Tip From A Pro: by Larry Lytle
Rather than gather up virtual tips from various photo magazines, websites and blogs, and then regurgitate that information back to you in the form of a “tip” from DP, I’ve decided to seek out the best of the best in the professional photography world and have them deliver an authentic, hand-crafted tip especially for DP readers. To kick off our “Tip From A Pro” section, I’ve tapped Los Angeles photographer Larry Lytle to give you an in-depth how-to on studio lighting. Larry is a prolific commercial and fine art photographer. I’m sure you have seen his work, whether you knew it or not. One of his most notable commercial pieces was the poster for the “Psycho” remake in 1998, which he won a Hollywood Reporter Key Art Award for.
Tip From A Pro: by Larry Lytle
Text and Photos by Larry Lytle
After the purchase of a camera and a light meter, anyone thinking about entering the field of commercial photography is faced with the next big ticket item, lighting— with all the requisite accessories. I have spent my time working in a studio, shooting products and people for the film and video industry. So, my advice is geared to thinking about equipment for those kinds of applications.
(a tungsten light)
Fundamentally, there are two options for artificial or studio lighting: hot lights or strobe lights. By hot lights I mean any light that is turned on and stays on during the duration of the shoot. They are what computer people used to refer to as wysiwyg (what you see is what you get). These lights include tungsten, tungsten/halogen or the latest and greatest— florescent. They are constantly on and as you move them around the subject you see the change in the lights’ angle, intensity and balance.
The deficit is that they are, as billed, hot. A 1,000 watt tungsten light can heat up a small studio pretty quickly, good in winter, bad in summer. When you plug in 2 or three of these lights, you run the risk of melting the makeup off the most cool and calm model. Working in an older space can be a problem if your outlets are tied to a single circuit breaker, 2 or 3 thousand watts can trip a 25-amp breaker. And, unless the light comes with a dimmer, you have to physically move the light to make it brighter or dimmer. Once again, a problem if you’re working in a confined space. As for florescent lights heat isn’t a problem, but they can be large and cumbersome to position. Most I think (I have to confess to not having used them) are dimmable but they are more expensive than their tungsten counterpart.
(a mono light)
The second form of lights, strobes are in essence giant flash units on stands. They suffer from the problem of not being able to see what you’re getting. They all come with a constant light source (modeling light) that is 150 or 250 watts. This light is helpful in positioning the angle flash and illuminating the subject, but that is their only purpose. Strobes come in 2 types: mono blocks and power packs. Mono blocks carry the power source in the flash head. The power control is located on the flash head and all you have to do is plug it in and turn it on. They come in different wattages and the control on the head allows to dial-in as much as a five stop power range. Mono blocks suffer from the same problem as their tungsten cousins; you need an outlet for each light. Unlike tungsten though, they are not on continuously and after they flash, draw power from the wall in a way that will not trip a normal breaker. I have to take a moment here to say that because of the length of this blog, I’m simplifying much.
(a power pack)
The other strobe system uses a power pack. This is a box that plugs into the wall and dispenses the power through outlets located on the box. The flash heads are plugged into the pack via cables. You may typically be able to plug in 2, 4 or 6 flash heads and you adjust the power of each head through controllers on the pack. Power packs typically range in power from 1,000 to 4,000 watts. They are more expensive than mono lights but more versatile. From my perspective, in studio lighting the more power the better. Mono lights can’t match the power output of power packs.
(a powerpack, with flash head and stand)
All of these aforementioned light sources come with a multitude of accessories. When you begin your search look for companies that have been around a while. Look at what accessories are available both from the manufacturer and from aftermarket companies. Look at your photographic needs, simple head shots may only necessitate a 2 light set-up using umbrellas where large products may require 3 or more lights with soft boxes and spot lights. When you shop for lights it is true that the more you pay, the better the equipment. This is an investment that will last for years, don’t cheap out. And remember, you will have to have a good light meter and you’ll have to learn how to use it no matter which type of light you use.
The beauty of artificial light is that when you get good at it, you can make the scene look like it was lit with sunlight or moonlight. You can soften the look of a tuff guy, or give a hard edge to a beauty. But best of all, the way the picture looks will be in your hands, you will control the overall look and effect of the end result, the photograph.
(All text and images courtesy of Larry Lytle. “Psycho” poster produced by Universal Studios, designed by Intralink.)
Larry Lytle is a native Angeleno who, at the age of 16 and armed with a Kodak Instamatic, became a dedicated photographer on his first trip across the U.S.
Larry has had a 20 year career as a commercial photographer working in the film and video industry. He is also a fine artist with shows across the country. Currently, he is working on a biography about the life of photographer William Mortensen and is a lecturer in art at California State University Channel Islands.