How to set up continuous studio lights

Written by david orr
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How to set up continuous studio lights
Continuous lighting provides many options in the studio. (alone young model in the photo studio image by Vasiliy Koval from

Continuous studio lighting is a photographic lighting technique in which the lights are constantly on, as opposed to strobe or flashbulb lighting in which the lights turn on only briefly while the exposure is being made. Continuous lighting has several advantages in that it is usually less expensive to purchase the equipment, and you can always see what the light is doing. The drawbacks to continuous lighting are that it produces a tremendous amount of heat, and the light is typically not balanced to daylight, meaning filters are necessary in certain situations.

Skill level:


  1. 1

    Select the type of lights for your studio set-up. Continuous lights are made with either tungsten, fluorescent or HMI (Hydrargyrum Medium-Arc Iodide) bulbs.

    Tungsten bulbs are the cheapest, but also the hottest. They also produce a colour temperature that is much warmer (less blue) than daylight, so if they are to be used with any other light sources, you will need filters to adjust the colour temperature.

    Fluorescent bulbs are a popular choice as they produce less heat and are closer in colour temperature to daylight. They are, however, probably the least powerful light source.

    HMI lights are very common in the motion picture industry, as they produce less heat and emit a consistent colour temperature close to daylight. They are quite large and expensive.

  2. 2

    Decide the number of lights you will be using. You can get by with only one light, but generally, the minimum is two. Beyond that, your lighting options only increase.

  3. 3

    Place the key, or primary light, at an angle of about 45 degrees from your camera. In a typical portrait set-up, the light should be at least 4 to 5 feet away from the subject at a height of about 30 to 45 degrees above the subject's eye-level. Direct light can be harsh, so it is often helpful to use an umbrella of other reflector to diffuse the light and soften the shadows.

  4. 4

    Set up the fill light at an angle of about 45 degrees from your camera on the side opposite the key light. The purpose of the fill light is to minimise some of the shadows, so the light should be diffused or reflected to soften its appearance on the subject. Usually the fill light is less powerful, or placed farther away from the subject.

  5. 5

    Set up any additional accent lighting. A backlight is a common addition to a continuous studio set-up and is placed high above the subject and behind them (but out of frame). The intensity of the light should be low and focused mainly on the subject's hair to provide highlights and make the hair "pop out" from the background. Additional accent lighting can be used to create various effects as desired.

Tips and warnings

  • Experiment with different lighting techniques. Although there are some basic techniques, your desired vision should be the primary driver of the lighting set-up.
  • Continuous lights can get very hot and present a serious fire risk. Make sure that you have sufficient ventilation and that any flammable objects are kept far away from the lights. Also allow plenty of time for the lights to cool down after they're turned off before moving or adjusting them.

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