Four kinds of artificial light sources for photography

Light, is the main ingredient in a photograph. There are of course other ingredients: time, composition, subject matter, emotion and your unique style, but light is the thing that makes photography work.

Light is the thing that early inventors had to hold or fix, in order to make a photograph stick around.

We call nature’s light, natural or available. Think of sunlight or moonlight.

Artificial light is everything else.

To keep things simple, it’s best to start your learning using natural light. But there comes a time when:

  • you’ll want more light
  • you’ll want different light
  • or you’ll want more control of the light for creative purposes

There are four common types of artificial light sources used for photography today

  • incandescent
  • fluorescent
  • LED
  • studio strobe

Incandescent

This lighting ranges from the common light bulb to large tungsten “hot lights” used in the studio and on movie sets. They are warm in colour temperature compared with natural daylight.

The light from a bare bulb is pretty harsh. That’s why we use lampshades on lights in our homes. The quality of incandescent lighting can be modified using flags, reflectors and diffusion material. They get hot to touch, so you need to be very careful around children and when photographing things that melt – like plastic or ice cream.

Fluorescent

Most public buildings and offices are lit with fluorescent lighting tubes. They’ve been around for decades. They aren’t common in photography, but we sometimes get stuck with them if we’re shooting in corporate offices. One problem is that the tubes come in different colour temperatures. Traditionally they were greenish, and you had to have a magenta filter on your lens to correct for it.

Now they come in many different flavours: cool white, warm white, daylight balanced, traditional green. As a result, it’s hard to white balance for fluorescent lighting, as you never know which type of bulbs are in the ballasts, or even if the bulbs match the ones next to them. You could have a room that has 2 or 3 different coloured tubes. In this case I’d definitely recommend doing a custom white balance using a grey card.

New CFL curly bulbs

Now there’s a new fluorescent kid on the block: The CFL or compact fluorescent light. These are supposed to solve the energy crisis, but in reality they are more trouble than good. Many of the CFL bulbs give off dirty electricity. I tried them in my office and got a really bad headache from them after less than half an hour of use.

Not to mention, they have mercury in them. If one breaks or burns out, you need a hazmat team to dispose of them. You can’t just toss mercury into the garbage. Keep children away! CFLs are not suited for domestic use like the common light bulb, but rather meant to be kept on for long periods of time, so they are great for warehouses where the lights are on all the time. For more info on CFLs read the research of Howard M. Brandston and his Save the Bulb campaign.

There are some new studio lighting kits on the market that use these CFL bulbs. They really push them in the video market. But the lower end kits often suffer from mixed white balance because because of low quality bulbs. They really don’t make good photography or video lighting.

LED

LED stands for light emitting diodes. Usually there are a series of hundreds small light diodes on one of the LED panels. These lights are really new on the photography and video market and their use is getting more common, especially as perimeter lighting for domestic use. You probably also use one if you ride a bicycle.

Depending on the brand name and quality of LEDs, they can range from very stable in colour temperature to very unstable. The brightness can be varied with a built in rheostat and some models have two colour temperatures, or slide in filter panels. The quality of the light from LED’s tends to be a bit harsh and doesn’t spread out much, so you might need to soften this light with a spun diffusion material, or bounce it off a wall.

In my experience, they require a burn in period of about 72 hours. That will help stabilize the colour temperature variations. You may require colour correction gels, and it’s a good idea to use Custom White Balance on your camera. Don’t believe the colour temperature ratings given by the manufacturer. Do your own tests.

Some LED’s aren’t bright enough to shoot still photographs with, unless you use a high ISO (800+) or put them very close to your subject. If you’re shooting inanimate subjects – like products, you’ll be fine. They are great for video and can be transported easily without worrying about breakage.

Flash and Studio Strobe

Remember the high school dances with the flashing strobe light and the mirror ball? Well that’s exactly what your camera flash is. Strobe (or flash) lighting is not continuous like the other lights I have talked about here, rather it bursts out a huge amount of light in a fraction of a second. As such it’s a bit harder to visualize how that light is going to look on your photos.

Strobe lighting is probably the most common used artificial lighting in photography. Strobe lighting is not suitable for video, as the duration of the flash is too short.

The light from your camera flash is very harsh as well. Most people like to modify the light by bouncing it off a small card or by putting plastic diffusers in front of the flash head.

Photographers have been using studio strobe lighting for many years, and it’s not going out of style any time soon. There are many manufacturers of strobe lighting systems and many light modifying accessories to go with them such as umbrellas and softboxes.

To learn more about how you can use studio strobe lights for portraiture, check out my online workshop here.

What’s the best lighting for you?

The first step may be to get an off camera flash for your camera. This is a great way to get into using artificial light. You can also use these types of flashes for good fill light when shooting outdoor portraits.

Many camera flashes can rotate and have bounce capabilities and a bounce card built into them. You can use them in full auto mode or control the output more carefully.

Flashes can be used off the camera with wired or wireless triggers. You can hand hold your flash and change the angle of the light or get an off camera flash bracket or a small light stand to hold it. I’ve also use a tripod when in a pinch.

As the light is very harsh from a flash, you may want some extra accessories such as a small umbrella to soften the light for portraits.

When you’re ready for more power you can add extra flashes to your lighting setups. If you get into family or group photography, you will likely need studio strobe lights, as they have more power.

There are many great resources for off camera flash tips and training, notably Joe McNally and Strobist.

If you’re shooting indoors in controlled situations where there are no kids running around, you might consider the CFL kits. This would be great if you are shooting still life photos. Personally I’m not a huge fan of the CFL bulbs, but they are very cost effective and can also be used for video.

I’m currently using LEDs for video and stills. This allows me to shoot video and jpgs in the same session, and also concurrently, without having to change the lighting setup.


Visit a good camera retailer for more info

The price range varies considerably depending on the type and brand of lighting. Visit an independent camera shop in your area to get a first hand look at lighting gear, and talk to a knowledgeable sales person about the best options available for your budget and your usage.

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