Firstly though, we need to understand that handling this equipment is the latter of two evils. The first is learning to identify light, where it’s coming from, how soft is it, and how it interacts to highlight your subject.
Let’s start with the most available light there is, daylight. It might seem silly, but using the natural daylight, will provide you with the best light there is. Studio lights, are built to try and mimic this light in it’s various forms. Sitting your subject next to a window, will provide a very complimentary colour and softness to the light. The softer the light, the more it wraps around your subject.
If using the window method, try both direct sunlight and indirect shaded light for different effects, and the best part, it’s free! To mimic this kind of light we use studio strobes or “flash” as they are commonly known. The easiest set up to get, is a single strobe and a large reflector and stand. Many places sell these as kits for as little as $600, sometimes including remote wireless triggers, so you don’t even have to be anywhere near the lights when shooting. Compare that to an on-camera flash kit, which can cost $400 up for a good system, the extra few dollars are going to give you so much more creative freedom to experiment. Look for kits that include the light, stand, remote trigger and a softbox. You must get a softbox. No softbox, no soft complimenting light. If not included, they start relatively cheap anyway, at around $100, often less.
A system offering around 400 watts of power is plenty for a small studio, but make sure you can adjust the power up or down by at least 1/4 of a stop with each change. Good systems such as those from Elinchrom and ProFoto provide great control in 10th’s of a stop. Small, but often needed for subtle improvements. Light with a basic reflector that offers gold, silver, white, black and translucent, will serve the best. These are known as 5 way reflectors. The gold offers a subtle, warm (orange) tone, whilst the silver cools the light down with a slight blue cast. White adds light to increase the exposure, and black subtracts light, adding a high contrast look. The final element is the translucent disc, acting like a small softbox or cloud. To explain, clouds make for the perfect softener of light, acting as a gigantic “diffuser”. The larger the light source, the softer the light becomes, as the further it has to travel across a surface, before spilling into the subject below. As an example, shining a torch through a bed sheet will spread the light evenly, whilst the torch itself, will pinpoint the light. A good start for absolute beginners is to get a continuous light kit, instead of a flash kit. With the continuous kit, simply switch it on, look through the viewfinder, and what you see is what you get. Problem with continuous lighting is, it’s often hot, tungsten lights are noisy, cast a yellow light, and become very hot to touch within a very short time of turning them on. New manufacturers are making this easier, with cold LED lights that mimic daylight, but have a big cheque ready if you want a set. A simple strobe kit is not hard to master.
Many studios use multiple lights, white cards, block boards, reflectors and all sorts of gear, but that kind of gear is reserved for very high end commercial and fashion shoots. To get started, a simple light kit with a 5 disc reflector will give you just as soft or dramatic a look, to wow your friends and family or even your client. Remember, the more gear you have, the more you need to use it, otherwise it’s costly resource just sitting in storage.