The Step By Step Basics of Using Studio Lights for Portraiture

When you finally want to get into studio lighting being involved in your photography, we will always recommend strobes over constant lights. Part of this is because they have something called a flash duration that can affect the way that the scene looks overall. It’s the difference between being able to darken a sky with ease or not.

Studio lights, as many of you know, can also be shot outside of the studio. But using them just requires you to understand a few new things.


Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Adorama Flashpoint Xplor600 monolight samples (7 of 13)ISO 4001-60 sec at f - 5.6

Before we even discuss how studio lights work, you’ll need to understand how exposure works when you’re shooting with a studio light. Just to refresh, when you’re not shooting with a flash, this happens: 

  • Shutter speed controls the motion in the scene
  • Aperture controls the depth of field
  • ISO controls overall sensitivity
  • All of these parameters dictate how much light hits the sensor from the overall scene.

This changes when you’re shooting with a flash (and not one of those LED ones):

  • Shutter speed controls the ambient light and to a certain point it will control motion. Motion is further emphasized with a technique called second curtain flash.
  • Aperture controls how much light from the flash hits the sensor when the flash is set to a consistent output from manual mode
  • ISO controls overall sensitivity

When a flash is added into the scene, some of its effects also help take over for what you see in the shutter speed. This has to often do with what’s called flash duration–which is measured in fractions just like shutter speeds. So a flash with a flash duration of 1/80,000 can stop the motion equivalent to 1/80,000 if all the settings are right. This can also be used to give the effect of overpowering the sun at times.

How Studio Lights Work

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Adorama Flashpoint Xplor600 monolight product images (3 of 8)ISO 4001-50 sec at f - 2.8

Before we go on, modern studio lights come with the ability to do TTL light metering or manual metering. This tutorial will pertain to manual metering because it will help you actually get an image that you particularly want. TTL can’t really do that because it meters based on what it thinks you want. To do this, it meters based on your lens aperture and the ISO of the camera/film.

Manual metering instead has to do with setting the light output yourself. Want it to blast out at full power? Okay, take a look at how that looks on the scene. If it’s too much, then you’ll need to power it down until you figure out what it should be set to. Here are some questions to think about:

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Profoto B2 First impressions review portraits with Lauren (3 of 8)ISO 1001-160 sec at f - 2.8

  • How much ambient light is in the scene and what does the scene look like at the maximum flash sync speed of my camera?
  • Do I want that much ambient light? If no, then I’ll need to kill the ambient light by overpowering it with a faster flash duration
  • How much depth of field do I want in the scene? Is the flash set to too powerful of a setting for this? If not then I should adjust it.
  • Is the ISO set to an overall setting where I can control everything I need with ease?

Generally speaking, here’s a great place to start:

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Tamron 90mm f2.8 Di Vc USD portraits of Erica (1 of 2)ISO 1001-180 sec at f - 2.8

Outside during a sunny day: ISO 100, 1/125th f4.5 and a monolight set to 1/64th of its power. From there you should take a shot and make adjustments accordingly. Pro tip: start out in the shade where you have more control.

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Lulu's Shoot Zeiss 55mm f1.4 Otus lens photos (8 of 9)ISO 1001-80 sec at f - 1.4

Outside at night: ISO 400, 1/125th, f2.8 and a monolight set to 1/16 power.

Chris Gampat Justin Kirck headshots (5 of 6)ISO 1601-80 sec

Inside: ISO 400, 1/125th f2.8 and a monolight set to 1/4 power

From all these spots, you’ll look at a scene and adjust it accordingly.

Variables With Studio Lights

Chris Gampat The Phoblographer Creating the Photograph A Pinup in Brooklyn BTS photos (2 of 6)ISO 4001-50 sec at f - 2.8

Other ways to control how the studio light’s output will affect your scene has to do with moving the studio light back and forth or around your subject. The further way it is, the weaker it will output obviously. But other factors like how large a light modifier you’re using also effect this. That goes into many variables, but you should know that generally larger light modifiers means that you’ll get softer light in the scene.

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.