Super-cheap lighting for off-camera practice

Posted: October 21, 2012 in General photography, How-to's

Hey everyone!

I’ve been asked a lot about cheap lighting for practicing off camera lighting set-ups (studio strobes, speedlights, etc..). Well this is a little trick I learned back in college, when uber-cheapness was the only concern. $125 for a flash??? No. Way. Ever. 

If you’re just starting out trying to understand the effects and positioning of off-camera lighting it really is helpful to be able to see what you’re doing to the light as you move things around. A constant light source is actually a much more effective training tool than a flash just because of the fact that you can actually see the results you’re getting before you even take the picture. Now – I must insert a disclaimer here – if you ever actually use this kind of set for a paid photo shoot be prepared to be fired, or at the least seriously laughed at. This does not portray confidence or professionalism in any way. But it does get you comfortable setting up lights without a huge investment.

You might wonder, if you’ve never used a softbox, what the point of this funky contraption really is? Simply put, its primary purpose is to “soften the light”, hence the name. It also provides some directional control of the light as well, but in order to make lighting softer, with smooth blended shadows, you need a large light source in close proximity to your subject. This is why the sun, even though it is enormous, creates harsh sharp-edged shadows – it’s so far away that it acts relatively like a small point light source. When it goes behind a cloud, the cloud is diffusing the light, scattering it and softening out those shadows. A softbox does the same thing to a flash. So if you’ve been thinking about trying out setting up a light but don’t want to spend the money on commercial gear just yet, this will get you going.

Here’s what you will need:

1. Get an old cheap styrofoam cooler – the plain white kind that always seems to break and spill all your drinks at your feet while you’re walking to the car. I’ve found these for less than a buck at garage sales.

2. Most home centers or big-box stores carry simple clamp-on light fixtures that have a 7 or 10-inch reflector and usually are around $7-12. Pick up at least one, or more if you want to play with multiple light sets.

3. Get a few of the highest wattage flourescent lights you can find. Stick with the spiral fluorescents to avoid the heat generated by standard incandescent. Take note – most come in a wide array of white balance hues (Usually called soft white, cool white, daylight, etc.) Just be aware of this and know that you will have to adjust your white balance accordingly. I’ll tell you a simple trick for that later…

4. Finally you will need a funky old white t-shirt or other piece of cloth to use as a diffuser. Make sure you can see light through it fairly well if you hold it up to a light. You’ll also need some duct tape or gaffer’s tape.

Ok, now to build a light! It’s really pretty simple. Just take the reflector off the lighting fixture (they usually unscrew) and cut a hole in the center of the back-side of the cooler that is a snug fit for the base of the light fixture. Then all you do is put the fixture into the cooler, screw in a lightbulb and tape your funky t-shirt over the open face of the cooler. Presto – instant cheap softbox light!!

Light fixture mounted into the cooler base    

Light arrangement is a subject that you can spend your whole life time developing and understanding but there are a few basic things that will get you great results. Since you’re reading this you probably already know that on-camera flash washes people out and just looks like every point-and-shoot facebook photo out there. Getting a nice dimensional look to the lighting means you have to get the light coming in from one side or the other from the camera. Here’s one really basic 2-light set-up that produces some pretty decent results.

 Key light is angled 45-60 degrees to left of the camera. Back light is out of the frame above and behind the subject.

The image of my cat below used that exact set up – the key light had the cooler box softbox and the other back light just kept the as-purchased reflector dish. Notice the wash of light on his back that separates him out from the black backdrop.

I mentioned a trick for setting your white balance – simply point the camera at the light (you’ve got a white shirt on there, right?) take a frame and use that to set the camera’s custom white balance and you’re all set.

You may be surprised just how good the lighting quality out of something this simple can be. I will be putting together more examples of lighting set-ups using more advanced beauty dishes and comparing them to this cheap-o light in the near future. In the meantime, coerce a family member into posing for you, get creative and have fun!

Comments
  1. Carol Ott says:

    What I’d like to know is not so much about the lighting — but how in the world did you get your cat to sit still in the right spot long enough to take the photo? For that you deserve extra kudos!

    • indyshooter says:

      hah…thanks. Actually, as the saying goes, “curiosity killed the cat.” Or, in this case at least let me shot a photo of him. As soon as he noticed this contraption in my studio he hoped up on the table nearby and was just staring at it for a few minutes. Long enough for me to snap off a few frames.

      • Andrew Plath says:

        Just when I thought I knew at least most of the tricks for low-budget off camera lighting, this puts a new spin on every thing. Sometimes common household items just make sense. We all have to be a little McIver sometimes.

  2. sraz45 says:

    I am a portrait photographer, own a studio in OC, Ca. I don’t believe for a moment that you could get such a crisp image with a compact fl. bulb with a shirt over the front. The light would not be adequate enough to stop down for this image. Please elaborate. Thanks.

    • indyshooter says:

      Actually it is quite adequate. You need to use a thin shirt that lets the light pass through, and a higher wattage light. I used a 42w CFL – equivalent to a 150 watt tungsten bulb. The key light was about three feet away from the cat so there was plenty of light for a good image. Exposure was 1/125th second at ISO 1600, f4.0, using a canon 7D and 24-105 f4L lens. I’m by no means suggesting that this is a replacement for professional lighting, but it does work.

      • sraz45 says:

        I love your portrait of the cat, I am impressed by your invention,
        can come handy in situations where you have to shoot without gear.
        Thanks

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