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Photography

5 Tools to Create and Share Studio Lighting Diagrams

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Photographers working with artificial lighting are always asked about their setups, and sometimes they have a hard time explaining how they positioned their lights and light controlling objects. There is an easy way to explain it all: through lighting diagrams. Let me show you how to do it on your computer, iPhone or iPad. 

Forget about having to jot your lighting diagrams on a piece of paper or even in a well-kept diary. If you’re not good at drawing it is always a task you leave for another day, meaning it becomes difficult, sometimes, to remember how a specific situation was created. 

You can always photograph the setup, which is a viable solution, but the best thing to do is to create a lighting diagram, which can be used in conjunction with the final photograph, to show the setup and the result.

Before personal computers entered into our lives, we had to keep all the nice or scribbled drawings of our lighting setups on pieces of paper, more or less filed in order. Those with a penchant for drawing would create some nice examples of their lights' position, while those who had a difficult time even drawing a circle went through sheet after sheet of paper, trying to create something others could understand.

Lighting diagrams help photographers not only to share but also to remember setups
Lighting diagrams help photographers not only to share but also to remember setups

With computers it became possible to scan those documents into files, making it easy to associate a digital photo with the diagram explaining it. Still, computers did not solve the problem of the scribbled diagrams. Those with access to tools like Adobe Photoshop would create some professional diagrams, even going to the extent of creating nice graphics of the different elements used in photo shoots. Very popular with the community is the Photoshop template created by photographer Kevin Kertz, distributed freely, which offers the essential elements for anyone to create lighting diagrams.

For some people, though, this is not the ideal solution. So Quoc-Huy Nguyen Dinh, a photographer and web developer based in Sydney, Australia, created the Online Lighting Diagram Creator in 2009, a tool allowing everyone to create their own lighting diagrams.

1. Online Lighting Diagram Creator

The new version of the Online Lighting Diagram Creator allows users to create labels
The new version of the Online Lighting Diagram Creator allows users to create labels

The Online Lighting Diagram Creator creater Quoc-Huy says the tool was born from frustration. He found that the projects available online were limited and decided to create his own. The idea found support from the photo community. He said: “it was not possible for me to use the PSD from Kevin so I launched the project with the help of other photographers”.

The OLDC has a complete set of lighting systems to use in your diagrams and also has some other icons for building more complex setups
The OLDC has a complete set of lighting systems to use in your diagrams and also has icons for building more complex setups

The OLDC can be used for free for non-commercial projects, and also by professional photographer websites, photography blogs or photography forums, and the Online Lighting Diagram Creator services and products are accessible by all visitors at no charge. For books or DVD illustrations, however, a donation is required. Once you use the tool you’ll understand its value!

The Online Lighting Diagram Creator does not require an account to use. Simply visit the site, open up the creator, and start building your diagrams. When you're done, export a PNG, JPG, or URL to share.

With a new version, Creator v3, available in beta, the program now offers the option to add labels on the diagrams. Users can also export the diagram as a file in JPEG or PNG or create a link to it.

2. Sylights Diagram Creator

Sylights Diagram Creator is a free tool with multiple options
Sylights Diagram Creator is a free tool with multiple options and an interface which is easy to use

The Online Lighting Diagram Creator is not the only tool of this type available online. Sylights is another online service that offers photographers the chance to create their own lighting diagrams. The system, which is similar to the one offered by OLDC, is free to use, but offers some extended functionalities for users creating accounts, like diagram editing, permalinks to your diagrams, online user profile and other features.

The creation of Sylights goes back to 2009, when Olivier Lance, a French student in an engineering school at that time, decided to create a platform for photographers to share their lighting diagrams. He was joined by a schoolmate, Pierre-Jean Quilleré, and the team has been working on Sylights since that time. The project evolved from a pastime occupation to a more ambitious state and the team quit their jobs and “created a company, Digital Cuisine, to dedicate our time to Sylights”.

The Sylights version for iPad and iPhone is a free diagram creator for photographers on the move
The Sylights version for iPad and iPhone is a free diagram creator for photographers on the move

There is one aspect of Sylights that may be interesting to some photographers: the tool exists as a free application for iPhone and iPad. This means you can create your diagrams anywhere you are. The app not only allows you to draw diagrams with a few taps, but also stores your setups so you’re ready for your next shoot and can keep track of your preferred lighting setups. And if you need to send a diagram, just use your email.

3. Photo Diagrams

Photo Diagrams offers an easy way to create your lighting diagrams
Photo Diagrams offers an easy way to create and export your lighting diagrams

Although it seems to be an orphan these days, and the creator has not updated it for a long time, the Photo Diagrams Flash tool is still working, at least in its online version. The downloadable tool link seems to be broken. Still, the program allows users to quickly create a lighting diagram online, offering the essential elements of studio lighting to create multiple setups.

Besides allowing you to add or remove grid lines, change the background, and place and rotate multiple elements over it, the program also offers the option to add custom notes to the diagram. All this in a completely free tool. The “save image” option is apparently not working, so you have two alternatives: print your diagram or simply copy the page and paste the document in a new page in your image editing program. If you have a PDF creator you’ll be able to save the document that way.

Learning Lighting Online

Sharing your lighting diagrams with others is a way to expand everyone’s awareness of the things that can be done, sometimes with a single flash, to create fantastic photography. That’s part of the magic allowed by all those online lighting diagram programs and apps. They help people to better understand light, and also help/challenge them to try some of the setups on their own, as they reveal the solutions used by other photographers. 

But that’s one side of the equation. What about ways to learn lighting online? I looked for some solutions, to complement those I already knew, and I found them. Yes, you can test lighting setups without entering a studio. You do not even have to have a camera or flash.

The Virtual Lighting Studio is a free virtual studio you can use to test your lighting setups and imagine new ones
The Virtual Lighting Studio is a free virtual studio you can use to test your lighting setups and imagine new ones

4. Virtual Lighting Studio

The Virtual Lighting Studio is a free lighting school. Created by Olivier Prat, it’s the result of the author “trying to bridge the gap between programming and art, photography and computer generated images, games and reality”. The Virtual Lighting Studio is exactly what the name suggests: a virtual studio that you do not need to pay for, where you don’t have to lug material all over the place, and where you can try out things without needing an assistant, expensive gear or time. You just need an Internet-connected device with a browser that supports HTML5.

The program lets you light a portrait interactively with multiple lights and see their combined effect. Choose between simple bare strobes, ring lights or softboxes to model the mood of your portraits and find out what lighting equipment you need. With automatic or manual control of the lights on set, the program offers an infinite number of possibilities, including balancing ambient and artificial light. It is a unique learning tool for photography, painting, cinema or CG scene lighting... or just to have fun playing with it!

The author has been asked to create an app that could be used in tablets, but for now he feels “it must stay simple”. Still, the Virtual Lighting Studio is a work in progress and there are a number of nice features to add, says Olivier Prat. Try it and you’ll be amazed. And if you feel like giving your feedback on the Zvork blog, you’re welcome, whether it is to suggest features or report bugs.

5. set.a.light 3D

The setalight 3D program is a commercial diagram creator that takes the idea of creating diagrams to a more sophisticated level
The set.a.light 3D program is a commercial diagram creator that takes the idea of creating diagrams to a more sophisticated level

A more ambitious step than Virtual Lighting Studio, set.a.light 3D is a commercial product available for PC and Mac. Although it does not fall in the category of online lighting diagram creators, it makes sense to include it here, as it is, no doubt, the most complete program of its kind, and as such it may be the choice some will make.

The idea behind set.a.light 3D, which is available in Basic and Professional versions, is the same: good studio photography begins long before entering the studio. To take home a handful of great shots at the end of the day, you need more than just a camera and a model. Whether you work with only one flash in a white room or are loading boxes of equipment for your shoot, you have to know where to put everything in advance. To figure all this out in a studio can cost you a lot of time. This is a time and money investment you can save with set.a.light 3D.

Recently updated, the program now includes the option to create lighting setups using strobes, making it more interesting for all those who depend on small portable flashes to create their indoor photography. The software was conceived so that every photographer is able to use his own speedlights, as the developers have integrated an additional feature which enables the individual creation of speedlights. 

Furthermore, the authors included the capacity to use the most important light modifiers available for small portable flashes, making the tool an efficient way to conceive, save and share lighting diagrams with other photographers.

Although you have to buy the product to be able to create setups, there is a free viewer that can be distributed, so anyone is able to view the files created in the program. It is also possible to export the diagrams as image files. The program set.a.light 3D has a demonstration version you can download to try it. Visit the Elixxier Software website to find out more and download the program.

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