exist, as opposed to recording something that is taking place. And for me, that's that's. A very important distinction. I think so. First and foremost, I guess we need to talk a little about how I got here. What am I doing here? Why did I get the call? Uh, I have been doing this for a while, and I think that, um as as a photographer, I never I never have been thought of and I'll never be thought of as one of those great, great, great photographers. I'm not one of those guys that are gonna be remembered for my work. That's going to be sold in the gallery? Yeah. Sotherby's, you know, one hundred years from now for two point three million dollars uh, ...

that will never happen in my world. And that's okay, I'm okay with that. What I do is I understand the craft pretty well, and I understand how to teach it. Fairly well and I've been pretty successful at passing along the information and how this all fits and I understand all the pieces and how it kind of goes together pretty well and I don't get fooled very often by a lighting condition and I get asked to shoot things that a lot of people don't I want to do you know how our can't figure out how to do you know? And so we'll talk about some of the unique situations as we go throughout the time together here but and as we go also please don't hesitate this is this is all about you guys, so if there's any questions, you have to stop me and shut it down and go, wait a minute that's very foggy you need to clear that up for me and let me clear it up, okay? Uh, all right, so first things first let's take a look at this. First we have to understand the foundations of light and the foundation of light for me, I think it's it's pretty critical that that you know, the craft you have to you have to know that you have to understand and know your craft uh, as anybody does in any professional endeavor, you can't know the craft and there's an awful lot of photographers making an awful lot of money that don't know anything about photography they have a really good eye and they can see really well and but they don't know anything about photography they don't understand the physics of of light that understand the physics of of optics and how lindsay's working lends perspective john and I were just talking about that over over a bagel you know there's there's so many topics to talk about that people don't know and they don't understand why f four on the three hundred millimeter lenses this big around and therefore on a fifty millimeter lands is this big around and there are physics behind all that there's optical science behind all that and it's all we're all governed by physics and I'm not going to tell you that this is gonna be three days of science because it's not but there are things that we have to know because it will keep us from getting in trouble from time to time it'll save us from time to time so so we're going to understand like quality that's key we're going to talk a lot about like qualities this week and you'll get sick of a couple of phrases of mine uh but we also talk about controlling like quantity uh you'll be so uh you'll feel so much better when everything that you shoot can be delivered to your client right then where everything that's coming out of camera that killer balances right you're exposures are dead on nothing has to be fixed you want enhance something that's different and I'm all for photo shop and I'm all for light room and I'm all for postproduction but only to enhance a good picture not to try to save a bad one if you're trying to save a bad one stop, don't don't go any further and reshoot it and try to get it right because you can't you can't take a bad picture and make it better uh I'm thinking a beatles song you can't take a sad song and make it okay on then we got talking about the direction of light light direction is really, really key to, uh it's another part of science and understanding what happens with exposures of light and brightness levels of light as light moves away from your camera position. So all of all of that effects, everything that we do in the studio it effects everything we do outdoors. So let's talk just for a moment about the knowledge of the craft thing that we talked about let's talk about like quality like quantity like direction as kiki importance under like quality, and we'll dig in each of these topics a little bit further in a second but there's under the light quality banner there is four things that I was trying to keep in mind and that is the controls of light and those controls that I talk about our additive subtracted transmission and reflective you can add light you can take a lot of way you khun diffuse light and you can bounce light so I have to choose the tool that I'm going to use based on what is the application of the light how am I going to make this work for me? And what kind of what kind of tool is going to be best for this specific application? And I can't tell you which one until I know the situation until I know what we're dealing with you walk into an executive's office and you're going to a portrait of the president of oil company you might choose one tool and you walk in the room it's like that's not gonna work because of this this this or this and he wants it done here. Not over there. It's like oh, okay, well, that's out the window now I gotta do this and maybe it is the window. Maybe your next choice is the window. And if he's president accompany the good news is he probably has two windows because he has a corner office. So then you've got a main light and an accent or kicker light built in so you have to you have to be able to think through and think fast on your feet and, boy, once you do that, then it just gets fun you know, I was asked recently if I scout locations a lot so I know exactly how I'm gonna light something and I said absolutely not because that would what fun is that for me? I don't know if I pre plan what I'm going to shoot and how I'm gonna do it when I get on the location what happens if I get there and something doesn't work? You know if I'm going to use that room and I'm gonna light this way of that window and then when I get there with my client in the room's locked and I can't find it by with a key dead so I try not to scout too much little trick I learned from a guy named dennis reggie you said don't go scout it's a lot more fun to have to figure it out on your own it's a little more challenging all aspects of the lying tools you have to understand you have to understand what second you have to understand killer temperature you have to understand recycle you have to understand size of source relative to its distance to the size of the subjects there's a lot of stuff like that, but you have to know your tools and we will spend some time on that sex the next segment talking about the tools quite a bit on then of course, as I mentioned, you've got no window select which tool that's key because you know they're sometimes where a very large four foot by six foot soft box is not the right choice it's not the always the answer for everything get a big soft box and bring it in close and you'll always have a great portrait not always you know sometimes that's not what you want and then of course shaping the light what kind of light shaping tools and boy there's a there's a hole a lot of things to talk about with the light shaping tools there's so many different tools that all do different things and the good news is they all have a right to exist and that's something that we need thio make sure that we all acknowledge that there's a reason for strip lights there's a reason for a big square soft box there's a reason for a knock to bank and beauty dish and a speed like everything has a right to live you know so when something someone says you know so tell me should I buy a soft box are our bottles parabolic reflector heads or an umbrella and my answer is yes you should you have to have them all because it's a different tool for every different subject and every different job that you do so it's a little bit of a challenge tio to sort of keep buying stuff but but you'll do well to get the best that you can afford and only by one time get the good stuff because it'll last stop was the weird thing is it's the only craft I know that the value of whatever you pay for a particular tool is about what it's worth. So if you really, really go cheap on some of your gear it's really not going to last you a long time if you really go hyeon with your tools, they'll really last you a long time, so you know, kind of a trade off. Um, the size of any given light source is directly relative to its distance to the primary subject. The sun is always our perfect example and you guys that have studied with me, you know you you've heard maybe students to death about this size relative to distance. The sun is a huge source, but thankfully it was moved ninety three million miles away from us. So it's, a small, pinpoint source relative to its distance to us on a bright, sunny day, the shadow from the sun is crisp and sharp and cutting shadow because its size relative to distance now for cloud floats through a cloud floats in front of that son all of a sudden that shadow age becomes very, very soft that highlight, you know, I always joke about being in texas behind a sixty seven chevy pickup with a chrome bumper and the sun hits the chrome bumper and it comes through in this knocks the plaque off your teeth you know that that small reflection that's so bright you've seen and you're like well that was bright size relative to distance if the cloud floats in the front all of a sudden that highlight then gets bigger and bigger and bigger and softer and softer and softer and now you got his frosted highlight across the bumper pretty easy look at and it's a lot more pleasant to look at which is why you guys all look for late day sessions for your outdoor portrait give me an overcast day so I can shoot well it's not always the answer either so because when it's overcast overhead it's a downward casting light soft but it's still a downward light and you gotta work on that too so much to think about okay, so so let's talk about size relative to distance that little bit further let's take a look at these three pictures of this thing this big red ball uh what's interesting about this is this is sort of ah lesson in understanding size relative to distance in the in the picture in the center of the bottom kind of an average size soft box at an average distance to the subject you can see the size of the highlight you can see the softness of the edge of the shadow on the opposite side of the main light as you look to the smaller source where we've taken that soft box and backed it up, you know, double the distance back and you can see how the highlight becomes smaller and the shadow becomes sharper and what's interesting about the way that all work sign science wise physics wise is that as the size of the source become smaller, the brightness of the highlight becomes brighter you need a you need a soft highlight, then you have to make a big like they're on the right. So as I increased the size of the source, I diminished the brightness of the actual highlight itself. This is all there still in the world like quality we're not talking like quantity, so don't get caught up on exposure issue it's not an exposure thing it is a science of how light works we'll get to that other partners second okay, does that make sense size relative to distance? It's huge it's it's the number one uh it's the number one thing in my brain almost every time I pull the trigger its size relative to distance a cz my side's the right size for this job. So I think I think part of this is, uh, a selection of the tools uh and being and optimizing all the tools based on the need the size is great and where its place is great, but what else did that tool do besides just like that one subject this one way? Are there other things you can do with it? And we will talk about that? We'll talk about multiple things that's, that's possible? Um, so let's, take a look at just a few of the tools that I that I used primarily I use a lot of soft boxes and knocked the banks and what's really funny is I've been doing this a long time, and I stayed away from up the banks for years and years and years. I just didn't like the highlight that it produced I there was something about the shape of the highlight that just bugged me. Well, I kind of got over the last two years and I'm using octave banks a lot now, and I love the quality, the life that they produce uh, but they're also like a beauty dish you have if you're going to produce that kind of great quality, you have to understand how they work a beauty dishes a fabulous, fabulous tool but it's not great at all if it's further away than three feet when you get back to four, five feet away from your subject, beauty dishes fall apart and they're no longer great, but up close they're really great and they have a like quality unlike anything else you could choose to use so you do have to understand how to best utilize your your tools all the time uh if I look like I also have umbrellas here I like umbrellas a lot two umbrellas have an interesting uh they have an interesting reputation and that is umbrellas they comfrey and the kit usually and you just leave him in the kit usually and you never break him out and you probably don't use them much unless you're going to shoot a big group of twelve people umbrellas are fabulous for lighting big areas they are the only way you can like some large areas if I was going to photograph all ofyou six right there I would do I could do with one umbrella from right back here or I could do it with two if he was a football team you know I can't do that with any other lighting tool I have so I'm brothers were pretty great. The downfall is they send light everywhere so you can't control if you're in a small studio in a home studio and you're trying to control the background separately from your subject forget it don't use the choice for a main light for example is not an umbrella if you're trying to control it but if you're trying to just cover a larger area man they're good they're really good and I'll show you a couple tricks I've learned recently with umbrellas I came up with a stupid little thing called tony's twins no post show it for say how that all works it's kind of goofy but it works uh okay. So now let's talk about the upcoming just a little bit this is ah example recent cute that I did and you can see in the catch light in the eyes of my subject here you can take a look you can see the the highlight from the octopus it's a really nice source and it does a great job of skin now she's got a great makeup job on uh but I like the highlight on the bottom lip I like that the highlight has a good snap to it yet it's still not too soft if the source were any smaller that lipstick that shine on her bottom lip is going to get smaller and brighter now that might be a desired effect depending on the shoot that you're doing, you might want that to be a little smaller and a little bit brighter but that's what's gonna happen if you use a smaller source I just happen to like it a lot. This is a this next one is a is a portrait that I put up just a couple of days ago and I got so many comments on this on this photograph er and it's the same thing it's it's the same session basically it's an octa make and I'm just kind of slid down below her I level a little bit and lit from above quite a bit and then headed just looked past me and beyond and above the camera uh but this was lit with one light and that same light let the background as well and it just gave me a really nice like quality, so don't get fooled into thinking that any time you step into the studio it's gonna take one, two, three, four, five life I can't afford all those lights. This is one light, so it does work and it is effective. All right, so let's, move on. Let's, take a look at the, uh, take a look at the soft box here a second. This is a, uh a soft boxes, I think one of the most universally accepted tools and most portrait situations. And I know a lot a lot of people that that use soft boxes this that this is a soft box on location on a old movie set. This is my old friend donald blake out in new mexico. And, uh, this is a mixes it inside an old saloon, and I was just kind of balancing the little bit of ambient light in the background just a bit just a touch of ambience with er with with medium soft boxes three before soft box fairly close to him with controlling the ambience with just my shutter speed and we'll talk more about that in this percentage levels of that as we get, I love it further into this but what I like is that the shadow I like the air to the shadow. I like what the shadow is doing. And you can see, even though it's large and it's sort of it's hard to see the exact shape of the light source, especially when you relate back to the old rembrandt lighting, so to speak. But you can still see that it's kind of there because the light was that about a forty five. But you can also see that so the shadows worked pretty well, but you can also see I love the highlights that come across that old leather duster that he's wearing, uh, he's uh he's quite a character and has been photographed a lot in his life. He's been in about two or three hundred movies. You know, I've seen one time I said, what do you famous foreign movies? He said, well, nobody gets shot and falls downstairs better than me it's like, okay, he's a great, great old guy takes his girlfriend dancing every friday night um there's a close up you can kind of see the cash left in his eyes and you can see how how it kind of holds the face together and it does do what you know leonardo da vinci said you've gotta have uh when you making a painting he says if you want to create depth and what he called three dimensional contrast you have tohave the true brightness of your subject and to brightness is that aren't true one brighter than and one darker than the true brightness he told us we have to have highlights and shadows basically and and this illustrates that pretty well if you look across his face from the top of your head we got a good highlight the catch lights were great we got a true tonelli right about the bridge the nose and then we got a great shadow so it helps sculpt the face a little bit to give us that that dimension and that's what soft boxes do if placed properly a soft box way off to one side fails to do all of that stuff. But if it's a forty five and it's not always a forty five but it's a great place to begin and really then take a look at the subject uh in this case it was that three by four size medium soft box that's in the lower right corner there this is the road a lux from melun chrome, which I think is just a brilliantly designed box in fact will show you later on in one of the segment that we did in the home you'll see how easy these soft boxes are to set up I struggled with soft boxes always I don't any more because he's set up like that so it's pretty clever er this is also a soft box on location this is ah session that we did just not too long ago I had a small workshop in texas that megan was there with us and it was a great day and this is just this is just a fun hey, I got an idea let's try this and it worked beautifully two lights you know, a little bit small a fog machine couple of jails and off we go our mother was ralph casper. I just want to give a quick shout out to my friend ralph he had a rough weekend he's been pretty sick this past weekend but now he's on the mend and he's home and he's out of the hospital. So, ralph, thank you for if you're watching you probably aren't I wouldn't be if I were you giving out the hospital but anyway that's how often he's a he's a great friend wonderful soft box soft box again here we have a kind of a uh reverse kind of a back profile shot uh and then the old cowboy inside the barn with a flash inside the barn uh all traditional perfect examples of when to use the soft box the girl leaning on the piano course we've got the soft boxes the main light and then there's also to strip lights so you can see the skinny light that's kind of highlighting her hips and her waist on her left shoulder that comes right down if that's not there we lose her into that dark sofa in the background we just lose we lose it completely so that's the reason that that was put there and then of course the one on the opposite side just gives us that little pencil highlight down her right arm as well it just gives me depth is it a pain to set it up? You bet but it gives me something that's a little bit different and it gives me something that's a little added effort that makes the portrait better and I think that's our job we can't do just good enough we gotta keep doing instruction and we can make it a little bit better and especially for all those that want to make more money everybody wants another zero on the portrait sale but they're not wanted to do the extra work to get the extra zero get the extra get the extra work down the extra zeros will come I tell you, you can charge more it's true it's true it's too here who is too sorry young frankenstein. One of my favorite movies. So here we are with a kind of a mixed ambient soft box situation where I got mandy and light and flash together and you can see this young man that you can't hardly see at all in the shadow of the porch on this movie set in the background you can see that exposures proper for what's going on outdoors. Well, I took a reading out there until I established what my aperture was and then all I did was bring in my soft box and I flash and I brought it up to match the same aperture. So now I'm dialed in and what he's reading is half eleven what's what's happening out there was at eleven at probably one twenty five and it worked out fine. Just give me a great balance. So there's a there's, a there's, a perfect balance with and mints and flash together and and again, I want to go through those percentages with you and show you sort of how that kind of works. And I think what you'll find is that there are there are ways to manipulate that a little bit, but basically I have always tried to I was trying to bring everything down to the most common denominator and make things really easy to think about and what I've always found with flash and ambient combinations is it comes down to one decision for me I don't want the background, the ambience to look like it really looks toe look brighter than it really looks or to look darker than it really looks and that's it that's my only decision I have to make and I can do that because I because I've got it compartmentalized in my brain so and I'll show you one on the meter how we do that and it's just a simple decision it's a simple selection process so uh and visually it just kind of works the beauty day says I mentioned that earlier the beauty dishes is a great source if it's really done right, it has to be, uh, two to three feet from the face and it can't really be much further away and this is something that it's funny all of us that teach a lot and especially in lighting I watched the show a lot I see can of more than her family probably cesar, you know, but I but I do know that, uh that you know joel grimes and myself and lindsay adler and all of us it teach lighting this is what we disagree on, a lot of things this when we all agree on everybody's exactly dialed in on this that that beauty dish is wonderful but you better move it in close and don't think it's too close it's not too close keep getting closer and it starts working yes, but what if it's in the shot? Well then maybe it's a little close but this is just a couple of examples of using a beauty edition pretty tight and the one on the left has a grid on it so it falls off on the bottom I think working with the beauty dish with the grid is very helpful uh and it can control the brightness of the hands and the arms and help pull that down so you don't have to then yet it or darken it later here's the grid let's not dispute let's not forget the fact that even in the studio there are great great portrait that could be taken with window light window light is uh let me let me let me define a couple of things about window light first off the size of the window does matter side size matters forget what you've been told size of matter on the bigger the source to soft like quality, right? Okay, well that's we expect that and that's kind of fine but what happens is depending on how far away my subject this from the window will determine how big the window is size relative right? So if it's a bride and I'm shooting a headshot and she's right next to the window it is a big, soft source but if it's a family of five and I'm using the window and I've got them seven, eight, nine, ten feet away from the window it's a kind of a medium or a smaller source especially if it's a big double window it's kind of meeting there if it's a single window it's really small source and it's gonna have sharp edges shadows which is fine if you're okay with that so I'm not saying it's right or wrong I'm not I'm not I don't judge that subjectively objectively you need to know what what's happening though and that's my point so um well that's great and I do a lot of window light I do a lot of location work where the window is the key to everything this is a window like portrait I did a couple years back I have a new book that's coming out actually from amherst media and this is that they picked this just last week or so for the cover. So this is the there they already got it on amazon dot com pre pre pre published sale but I'm thrilled that they selected that picture I'm I'm a fan of this model she's in santa fe or name's candace and she's brilliant a beautiful woman and a great family anyway it's a nice porch and I'm real glad they picked it but it's a window like there's there's the shot um another one of my favorite portrait's this is erin uh wonderful artist great guy ah photographed and I didn't add for santa fe workshops with him on the on the ad and it's just he's just a great guy this is strictly a window shot. Uh, this woman is a former model who's turned photographer from dubai and I taught a workshop in to buy a couple years ago and she walked in the room and I said, oh you're here you're my model she won't know what the students so sorry yeah so she sat down and she was great and so doing one the brakes I just did a quick head shot of all the students and that's her quick head shot with a window it was a fifteen seconds of shooting you know, um this woman I love this woman's tattoo on her chest hunky tunc angel this is she was managing the sun records studio in memphis, tennessee, where elvis started in johnny cash and carl perkins and jerry lee lewis all those guys got their start and she was standing right there by this one I said don't move and I open the curtains a little bit and got this wonderful light on her and she loved it it was great but again it's window on them and then one on the right she's being lit by a small strip light which is her bathroom window she's standing in a doorway from her bedroom into her bathroom and the light on her is from a window seven or eight feet away from me over her tub in the bathroom it was the only place I could get that kind of great life and if you're going to him attorney shot or some kind of a shot along these lines I think you want the shadows coming toward the camera as opposed to going away from the camera I'm not a boudoir photographer I'm not someone that does a lot of attorney to kind of pictures like this this is the kind of a special favor but I do know that I I always tend to like my pictures better when the light is away from me coming back toward me I think my subjects look at their best instead of front lighting him or flatlining especially a tummy like that she wants to look great she doesn't want to look huge you know and I have figured out that seven months is like almost perfect but that's another workshop so again window light is always a good choice and there are a lot of studios that are built around this country facing north so that the north window like that north light the direct sun never comes in a window um my girlfriend and oklahoma's got north facing studio location and they've got a loki studio background on one side and a high key studio background on the other side and they can shoot all day in there and have great line on either set and assisting maisie it's really amazing okay, mohr mohr location stuff more window light stuff all three of these or window lighting basically, um and then there's another one. I just think it's something to consider window works and what's interesting to is don't discount the opportunity that you have to go outside with a flash and fire like through the window there's a portrait that I did recently have a couple in fort worth, texas, where I basically there was a pretty flat wall behind them, the room looked great, they looked great, the light on them looked great, but this wall was pretty flat and I was just trying to come up with something and tell myself, what can I do? I'm missing something. I'm missing something and then I was like, oh, dummy, take light outside so my my my business partner rob was with me and rob way I get a light out in the front yard, so we took a stroll outside and moved it probably ten feet back from the window now think about that if I had that light very close to the window I'm gonna have soft and shadows from the pains in the glass, right? But by backing it up a little bit, I made those a little bit sharper and then we just moved it a little bit further to one side, so the lines have a little perspective, a little bit of keystone look and then we just fired it out there from outside and powered it down to be minus one from what we were shooting at and we had this perfect throw of this highlight on the back wall and it looked like setting sun was coming through the window and looked great on their wall and that's it you got it, you got to make sure the client knows that you did your best on this job. You're not finishing this job going on, which I have done this I wish that done that if that's what you're thinking you got to stop and reevaluate yourself now I will say that we all know when we finish the job, we know what we left behind j j one times a mazel said nobody knows but you what you didn't do right everybody sees the things he did right and they love what you did right? But not everybody sees the stuff that you did wrong and only you know that and it kills you sometimes, and you just walk away. Go on. I could have done this better. That happens, so don't beat yourself up. Too bad happens to all of us.

Class Description

Lighting equipment doesn’t come cheap, so it is crucial you get your money’s worth. Learn how to make the most of your investments in Studio Lighting Basics with Tony Corbell.

Tony is a celebrated photographer, educator, and author. In this class, he’ll help you get more out of basic studio gear. 

You’ll learn:

  • How to use off-camera speedlights
  • The basics of studio lights including; mono lights and pack lights 
  • Combining studio lighting with natural light
  • The properties of light 
  • How to position lights for varied results and styles
You’ll learn practical ways to work with strobes and light shaping tools and get tips on creating the exact look you’re aiming for. Tony will also help you overcome any hesitations you have about purchasing and setting up your own lighting equipment.

If you want to get more looks out of your existing gear or want to know which gear you should invest in, don’t miss Studio Lighting Basics with Tony Corbell.

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with Purchase

Essential Home Studio Gear Guide.pdf

Ratings and Reviews

Student Work

Related Classes


Catherine Stevens

Excellent class. Tony does a great job of highlighting different ways to work with light without being prescriptive. He's also a great speaker - very clear and easy to listen to. I would love it if this class came with a gear list and some basic guidance on the different lights as a starting point - I think the class does assume a certain amount of pre-existing lighting knowledge. Still worth every cent though!


I love watching Tony Corbell. He is such a wealth of knowledge. He is one of the Great Masters. Tony is an excellent teacher and he both freely and honestly shares his immense experience. It is truly a delight listen and watch to Tony teach.