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Making your own light — a primer on shooting film with strobes

Pentax 645N | Acros.

In a perfect world, I would be immersed in soft sunshine for sixteen hours a day, all year round. Then, I would be able to create photographs with beautiful natural light whenever I want. Unfortunately, life on the northern hemisphere is nothing like this. Here, where the sun is depressingly absent for a large portion of the year, you had better learn how to make your own light.

Designing your light

There really is no limit to how complex lighting design for a studio setup can get. I find it useful to have a simple three-light model in mind, to get me started. In a three-light setup the key light shines directly on upon the subject and serves as its main illuminator more than anything else. The strength, color and angle of the key light determines the scene’s overall lighting design. In a studio setup, the key light usually is a strobe (or flash) with—or without—some sort of light modifier. The fill light also shines on the subject, but from an opposite angle compared to the key light. By adding light to the shadows created by the key light, the fill light lessens the contrast of the scene. The fill light can be a strobe head or any kind of a reflective surface. The back light (also called the rim, the hair or the shoulder light) shines on the subject from behind and helps to separate it from the background. While a rim light only creates a thin glowing outline around the subject, a kicker also contributes to the shading of the visible surface of the subject. If you have a fourth light, you may use that to illuminate (or blow out) the background and so use it as a background light.

Since our studio is our small living room, and I only have two strobe heads, I usually only bother with the key and fill light and skip the back light. It usually works just fine.

Pentax 645N | Fuji 400H.

The style of lighting is created by varying the horizontal and vertical angle of the key light. A key light at 90 degrees to the side of the subject and roughly in eye-level will create a split lighting, where half the face will be lit and the other half will be in shadow. If you elevate the key light above eye level (but still angle it down towards the subject) and slowly rotate it from the side towards a frontal position, the light will start to spill over from the lit side to the shaded side of the face. When you have a perfect triangle of light under the eye of the shaded side you have created Rembrandt lighting. If you keep rotating the key light towards the frontal position, more light will spill onto the previously shaded part of the face, until its mostly lit, leaving a ”loop” of shadow under the nose. This is a loop light. If you then rotate the light into full frontal position (at an angle of zero degrees from the camera axis), but still elevate it over eye level, you have created butterfly lightning, so named because of the butterfly-like shadow under the nose. If you add a reflector below to a butterfly lighting, you have created clamshell lighting.

Broad lighting and short lighting are not lighting patterns per se, but more a style of light design. Broad lighting means that the part of the subject that faces the camera is lit. Short lighting means exactly the opposite, where the part of the subject that faces the camera is in shadow. All patterns where the light is placed to the side (split, Rembrandt and loop light) can be either broad or short. I think that short lighting is awesome with film.

Pentax 645N | Ektar.

Qualities of light

Two main factors determines the quality of artificial light in a studio-like situation: the direction and the hardness. A light hitting the subject from a point at a zero-degree angle from the camera axis (such as a ring-flash mounted around the picture-taking lens) will create a flatter light, while a light at a 90 degree angle from the camera axis (such as a white umbrella over to the side of the subject) will create deep shadows on the subject’s face. The smaller the light source compared to the subject, the harder the light will be. A bare bulb at a distance will produce a significantly harder light, revealing every pore on your subjects face, when compared to a large soft box brought in close to the subject.

Sync speed

The sync speed is the fastest shutter speed where the whole scene will be lit by your strobes. The larger the shutter, the slower it will travel across the frame and the slower the sync speed will be. For instance, my Nikon F100 (small shutter) has a sync speed of 1/250th of a second, while my Pentax 645N (medium shutter) has a sync speed of 1/60th of a second and my Pentax 67II (large shutter) has a sync speed of 1/30th of a second. The sync speed is a minimal setting, which means I might set my Nikon F100 to 1/125th of a second, or 1/60th of a second, and register fully lit scenes. If I set it to 1/500th of a second only a part of the scene will be lit, typically resulting in half the frame being black.

A way around this if you are shooting with medium format cameras is using lenses with leaf shutters, available for the Pentax 67 and Hasselblad V-systems for instance.

A faster minimal sync speed will give you more creative opportunities, such as stopping ambient light from registering on your film. With a fast enough sync speed you can even block out the sun outside at midday. A slower sync speed means ambient light will have an opportunity to mix with your strobes, which can be a problem.

Metering and light ratios

I understand there are two schools when it comes to how to meter for strobe photography: one who meters just as you would with natural light (some variation of having the bulb of the light meter facing the camera) and one who meters with the bulb facing the light source. I started out with the second school of metering, since my first light meter (a Gossen DigiFlash, still awesome) could not register flashes unless I pointed the bulb towards the lights. So far I have never had reason to change my technique.

If you have a two-light setup, with a key light to the right of the subject and a fill light to the left of your subject (a split-lighting setup) the amount if light hitting each side will determine the contrast of the scene.

In the light setup above, you can imagine the light from each strobe hitting an imaginary plane the right and left side of the subject respectively. You meter the light delivered from each light source by putting your meter, bulb-in, perpendicular to the ground and facing the light source (at a zero degree angle to the imagined plane) and fire your flashes. Meter each light source separately.

Metering the two light sources separately, by in turn placing the light meter with retracted bulb facing each strobe head and taking a flash reading. The stronger light will be the highlight reading and the fainter light the shadow reading.

A 1:1 ratio is even light and as such very flat. With a 2:1 ratio, the key light delivers two time as a much light as the fill. If you for example meter the key light to f/4, the fill will read as f/5.6. With a 4:1 ratio the key will deliver four times as much light and read as f/4, while the fill reads as f/8, and so on.

Pentax 645N | Fuji 160ns.


If you are of the experimental mindset there is no limit to how complex studio lighting can be. I must have a different mindset and must confess to finding studio gear utterly boring. Because of this I have not really experimented much with different strobes, flashes or modifiers.

We use two Elinchrome D-lite RX One strobe heads, mounted on regular stands, and we use a Elinchrome Skyport radio trigger (and with older cameras a PC-cord) to trigger them. The RX One is the entry-level strobe in Elinchrome’s lineup, aimed at hobbyists. It can deliver up to 100 Ws, which usually is sufficient for our small shooting area. It can take lighter modifiers, without toppling over.

Theory states that a bare bulb with a silver reflector is a small light source and as such delivers a hard light. A large softbox (or octabox) is a large light source and delivers a soft light that wraps around your subject. A beautydish (at the appropriate distance) falls somewhere in between.

So far, we have mainly used two kinds of light modifiers: umbrellas and a beautydish. We have two white umbrellas with a diameter of 84 centimeters, which in a pinch can be stacked for a larger light source (larger equals softer light, remember?). Our beautydish is white and of a diameter of 56 cm. Silver beautydishes are available, but white is usually what is recommended. Our beautydish came with a white diffusion sock for when you want softer light and a grid for when you want harder, more directional light. We also recently bought ourselves a 60 x 90 centimeter softbox, which we have yet to try out.

Left : Stacking two white umbrellas together to create a bigger (and softer) light source. Right : The solar eclipse sign: what a beatydish with modeling lights turned on should look like from the vantage point of the subject.

For reflectors, we either use a hand-held foldable reflector which is white on one side and silver on the other, or we use a home-made 2 x 3 meter foldable V-flat made out of cardboard and painted white.

We mount our backgrounds on a telescoping rod, mounted on two regular stands. At first we simply used cotton sheets, but unless you complete blow them out with light, you have a lot of photoshopping to do if you want to get rid of the wrinkles. Now we use a white paper seamless, which is just heaven. The further you can get your subject from the background, the less you will have to worry about wrinkles and blemishes on the material and unwanted light spill from the strobes.


My favorite if Fujicolor Pro 400H, simply because it is so hard to overexpose it and I like the look. I have had great results with Kodak Portra 160, Kodak Ektar and Fujicolor Pro 160ns as well. On the true B&W side I have only tried Neopan 100 Acros.

Pentax 645N | Acros.

How to do it

First, decide what quality of light you are after. Do you want it to be hard (silver reflector, far from the object), soft (large softbox, close to the subject) or something in between (beautydish)? Do you want a lot of contrast (no fill) or not (fill light)? A safe bet if you are going for a pastel look is to build a white room with a white background and large white reflectors and to use as large of a light modifier as you can find. A good start is stacking two strobe heads with white umbrellas together into one big key light and use a large reflector as fill. See example below. Mount the radio trigger (for the strobes) in the hotshoe of your camera, or connect the camera and the strobes with a PC sync cord.

The modeling lights are the bulbs on the strobe heads that you can turon on when the flashes aren not actually firing. You use them to preview the light on your subject. Set the horizontal and vertical axis to your subject. A good starting point would be to put the light so high that you can tilt it 45 degrees down and hit the eyes of your subject. Ideally, you should see the lower half of the modifier reflecting in the upper part of the irises of the subject. Move the strobe to one side and angle it in towards the subject, until you get the look you want. Do not be afraid to use your spouse’s digital camera to fire the strobes and check how it looks.

Pentax 645N | Portra 160.

Depending on your choice of film, determine if you will meter for shadows or highlights. Set your light meter to flash readings and meter for the key light (highlights) or the fill light (shadows). Adjust the strobe output (power) until you get an f-stop reading you want to work with. I usually go for f/4 for no particular reason.

For Fuji 400H, I set my meter to ISO 100 and meter the fill light (my light meter facing the reflector) and adjust strobe output until I reach f/4. When I then shoot on f/4 I know I have overexposed the shadow-side by at least two stops. I usually end up with a 4:1 ratio between the shadow-side (f/4) and the highlight side (f/8), which tends to look nice and soft. I sometimes crank up the strobe output even more (around f/4.8) just to be safe.

Pentax 67 | Fuji 400H.

For Acros and Ektar, I set my light meter to ISO 100 and meter the key light and adjust the strobe output until I reach f/4. This ensures proper exposure for the highlights, while I let the shadows fall where they may. A light ratio of 4:1 often looks good for Acros too, but might be a tad too contrasty for Ektar.

That is it! Good luck!

Setup examples

Clamshell.  A beautydish overhead, pointing down 45 degrees. A white reflector below frame, reflecting light back up under her chin.  Fuji 400H | Pentax 645N.

Rembrandt light.  A beutydish to the left as key light and a reflector to the right as fill. I fired a strobe behind the white sheet that was the background, which then became a rim light. Fuji 400H | Pentax 645N.

Rembrandt light. Two white umbrellas, stacked together to create a bigger light source. Remember: bigger = softer light. A gigant white folding wall provided fill. A lot of light reflected of the white background and provided a little bit of back light.  Fuji 400H | Pentax 645N.

Rembrandt light.  Exactly the same setup as in the previous image. Only the pose has changed.  Fuji 400H | Pentax 645N.

Rembrandt light.  Two white umbrellas, stacked together as key light.  A gigant white folding wall provided fill. Fuji Acros | Pentax 645N.

Short light.  One white umbrella behind and to the side acted as key light, while a white reflector in front was fill. A strobe behind the white sheet in the background was just enough to blow out the wrinkles in the fabric. Fuji 400H | Pentax 645N.

Short light.  A white umbrella behind and to the left was key light, while a white reflector in front and slightly below was fill light. A strobe behind the light blue background added a little rim light. Fuji 400H | Pentax 645N.

Kicker light.  A white reflector provided key lighting here, white two white umbrellas provided a strong kick. Here I metered for the fill with the bulb facing the camera, since that reflector really is the key light.  Fuji Acros | Pentax 645N.