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.
LOCATION STROBES: WHY CHOOSE THEM?
They're battery powered and can produce sophisticated lighting effects sans wall outlet. Location strobes also offer the same benefits of studio strobes: They're cool-operating, bright, and instantaneous. The flexibility to shoot anywhere, as opposed to only within 15 feet of an electrical outlet, can make the difference between mundane images and great location photography, like Tim Pannell's shot of a high-school cheerleading squad, above.
While taking studio lighting almost anywhere has obvious pluses, it comes at a price. The battery packs are heavy (typically 10 to 20 pounds) and have a limited number of pops per charge. Battery recycle times are often noticeably longer than typical AC-powered units, and the maximum light output is usually less. The payoff: well-controlled, expressive lighting where it would otherwise be impossible.
Battery-operated location lights often take the same accessories as the makers' AC units, so you don't necessarily sacrifice control by going mobile.
What to Look For
When comparing battery capacity, make sure the light output (in watt-seconds) is comparable. A battery that offers 120 full-power pops from a 1600 Ws head may have the same or more capacity as a battery that boasts 200 full-power pops a 140 Ws head.
Some batteries won't power a modeling light. If you shoot film, and so will not get the benefit of instant feedback in an LCD, avoid these. Battery capacity and weight -- you may have to decide between the two. Those that allow more pops are often heavier. If you'll be shooting at or near maximum power in order to light large subjects from a distance, choose power over weight. If you shoot smaller subjects close-up and don't need to work at or near maximum power, you can get a lighter battery.
Think, too, about flash recycle times. If you're doing fast-paced portraiture of animated subjects, 5-sec recycle times are far too long. Fast battery-recharge times (3 hours or less) are also desirable.
What You Get For $438
Photogenic StudioMax III AKC 160B light and AKB-1 battery
An affordable, full-featured duo. Weighing just 3 pounds, the battery provides 200 full-power (160 Ws) pops per charge, but won't power a modeling light. The 160BR version ($498, street) has a built-in wireless radio remote receiver.
What You Get For $2,089
Elinchrom RX To Go
Kit contents: Ranger (EL 10263 power pack/battery), Free Lite S head (EL 20100), hard case, charger, lightstand, and umbrella. The system is fully compatible with Elinchrom's optional EL-Skyport radio remote firing device. It offers full control of light output from the camera position. It's weather-resistant, and its fast-recycle mode cuts recycle times by two-thirds (but the maximum number of pops by about a third). The Varistar umbrella's unusual design centers light within its diffusing panel for an effect more like a softbox than an umbrella. Other features: Battery weight of 14.2 pounds, 1100 Ws top output, built-in slave, and 140 full-power pops per charge.
FLUORESCENTS: WHY CHOOSE THEM?
With each passing year, daylight-balanced fluorescent (DBF) studio lights get brighter -- and more popular among photographers who don't need super-bright lights for large objects or groups. Cool, continuous, and environmentally friendly, they usually last for years and will save on your electric bill by drawing very little power (+/- 25 watts -- no more blown fuses).
Unlike hot lights, DBFs have the same color temperature as natural light and allow you to easily introduce daylight as an ancillary light source. They are also flicker-free and can act as video lights.
Continuous light sources, DBFs let you gauge overall lighting more effectively than a strobe's modeling lamp. Although they're dimmer than strobes, that's not necessarily a limitation, since strobes are often too powerful for shooting close at wide apertures, even at low ISOs.
To get creamy, defocused backgrounds, portraitists often will want to work at f/2.8. DBFs are perfectly powered for such work, and they're excellent for table-top product photography like the watchwork study by Ilkka Kukko shown here. Because they're relatively dim, they're not good for animated subjects.
DBF bulbs are frosted, so you don't need extra diffusion between the light and your subject. Mount them in a softbox for direction, but leave off the box's front diffusion panel.
What to Look For
The most useful DBF heads (such as the Photoflex and Westcott here) accept tungsten and strobe bulbs, too. The best offer on/off control for each bulb -- a more convenient way to control overall brightness than physically moving the light closer to or further from a subject.
Although these units will accept regular compact fluorescent bulbs, for accurate color reproduction, look for full-spectrum DBFs. Westcott sells sets of five for $95. These bulbs are easily broken, so set up your softbox completely before threading the bulbs into the fixture.
What You Get For $550
Photoflex Starlite Dual Spectrum Kit
This new kit gives you the best of both continuous lighting worlds: DBFs and tungsten sources. On location, it allows you to easily balance your lights with either tungsten or daylight ambient sources. Unusually bright for a continuous kit, its DBF bulb is 150W and tungsten bulb is a blinding 1000W. Also included are the Starlight QL lighthead (2.7 pounds), a soft-sided case for the fluorescent bulb, softbox, lightstand, and carrying case.
What You Get For $1,299
The Westcott Monte Zucker Window Light Kit
Designed by the famed portraitist, this kit also offers both tungsten and fluorescent options and weighs a total of 27 pounds when loaded into its soft-sided carrying case (included). Each of the two included Spiderlite TD5 lightheads can accept up to five bulbs, with three on/off switches that allow numerous power outputs. Also included are five DBF bulbs, two brackets, softboxes, and extra-large lightstands.