Lighting for digital photography studios: reality check.

The first aspect of digital reality is that three kinds of digital camera capture exist. Each kind of digital technology requires different kinds of lighting.

• One-shot technology (all point-and-shoot, all 35mm, most medium format digital)
• Multi-shot technology; 3-shot, 4-shot, macro-scan medium format digital backs
• Tri-linear scanning technology: Anagramm, BetterLight, PhaseOne, etc.

Problem # 1: Since digital cameras don’t do well documenting details in shadow or dark areas, when you do your lighting you have to get light into those areas. You may have to re-think your lighting strategy.

Studio Lighting lamps, studio photography
Elincrhome chrome lighting at FLAAR facilities.

Problem # 2: the ISO rating of a digital camera circa year 2000 (Philips chip) was 20. The ISO of the newest chip for 2002-2003 is 25 (Sinar, 22 megapixel).

That is the ISO of the slowest film Ilford ever made for regular photography; it’s as slow as the slowest Kodachrome (25). So you need tons of light. But actually it’s different. The sensor does not react to light the way film used to. I can’t believe that a ISO 25 film would need as much light as an ISO 25 digital sensor.

Problem # 3: The advent of digital photography has created a need for lighting that does not flicker. Flickering lights definitely cause bands across the digital image.

So lets look at the kinds of lighting we have to choose from.
• Natural sunlight
• Open shade but on a sunny day
• Cloudy day (open blue sky with white clouds floating around)
• Complete overcast
• Nighttime
• Tungsten lights
• Flash and strobe: in the studio and out on location
• Fluorescent lights
• Regular household and office type fluorescent lighting
• Flicker free fluorescent lighting for video and digital photography
• HMI lights
• Cool variants of HMI lighting
• Specialty lighting

After using tungsten lighting in the studio in museums in Japan, Australia, Canada, across Europe and in both the USA and Latin America, Nicholas has needed to face the reality of new challenges for lighting for digital cameras.

This course unit explains why tungsten is not popular in museums and why using tungsten lighting with digital cameras manifests the downsides of tungsten lighting. If you do product photography, using tungsten with digital cameras is also problematic.

So what are the other options? To find a full range of options and alternatives for digital photography lighting, Dr Hellmuth has spent a total of 20 days at Photokina ’98, Photokina ’00, and the recent Photokina in September 2002. He has checked out lighting at PMA and PhotoPlus Expo for many years.

This course unit describes the now five years of trial and error experimentation in learning which lights worked best. But more than that,
• Which lights work best with 35mm SLR such as Nikon, Fuji, and Canon?
• Which lights work best with medium format PhaseOne, Kodak, Imacon, Jenoptik?
• Which lights work best with large format tri-linear scanning backs from BetterLight?

Currently Dr Hellmuth is working on setting standards for studio photography in the field of art conservation, in that department of the University of Malta. Being just south of Sicily they have access to some of the fine photography equipment manufactured in Italy, such as Manfrotto, Desisti, and other name brands from elsewhere in Europe.

For portrait photography FLAAR uses Elinchrome strobes, but the basic principles which Professor Hellmuth’s course includes are apt for Broncolor, Dynalite, Norman, Novatron, Photogenic, Speedotron or other brands.

A special feature of Nicholas’s course on digital photograph are the results of his studies of digital fluorescent lighting and cold restrike versions of HMI lights. The need for cool lights is when you photograph fine art paintings for eventual giclee prints.

Whether for product photography, giclee printing, museum photography, for anyone who needs to teach photography themselves, they will learn quite a lot about lighting for their own needs in digital photography.

Samples from Nicholas Hellmuth's on digital photography


Updated March 20 2003.