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Lighting Design Tips for a Home Recording Studio Setup

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Working as a professional interior designer for many decades, I've been involved in design-and-build residential building projects.

. . . "Light . . .  camera . . .  and, . . . action"

. . . "Light . . . camera . . . and, . . . action"

When you set up a home recording studio, you must have a well-thought-out and implemented studio lighting design before your studio will ready for use.

When you plan to set up a recording studio, if this is your first time, you will need to know the basics of studio lighting. You want something versatile and adaptable, but you’ll like it to be affordable. You want a professional setup that works best for your recording requirements, and adequate to use if you plan to run it as a home-based business venture.

To setup, you do not need the skills of a lighting designer, neither do you require an electrician’s service. However, if you feel you’d rather not touch anything to do with electricals and lighting, you may call in an electrician. All you’ll need to do is show him/her what you want to be installed, where you want them fixed and how you want it distributed. Then leave the rest to them.

There are certain rules to follow for a recording studio’s lighting. For instance, for a newsroom lighting design, the first rule is "bigger translates to softer", which means that it is better to install soft lighting than cool lights. So, the kind of lighting you require will depend on what your recording studio is meant to provide.

The ability to control the colour and quality of lighting in a studio can turn an ordinary looking recording into a masterpiece and is the reason why some of the best lighting techniques are carried out in a controlled environment like a recording studio.

To get the best results for your recordings, you should know the basic factors to consider when placing or installing your studio lighting gear to ensure you produce recorded scenes that look as good as they do in the movies. Knowing the basics will give you a clearer perspective of studio lighting that is vital for a recording studio set up and it will also provide the skills required to control the quality of your studio lighting.

Studio lighting kit

Studio lighting kit

Types of Lighting you Can Use for a Home Recording Studio

Studio production lights come in all sizes, types and shapes, and generally consist of halogen lamps, fluorescent bulbs, LED and incandescent light fixtures. Each type has its own advantages and disadvantages, just as lighting accessories like softboxes, reflectors and diffusers do. However, the first thing to map out is the kind of studio lights you require.

Incandescent Lights

The popular and most affordable lighting types are the incandescent or quartz halogen lamps. They may be the popular choice, but they are not necessarily the best choice.

The problem with incandescent lighting is because they emit excessive heat. Quartz halogen lights are the warmest lamps in the market and can easily raise the temperature of a recording studio by several degrees after being on for only a few minutes.

Additionally, they use up a tremendous amount of electrical power (wattage) for the amount of luminance they provide within the studio. They also have a shorter lifespan than most lamps, and because of this, they need to be replaced quite often.

Fluorescent Lamps

The disadvantages associated with incandescent/halogen lights have prompted many electrical lighting technicians to use the fluorescent type of lighting. Though they are a bit more expensive than quartz halogen lamps, they have better qualities of maintaining a much cooler environment, producing a softer quality of light that is appropriate for recording studios, and they consume less power.

The only disadvantage fluorescent lights have is that they won’t give you adequate luminance to far-away objects. Nonetheless, many news stations, commercial, and home studios are beginning to use these lights due to their affordability and the soft light quality they give.

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LED (Light-Emitting Diode) Lights

The last lamps to consider are LED lights. They are closer to daylight and are by far the most effective and efficient studio light sources, and unlike other lights and lamps, they don't generate heat.

LED lights are more expensive than incandescent and fluorescent lighting, but you'll save more money in the long run if you use these types of lights in your home recording studio.

Energy conscious establishments like the top news studios, and even places like the White House press room, are using LED fixtures to save them significant amounts of money on bulbs and electrical energy costs.

Studio Lighting Basics

The best way to know what best covers your needs is to draw out a lighting plan. You can either sketch one by yourself with graph paper, or you can use simple design software (CAD) if you know how to.

  1. First measure the room's dimensions, ensuring you cover each part of the studio.
  2. Draw a bird’s eye view of the space.
  3. Determine the distance you want the camera to be placed from the back wall and the distance between the background (backdrop) from the front wall.
  4. Leave enough room for your tripods, monitors, and other occupants of the studio, but don’t place the camera too close to the back wall.
  5. On your sketch, mark the symbols that will represent the backdrops and the cameras.
  6. Calculate the distance between the two symbols (backdrop to the camera) and divide the number by 3. This represents the distance where your subject(s) must be from the backdrop. This ensures you get the shallowest depth of field when you use a zoom lens.
  7. Your subject must be far enough from the background so that you can separate their lightings from the backgrounds (you can also move your subject a little closer to the camera if you don’t have a far enough distance).
  8. On your drawing, determine where you want to put your background lighting truss. Do this by dividing the height of your backdrop by 2. This will get your studio lights a far enough distance away from the screen and cover up the whole backdrop with light.
  9. Alternatively, to #8, if the backdrop is higher than 10ft (305cm), you can place some lights on stands to cover the bottom portion of the backdrop.

For better a recording studio lighting setup, you need to install at least an additional truss about 4ft to 8ft (120cm to 240cm) away from where the subject will be positioned. This truss will hold the subject's key and fill light.

If you want to create better shots and have a fairly wide studio, you should include a good number of key and fill lights at 3ft to 4ft (90cm to 120cm) intervals. With this, the recorded shots will look professionally done, no matter where the subject moves.

If you can devote just a little time to understand how these factors work, and how they will affect your home studio recordings positively, you are well on the way to building a recording studio that saves you time and money, and greatly improves your output as well.

Different Light Sources Required: Three-Point Lighting

3-point lighting in any studio set up simply means that you must set up three separate and different light sources to illuminate a subject so that you can have good control over unsightly shadows, and equally possess the ability to balance the contrast.

In a recording or photography studio, you need to light the subject so you can see them easily and clearly, but that's not adequate enough. By using a three-point studio lighting set up, you will ensure that the subject not only looks awesome but the effect you produce and the results you'll get will make you come across as a renowned professional cinematographer.

Three-point lighting forms the basis of more complicated studio lighting setups and you can use the system, no matter the scene you intend to shoot because the main objective of using it is to get a nice, clear and even distribution of illumination across the subject. Using these 3 lamps will remove shadows from parts of the subject and allow the subject lift off a bit away from the background.

To achieve this effect, you are going to need 3 different types of lights set up in your studio.

  1. Key light
  2. Fill light
  3. Background light

Key light

The first and very important lighting feature is the key light, and it is the 'key' to the whole setup. The main source of illumination for the studio shoot scene is the key light. When installing or placing your key light, it's best to set it at a forty-five-degree angle from where the camera is placed.

The key light should not be positioned to face the subject directly because you need to add some definition to the outer edges of the subject's face and shoulders. Positioning the key light straight onto your subject will produce an unflattering look that's similar to the effect you get when using a flash on a still camera.

Once the key light is set at the appropriate angled position, you will instantly notice how well defined the subject is, and how the illumination from the light tends to wrap around the face.

The essence of having three-point lighting is that, even with the use of the key light, you will still see dark shadows on the other side of your subject's face, with the scene itself looking kind of grainy. What needs to be done to remove this? It's quite simple. These unsightly shadows need to be 'filled in' using the appropriately named 'fill light'.

Fill Light

The fill light source must also be placed at a forty-five-degree angle from the camera, and forty-five degrees opposite from the key light. To avoid the two lights competing with each other, make sure the fill light is less intense than the key light. Do this by taking any of these steps:

  • Use a lamp or bulb with less wattage.
  • Move the light further away. Moving the light source back a little has a great effect on the intensity of the light.
  • Use a neutral density gel (or diffusion) in front of the fill light.

When you do these, with both lights turned on, you'll get an even light distribution around the entire subject. And even though the shadows formed by the key light are still obvious, they have become softened, giving them to a pleasing and very natural look.

Even with this result, we still need to work on the subject/background relationship. At this point, the overall effect will appear a bit flat, with the subject tending to blend into the background. This is the point where the third light source (backlight) in the 3-point lighting system comes to play.

The Back Light

The backlight placement is behind your subject and must be set off at an angle where the light is placed out and above the frame, so that it only beams on the subject, but not into the lens of the camera. The idea behind the use of a backlight is for it to beam down onto your subject, thereby creating a rim of light around your subject's head and shoulders.

It is imperative to ensure that the backlight should, like the fill light, be of fairly low intensity. And when the key and fill lights are combined with the backlight, it makes the subject stand out more from the background, focusing your attention where it belongs, on your subject.

To summarise it, each type of light and their role in 3-point lighting is as follows:

  • The key light or main light is required to illuminate the scene.
  • The fill light is meant to fill in the shadows.
  • The backlight is essential to make your subject pop out from the background.

When you combine the three lamps, you will achieve a satisfying all around lighting that will make your subject look impressive.

Setting up a three-point lighting system for your studio is fairly simple and straightforward, and once you've mastered it, you will be able to use this basic knowledge of lighting effects and properties to help you address any studio lighting set up you may need.

Fixtures, Fittings, and Housing

Knowing simple studio lighting basics means knowing the roles that light fixtures or housing play in good studio lighting setups. Choosing the right type will give you ample control, which makes your studio lighting set up great.

It's good to look out for a useful and important feature when choosing the kind of lamp to use. It's called a Fresnel lens.

Fresnel lens - The glass lens is made from a type of glass that bends light beams. They are usually sold paired off with a movable light mount that allows the flexibility of broadening or narrowing beams of light. This function gives you control on how you wish the light to affect the recording scene. The narrow light beams cast stronger light over long shot distances, whilst the broader light beam falls off rather quickly.

Removable plug-in – This is another item to consider if intend to use your studio lights outside of your studio, for example, at a different location. It's a good way to save money, and you'll be able to dismantle or take down all your lights without having to undo the studio's electrical wiring.

Barn doors and coloured gels – It is a great idea to have the capacity to mount barn doors and coloured gels to light fixtures in the studio so that you'll be able to control the colour temperature of the light, and where it falls within the frame.

Light size - This is also another thing to consider. Bigger light sources like multi-bank fluorescent fixtures work very well with green screen backgrounds. They help to soften shadows, and just as wide lights, soft lights have a shorter throw, so it’s best to use them at much closer distances. This follows the general rule that 'the bigger the light source, the softer the quality of light'.

DMX (Digital Multiplex) outputs - If your studio set-up is a fixed one, it’s good to make sure that your lighting fixtures have DMX (Digital Multiplex) outputs. This will afford you the opportunity to plug a three or five pin cable from your light fixture to a light board in order to control your light intensity. If your fixtures don’t have DMX outputs, you will still be able to control your light intensity by using a DMX relay, or dimmer pack.

DMX relay or dimmer pack - These two units will assign a channel address to each plug and allow you to dim your fixtures using a standard lighting board.

Following these studio lighting basics, you can save a lot of time and effort in setting up an efficient and effective lighting system in your home recording studio.

© 2011 viryabo


Haley from Baltimore, MD on April 10, 2019:

Properly lighting an area is a skill set that I'm still working on. There just seems to be so many variables.

viryabo (author) from Lagos, Nigeria. on August 16, 2011:

Thank you G. Your wonderful comments mean a lot to me.

I'm glad you can relate to the 'studio' topic.

Would love to see your photos showcase. I'm sure they'll be so beautiful, as can be seen with your profile photographs. They always look so awesome.

GodBless G.

GPAGE from California on August 15, 2011:

viryabo.....the best thing I could of learned in photography is to take chances and not always follow rules!!! ha.....One of the best things I ever learned was "how to light a subject and how to create shadows on one's face" wonders for dramatic flair!!!! ha.....One day I will showcase my photo's here.....need to scan a lot of them especially the celebrities.....most were done using film in the 90's.....Thank you for always writing such informative articles.......hope you are well! G

viryabo (author) from Lagos, Nigeria. on August 13, 2011:

Hello Denise, thank you masses. I'm so happy to know that you find it useful and interesting enough to refer it to your nephew.

I see the encouragement and support you are giving him, just as you give us too.

You are blessed.

viryabo (author) from Lagos, Nigeria. on August 13, 2011:

Thanks so much Ann.

Denise Handlon from North Carolina on August 12, 2011:

Very useful. Rated up and such. I told my nephew about the studio hub I read by you and he was interested in reading it and seeing the equipment. I don't think that it ever occurred to him about this, but now he is getting his mind wrapped around it.

Plus, I had an idea to redo his room into a music pad. I'm going to discuss it with him and see if he likes the idea. Thanks for getting me on a different path with him. :)

annmackiemiller on August 12, 2011:

very interesting

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