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Lighting For Success

When I first started out in my photography career, I shot a lot of different jobs. One day I might be shooting ice climbers, the next day snapping shots of cheesecake dripping in chocolate and the next day photographing moose for a visitor bureau.

During this time I started shooting portraits, and I quickly realized there was a steady flow of business in this area. Snapshots didn’t cut it for a business executive headshot, and high-school athletes wanted something more than a photo of them leaning against a tree holding a football.

I began shooting in my garage with a few simple lights and later moved into a studio. Twenty-five years later, those same types of jobs and lighting setups are as popular as ever and still create a lot of business.

Three types of portraits have generated a lot of business for me through the years: executive headshots, sports portraits and beauty shots. If you can master these setups, you’ll have the skills needed to start producing income for your studio, whether it’s in your garage or a rented space.


Let’s start with what gear you need, at a minimum, to shoot these three lighting setups. First up are the lights, your biggest investment. You have two basic choices: speedlights or studio lights. Speedlights offer the advantages of being lightweight, moderately priced and battery-powered (you can use them anywhere). Even more, speedlights work with your camera in TTL mode to determine correct exposure—no need for exposure meters here. You’ll need a wireless trigger system to fire flashes scattered around your studio.

The bottom line is that speedlights are more versatile, but there are disadvantages: lower power output and slower recycling time. Studio lights have become much more economical in recent years, and the price difference from a basic AC studio flash and speedlight is minimal. With AC lights, you’ll need to plug them into an outlet, but watch with joy as your lights rapidly recycle shot after shot at full power, something a speedlight quickly falls behind doing.

Another advantage is the power. These lights can blast a lot of light through large softboxes without slowing down. If you choose to go with studio lights, I’d recommend models that have a wireless trigger system to minimize the cables stretched across your studio.

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