Making Portraits with Fluorescent Lighting

There’s some confusion about using studio lighting equipment. Some photographers think it’s complicated to operate and too expensive but it can be neither. When making portraits, continuous light sources make the process seamless. Instead of the subject being distracted (and blinking) by the pop of electronic flash, continuous light sources let them relax.

westcottD5.1For years photographers have used photoflood, tungsten, quartz and all kind of continuous light sources under the general category of “hot lights.” These light sources have advantages over flash: They can be inexpensive, let you see the allowing you to use your camera’s in-camera meter and they’re generally smaller and lighter weight than flash.

Most DSLRS include settings for tungsten light and some will even let you dial in a specific color temperature. And don’t forget the camera’s Auto White Balance (AWB) setting. Many times this will produce spot-on color the first time without color temperature gymnastics. If all else fails, you can use the camera’s built-in controls to create a custom white balance.

The only problem with traditional “hot lights” is that they are, well, hot and not all that comfortable for subject and photographer alike. taku.wescottD5How about fluorescent? I know what you’re thinking, aren’t fluorescent lights those thingies that produce horrible green light?

It turns out daylight-balanced fluorescents are the perfect light source for digital photography. Tungsten lights produce 93 percent heat and only seven percent red light. By comparison fluorescent light is cooler and brighter. Fluorescent-based lights for photography are daylight-balanced and their RGB output spikes closely match the receptive RGB spikes of imaging chips.

Westcott’s Two-Light D5 Softbox Kit, for example, uses their D5 fluorescent head. The D5 features five ceramic light sockets, each supporting up to a 50-Watt lamp. The D5 head has five illuminated power switches arranged across it’s back, each controlling a single lamp. The D5 has a built-in tilter bracket for positioning and a heavy-duty 13-foot cord with an in-line power switch that I would have preferred located on the D5’s back.

The above image at left was made with a Panasonic Lumix GH4 and Leica DG Macro-Elmarit 45mm f/2.8 lens. Even with the main light using only three of the daylight fluorescent bulbs, exposure was 1/80 sec at f/4 and ISO 640.

Screen Shot 2016-03-26 at 9.13.43 AMIf you’re interested in shooting portraits and how I use cameras, lenses and lighting in my in-home studio, please pick up a copy of Studio Lighting Anywhere” which is available from with, as I write this, new copies selling for$17.50 (plus shipping,) just a few bucks more than used ($15.34,) both cheaper than the Prime price.


Author: Joe Farace

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