Cheap DIY Fluorescent Studio Lights for Beauty Photography

Who said that hi-end lighting equipment has to be expensive? And who says the only way to shoot with fluorescent light is to use the flicker-free Kino Flo lights that can cost you thousands of dollars?

I began using my fluorescent lighting technique nearly 10 years ago, long before Kino Flo’s and Peter Hurley became popular. I have been asked to describe it so many times that I decided it was time to put together a few tutorials to show how to build it and how to use it. In this article, I am going to deal with “how-to use” the fluorescent studio lights.

Jump to the end and you will find a video and parts list that will help you build your own set-up for less than four hundred dollars.

So what’s the big deal with this fluorescent light after all?

Simplicity: it is a simple-to-use light that is very soft and molds to your subject almost effortlessly. It’s great for subjects who struggle with flashes.

If you’ve taken a class in lighting or read a lot of textbooks, you have been taught that common household fluorescent lighting fixtures will not work well for studio photography.

We are told it is because of the flicker

You see, fluorescent bulbs are gas filled tubes; the gas is charged by electric pulses from a ballast which in turn creates visible light. Because of the pulses, the lights are rapidly turning on and off. This happens fast enough that we generally don’t see it with our eyes, but since the camera’s shutter works at a very fast speed, over the course of several frames you will notice that not only does the exposure change, but the color quality also changes due to the pulsing of the light.

The more expensive Kino Flo lights use a different type of ballast that allows them to operate at a higher than standard lamp current and a higher frequency, hence eliminating the flicker.

Technology has given us a new smaller, brighter, energy efficient and flicker free bulb (T8) that eliminates many of the obstacles that we faced with the older style (T12) bulbs that most of us grew up with.

So the primary difference between T8 and T12 fluorescent bulbs is the size of the bulbs and their bases. The number 8 or 12 refers to the difference in the diameter of the bulb. T8 bulbs are eight eighths of one inch, or one inch in diameter, while T12 bulbs are twelve eighths and have a larger diameter of one and a half inches.

The T8 bulb is slightly brighter than the T12. A T8 bulb produces around 2600 lumens, while the T12 bulb puts out just over 2500 lumens. A T8 bulb is 32 watts, while a T12 bulb is 40 watts, so this his makes the T8 bulb more energy-efficient.

Over time fluorescent bulbs begin to lose their intensity and brightness. T8 bulbs have a slower period of decrease, losing only 10 percent of their initial brightness after 7,000 hours of use. In comparison, T12 bulbs can lose 20 percent, or double the T8 after the same number of hours.

T8 bulbs are powered by an electronic ballast compared to the magnetic ballast that the T12s are traditionally powered by. This makes them more energy efficient and also completely quiet – making them great for video production where you need to be able to record sound.

Check out this video to see how to build the units. Links to the main parts are at the end of this article:

So let’s talk about how to use the set-up…

Check out this video for details and examples. (Note – the fixtures in this video use the older T12 bulbs. The newer T8 fixtures in the previous video work exactly the same except they eliminate the flicker – see below for an explanation):

So there you have it. Now you know how to build your own fluorescent lighting rig and how to use it to create awesome portraits and beauty shots.

What about the flicker?

You only have to worry about the flicker if you are using the older T12 bulbs — click here to see the first video in the series If that’s the case simply make sure you always use a shutter speed that is 1/125th or a second or slower. That’s it!

A shutter speed of 1/250th of a second… which is what most flash units sync at will give you dramatic inconsistencies with exposure and color balance.

Slowing your shutter speed down to 1/125th of a second or slower will eliminate that dramatic shift, and while you may occasionally see a very slight shift – it is nothing that can’t be corrected very quickly in Lightroom or Photoshop.

The T8 bulbs have little to no flicker and do NOT require you to shoot at 1/125th of a second – you can use faster shutter speeds with very consistent results.

With my rig – I am usually shooting at ISO 200 – 1/200th of a second shutter speed and f5.6 lens aperture.

Keep in mind if you like to use a big heavy zoom like a 70 – 200mm – shooting at 1/125th of a second handheld may risk camera movement and blurry images for some shooters. If that’s the case… use a monopod or tripod.

Links to the main components

Lithonia Lighting Industrial 6-Light High Bay Hanging Fixture at Home Depot

Lithonia Lighting 2-Light Electronic Channel Fluorescent Strip Light at Home Depot

Manfrotto 035 Super Clamp without Stud at B&H Photo and Video (You can also search for generic clamps – they are often cheaper. Amazon is also a good source for these)

You can do your own comparison… here is the link to Kino-Flo Lighting Systems web site.

About the author: Joe Edelman is an award winning editorial, corporate, and advertising photographer. Visit his website here. This post was originally published here.

  • Lee Kniewel

    Those look like 80’s studio shots. :-

  • Pablo Vernier


  • Brent

    Just what I was thinking… These are terrible.

  • Ralph Hightower

    Wonder what the cost of T8 fixtures are versus the T12. If T8 is more energy efficient, then I replace the lighting in my garage.

  • Joe Edelman

    Ralph, the T8’s are indeed a bit more expensive as are the bulbs. Given the efficiency in wattage and life expectancy – they would probably work out to be a bit cheaper but not dramatically. Most new commercial construction in the United States requires the use of energy efficient T8’s over the T12’s. Hope this helps.

  • Chris

    Cool project!
    What about CRI though? And dimming capability? These seem like two huge issues.

  • Alex

    Nice shots, but.

    The only thing I find distracting is the catch light, I know a couple “natural light” photographers that shoot indoors with big rectangular windows and they have a similar look. Is there no way to put a round modifier over these to lessen the “alien eyes” that this type of lighting seems prone to cause?? Thinking about what that would entail seems to answer the question, but I still can’t get past those eyes sometimes, you’ve done such a good job framing those faces and then bam feel like I’m watching MIB.

    It just seems more pronounced in some than others the B&W male isn’t noticeable, the lady in orange is very distracting. I’m not criticizing just wondering if this type of lighting could be used in a way that doesn’t produce the strong rectangular catch lights.

  • Joe Edelman

    You are not alone Alex. People either love or hate the vertical catch lights. Obviously I am in the camp that doesn’t mind them – but you are not alone in your thoughts. I will tell you that in all the years I have used them – I have never had a client or modeling agency ask, question, or complain about them – only other photographers – usually those that are classically trained.

    Indeed – adding a modifier would turn them into a completely different type of light – which could probably be created more efficiently. Do keep in mind that with the portability of these fixtures – they do not have to be placed directly in front of the subject – that is just the arrangement that I prefer.

    If you watch the Video – Part II – towards the end you will see I use them as a side light which of course creates only one broad catch light – like a big window.

    Hope this helps a little.

  • Alex

    Hey thanks for the reply, I would imagine all your clients are very pleased. Those are awesome shots my eye just twitches at the unexpected lol. The setup is very neat and I love using the closet door tracks to make it really flexible. I’m just getting my feet wet with strobes and am having fun learning. I think being able to “see” my light like you can with your setup would make it easier to experiment. Thanks for the videos and the article, love learning anything I can about the craft!

  • brand0

    Well said, and thanks for all your hard work.

  • brand0

    Just leave it.

  • Photographyby Joe


  • Photographyby Joe

    Joe that guy is a tool… I had an issue with him making idiotic remarks on facebook awhile back… he has no respect.

  • Alexander Lupascu

    awesome work.i have to buil a setup like yous :)

  • Eric Lundgren

    Do these work for video studios?

  • Suresh Rajaram
  • tim

    Joe. what about the new t5 bulbs any thoughts.

  • Ray

    Joe, I like the new setup better than the first rendition. Do you have a complete parts list available?

  • Kehkohjones

    Joe, on behalf of the many grateful and appreciative individuals you offer free advice and help, THANK YOU.

  • kehkohjones

    I am of the opinion that catch-lights add life to the subjects; of course, there are indeed some that do not appreciate the catch-lights… differences of opinions helps us from getting bored.

  • cliff

    looks like a great idea .
    and just to add to the ballast side of things if you want to dim them there is a ballast made for both t8 and t12 that will let you do it a little more money for them though. the t5 bulb and ballast will be a little more but they work good we have them in the room where i work. i have worked with all 3 for the last 12 years if you are thinking how would i know (:


  • Krazytrucker

    I enjoyed looking at your work Joe, very nice

  • Franklin M. Fernandez Jr.

    OMG! I have just visited your website and oh!!!! Very awesome pics! I just hope I could be able to set up a studio lightning like yours. Cheers. Good job!