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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.

This Setup

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).

Location Tips

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.

Have you tried hosting an online, eBay-style garage sale and nothing sold? It may have been lackluster photos, and the solution could be as easy as a studio lighting kit — one custom-designed for shooting small tabletop products.

What to Look For

Light Tents: All you need for this is a light tent, two lights, and stands to hold the lights. Why a light tent? The most difficult objects to shoot in tabletop photography are reflective, such as glassware and polished metal. Light tents create a fully diffused, nondirectional light that minimizes unwanted reflections and softens shadows. (Tents provide excellent lighting for objects that aren’t reflective, too.)

If you’re new to this, practice light tent technique using a white sheet as a tent and table lamps for lights. You will soon grow tired of the sheet’s folds, wrinkles, and nubby surface weave showing up your backgrounds and want to upgrade to the real thing.

HOW BIG? We’ve chosen an ample 4×4 footer because an oversized tent will still produce excellent results, but one that’s too small is useless.

This Setup

The Tent: We selected the Lastolite Cubelite (A) for its many features, such as: interior alligator clips for holding cloth, paper, or vinyl backdrops; removable bottom panel so the tent can be set over stationary objects; easy collapsibility; multiple shooting windows; rugged carrying case; and reasonable $203 street price.

Lights: We recommend monolights, and the smallest possible (see following page for more on monolights). If your tabletop outfit is something you will use only occasionally, shop for components that will fold up compactly, taking up as little closet space as possible. A good choice: Elinchrom’s new D-Lite (B) as our studio light (no street price as of press time). The D-Lite To Go sets include two tiny 200 or 400 Ws lights, plus power cords, PC cords, and a sturdy but very compact storage case.

Tabletop Tips

Some light tents are said to have “sweet spots” for lights. Experiment with the relative positions, angles, and powers of the lights to locate that spot. When found, lighting within the tent will be most diffused and directionless. It’s easier to find this sweet spot if you’re using continuous light sources.

Perfectly lit products often require much positioning and repositioning to locate the orientation that shows off the object to best effect. For jewelry and other small items, have plenty of small wedges and dabs of putty on hand to help you correctly orient the subject relative to the overall light.

Consider adding a black floor to your tent to help establish edge lines. This trick was used for the martini glass shown here.

If not much depth of field is required, don’t aim your lights directly at the sides of the light tent, but place your light tent in a small room and bounce your lights off the surrounding white walls. In essence, you’re making a double light tent, which will provide added control over glare and other unwanted reflections.

What happens to your portraiture when you upgrade to off-camera lighting with umbrellas or softboxes? That’s easy. It’s the difference between amateur and pro-quality results. Your subjects’ faces and figures take on a sculpted three-dimensionality; their skin a softer, less-contrasty look; and detail like eyelashes, hair, and the texture of skin comes to life. If you’re striving for better portraits and aren’t using modified off-camera lighting, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

What to Look For

Monoblocks: For lights, monoblocks are hard to beat. Also called monolights, their capacitor, controls, and bulb are all in one unit that’s usually less expensive, less heavy, and more convenient with fewer cords than the alternative: heads with stand-alone power packs, which will clutter the floor of your studio.

Power Options: In deciding how much power to get, ask yourself what type of portraits you’ll be making. Mainly single individuals or couples? You won’t need much power to get adequate depth of field for front-to-back sharpness — 400 watt seconds will probably suffice. For larger groups, invest in 1200 or 1600 Ws units. They will let you shoot at smaller apertures while bouncing the light off a studio ceiling, so all in the group will be evenly lit and sharp from front to back.

Modifiers: When it comes to softboxes and umbrellas, many studio portraitists prefer main and fill lights to be outfitted with modifiers of different sizes, shapes and/or reflective qualities. (So why do all prepackaged “portrait” kits come with two identical softboxes?) The strategy lets shooters light the face more brightly, and more tightly, so it’s the most eye-catching element in the composition — very useful when you’re battling distracting wardrobe or cluttered backgrounds.

Also, if you plan to shoot primarily individuals or couples, consider a strip light such as Chimera’s Pro Plus ($175 and up) for your main light. It’s a narrow rectangular softbox. Used vertically and close in, a strip light is especially useful in lighting a single individual, with its output quickly diminishing, often not reaching the (cluttered) background at all.

This Setup

We’ve picked the $303 (street) Sunpak Platinum Plus 500 lights (A) for their robust, metal housing and full line of accessories (with a variety of softboxes, shown). Our reflector is the Lastolite Tri-Grip (B) ($64, street), chosen for its ability to be aimed singlehandedly. Our backdrop? Adorama’s Bella Drape (C) has ample size, and attractive designs and pricing ($100, street). Finally: a Savage posing table (D) ($90, street) for your subject to lean on.

Home Studio Tips

Portraits of individuals or couples are typically made with the main light above the camera’s lens, aiming down at about a 45-degree angle slightly to the left or right of the camera position. The fill light is often a larger, softer light source positioned slightly behind the camera with output typically 1 to 3 stops less bright.

When you first set up your new lights, begin by practicing on a willing subject. It’s best if your “guinea pig” has low expectations for the project, otherwise the pressure’s on you, the photographer, to produce a masterpiece portrait.

A system to get portrait novices up and running is the new Westcott Basics (no price as of press time). Yes, a prepackaged kit, it includes a large floor mat that you spread out below you on the studio floor. Pictures and text on the mat show where to place subject, background, lights, and reflector(s) to best effect.