News + Features

2021 RF + WPPI Lighting Tips and Trends

April 2, 2021

By Rangefinder + WPPI Staff

© Nick Fancher

Though learning how to light an image is one of the first things a photographer learns, it’s a facet of the practice that many never stop learning over the course of their career. Commercial and editorial portrait photographer Nick Fancher, who is known for his bold colors and creative lighting, wrote for Rangefinder in 2017 that he arrived at his recognizable dramatic style “after years of obsessively shooting and pushing my techniques in both lighting and post-processing.”

This year, Rangefinder and WPPI began offering photographers monthly educational content to reset their businesses during a time when the industry has faced extraordinary challenges due to the ongoing pandemic. This month, we surveyed over 500 photographers in the U.S. and abroad on their favorite lighting tips and trends.

Out of the respondents, 80% identified as a full- or part-time professional photographer, while 11% are advanced amateurs or enthusiasts, with experience ranging from less than five years (14%) to over 30 years (30%). The majority (68%) shoot portrait work, with the next most popular fields being commercial/editorial/corporate, events, weddings, and fine art, respectively.

One photographer said that their excitement over lighting benefits all aspects of their business. “It engages me, and when I’m engaged, my joy at discovering new things is genuine and infectious,” they wrote. “My clients pick up on this excitement and it makes them feel at ease on camera.”

If you’re just starting out, Rangefinder also has a guide on the basics of portrait lighting, from how to fix common mistakes to how lighting pros have honed their craft.

Most photographers spend $500-$2,000 a year on lighting equipment.

Nearly half of participants (44%) said they spend around $500-$2,000 a year on lighting and/or accessories, while a quarter spend less than $500. Less than 10% shell out more than $5,000 a year. However, that budget doesn’t necessarily mean upgrading equipment each year. Most photographers said they upgrade their equipment every five years, and every two years was the next most popular response. A small fraction (7%) upgrade their lighting each year.

Besides wear-and-tear, why else do photographers decide to upgrade? “Advancements in technology that make work easier, and add quality that my client will see,” one photographer told us. Another said they wait until there’s a specific need for a new piece of equipment. “I don’t chase new gadgets unless it is essential for a paying job that will justify the expense or if primary equipment is starting to fail,” they said.

Photographers were most likely to make purchasing decisions based on editorial product reviews, in-person word-of-mouth recommendations, and education, like workshops and conferences (though YouTube reviews were also popular). Their top priorities were quality and price, over aspects like portability, weight and ease.

Profoto, Godox and Westcott repeatedly recurred as photographers’ favorite brands for lighting and accessories, so it’s no surprise that they ranked the highest in consumer trust to make quality products. But what motivates photographers to purchase from a particular brand? Reliability scored highest at 80%, followed by cost-effectiveness at 64%. Longevity scored the lowest, though half of photographers still chose it.

Nearly all photographers favor LEDs.

LED technology reigns, with 89% of photographers selecting it over tungsten (40%), fluorescent (19%), and HMI & plasma lighting (14%). Out of the photographers who shoot mobile photography, LED was the most popular option as well.

Westcott, Godox and Yongnuo were their favorite LED brands, while they chose Westcott again for fluorescent and tungsten (in addition to Lowel and Mole-Richardson for the latter), while K5600 and ARRI lights were the most popular HMI and plasma brands.

And, when asked which products that participants would like to see introduced to the market, many of them said they’d like to see more variety in LED offerings, from “affordable LED lighting with cinematic quality,” as one photographer told us; to “better LED-based fresnels”; to “higher-power LEDs that can equate to strobes in outdoor daylight situations.”

Filters and gels were also a must-have among the surveyed photographers. For creative inspiration read Angela Marklew’s “A Complete Guide to Color-Effect Gels in Portrait Photography.” © Angela Marklew

If photographers could only choose one type of light, they’d go with strobe.

Half of respondents said if they were limited to just one type of light on a shoot, they’d opt for strobe lighting over flash or continuous lights. However, as for what’s normally in their kits, an equal number of photographers use both strobe and flash (77% each), while only 44% use continuous lighting. 73% of photographers prefer an off-camera flash, while 27% opt for a simple hot-shoe/on-camera setup, and the most popular flash brands were Canon, Godox, and Nikon, respectively.

For the strobe users, battery-powered, monolights and remote-trigger lights were all popular, while power packs were less so. Respondents favorite battery-powered strobes come from Godox and Profoto; their favorite monolights from Paul C Buff, Godox and Profoto; their favorite remote-trigger lights from Paul C Buff; and their favorite power pack lights from Profoto, Speedotron and Paul C Buff.

(If you’d like to brush up on your strobe types, see this illustrated guide on different types of strobes and when to use them.)

Photographer and SFX makeup artist Seth Miranda, “gels are one of the easiest ways to throw a quick wild card into your image.”© Seth Miranda

Versatile accessories come out on top.

Profoto, Godox and Westcott were photographers’ favorite brands for accessories, but which types of products do most of them have in their kits? Softboxes and umbrellas unsurprisingly top the list for their easy, all-around ability to soften and fill light. As tech editor Greg Scoblete wrote for Rangefinder, “Softboxes produce some of the most flattering light, with few harsh shadows. They’re very versatile too; you can use them as fill or key light, and they’re easily modified with honeycomb grids.”

While fewer respondents said they have grids, snoots or barn doors, each light modifier has its purpose, which Scoblete detailed in this handy (and illustrated) guide.

Beyond light-shaping tools, filters and gels were also a must-have among the surveyed photographers.

According to photographer and SFX makeup artist Seth Miranda, “gels are one of the easiest ways to throw a quick wild card into your image.” He explains: “For around $30, a pack of colors and calibrated gels thrown on some lights can quickly open up your viewer’s imagination or just give an overall feel far from the vanilla white light you started with. Backgrounds can become whatever color you have on the stack, mixing colors can change the mood, and messing with your white balance can cause things to pop while keeping other aspects of the frame stable.” (Read his list “10 Ways to Create Stylized Light” for more.)

In 2019, beauty photographer Angela Marklew wrote a comprehensive guide on how to use gels in portrait photography, including a run-down on color theory as well diagrams of some of her vibrant set ups. Bookmark “A Complete Guide to Color-Effect Gels in Portrait Photography” for some creative inspiration.

Photographer and director John Gress likes to use a beauty dish and octabox to simulate window light in a studio. © John Gress

Enhanced natural lighting is the trend of choice.

Photographers said they preferred a more subtle and classic use of light, favoring enhanced natural lighting over technicolor compositions or bold flash.

Photographer and director John Gress likes to use a beauty dish and octabox to simulate window light in a studio. In “3 Ways to Imitate Natural Light in a Portrait Studio,” he explains, “While the combination of a beauty dish and octabox is good for creating a head-to-toe gradient, it’s also great for creating contrast while preserving shadow details when shooting close-ups…Oftentimes, people will tell me that they didn’t know you could use a beauty dish anywhere but above the camera, but I think this is a great way to create the Rembrandt lighting you would find in a room with dark walls illuminated by a small window.”

In order to enhance ambient light, it’s best to have a thorough understanding on how to harness it without any supplementation. “How to Photograph with Only Natural Light Like a True Pro” aggregates several how-tos on the subject, so you can have a solid foundation before turning to your strobes.

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