Stock Photography Studio Lighting

Lighting is everything in photography and it is no different for stock photography

One of the most crucial elements when shooting stock.

Stock Photography Studio Lighting

As with any art form, lighting is important. It can make or break a shot and stock is no different. You can go to extremes with your lighting from dark, one sided lighting to create a mood on your subject right up to bright even illumination where there are no shadows.

It all depends on how you want to portray your subject.

If in doubt, shoot and upload a variety of lighting conditions for each shoot or image. You have nothing to lose and you are giving the buyer more choice!

Note: As a general rule, buyers tend to go more for all round, even illumination in their images.

If shooting in natural light, use the same rules as you would use when shooting any kind of photography. Either move around the subject until the light hits them just right or come back at another time when the light is right!

Plan Ahead

What you need to do is plan ahead and pick a theme or subject for your shoot. That way you can plan the lighting with confidence.

Don't just go out with the intention of shooting anything, which can work sometimes. The chances are you will find yourself battling with light and missing shots because of it.

Once you have planned a shoot, think about what lighting you will need to make it the best it can be for stock. Will you be using natural light and if so, what time of day is best for the shoot?

Are you using flash or studio lights? If so, how will the angle of light and amount of light hitting the subject help?

Do you need any accessories such as reflectors or diffusers?

I will give you some basic tips here as a starter but I suggest that you study lighting as much as you can. Buy a few lighting books from Amazon and read up and practice!


Regardless of whether you prefer natural light photography or not, you still need to think if it is the best lighting for your particular stock shoot that you are doing. What are the buyers looking for? If your shot is moody, dark, serious or topical in a way that natural light would enhance it, use natural light.

Now you can apply this method and technique using natural light for all manner of shots whether for stock photography or portraits. Maybe shoot a young child sitting in a window gazing longingly outside. Maybe in the rain? Try shooting it from both inside and outside? The possibilities are endless using basic kit and available light!


The addition of a speedlight or flash head to your images can be used for anything from simple fill-in-flash or side lighting to enhance and enrich colours as in the video above. Or it can be used as the main key light. Flash can also look better when removed from the camera and fired remotely. This can give a much more dramatic look.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with light. There really is no right or wrong when it comes to lighting, it just depends on what will improve the shot.

Get hold of at least one speedlight that is compatible with your camera and learn to use it in both auto and manual. The more control and confidence you have with it, the more you can achieve with your unique creativity.

This shot was taken at night with a 1.5 second exposure to allow the ambient light to burn in. A flash head with softbox was fired from the left to lighten the couple in the foreground and the stools at the front. You can also see how it has left a catchlight in the glasses.

Stock Photography Studio Lighting

Continuous Lighting

I know of a few photographers that use some form of continuous lighting when shooting weddings. Plonking a video light on the hotshoe of your camera can add just enough “warm” light to your shot to work. Rather than the intense, “white” light from a flashgun.

Technology is a wonderful thing these days…let’s step back into an old film photographers studio.

When I did my apprenticeship at 16, the studio of the professional I worked for was simply in the basement of an old terraced house. He used simple backdrops and 2 or 3 flash head strobes with brollies. Very typical even today.

To get the right exposure using film meant using a light meter to get the correct settings from each light and then fire away using the flash heads.

Nowadays, I use both strobes and continuous lighting. If I set up a simple table top shot I can just as easily use the continuous lights and in some way it is easier. I can see how the light affects the subject as I work and they are bright enough for me to shoot as they are, especially so considering the quality of high ISO’s these days. I can easily adjust them and add filters to see the changes before shooting anything.

If you are in the market to buy strobes, try and get a set that have continuous lights built in (also known as “modelling” lights), very useful.

Studio Lighting

The most commonly used form of lighting for studio work is strobes or flash heads. These are normally used with either brollies or soft boxes to diffuse the light. Quality strobes will allow you to control the power output of the light. This makes life much easier as you will no doubt shoot a range of subjects differing in size and distance.

If you are going to use flash heads, I would suggest getting a minimum of two, maybe three heads. Some set ups for shooting stock can be quite complex with two lights used to light the model or object from the front, and one to add back lighting to the hair etc from behind.

If you have just watched the video above, this bit is quite cool...if you haven’t watched it yet, do it now and then read on.

Immediate Sale!

One of the most exciting things about stock photography is seeing your work in action. About 2 weeks after the shot in the video was uploaded to Shutterstock, it sold via an “on demand” sale…

Stock Photography Studio Lighting

Then…a few weeks later, one of our intrepid forum members at All Things Photography spotted it in action. On a poster in a shop window in New Jersey…

What can I say…amazing and what a coincidence!

It just shows what a small world it is and also how easy it can be to start to get a portfolio together whilst earning money!!! That image has also now been accepted by every agency I have uploaded it too and even sold a few more times…

Stock Photography Studio Lighting

Now some of you, especially those of you coming from the traditional agencies, may think is all this worth it for a few dollars each sale? Well, I can assure you that when you have a few hundred or a couple of thousand images on with 6 or 7 agencies, and you are making multiple sales daily, it is very much worth it but you still need to put the effort in!

(You could always go the traditional route and go for the bigger agencies that pay the larger, traditional royalties).

If shooting against a white background for isolated stock photography, you will want to ensure that the background is pure white. This will usually mean two lights to brighten the backdrop and two to light the subject.

In this simple set up, I am using two 800 watt continuous lights for the background and two flash heads for the subject.

Handy Tip

Tip: If you meter for the background lights and then set the subject lighting down a stop or two (i.e. underexpose), this will help get a perfectly white background. What happens is, when you adjust your camera settings (metering) to expose the subject correctly, the background will be lightened one or two stops ensuring it becomes a perfect 255,255,255 white. (0 being pure black and 255 being pure white on the grey scale).

Here is an additional shot from that set up with crops…

Stock Photography Studio Lighting

Now, you don’t need a full on studio to be able to use studio flash heads. For years in Spain I used them in our living room to create all sorts of stock images using just a few white sheets as a background.

Now, I use them in our garage as you can see. So anywhere you have a bit of space, you can use studio lights. I have taken them to property shoots on many occasions and even set up temporary studios at wedding receptions in the past. To capture more revenue from portrait sittings.

I use Bowens 500 lights but have heard good reports about cheaper lighting such as Alien Bees.

As a footnote, if you intend to Photoshop the background later, you may be better off using a light grey background for your shoot. The reason for this is that a bright, white background can create borders around the edges of your subject causing them to blur slightly.

A light grey background is easier to edit out in post as it will cause no such borders or highlights around the edges. Hope this makes sense!

Other Lighting (Reflectors, video lights, torches etc)

Of course, there are a few other “workaround” ways to add light to an image. Just use your imagination. The great thing about photography is that when a person is admiring your images, they have no idea how you lit the subject.

You could create a bestselling, beautifully lit stock image with just a torch if you wanted and were creative enough. This method for example, is called “painting with light”.

Once you have got this technique nailed, you can start to play further by adding flash, bounced flash or any other additional light to enhance the shot.

Now imagine what you could do in a dark garden at night using a huge, powerful Maglite torch! Let your imagination run wild! Even Picasso got into this in the late 1940’s!

Look around your house to see what lighting sources you already have and experiment with them. You could create some stunning stock images on a very low budget…

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