However amazing the vision of a photographer may be, however sharp their lens and regardless of the number of pixels on their camera’s sensor, the shot can only succeed if the lighting is right. It follows that we should commit both thought and budget to our lighting equipment. Studio photographers know this and typically spend far more on lighting than on cameras and lenses, but some people take the opposite approach and although they’re often prepared to spend far more than they need to on cameras and lenses, they sometimes underrate the importance of light and try to economize on the equipment that will actually make a real difference to the quality of their work.
I’ve written this article to help people who are about to make their first lighting decisions, or who want to make buying decisions that will help move their photography to the next level.
In the first half of this article, I’ll discuss the three basic lighting choices you’ll want to consider. In the second half, I’ll help you determine how much power you’ll need for your lighting kit, depending on the type of photography you will be doing.
Three Basic Lighting Choices
There are 3 basic choices: flash, hotlights and cool lights. Flash is the tool of choice for any kind of people photography and we’ll come back to it in a moment.
Hotlights (also known as tungsten lights) are called hotlights because they really are hot. They’re just ordinary quartz halogen lights, often around 500-800 watts and they can be used for video (which of course needs a continuous light) and for photographing small products. They don’t really have enough power for photographing people because, although they seem to be much brighter than they really are and you’ll need a very high ISO setting on your camera, and a very slow shutter speed. They are also extremely hot, they can easily cause a fire and are uncomfortably bright when they’re shining in someone’s eyes. They are also very “warm” (orange) in color and although the color balance can be adjusted, the color simply won’t mix with daylight or flash.
Cool Lights are a much better bet because they’re fluorescent and don’t run hot. Therefore, they don’t create such a tangible fire risk and they are more comfortable for everyone involved. They are also more or less the same color as daylight, so can be used if there is daylight in the room, and can be used in conjunction with flash. But, like hotlights, they have very little power compared to flash and so they cause the same problems with high ISO and slow shutter speeds. Some fluorescent lights can be adjusted by switching off one or more of the bulbs, unlike hotlights, but the range of adjustment is pretty limited.
Flash is the favorite tool for studio photographers because it’s far easier to use, has far more power and doesn’t have any of the limitations of either hotlights or fluorescent lights.
Let’s Talk About Flash
There are two basic types: hotshoe flashes and studio flashes.
Hotshoe flashes are the accessory flashguns that fit onto the hotshoe of your camera. Using them on the hotshoe is convenient but the light is always harsh and never flattering, and if you want to get the best from your hotshoe flash then you’ll need to use it off-camera, fitted to a stand, and you’ll probably want to use several, to get controlled lighting effects. You’ll probably want to use them with umbrellas too, to diffuse the light.
Cheap—very cheap and you already have a few lying around
Portable—you can carry them around very easily
Battery powered—you don’t need mains electricity
They rely on batteries so you’ll need to carry a lot of spares
Very limited power—about 60 Joules (J) or less
No modeling lamps—it’s difficult to previsualize the effects
Very limited range of accessories—basically umbrellas, although other accessories are also available they are of limited effectiveness with hotshoe flashes
Hotshoe flashes always fire at full power. Nearly all of them have electronic circuitry that “reduces” the power by shutting off the flash early. The effect of this is that, at low power settings, the flash duration is extremely short. That seems to be a good thing, but as the length of the flash duration reduces, the color temperature of the flash increases with it. Differences in color temperature are just one of the reasons why hotshoe flashes are just a quick and dirty substitute for studio flash.
Each flash needs to be triggered, usually with a radio trigger. This adds a lot to the cost and also makes it complicated to use and much less reliable than studio flash. “Dedicated” systems produced by the major camera manufacturers can be used without big spending on radio triggers but the systems themselves are both very expensive and complicated to use.
Hotshoe flashes can be very useful but they’re really best for journalists and other people who need to use flash on the move. Studio lights are much better if you’re using them at home or in a studio.
Buying studio lights can be daunting, because there are so many different makes, different models, different specs and different prices—so the rest of this article will help you to understand what’s important and what isn’t, so that you can make the right choice for you.
Do all studio lights work in the same way?
Yes, pretty much, even though there are different types—mains powered self-contained lights (known as monolights or monoblocks), mains powered “separates” (known as Pack & Head lights), and battery powered.
Mains powered monolights are the most popular with people just starting out, probably because they’re much less expensive than the other choices. Monolights contain all of the “works” within the flash head itself—plug them into the wall and they’re ready to go!
Pack & Head lights have a separate powerpack that sits on the floor, and one or more flash heads are plugged in as required.
Pack & Head lights have several advantages over monolights, apart from the fact that they are available in far more powerful units than monolights. Firstly, all of the controls are set on the pack itself, which is always much easier and more convenient than when they’re on the head.
This Pack can power 2 heads, the power is adjustable from 75-2400 watt seconds (W/s) with one head fitted and from 37-1200 W/s with both heads fitted.
As you can see from this picture, the flash head for the Pack & Head (bottom) is far smaller, lighter and simpler than the monolight head above it. Inevitably, after 10 years or so of professional use in my studio, it works much better than it looks.
Another advantage of Pack & Head lights is that the packs can also power professional ringflashes, which are vastly superior to the hotshoe flashes that are available.
Battery Powered Pack & Head lights (above right) are useful because they can be used for location shoots where there is no power available, including outdoor use where high power (not available from hotshoe flashes) is needed to overwhelm the daylight.
The controls on portable power packs are basically similar to those on mains units
What do the technical terms actually mean?
You can’t make an informed choice unless you can understand the technical terms and the specifications.
Power is expressed in Joules (J), or watt seconds (usually abbreviated to W/s) but never in watts. W/s is just another term that means exactly the same as Joules.
The figure expressed (300 for example) means that the flash head stores 300 Joules in its capacitors. It doesn’t mean that two flashes with the same power output from two different manufacturers will have the same actual power because there are other factors that affect actual power, but it’s a good guide. All things being equal, a flash of 300 Joules will produce the same amount of power during the flash (which could be as short as 1/2000th second) as a 300 watt continuous light can produce in one second. In fact, the continuous light actually produces far less power than that simply because most of the energy is in the form of heat not light. A three second exposure with continuous lights is normally needed at the same lens aperture as flash.
Guide numbers are a more accurate method of expressing power. The guide number is always tested at 100 ISO and should always be tested with the flash head fitted with a standard reflector. Guide numbers can be expressed in two different ways: meters and feet. As long as you know which is which you can easily work out the real power of the light. Let’s say that the guide number is 160 (feet). Simply divide the distance in feet from the flash to the subject into that number and you’ll end up with the lens aperture. At a distance of 10 feet from flash head to subject, the answer will be f/16 with the flash head at maximum power. If the guide number is expressed in meters, the same flash head will have a guide number of 48. 10 feet is 3 meters so 48 divided by 3 is f/16—same result.
Of course, the guide number depends on the type and the efficiency of reflector used. It will be higher if you’re shooting in a small room with white painted walls and ceiling. It will be a lot lower if you use an umbrella or softbox to diffuse the light. It will be lower still if you use a spotlight or honeycomb to control the light, but it’s the best guide there is.
I think it’s fair to say that 300J is plenty for most home studio use with a 35mm or digital SLR camera. Larger cameras (medium and large format) need a lot more power, so do large groups of people or complex still life shots. A lot of people are happy with less power, preferring to increase the ISO setting on their camera when they need more power. Increasing the ISO setting reduces the image quality but different people have different needs.
Umbrella reflector, half the power output of the standard reflector
High intensity reflector, 6 times the power of the standard reflector
Standard reflector. This is the reflector that should be used when measuring guide numbers
It’s no good having power if you can’t adjust it! Most modern flash heads can adjust from full to 1/16th or 1/32nd power. That’s a pretty good range and is plenty for most situations. Some have an even greater range of power adjustment but too much adjustment causes its own problems, so if you get a flash with 6 or 7 stops of adjustment, don’t assume that it’s better—it may not be usable at the very lowest power settings because the color temperature of the light may be unacceptable at low settings. If you really need to reduce the power more, just fit a neutral density gel over the light to cut down the power.
Some flash heads have a “click stop” adjustment—the adjustment is something like full power, 1/2, 1/4, etc. Others have a “stepless” adjustment—the power can be set literally anywhere. Stepless control is far better because it allows very precise adjustment.
flash head with fixed reflector
In the UK, the main fittings are Elinchrom and Bowens, although there are others. There’s nothing to choose between them but there are more manufacturers of accessories available for Bowens (also known as S-fit) than for Elinchrom. Bowens fit accessories that are usually a lot cheaper too.
Some makes have different fittings and some use more than one. At the time of writing this article, Interfit has some lights that use their own fitting, some that use Bowens and some that use Elinchrom. Bear in mind that you’ll be limited to accessories that fit your lights. You can’t for example use Elinchrom fitting accessories on Bowens fitting lights. The same accessory fittings are available in the U.S.A., but the choices also include Balcar, Speedtron and a few others.
There are some lights that don’t have interchangeable accessories at all—the reflectors are fixed.
These lights tend to be at the cheaper end of the range and, although the suppliers can normally supply accessories to fit them, you’ll be pretty limited. You also won’t be able to control the quality of the light as much as if you have lights with Bowens, Elinchrom or another popular fit. Another limitation is that the non-removable reflector stops the light from bouncing around inside a softbox as well as it should. Whether that matters to you or not will depend on the type of photography that you want to do (or that you might want to do in the future). I’m not advising against lights that have fixed reflectors—it might be better for you to spend less and get less, but it’s something that you ought to bear in mind when you make your choice.