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How to Set Up a Two-Speedlite Home Studio

by Philippe Dame on December 14th, 2010

Two years ago, I paid for a professional photo shoot of my son, Keane. He was 4 months old at the time. The results were good but I had a huge “itch” to achieve studio-quality photos on my own. I didn’t own a DSLR at the time and I had zero knowledge.

A year later, I got a Canon 7D and spent the next 12 months accumulating knowledge and a lot of gear. This past weekend, I set out to do a shoot of my new baby girl, now 4 months old.

In this post, I’m going to walk through how I took the photo above and reference the exact equipment I used and why. In effect, it’s how to setup a two-speedlight home studio.

Overview

When I think back to my photography learning curve, it took a lot of reading to figure out how what equipment was going to be essential and what was nice-to-have. As with anything, the sky is the limit, but since I don’t make money from this hobby (yet), it’s tough to justify high-grade studio equipment.

Overall, I didn’t shy away from buying good quality gear but I saved where I could by shopping in the states and buying things after lots of research. For about $2,000 (plus taxes), you can get everything I talk about in this post (other than the camera and lenses). That’s the price of one camera body and yet this stuff will last for decades.

I did a quick 3 minute video to show how all the elements come together for this shoot:

  • Camera
  • Lenses
  • Lights
  • Light modifiers
  • Supports

You can see how I’ve positioned everything and I talk a bit about my flash settings. The rest of this post dives into the gear in greater detail.

Camera and Lenses

I don’t want to discuss cameras and lenses in this post but I’ll share what I have:

Lights

When it comes to light sources, the main questions to answer are, “How many lights is enough?” and “What type of lights are worth investing in?”

Before I knew the term “strobist“, it was clear that many pro-photogs enjoy working with affordable and portable lights instead of heavy-duty strobes. Traditional studio strobes are big flash units that must be plugged in or need expensive and cumbersome battery packs.

Luckily for us amateurs, the most portable and versatile light turns out to be same external flash you bought for the top of your camera. They’re also known as speedlights or flashguns. In Canon world they spell it “Speedlite“.

UPDATE: See this great round-up for wireless flashes for all camera brands

Once you can figure out how to fire your speedlight while it’s off the camera (e.g. corded or wirelessly), you have the basic recipe for creating countless lighting arrangements.

As far as quantity, the good news is that one light is enough to start. Just pair your flash with a reflector and you’ve effectively got two lights.

The strongest light you use is called the “key” light. A second light is typically used to lighten shadows created by the key light. That is called the “fill” light. A fill light is typically less powerful then a key light so a reflector is ideal.

So why bother having two or more lights? The answer is the ability to add more dimension to your photos and to gain greater control over the entire scene. For example, as soon as you concern yourself with the light on your background, additional lights become critical.

Personally, I got a second speedlight to solve a number of problems. One of which is lighting an object evenly on both sides which is great for some product shots. Another problem was my need for a “hair light”. That’s a light you hoist up above your subjects so you can cast light straight down. It creates a rim of light on their hair and shoulders, which ensures they really pop off the background. Given a hair light’s position, no reflector is going to help in this case.

Would I like a third light? Short answer is, yes … more the merrier. I’d use it to light my background or combine multiple lights to create a strong source (i.e. critical if you plan to overpower the sun in a daytime shot). I also like high-key photography (i.e. perfect white backgrounds), I’ll need two lights just on the background to even out the lighting.

Here’s the two speedlights I have:

I consider my reflector as another light source but I think it technically belongs in the next section.

Light Modifiers

Once you have lights, you need to soften, reflect or otherwise shape them. This applies to sunlight and your flashes.

Softening is typically done with some form of diffusion material such as an umbrella or a softbox. The goal is to create a big evenly lit surface and place it very close to your subject. A flashgun is a small point of light so it’s important to make it appear as big as possible.

A softbox is indeed a box. It’s something you point your light into and it has translucent material that evens out the light while not decreasing its strength excessively. A photography umbrella is another good option and costs much lot less. Umbrellas are a good starting point but I wanted a softbox to gain more control over the light and how it spills onto the scene. An umbrella is so cheap that I got one for my second flash.

Shaping light comes in the form of simple add-ons for my flashgun. I use them to narrow the beam of light or control what it does or doesn’t hit. There’s a popular set of products in this department by Honl Photo which I’ve bought into. Be sure to see my blog post about shaping light.

The reflector I discussed above is a modifier of light as it includes multiple reflective surfaces, like silver and gold, which affects the light’s colour. The one I have also includes translucent panels for diffusing light. The exact kit I have is the Westcott 6-in-1 Illuminator Reflector Kit. It comes in a few sizes but I find 42″ is big enough for me.

Here’s the light modifiers I have:

Note that the Westcott reflector is also available for $99 without the stand and boom arm. I recommend you get a kit that has support unless you have three long arms or an assistant! To save more on a reflector, you can get a comparable one by Impact ($114) or another by Interfit ($38). For the Interfit option, you can pair that with an Impact 6′ light stand ($20). I like Westcott so I stuck with the brand.

As for the umbrella, I didn’t get it with a stand as I had some already. If you don’t have any, be sure to get the kit that comes with a light stand and tilting flash bracket for only $70, see “Westcott 43″ Collapsible Umbrella Flash Kit w/Stand“.

The big ticket item in my light modifier department is the Westcott Ultimate Flash Kit shown below. I chose this one for a few reasons. An important feature is that the flashgun stays outside the softbox and remains visible to camera’s infrared sensor. I wanted to avoid cords or the jump to expensive radio triggers.

I also like that the softbox is long and asymmetrical. That means the flashgun goes into the back in an off-centre position. This creates a soft drop-off of light along the long edge away from the light (a 3-stop difference if you know what that means). This makes for a nice fade rather than an abrupt edge and all of it rotates with ease. Used horizontally, it can simultaneously act as key light and fill light – that’s pretty unique.

 

I don’t own this, but another interesting softbox option I’d consider is the Lastolite Hot Shoe EZYBOX Softbox Kit (24″x24″). It goes for $204 but you need to buy a light stand and tilter bracket separately. Some stores offer full kits. I might get this one day to have a softbox which is easy to transport and setup. This one collapses like an umbrella. The Westcott softbox, like others, has metal rods which are tricky to setup (I just don’t take it apart).

UPDATE: I now own a more affordable competing product by CheetahStand called QBox. Please see my full review and comparison of the QBox vs. EzyBox.

Support (“Grip”)

Anything built to hold stuff is called “grip” – makes sense. Grip encompasses things like tripods, light stands, booms and background supports. As you can see above, many light modifier kits will come with support but it’s easy to find the pieces you need separately as well. One nice thing is that most photography grip works together quite well (e.g. many parts are standardized and interchangeable, even across brands).

As you can see in my video, I have a background support system. This is one of those things you can get cheaply. There’s tons of options at B&H, Amazon.com and eBay so look around. Some kits will come with background material like muslin fabric or paper rolls. White, black and chroma green are popular choices.

I chose a support system with a maximum dimension of 10-feet wide by 8.5-feet tall. It can be more narrow by using less parts of the cross bar. All of it packs up into a small bag. I bought it on eBay as it came with both a white a black muslin fabric. It’s made by ePhoto, which is a discount brand.

In hindsight, I wouldn’t bother getting white muslin fabric again. Fabrics are creased all the time and they inevitably appear in you photos which creates post-processing work. This is irrelevant for the black muslin as it doesn’t appear in the photo at all (just keep the background far enough enough from your lights). I got a white paper roll but haven’t tried it out yet.

After my tripod, one of the the most interesting supports I have is a Manfrotto convertible boom stand, shown below.

This thing looks like a light stand that can extend 12.8′ straight up but you don’t use it that way. It has an integrated joint that allows half the stand to tilt forward and becomes a boom arm. It gets about 6 or 7 feet up and then extends out another 6 feet horizontally. My only complaint is that this stand doesn’t collapse very much and it’s pretty heavy. I think it’s well worth $128 after having tried a cheaper solution. This is the support I used to get my flashgun hair light safely over my daughter.

If you don’t want to invest in a boom but you do get a background support, you can also try attaching your flash onto the background crossbar. One way to do that is to use the multi-purpose Manfrotto Justin Clamp ($47). The clamp is useful while on-location but I prefer the stability and control of the boom arm in the “studio”.

Finally, I have a solid but simple Manfrotto backlight stand. Its small base can be used as a support and it comes with a short extension light stand tube. Its total range is 3″ to 33″.

If you watch the video I included above, you’ll notice the reflector is held up but remains close to the ground – that’s because I’m using the base of this backlight stand instead of the light stand the reflector came with. Had I used the light stand, it would have been too high for this shoot.

Here’s all the support gear I have (yes, I like Manfrotto quality):

I included my tripod and tripod head in the list as I talk about it in the overview video. I didn’t end up using it for this shoot but I typically have it ready to hold the camera. It’s obviously ideal for getting yourself away from the camera so you’re free to entertain a baby or get in the shot yourself. I won’t delve into tripod and tripod head selection here as that’s worthy of its own post.

Conclusion

For the shoot of my 4-month old daughter, I could have arranged the two lights in any number of configurations. I chose a black background and she has very dark brown hair. I new that I needed a lot of separation from the background so I positioned my second flash directly above her ensuring the light didn’t hit her face. I could have put it behind her on a light stand with an umbrella as well.

To avoid lens flare from the hair light, I tried both my Honl grid and Honl gobo card. The grid work best except for the shots where my daughter was stretched out. I had to raise the boom to cast a wider circle of light. The gobo card was good but spilled more light onto the background which I had too close. If you watch the video, you’ll see how close the background was to the boomed light. Next time I’ll set it as far back as I can to ensure it registers as solid black.

One thing I learned in post processing was how useful the brush tool is within Lightroom’s Develop module. The only retouching I did was to select the background and make it pure black. Once selected, I dropped the brush’s exposure and brightness levels while boosting its contrast – that gave me pure black without having to open Photoshop.

If you use the brush tool, be sure to try its “Auto Mask” mode as it does edge detection. It woks wonderfully in high and medium-contrast areas. Low contrast edges, like dark hair on a dark background, required manual selection. Still, I was glad I didn’t have to leave Lightroom.

Also, be sure to enable “Show Selected Mask Overlay” if you want to see what you’re doing with the brush. Here’s how the selection appears in Lightroom:

Here are a few more shots from the photo shoot…





Have you tried to build a home studio? What tips would you have for me to make better photos given my setup? Any equipment recommendations?

  • http://jamesrwilliams.wordpress.com jwnomad

    Nice work. I’m also looking at doing the 580+430 studio, however it is while travelling so I am much more limited by weight and bulk. I think I’ll be going for just one (westcott collapsible) umbrella attatched (via photoflex multiclamp) to my light tripod as the main light (+ lastolite reflector as fill), and a plastic diffuser on my 2nd flash (on the floor or a table etc.) for background and an ST-E2 to control them. Total weight of all lighting equipment is less than 3kg… still too much! :-)

    Was nice to see your very similar set-up and good results before I go ahead and buy what I don’t already have. Thanks, and happy shooting.

    • http://LearningDSLR.com Philippe Dame

      Thanks James. I just glanced at your blog – your adventure looks amazing. I’m envious. I’m very impressed by your photos after only a year of owning a DSLR. You and your partner are very talented. I’ll be subscribing to your blog feed.

      Cheers!

      • http://jamesrwilliams.wordpress.com jwnomad

        Thanks Philippe. Its thanks to all the help I’ve had (especially from great blogs like yours) that I’m gradually getting there but I’ve still got a long way to go. And I’m envious of your Ultimate Flash Kit, so we’re even!

        (I’m hoping to get some kind of crude fade out with the umbrella partially covered, but your lightbox would be much better)

        Cheers!

        • http://LearningDSLR.com Philippe Dame

          The Ultimate Flash Kit is great but definitely not portable. For that, I’d be looking at the Lastolite Ezybox system (various sizes). It’s as easy as an umbrella and folds flat. No metal rods, etc. Get a spigot/adapter for a monopod and you can do without a light stand too (assuming someone is there to help).

  • http://jamesrwilliams.wordpress.com jwnomad

    Thanks so much for the suggestion, I had no idea you could now get fold-up ultra-portable soft boxes like that. I’ve had a look at the lastolite but think I’ll go for the Cheetah Qbox 24″ instead as it seems more versatile (two diffusers, grid, round cover). Not able to get a full-time helper, but my tripod should do the trick. I may end up getting an umbrella at some stage for lighting bigger areas, but will start with just the softbox. Cheers!

    • http://LearningDSLR.com Philippe Dame

      I looked at the 24″ Cheetah just now, you are right. For $113 you get the box, flash bracket and the things you mentioned already (grid and round cover). The Lastolite Ezybox can’t collapsed to a circle as far as I know (I tried one a few weeks ago as my friend got one) – it costs $160 for the box alone, no bracket and only comes with the diffusers. I’ll be looking at the Cheetah option seriously now. Have you bought that brand before, it’s as solid? If I buy it, I’ll blog a full comparison!

      • http://jamesrwilliams.wordpress.com jwnomad

        Haven’t bought from them before, but have read plenty of feedback from happy customers in the forums. It was mentioned that it isn’t the thickest, strongest material available, but that suits me fine as I’d prefer lightweight. There was also concern that the flash head was a couple of mm short of actually being in the box, but I don’t think that really matters. I look forward to your comparison. I’ll be buying mine straight away but it’d be interesting to know what I’m missing out on for the extra money :-)

        • http://LearningDSLR.com Philippe Dame

          I bought the Cheetah QBox 24. Thanks for letting me know about it. I only got my hands on it on Tuesday. I’ll blog about it soon and do that comparison.

          Only complaint is one of the screws on the flash bracket is the wrong size (too long by a few millimeteres) and the adapter ring won’t slide on without using a screwdriver. They’re shipping me a replacement screw so I’m still happy. Have you gotten yours?

        • http://LearningDSLR.com Philippe Dame
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  • Breising

    Thanks for jotting this all down. I’m only starting to work with studio lighting and it was very helpful. Appreciate it.

    • http://LearningDSLR.com Philippe Dame

      Thanks for your feedback

  • Tim Maguire

    Thank you so much for this post. I recently moved indoors and have really embraced my speedlights (so I can save money by not buying strobes and their related trigger systems). This guide is the ultimate resource for all of the stands and modifiers we need.

    Thank you so much!!

    • http://LearningDSLR.com Philippe Dame

      Thanks Tim. It is amazing how portable and flexible speedlites can be. I’d rather own more of these with battery packs than invest in expensive strobes – at least for now. My studio collapses to nothing in a closet – a must for my home. So what are you shooting with? Are you sharing your photos anywhere like 500px?

      • Tim Maguire

        Right now I am running a D7000 as a commander and the following speedlight:
        1. Nikon SB900
        2. 3x SB600
        3. Umbrella 1 for key
        4. Umbrella 2 for fill

        This worked OK but I still had a lot of shadows on the face, and ended up throwing a 100w lamp on the subject which started to give good results. I was looking for a guide like yours though because I want to get the other two speedlights in the mix, possible for hair, and one for background, especially if I start using gels.

        Thus I guess I need to figure out the lighting to make sure I dont have those shadows when I use the key. Does the softbox really help to diffuse out the light and illuminate your whole subject?

        I also then need to choose a boom for the hair lighting and a stand for the background light.

        Lastly I guess I’ll get a few modifiers to really control the direction of some of the light.

        I dont have the studio pics up yet, but some of our groups other work can be found at:

        http://scienceunveiled.blogspot.com/

        • http://LearningDSLR.com Philippe Dame

          I personally prefer softboxes due to the greater control of light direction and light spill. In my basement “studio”, the walls are not white and they’re close together. Coloured light bouncing all over the place won’t help me be in control.

          The key is to get as big a softbox as you can or is practical for what you’re shooting. If you shoot cars, it’s the size of a car… if you shoot head/shoulder portraits, a 24″ square softbox should suffice.The key light must be strong enough to eliminate any “mixed” shadows relative to ambient light and your fill light (e.g. you don’t want two nose shadows for sure). I’d dial down the fill light or just use a reflector.

          If I had as many speedlites as you, I’d put them well behind the subject and use them for hair and rim lights with a grid to ensure light spill into the lens is avoided. The rest I’d put on the background for various high key or low key effects.Your site is very nice. This is a group project of some kind?

          • Tim Maguire

            1. You should get paid for your insight!! Sorry for all of the questions BTW.

            2. Will the speedlight with the large soft box be enough then to kill off all shadows?

            3. Based on your response it looks like I should just stop using umbrellas, which I am cool with.

            4. If I do use the speedlight as a fill as opposed to a reflector (though I will definitely experiment with a reflector) what modifier should I put on that?

            5. Which reflector “color” should I use i.e. silver, gold… I think mine came with 5 choices, but I havent played with it that much.

            6. For the hair and rim light grid, which do you recommend?

            7. For the background lighting, what modifiers do you usually use there?

            Thanks for all of the help!!

            Yeah, we have a group of photographers. It was part of the goal of a 365 day project, but now it is more of a educational process for all of us. We moved from HDR–>Landscapes–>Abstract–> black and white and now we really want to learn how to control light, so we are using the real “lab” so we are moving to a studio setup in my basement. We are all also a bunch of engineers so we like to see what variables we can mess with.

            Your site is a killer cookbook for all of our new experiments. I love the video on exposure too.

            -Tim

          • http://LearningDSLR.com Philippe Dame

            Ha, here’s my quick responses…

            2. Will the speedlight with the large soft box be enough then to kill off all shadows?

            If your key light is stronger than all others, it’s the shadows IT creates that will be your concern. If they’re too contrasting, that’s when you bring up your fill light or move the reflector closer. This applies to bare flash or with a modifier.

            3. Based on your response it looks like I should just stop using umbrellas, which I am cool with.

            You can try to use the reflected side to (vs. shoot-through) and even partially close the umbrella to add more direction to your light.

            4. If I do use the speedlight as a fill as opposed to a reflector (though I will definitely experiment with a reflector) what modifier should I put on that?

            Any umbrella or softbox will work. Just make sure it’s a stop of light less powerful (e.g. half as much light).

            5. Which reflector “color” should I use i.e. silver, gold… I think mine came with 5 choices, but I havent played with it that much.

            It depends on the subject. I like silver and the silver-gold mix on the one I have. Gold is too warm but can be useful outdoors during sunsets or to simulate a sunset tone.

            6. For the hair and rim light grid, which do you recommend?I have the Honl (velcro strap system) which is good. Others exist. Even black construction paper to create a tube would work.7. For the background lighting, what modifiers do you usually use there?

            I use the Honl modifier kits but there’s lots of options!

  • Tim Maguire

    OK, so I went out and got the Cheetah softbox (very easy to setup), the grid, and theManfrotto boom for the hair light. I tried 3 different setups but am still having problems and I was wondering if you could help me out.

    1. In the first scenario I ran a key (TTL E0), a hair light (TTL E-1) and a reflector.

    2. In the second scenario I ran a key TTL E0), a hair light (TTL E-1) and a fill (TTL E-1).

    In both of these I have the key pointed directly at the subject with the smaller diffuser on that comes with the SB600.

    3. I ran the same scenario as 2, but with the cheetah softbox on the key, and the fill reflecting in an umbrella.

    As you can see from the attached picture (me in the blue shirt) that the picture is still under-exposed and there are bad shadows.

    I should note that I set the aperture based on the guide number calculation principal (GN/distance), and I left shutter at 125 as I wasn’t trying any motion blur effects yet, nor wanted to really pick up anything in the background. 

    I also attached a pic of my setup.

    Thanks!!

    -Tim

    • Tim Maguire

      It seems by changing my flash zoom from 18mm to 50mm on the fill and switching to manual as opposed to TTL is starting to yield better results.

      I guess I didnt think flash zoom bounced off an umbrella would male much difference. I also guess TTL metering for flash isnt that good.

      • http://LearningDSLR.com Philippe Dame

        TTL is good but it can be easily inconsistent from shot to shot. You have a lot of black in the scene but that would normally cause the camera meter to overexpose, not under.

        Since TTL metering is literally “through the lens”, light that is illuminating areas that are not seen fully by the camera (side light and hair light) might benefit from being on manual.

        For myself, I find this studio style setups require manual settings for consistency and easy adjustment. I use TTL when the environment is changing more frequently (e.g. as you move through a space like shooting an event).

        Last photo looks pretty well exposed. It’s interesting that the zoom is having an effect. With TTL on, you can’t be sure you’re getting consistent light output. Try going manual on the fill light and play with the zoom to see what impact it really has. Only a set of controlled tests will prove things out… change only one thing at a time.

    • Tim Maguire

      Never mind it seems my issue may have been a bad key flash.

      Here is an image with the setup working now. I am not sure if zoom actually works in remote mode.

      I do like TTL too – seems to work well.

      Are there any further optimizations you would do so I can dial in an even better exposure?

  • bma

    Yeah, when I read you spent 2k for your equipment, I’d say you could spent less but achieving the same quality…. I’d shy away from spending that much. I bought a Yongnuo 560III and just went online and bought another one. Great product for $86 each. Happy shooting!

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