How to Set Up a Two-Speedlite Home Studio
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.
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:
- Light modifiers
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:
- Canon EOS 7D
- Canon EF-S 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM (primary lens for this shoot)
- Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM (used for detail shots like feet and hands)
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.
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:
- Westcott Ultimate Flash Kit ($375)
- 18″ x 24″ asymmetrical softbox
- Adapter bracket to hold softbox and a flash together
- Light stand with tilter bracket
- Westcott Deluxe 6-in-1 Illuminator Reflector Kit, 42″($200)
- 4 reflective surfaces
- 2 diffusion panels
- Boom / reflector-holder
- Light stand
- Westcott 43″ Umbrella ($19) – not used in this shoot
- Honl Photo accessories
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.
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):
- Manfrotto 190CXPRO3 carbon-fibre tripod ($260)
Manfrotto 804RC2 pan-and-tilt tripod head ($66)– Sold it, replaced it with the Manfrotto 496RC2 ball-head ($74)
- Manfrotto 420NSB Convertible Boom Stand ($128)
- ePhoto heavy-duty background support 8.5′ x 10′ ($60)
- Manfrotto 175F Justin Spring Clamp with Flash Shoe ($47)
- Manfrotto 012B Backlight Stand with Extension Pole ($40)
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.
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…