Lighting equipment: a primer

One of the overwhelmingly popular requests I seem to get is for an article on lighting – specifically, how I achieve what I achieve with my images. This article will be the first in a series of five, covering various aspects of lighting and deconstructing the source. It’ll also serve as a useful prelude to my studio lighting workshop tomorrow.

Before we do that, it’s important to establish a baseline: if you don’t know what it is you’re using, then it’s going to be both time consuming to explain, and difficult to understand. Thus, we’re going to begin with an explanation – a quick 101, really – of common lighting sources, tools and modifiers – and an explanation of what they’re useful for, and how one would deploy them. Please excuse the crude line drawings; I don’t have a lot of these objects myself, hence a lack of source images. We’ll go down the list in alphabetical order.

barndoor

Barn doors
Moving plates fixed to a light to control spill off. Useful for creating strongly directional light and preventing too much from reaching the background behind the subject.

beautydish

Beauty dish
A set of nestled reflectors fitted to the end of a studio strobe to create a ringlight effect for portraits/ faces – soft, without shadows, but still with some definition.

diffuser dome

Diffuser dome
A clip on bit of translucent plastic that goes over the end of a flash to soften its output. Usually makes almost no difference but eats a lot of power.

diffuserpanel

Diffuser panel
Any sheet of semi-translucent material that goes in front of a light source to soften the directionality of its output; varies in thickness and opacity.

flash

Flash/ Speedlight
Small, portable, self-powered light source. Usually mounted to the camera, and communicates with the camera’s meter using electronic contacts to control output power. More sophisticated models are capable of wireless operations, triggered optically by another flash and with metering taken care of by the camera. The flash head itself has some modifiers built in – usually zoom, which controls beam spread, in addition to being aimable.

gel

Gel
A piece of transparent, colored plastic that filters the output of any light to balance it with ambient sources; usually yellow/orange or green to balance tungsten and fluorescent sources respectively.

gobo

Gobo
An opaque piece of material with a cutout to permit light to pass through; usually with a shape or design. Used more frequently for productions than photography. The best example of a gobo is perhaps the Batman sign…

grid

Grid
Exactly what it sounds like – a grid of panels placed at right angles to the light source. Acts like an array of 90 degree barn doors; controls light spillage and ensures that most of the light goes in one direction, but without the hard edges that barn doors produce.

HMI light
Very bright incandescent source in the form of a studio strobe – used for video production. Compatible with all normal accessories, e.g. softboxes/ gobos/ diffusers etc.

_5001017bw copy

LED Panel
Continuous, low-temperature light source. Nowhere near as bright as HMI lights, but also nowhere near as hot. Useful on location when you have to operate off batteries, or when you have to photograph temperature-sensative objects – ice cream, for example.

monoblock

Monoblock
Any self-contained studio light that doesn’t require a separate power source or transformer. Plugs directly into the wall.

radiotrigger

Radio triggers
Wireless trigger for flashes or strobes that isn’t restricted by line of sight. Requires one controller on-camera, and one for each flash unit.

reflector

Reflector
A piece of material – usually white/ silver or gold (warm) – held below a or to one side of a subject to provide fill light on the shadow side by reflecting the primary light source. Softens out the shadows. Usually requires an assistant, as in, ‘Tilt the reflector down a bit more, thanks.’

ringflash

Ringlight/ Ringflash
A flash with a circular tube, or a light shaper in the form of a ring that simulates the effect of a circular tube. Once again, useful for portraits.

softbox

Softbox
A tent of sorts – usually fabric – which the light source fires into at one end, with a semi-translucent window at the other end. The insides are usually reflective to minimize light loss. Creates a large, soft, diffuse light source; comes in many sizes. Useful for anything and everything. Can be used in conjunction with grids, barn doors, etc.

snoot

Snoot
A cone-shaped object, open at both ends that goes over the end of a light source to create a very tight, intense beam of light – effectively a spotlight.

stand

Stand
Anything used to hold your lights or accessories.

Strobe
Large studio flashes – much more powerful than portable flashes/ speedlights, but require mains power or large lead-acid battery packs to run.

umbrella

Umbrella
Umbrellas come in two varieties: shoot through and reflective. The former act as diffusers; the latter produce a slightly harsher, more directional (but still diffuse) light. Usually deployed in conjunction with flashes or smaller studio strobes. More light loss than a softbox because the sides are open; not always a bad thing because sometimes a little ambient illumination is required.

zoom head

Zoom head
The part of a flash that allows control of the beam spread – it’s called a zoom head because it allows the photographer to match the angle of coverage with the field of view of the lens, with minimal power wastage.

Stay tuned for subsequent parts – we’ll cover reverse engineering setups, and some more advanced techniques and tricks. MT

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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved

Comments

  1. Thank You! Thank you!

  2. I for one think your drawings are great. They are both clear and friendly.

    Just thought I’d note that some people still use the word “gobo” to also refer to “flags”, which are flat, opaque black panels used to block light (or cast shadow), most often diffuse light (as from umbrellas, or unwanted reflected fill from objects or room surfaces).

  3. great post ! very useful, perfect timing for me too, am getting an umbrella as well !

  4. Great Pen Work Ming ! Love it ! And thanks for the education.

    What happened to the HMI ? ;D

  5. Very nice, this is what I have been waiting for, thanks!! For some reason the lightning feels very complex and a bit scary thing to start with… But I would like to learn the basics and take some portraits. Could you also make a recommendation(s) of a very basic, not too expensive portal studio/lightning equipment? To do some basic customer portrait work at the customer’s house.

    I think you’re a good illustrator – you find the essential and simplify it masterfully with only few draws. That is well done (and I am totally serious here).

    • Haha, thank you.

      You can do a lot with two stands, two shoot-through umbrellas, and two speedlights. I’m totally serious about that, too – that’s what I use for 99% of my commercial work.

  6. You sometimes come across more of a writer than a photographer ;)

    Maybe time to get out more and shoot :)

    • That’s because you don’t see a good chunk of the client work I do; it’s either embargoed or confidential or under a very restrictive license. Nothing saying I can’t be prolific across multiple disciplines!

      • True, fair enough. Guess this is all for ‘fun’ so to speak, but much appreciated.

        I’m more impressed how you can be prolific across multiple disciplines. Heck this as ‘just a hobby’ is time consuming as it is!

  7. You are really a good writer and teacher, if you ever would make a book (or books :) ) on photography (e-book or paper) I certainly would buy one.

    • Thanks. Planning to, actually – there’s so much content on the site I think half of it has gotten lost in the archives. At some point – maybe the 1st year anniversary – I’ll make an e-book version of it all.

      • Definitely, was going to say your archiving sucks ;)

        Great summary and again well written. When I first looked into lighting 3-4 months ago to get a basic understanding of how different things affect lighting it was a struggle to find a nice resource and took ages to final get somewhere. This sums up nicely. Looking forward to the next parts :)

        • Hah! Well, I’m limited to WordPress…but there’s a solution for that coming soon, too. It’s in the works.

          Four, or five (?) more parts to come. I lost count. Time to take a break from writing.

  8. do u draw them urself? very nice heehehe

  9. lol @diffuser dome. Nice work anyway buddy! Cheers

  10. by far the best illustration of the various lighting accessories out there. as usual, love the articles you produce. :)

Trackbacks

  1. […] Lighting I just completed a whole series on lighting here – intro to equipment, part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, and tips and […]

  2. […] primer on lighting equipment is here. Part one on single sources can be found here; part two on multiple sources, here; part three on […]

  3. […]   One of the overwhelmingly popular requests I seem to get is for an article on lighting – specifically, how I achieve what I achieve with my images. This article will be the first in a series of five, covering various aspects of lighting and deconstructing the source. It’ll also serve as a useful prelude to my studio lighting workshop tomorrow. Before we do that, it’s important to establish a baseline: if you don’t know what it is you’re using, then it’s going to be both time consuming to explain, and difficult to understand. Thus, we’re going to begin with an explanation – a quick 101, really – of common lighting sources, tools and modifiers – and an explanation of what they’re useful for, and how one would deploy them. Please excuse the crude line drawings; I don’t have a lot of these objects myself, hence a lack of source images. We’ll go down the list in alphabetical order….  […]

  4. […] One of the overwhelmingly popular requests I seem to get is for an article on lighting – specifically, how I achieve what I achieve with my images. This article will be the first in a series of five, covering various aspects of lighting and deconstructing the source. It’ll also serve as a useful prelude to my studio lighting workshop tomorrow.  […]

  5. […] Lighting equipment: a primer – Ming Thein | Photographer […]

  6. […] One of the overwhelmingly popular requests I seem to get is for an article on lighting – specifically, how I achieve what I achieve with my images. This article will be the first in a series of five, covering various aspects of lighting and deconstructing the source. It’ll also serve as a useful prelude to my studio lighting workshop tomorrow.  […]

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