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How to Do Your Own Homemade Photography Lighting

Updated on December 11, 2013

See the Light!

Lighting is truly what photography is all about. If you want to start taking good photographs concentrate on your lighting skills. There are a plethora of good articles, videos and training courses on lighting. I comb through this stuff regularly and I went to a lighting seminar called “Light it, Shoot It, Retouch It by Scott Kelby a while back and it was the best day of training I have ever had. Before you go get your next camera you owe it to yourself to get lighting equipment first. While some of the lights you will want to make to save money there are some lights like soft boxes that are hard to reproduce at home and quite frankly they are so cheap on eBay and Amazon that I’d look here first.

Lighting can be done in so many different ways. A narrow light adds mood and a broad light removes harsh shadows. A person lit from all around their face magically has their wrinkles disappear while side lighting can make little wrinkles look like giant crevices. It’s the quality of light that you must understand and then it is possible to start improvising with home built set ups. When you take the time to make a study of the light falling on a scene or you are following the sun and see how light changes throughout the day you get a better understanding of what light can do.

Some common problems that I see are

  • Racoon eyes from the sun at high angles
  • Lighting a person’s face but forgetting about lighting hair
  • Inadequate lighting
  • Having shadows that are too deep
  • Back lighting a subject with the sun and having everything in the foreground look dark as a result.

And the list could go on. Part of the problem is knowledge and part of the problem is the lack of funds to buy all of the equipment you would like to have.

Colour temperature is a term that refers to the colour of light and this is important to know. Colour temperature is expressed in terms of degrees Kelvin. Here is a chart showing approximately what different colours mean to you

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Here are some Colour Temperature Equivalents

  • 2700K - Red sunset
  • 3500K - Warm white given off of an incandescent bulb
  • 4200K - Typical fluorescent tube that has no colour balance
  • 5500K - Typical bright sunny daylight
  • 6500K - Bright overcast sky

Colour temperature is important because for most photography you want to match all of the lighting to the same colour temperature. With today’s digital cameras you can use almost any light as long as you are shooting in camera with the right temperature selected and equally as important you should be shooting RAW files. Raw files contain way more information than jpegs. Raw files can be manipulated in Adobe Camera Raw as much as 3 stops in either direction from the settings shot. The same goes for colour temperature as well. In Adobe Camera Raw there is a slider that controls the colour temperature of light. You can turn a photo almost red or turn it a quite noticeable shade of blue.

If you are at home using incandescent bulbs that are all about 3200K set your light temperature to “Indoor” and your photographs will look natural. Add in a daylight white bulb and you will see a dramatic difference with blue light hitting your subject from the direction of the daylight bulb. Dramatic in some cases where you are shooting objects but avoid this mistake when you are shooting people. That is unless you are going for the zombie look.

Now that you have had the simple version of temperature colour explained Let’s talk about typical lighting you would find in a studio, some of the cheaper bought alternatives and where possible a homemade solution to getting the right light. Some may be made at home.

Compact Fluorescent (CF) bulbs

Compact Fluorescent (CF) bulbs some in different sizes and colour temperatures. If you plan on setting up a permanent studio using home lighting get the largest CF bulbs you can find. You can get CF bulbs in different colour temperatures but again be sure to get ones that are all the same. There are lighting kits for a relatively small amount of cash that will light your subject. You will need to spend $200-$400 to get the lights you need. There are many eBay and Amazon sellers that sell these kits. I think some of these kits are cheaper than going to Walmart and trying to get stuff to rig together. I like dealing with one seller who is about 60 miles from where I live. (Newer) I order products and within 2 days they are at my door. I have used overseas sellers and they are slightly cheaper but a month can go by with no product.

Fluorescent Tubes & Work Lights

Other lighting can be adapted from banks of fluorescent tubes with a sheet of velum in between the lights and the subject to make the light more soft. Halogen work lights will throw off an enormous amount of light but it is hard and directional. It also burns very hot and will heat your whole house. At the end of the month when the electric bill arrives you will be in for a shock! These lights burn as much energy as leaving a stove burner turned on. Simple spot lights can be used as well.

Flashes

Strobes. I don’t think there is any home system here. Canon and Nikon strobes (Flash units) are very expensive but you get a high quality product. A strobe from Canon or Nikon can cost $600 or more. If you needed 4 of them to light a scene that’s a lot of money. I think I’d take a trip to a warm and sunny southern climate first.

Alternatively there are strobes available from off shore makers that are not as sophisticated as major manufacturers but still have the power output that is needed. Some are starting to catch up with the big boys in terms of technology and some offer models that sync perfectly with Canon and Nikon cameras. Flashes from Yongnuo, Sunpack, Vivitar and a number of other manufactures (or re-packagers) are 1/3 the price of the major companies.

Radio Controllers for Flashes

Radio controls for flashes. Radio controls so you can off camera flash can be about $200 a piece. Four receivers and one transmitter can total $800 and I know there are more expensive ones then that. The radio range is that of a football field. You can get basic radio controls from eBay or Amazon sellers for about $50.00. These are great for studio use where the set up doesn’t change. The flash powers all remain the same

Reflectors

Reflectors can be made at home. Reflectors are large pieces of material often in a frame that reflect light to take out harsh shadows. Commercial reflectors are often in a frame that is collapsible and can be easily stored. Reflectors from an eBay or Amazon seller can cost as little as $10 but more likely about $20. Some large (60X80 inch) reflectors will cost about $100. You can improvise reflectors with white cards and foam core from the local dollar store. Almost every photographer I know has an arsenal of foam core. Often it is bought in 4X4 ft. sections and carved up as needed it’s so cheap that you can custom cut foam core.

Mirrors are another way to add light and several mirrors should be in your kit to reflect light back to your subject strategically.

Natural Light

And lastly everyone forgets about natural light. Setting your subject by a window and using natural and reflected natural light can be beautiful. The key with natural light is timing and direction. If light is coming in through a window have your subject face or partially face the light. Use white foam core propped either on a light stand or even a chair to provide fill. If you are out of doors make sure there is enough light reflected back into your subject’s face to eliminate racoon eyes and other unwanted shadows.

Overall lighting can be done inexpensively. The key is knowledge to make different lighting set ups. Take the time to learn about lighting before making large investments in other photography equipment. Ansel Adams one of the greatest American photographers is credited with the saying “The most important part of the camera is the 12 inches behind it.” Use your head! Get knowledgeable about lighting.

Some of my other articles

5 Tips for Great Minimalist Photography

8 Essential Elements for Minimalist Photography

Raw vs Jpeg - What You Need to Know

How to Shop for a Used Camera Lens

Build a Home Photography Studio for Less

Changing Your Photo to Outstanding Black and White

Composition in Photography: Depth of Field

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    • Natashalh profile image

      Natasha 4 years ago from Hawaii

      Reflectors can make such a crazy difference! I don't own any, but I've seen them used with great results. Lighting is one of my biggest problems - thanks for all the info.

    • JanMaklak profile image
      Author

      JanMaklak 4 years ago from Canada

      Natashalh Thank you for stopping by. Lighting is everybody's biggest problem and the more time we all spend on it the better we will become. I do a lot of reading and You Tubing to get more information and new techniques. I'm getting better! I would suggest that if you want to get better is to set up a small tabletop studio much like on the top video and start experimenting. Write down the stuff you like and dislike. Even the dislikes may have a purpose in the future. Best wishes in your photography

      Jan

    • profile image

      Vickiw 4 years ago

      Hi Jan, your knowledge is quite overwhelming, and I am suitably humbled, but trying to learn little bits at a time. Just about all my Hub images are mine, and I just have a point and shoot camera. I am so aware of light, but am nowhere near thinking of getting a special one! What about these curly Eco lights in the house? They are very different to the incandescents? Wish I knew more!

    • JanMaklak profile image
      Author

      JanMaklak 4 years ago from Canada

      Hi Vicky: It all has to do with a thing called color temperature or 'degrees Kelvin'. 3200 degrees kelvin = incandescent lighting, 4o00 degrees Kelvin = fluorescent light and 5500 degrees Kelvin = daylight. The bulbs you buy for a lighting setup should all be the same ie. daylight, fluorescent or incandescent OR the degrees Kelvin on the box. In other words the lighting all gives off the same color temperature. You can set the camera's white balance to whatever lights you are using.

      The problem with most bulbs is to get them close enough to your subject to give off enough light so your camera can shoot at a low ISO setting (100 or 200 ISO)

      If you don't mind a little digital noise in the picture (those pesky tiny dots of funny colors) you can get away with just about anything but to get the ISO low (and almost no noise) the lights have to be bright.

      So the short answer is any very bright and matched bulbs will do. Just set the camera's white balance to match.

    • profile image

      Vickiw 4 years ago

      I don't think I can set my camers's white balance! It just has a little dial thing, with auto, and the other settings on it. Usually I go on auto. This is shameful!

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 4 years ago from the short journey

      Thanks much for this look at homemade lighting for photography. I'll be referring to it again.

    • ketage profile image

      ketage 3 years ago from Croatia

      I have to start learning about this kind of thing, the first few photos I took for hubpages were really badly lit, thank goodness for digital cameras, if I was using the old film film cameras I would have spend a fortune just on developing the films, I messed up the lighting for hundreds of photos, and even now they do not look as good as I would like. Thanks for the tips. I will be implementing them as soon as I get some of the equipment.

    • raydevlin profile image

      Ray Devlin 3 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Another great article Jan - very informative. Shared.

    • JanMaklak profile image
      Author

      JanMaklak 3 years ago from Canada

      Thanks Ray!

    • passionate77 profile image

      passionate77 3 years ago

      very interesting and helpful article, wonderfully covered all the relevant details , well done!

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