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I am currently in the situation that I often struggle for 30 to 60 minutes before a shooting to set up my lights. Few studios and locations I use offer mannequins and I don't have an assistant at most times, so I am stuck placing lights until I am happy and then as soon as my models are in I end up having to spend another 30 or so minutes so place my lights anew. I spend a lot of time fiddling which is frustrating for me and for my models which have to sit and wait until I have my lights finally set up.

Is there a way to speed up this process, ideally a solution where before a shoot I can play around with light setups and get a general feel or idea for it. I have a couple of "standard" light set ups I like to use, so these I am familiar with. But whenever I want to use gels or light modifiers I am not using often I end up struggling.

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Among other things, there is a software that can help with that.

set.a.light 3D simulates lighting setups using strobes or constant lights and is also able to simulate various light modifiers. You can then place posable mannequins in your scene and render the outcome.

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It is available at least for Windows and Mac (Oct/22). And there is a light version and a full version for purchase.

set.a.light 3D Homepage

Please note, that it is not as easy to derive exact lighting amounts from these setups, as the distance of each light would have to be exact and the light transmission of your modifiers will differ - but what you can is to get an easier understanding of light ratios between the light sources.

I personally use it to explain light setups for workshops and create setup diagrams.

They also offer a community that shares light setups among them, which some might find stimulating for their own experiments.

Disclaimer: I have no affiliation with them.

From my personal experience: You will be getting way faster with practice. Documenting setup and light ratios only takes you so far. You will develop a sense what each light should be doing. And then setting up a scene becomes relatively fast. Even with taking a few test shots with only the respective light on, to judge if it is where you want it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I have not used that product. I have used photorealistic 3D software, but still does not compare to practice in real life, with the specific gear you have. \$\endgroup\$
    – Rafael
    Commented Oct 20, 2022 at 20:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Rafael Very true. At the end, you know your modifiers and lights. And sometimes, there is also the happy accident, where something does not work out as planned, but better. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 23, 2022 at 6:28
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Hiring an assistant to stand in for the model while setting up is the simplest thing that might work.

Bringing your own mannequin is another option. This could even be as simple as a light stand, a futbol, and some gaffers tape holding the two together…or a expanded polystyrene head might be better.

In general you should arrive with everything you need to make a good experience for the talent.

Having your own mannequin and/or assistant will also create the opportunity to practice lighting setup and experiment beforehand.

To put it another way, the way to get fast setting up lights is by setting up lights, not sitting at a computer.

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Even with the best gear and coolest computer simulations, there's no substitute for experience. You can get that experience on the job, wasting other people's time, or you can hone your craft on your own time. I recommend the latter.

Find a space large enough for your gear and set it up. Get a mannequin or torso. Experiment with different setups and carefully document what you do. Sketch out diagrams of lighting setups. Put a dry erase board in the corner of the frame with notes about the setups (i.e. light settings). Take cell phone shots of your setup from various angles.

Start with the easy setups (plenty of room), then constrain yourself to smaller spaces, fewer lights, and other real-world challenges. How do you effectively light a portrait with one light and a reflector? Figure that out before you have to do so on a paying job.

Document everything. Then look back over your shots to learn what works and what doesn't, and keep all your notes for future reference.

Artists practice, engineers study, scientists experiment. Photography is a combination of all three, and it takes a lot of time to learn to do it well. Put in the effort to become the best photographer you can be before you're on the job. You'll never regret it.

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Practice setting up your lights and modifiers, 'til you get good and fast at it. If you're not confident with a large number of lights or less-used modifiers, consider only using one or two lights and the modifiers you're fast with on paid gigs until you get more confident/faster with the other gear.

I'd also recommend you consider having TTL-capable gear and using TTL to set up your key light. TTL can make any changes to iso, aperture, or light placement transparent to the flash exposure, and most TTL flash gear these days can do what I call "TTL locking". This feature can lock in a TTL-set power as an M power setting. And TTL can often get the power setting right on the first try. It can make setting up go a lot faster than shoot/chimp/adjust/reshoot cycles you may be doing in M even if you're using an external flash meter.

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