From portraits to still lifes to action shots, here's the gear you need in
the studio and on location -- and tips for better lighting.
Getting serious about lighting?
Few decisions can push your photography to the next level like investing in serious, off-camera lighting. But what type of light? Your choices include exotics like HMI and LED lights, but the most popular today are tungsten, daylight-balanced fluorescents, and strobes in two formats: AC- powered studio lights and DC-, battery-powered location strobes. Each type is suited to specific applications, so making the right choice will put you on the fast track to lighting success.
STUDIO STROBES: WHY CHOOSE THEM?
Because they're bright, instantaneous, and heat-free. To shoot at minimum aperture for the kind of generous depth of field Joe Abraham produced for this photo of a cherry-red 1957 Chevy Bel-Air, you need a lot of light. Both the grill and the hanging dice are in sharp focus because Abraham's main, background, and accent strobes (all Speedotrons) pumped out enough light to allow the use of a small aperture.
Studio strobes also deliver instantaneous output, with flash durations as short as 1/15,000 sec. This lightning pop is quick enough to freeze animated subjects -- even sugar-crazed 3-year-olds. For critically sharp pictures of people, strobes are your only option.
And, unlike some continuous light sources, which can generate heat, strobes are cool in operation. Human subjects won't work up a sweat, and you don't need to worry about getting too close to a 500W light bulb and singeing your shirt. Or worse.
Since their color temperature is the same as daylight, it's easy to integrate natural light into strobe-lit compositions.
What to Look For
Solid construction, tons of accessories, easily replaceable flash and modeling bulbs, availability in kit form. Kits are the most economical way to build a studio setup -- everything you need at a favorable price and in a single box. Another important feature: rapid recycle times. Some strobe systems can take as long as 3 to 5 seconds to recharge between pops -- way too long for some subjects.
What You Get For $320
Two Adorama Flashpoint II 320A Monolight kits
The Flashpoint 320A is one of the least expensive monolights, but it's solidly constructed and makes an attractive entry-level studio strobe. The $160 (direct) kit includes a 150 Ws light, lightstand, umbrella, and cords. Two 320 kits will get you up and gunning. Useful features include a built-in optical slave for cordless firing, audible flash-ready signal, rapid recycle times, and continuously variable output from full to 1/8 power. Until now, it was hard to find such features at this price.
What You Get For $2,015
Dyna-lite M500Wi kit
With a power pack, two heads, two lightstands, two umbrellas, and a carrying case, Dyna-lite's M512W-PS kit also has everything you need to get started -- and then some. Its most desirable feature? A built-in PocketWizard wireless receiver that, coupled with an optional, camera-mounted transmitter, provides uncluttered, cord-free syncing between camera and flash. Other features: Powerful 500 Ws output, 6-stop power range, and extremely rapid (0.9 sec tops) recycle times.
HOT LIGHTS: WHY CHOOSE THEM?
Because their output is continuous, tungsten or quartz halogen ("hot") lights can be used for both stills and video, and they give you infinitely more opportunity to study and finesse the strength, direction, and quality of the lighting -- good news for neophytes. (A strobe's modeling light will give you only a notion of how shadows will fall and little of how the background will be rendered relative to the subject.)
Hot lights tend to be less heavy and expensive than strobes. Typically, you can find a main, fill, and background hot-light kit for about the price of a single strobe. They're relatively dim and best suited to inanimate subjects and for soft, glamour portraits like this one by Leanne Lim-Walker. Fastest shutter speed at ISO 100-200: around 1/60 sec.
Some systems take widely available and very inexpensive household 250/500W floodlight bulbs.
What to Look For
Hot lights really are hot. The best include wire-mesh bulb protectors that reduce the chance of umbrellas or clothing catching fire.
If you're shooting products, search out a kit that includes a light tent. (Lastolite's Cubelight Travel kits, starting at $690, street, are especially convenient.)
Some hot-light systems share accessories with the maker's line of strobe lights (Photogenic and Novatron, for example). There are usually more and larger light modifiers for these.
What You Get For $433
The Interfit SXT3200 Three Flood Light kit (with background)
Perhaps the biggest plus of this versatile kit? The SXT3200 heads accept Interfit's extensive line of "Stellar" light modifiers, including, among other specialty items, a beauty dish. The kit has three tungsten floods; three air-cushioned lightstands; a 36-inch silver umbrella and 36-inch shoot-through white umbrella; three 500W bulbs; a soft-sided carrying case; a 10-foot, mottled gray background with hanging clips; and an instructional DVD.
What You Get For $858
Lowel DV Creator 1 Kit
Extremely versatile, this kit is designed for video but is equally useful for still applications, and it's solidly made to last for decades. It offers three different Lowel tungsten-halogen lights. The compact Pro-light focusing flood (250W) with its Fresnel-like focusing ability makes an excellent accent or backlight, while the broad-beamed Omni-light (500W) serves as a main- or backlight. (With adapter cable and optional bulb, the Pro-light can be mounted directly to a camcorder.) The equally broad Tota-light (750W), as the name implies, is compact and easily transported, and also serves well as a main or, with diffusion, a fill light. Other kit components: Tota-frame for gels with a set of five gels, three lightstands, a carrying case, and more.