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How to Choose Studio Lighting

by Garry Edwards, January 2009 (updated June 2010)


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.

Advantages:

  • 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

Disadvantages:

  • 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.

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.

Power Adjustment

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.

Accessory Fitting

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.


Original text ©2009 Garry Edwards. Photos ©2009 Garry Edwards.

Article revised June 2010.

Readers' Comments


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kris van de Vijver , February 19, 2009; 01:50 A.M.

Wow, that was interesting, thanks a lot!

-Kris Van de Vijver

khaled nciri , March 11, 2009; 03:54 P.M.

thank you for this article, i learned many interesting things.

Rachel Leigh , March 12, 2009; 11:49 A.M.

This thorough explanation of lighting is just what I had been searching for, thank you! I will be purchasing lighting equipment for the first time soon and this article has provided much insight.

Mark Maxon , March 31, 2009; 12:37 P.M.

Very well done!

Vladimir Funtak , April 01, 2009; 08:11 A.M.

That is why I like PN. Thank You.

Garybart Bartholomew , April 01, 2009; 11:47 A.M.

Excellent, excellent, now a article on how to bounce that light around, umbrella, Larson, Chimera, Lightright, Sunbounce.

Gary B

Garry Edwards , April 01, 2009; 05:02 P.M.

Garybart,

The next article will be about large light sources - softboxes, umbrellas, silks & beauty dishes.

Justin Weiss , April 07, 2009; 01:49 A.M.

This was exactly what I needed to get started with studio lighting. I can't wait for the next one!

Matt Snider , April 09, 2009; 09:52 A.M.

This is the single best summary of Studio Lighting I've ever read. I'm going to refer all my students to it. Bravo!

Paul Kerfoot , April 14, 2009; 02:40 P.M.

Thanks Garry

I understood every word

Paul

Norberto Burle , April 17, 2009; 01:54 P.M.

Garry great article !. Now I have a question when you said 300J is per headlight or per set of headlights? I am making product photography and as you write in your article I have 3 continues lights and for the moment is enough but I want to upgrade to flash heads do you have any advice? (Alienbees 400 for example?)

Garry Edwards , April 20, 2009; 12:50 P.M.

Norberto,

What I had in mind was per light, not per set.

Product photography (and creative portrait photography) generally have higher power requirements than 'beginner' portrait photography, where people typically just want soft lighting. The tools typically used for both product photography and more advanced portrait photography are often honeycomb grids, fresnel spots, focusing spots and so on - these tend to need more power than umbellas and softboxes.

Norberto Burle , April 20, 2009; 01:25 P.M.

Thanks Garry for your answer, I will need to still saving for a good lighting set.... Regards

Srinivasa Raju , May 19, 2009; 12:17 P.M.

Great article. Has cleared a lot of issues for me. I am a beginner and planning to buy my first set of monolights. Am in a fix between the Elinchrom D-Lite and FX series. Also, am unsure whether to go with 200J or 400J (main usage: portraits - including full length for 2-5 people in a 10 ft by 10 ft room). Any suggestions. Thanks a lot again.

Garry Edwards , May 19, 2009; 06:07 P.M.

Srinivasa,

I think the issues to think about here are build quality and benefits - but not the power. The difference between the 200 and the 400 is just 1 stop, and if push comes to shove you can always increase your ISO setting to get a bit more effective 'power' without compromising image quality too much - and in a small studio space you're unlikely to need a lot of power, unless you use creative lighting techniques and the type of light shaping tools that suck up a lot of light.

Srinivasa Raju , May 19, 2009; 10:49 P.M.

Thanks Garry.

Garry Edwards , May 20, 2009; 04:41 A.M.

The second article in this series is now available. http://photo.net/learn/lighting/light-shaping-tools/

Frank Skomial , August 23, 2009; 06:41 P.M.

Great article with few twists...

"Hotshoe flashes always fire at full power." - not true.

"as the length of the flash duration reduces, the color temperature of the flash increases with it." - not tue, unless you use a "junk" quality flashes. Flash light temperture at various power ratios stays about the same for good brand flash, within specified acuracy.

"Differences in color temperature are just one of the reasons why hotshoe flashes are just a quick and dirty substitute for studio flash." the least unimportant reason, there are other reasons, some mentioned. Most studio flashes, except few top power models that reduce operating voltage, have thyristor controlled reduced flash duration, and would be as much voulnerable as the hot shoe flashes, as far as the color temperature is concerned.

"Power is expressed in Joules (J), or watt seconds (usually abbreviated to W/s) but never in watts." - not true again. Perhaps you mean "flash ENERGY" is expressed in J or WS. Power is always expressed in Watts, KiloWatts, HorsePower etc.

Garry Edwards , August 24, 2009; 03:33 A.M.

Frank,

Thanks for your helpful comments, which I agree with to some extent.

"as the length of the flash duration reduces, the color temperature of the flash increases with it." - not tue, unless you use a "junk" quality flashes. Flash light temperture at various power ratios stays about the same for good brand flash, within specified acuracy.

Within a specified range, yes. But except with the top end, very expensive models, which use complex and expensive components, the "specified range" is usually far too great. And it's clear from actual testing that sometimes the 'specified range' published by the manufacturer or seller simply isn't what it is claimed to be.

"Most studio flashes, except few top power models that reduce operating voltage, have thyristor controlled reduced flash duration, and would be as much voulnerable as the hot shoe flashes, as far as the color temperature is concerned."

If you're right about that then I apologise. However, I don't know of any that have thyristor controlled flash duration.

"Power is expressed in Joules (J), or watt seconds (usually abbreviated to W/s) but never in watts." - not true again. Perhaps you mean "flash ENERGY" is expressed in J or WS. Power is always expressed in Watts, KiloWatts, HorsePower etc. "

If I was teaching physics (which I'm not qualified to do) then you would be right. When I'm teaching photography (which I am qualified to do) then I am right because I'm talking the language of the photographer, not the language of the physics classroom. i.e., I have seen a lot of forum posts asking "How much power do I need? but have never seen the question "How much flash energy do I need.

Brendan Hohls , August 28, 2009; 09:17 A.M.

I have had some problem with the sync cables that I got with my Elinchrom kit. From the start the one worked without problem and the other (which I then kept as a fairly meaningless backup - since it didn't seem reliable) seemed a bit hit-and-miss. Two weeks back during a photo shoot I had a problem with a wall power outlet that caused my main light to go off. Suddenly my studio was in darkness and I trod on the (up until then fully functional) sync cable connected to my camera and the main light. In the process I bent the connection on the studio flash side and my lights wouldn't function properly again after that. End of photo session. I have sent my lights in to the agent for servicing and repair, but the dealer told me not to even bother with the sync cords because they are generally unreliable and that I should replace mine with a radio frequency trigger. On the one side it would be nice to not have the chance to trip over cables, but is this the right solution? Thanks. Brendan

Garry Edwards , August 28, 2009; 09:51 A.M.

Elinchrom are known for synch connection problems with those of their heads that have the 'Special Elinchrom fitting' rather than the standard audio jack socket. But whichever you have, it's far more reliable and more convenient to use a radio trigger.

Terry Thomas , August 30, 2009; 04:09 P.M.

all your lights should be the same power

It is VERY important that all your lights be the same power.

Why?

I'm glad you asked.

Let's say you want to purchase a basic kit of 3 lights. You say to yourself, "I will buy two which are 800 Watt seconds (key and fill) and the third that's only 400 Watt seconds because it's only going to be used for the hair light; that will save me some money." You have just made a BIG mistake in your thinking.

There are several reasons:

1. even though the modeling light output *looks* the same the one unit puts out half the light; this means you can't judge by eye the lighting ratios.

2. when going on location you have to be very careful that you or a helper do not mix up the one half power light with one of the full power ones.

3. if one of the full power lights breaks/dies/gets stolen/whatever you can't easily substitute it's place with the half power unit.

I have been a photographer since 1955 and for several years now my mains-powered flash units have all been 800 Watt second Alien Bee strobes. Their housing uses the same plastic as American football helmets so they are very tough. Plus the Bees can use the same accessories as Balcar strobes.

I believe Alien Bee strobes are available in Great Britain and in many other countries so suggest you take a look at them as an option.

Terry Thomas... the photographer Atlanta, Georgia USA www.TerryThomasPhotos.com

Andy Stockglausner , January 07, 2010; 08:45 P.M.

Great Article Gary. I have a question. I just opened a new studio and I have a bunch of different monolight setups but I am going to get something dedicated for the studio. I am installing a rail system for the lights. Should I get a power supply setup or use 3 monolights? It will stay in this studio constantly, it will not leave. Also, it is a small room, only 16ft x 11.5 ft. So is 200-300ws enough? I have shot in there with 200ws and it is fine, however, what should I be looking for, faster recycle times? Sync speed? I will be shooting portraits in studio, that is it. Thanks in advance.

Andy Stockglausner Owner of MVP Studios, a Photographer in San Diego

Garry Edwards , March 15, 2010; 03:20 P.M.

*I have a question. I just opened a new studio and I have a bunch of different monolight setups but I am going to get something dedicated for the studio. I am installing a rail system for the lights. Should I get a power supply setup or use 3 monolights? It will stay in this studio constantly, it will not leave. Also, it is a small room, only 16ft x 11.5 ft. So is 200-300ws enough? I have shot in there with 200ws and it is fine, however, what should I be looking for, faster recycle times? Sync speed?*

Monolights will work fine, but if you are going to have an overhead track system (do you have enough height for one?) then generator (pack & head in the US) will be much easier to control unless you have a remote control for each head.

Most mono heads recycle more quickly on lower power settings, so higher power should allow you to use the heads at lower power settings, hence faster recycling. I can't see any other obvious benefits from using more powerful lights

Chris Mullen , March 25, 2010; 09:22 A.M.

Garry,

I have the chance of buying an Elinchrom 404 pack for £50 from a studio that is closing down. I am aware that the heads need to be minimum 2400j but i wonder if you could please tell me: 1.What flash durations the pack is capable of 2.What power a single 2400 head could be dialed down to 3.How often does the pack need serviced?

Unfortunately the studio is unable to provide this information!

Many thanks,

Chris

Garry Edwards , March 25, 2010; 09:29 A.M.

This is a very old pack, but it must be worth buying at that price!

I suggest you ask The Flash Centre, it's usually better to speak to their service department - their engineers know far more than their sales people.

Andrew Garrard , January 12, 2011; 02:30 P.M.

Hi Garry (if you're still there). Two quick queries:

1) Is the colour change as output changes not a function of the light, rather than the power source? I don't see how adding a dead head light to halve the power wouldn't change the colouring, if halving the power at the light does have this effect.

2) I'm amazed that an extension cable can lower the light output by a stop - that suggests the cable dissipates as much energy as the flash head. Maybe I'm missing something (I'm still on hot shoe flashes, but your article may help me upgrade).

My DSLR has a base ISO of 200, which makes me think I might survive with a cheap and nasty 150J (I don't believe in Ws any more than I believe in milliamp-hours for batteries) kit rather than your base suggestion of 300J for shooting at ISO 100. Any reason why not?

Thanks for the great introduction.

 

Bonnie Szu , April 01, 2011; 07:46 P.M.

Very useful and easy to understand. Thank you for writing this. It is much appreciated. I learned everything I wanted and needed to learn to purchase my first set of lighting equipment.

Best article I've seen on the web for an introduction to studio lighting.

 

Jim Carrington , July 19, 2011; 05:43 A.M.

Finding this article before I invested 20+ hours of research into the same subject in order to choose additional lighting would have saved me a great deal of time! Kudos to Garry Edwards.

I'll add that when one desires to light subjects in strong sunlight (for example, with the sun facing the subject's backside), one cannot simply increase ISO to increase the effectiveness of the lighting, because increasing ISO increases the effectiveness of ambient lighting also, the very light one is attempting to overpower. I used a roughly 600 Joules monolight to photograph a 13-person group from 4 meters away, using a brolly box with a very light warming gel, and ran out of power. I had to shoot a shallower depth of field than desired to overcome the power limitation. However, the cost in money and weight to add an f/stop of lighting power adds up quickly as one climbs the scale. It's a matter of tradeoffs.

Jim Carrington , July 19, 2011; 06:02 A.M.

1) Is the colour change as output changes not a function of the light, rather than the power source? I don't see how adding a dead head light to halve the power wouldn't change the colouring, if halving the power at the light does have this effect.

My DSLR has a base ISO of 200, which makes me think I might survive with a cheap and nasty 150J (I don't believe in Ws any more than I believe in milliamp-hours for batteries) kit rather than your base suggestion of 300J for shooting at ISO 100. Any reason why not?

The reason to add a dead head light is to lower the power output of the light being used when using pack and head systems whose available power is dependent on the number of heads being powered by a single pack. It will not prevent a shift in color temperature.

IMO, the base ISO of one's camera doesn't have much bearing on the lighting powerd desired. In certain circumstances, one needs to have substantially more artificial light than ambient light, and a camera's base ISO will have no impact on those situations. Also, the things that eat artificial light power are light modifiers, and 150 Joules won't leave as much room for light modifiers and deep depth of field, for example, especially with larger sensor cameras.

In 2010, Paul C Buff Inc introduced a monolight (Einstein) that is sold as being highly color consistent across a broad range of power settings. Other manufacturers may follow suit.

dario fiorito , December 10, 2011; 10:52 A.M.

really very useful. very well done. thanks

Vivi Chun , January 02, 2012; 11:10 P.M.

I like the cool light,they are fluorescent and do not run hot, very safe for the family. but the shoertcomings they do not create such a tangible fire risk, it is an obvious defect. Also we could use it with flashlight. many benefits.  

Michael Taylor , May 31, 2012; 01:12 P.M.

Thank you Gary for clarifying some points I was not sure about. This should help me in my photo portrait projects in the near future.

Starvy Goodfellows , August 21, 2013; 08:43 A.M.

A crash course on artificial lighting and useful indeed.


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