Sometimes, to kick your photography up to the next level, a catalyst in the form of new gear can help. Take off-camera studio lights. Applied creatively and with persistence, these can pay off in portraits, interior shots, and still lifes with a clean professional edge that's almost impossible to get any other way -- not using available light, and certainly not with on-camera flash.
What lights should you buy? It depends on what you want to shoot. As with a computer, a lighting outfit that's customized to the task can pay off in better performance and output. The lazy guy's way is to buy a manufacturer's prepackaged studio kit. Kits are attractively priced, but basically designed to be all things to all shooters and are therefore rarely any photographer's dream.
What follow are descriptions of three task-based studio lighting kits custom-selected to achieve the best results for still-life, portrait, and location pictures. They provide guidelines on what to look for when assembling your own kit. By the way, if you don't know the difference between a "main" and a "fill" light, or between an "umbrella" and a "soft box," skim a Lighting 101 textbook before continuing.
The Location Kit
Lighting kits for location work usually meet three requirements: they're lightweight, compact, and offer the option of battery power for subjects far from an electrical outlet. When assembling yours, start simply with a lightstand, reflector, battery pack, single light, and a case to pack all of this gear in.
What to Look For
Portable Power: For lead acid batteries, there's often a trade-off between capacity and weight. Look for a system (Dyna-lite, Elinchrom, Hensel, Quantum, Westcott, etc.) that offers portable power with the highest capacity at a weight you find manageable. If you'll be hiking deep into the outback, obviously opt for lighter weight over capacity. Faced with otherwise equal systems, go with the battery that offers a quick charger. The difference between a 1.5-hour and 6-hour recharge can be significant.
Light Source: We selected the Westcott Spiderlite TD3 for its utility. Not the most powerful, it's very compact for easy packing (6 inches deep, without bulbs), attractively priced ($279, street), and the most flexible light available in terms of lightsource options. The Spiderlites can take tungsten bulbs (for balancing your light with ambient incandescents), strobe bulbs (for moving subjects), or daylight-balanced fluorescents for cool and comfortable portrait or product work.
Weather-Proofing: Because location work often involves sandy, salty, muddy, humid, and/or wet conditions, look for a lightstand that offers adequate protection from the elements.
A Good Case: Once you've chosen a kit, you'll need a case to carry it. Don't scrimp here. Inexpensive cases may not offer adequate protection. They lose shape, zippers snag, straps and surfacing fray, and foam cushioning disintegrates over time, especially if stored in nonclimatized conditions. Good ones come from Kata, Lightware, Tamrac, and Tenba. Some, like Tamrac Rolling Studio bags, have convenient sets of wheels.
Our sample location kit includes the Adorama Lighting Outfit Case (A) chosen for its solid support, ample foam padding, customizable interior dividers, and attractive street price: $90. Likewise for the $60 Franzus Ladderkart (B), which doubles as a stepladder and hand truck, with industrial-grade aluminum construction, foam-covered handles, a flat, 6.5-inch folded size, and large, safe, 9-inch deep steps. The kit is rounded out with an Adorama 5-in-1 Reflector (C), and Westcott Spiderlite TD3 (D) with portable battery (E).
For weight and convenience, bring only one strobe into the field, and try to arrange your shooting so you can use sunlight (diffused or direct) for background or fill.
Shooting outdoors, you will often need sandbags or other homemade weights to keep your lightstand from blowing over in the wind. Empty gallon-sized resealable storage bags can be filled with stones or sand on location, then hooked to or draped over a lightstand's legs as ballast.
Pro location shooters keep an inventory checklist they refer to whenever packing. It helps ensure that they bring everything they'll need to the shoot, and don't leave anything behind when it's over.