The Right Lights
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.
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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.
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.
…And dont forget
For the best results from your lights, accessorize…
Handheld meters that measure flash and ambient light are favored by precise photographers as a quick way to determine a starting exposure. And, with practice, their readings offer confidence that a given exposure won’t result in lost highlight or shadow details.
Typical of today’s full-featured flash/ambient meters is the Kenko KFM-1100 Autometer ($230, street), a state-of-the-art, mid-level instrument with large LCD readouts that provide exposure data in both 1/2 and 1/10 stops. The Kenko can display the relative contribution of ambient and flash sources to a given exposure, and quickly determine an average exposure from memorized readings.
Raw, unmodified light blasting from a naked bulb is rarely of much use to photographers. It’s too harsh to flatter 99 percent of most photo subjects. To finesse and control raw light, we use a number of devices that attach directly to the light head. The most popular include
• Parabolic reflectors. These usually aluminum, bowl-shaped accessories aim light and are designed to produce it evenly, with a minimal central hot spot. Large bowls, sometimes called beauty dishes, throw a broad, soft light that’s well-suited to portraits. Diagonally cut bowls such the Interfit 45-degree Background Reflector ($35, street) are cleverly designed to cast a circular halo behind portrait subjects when aimed up from the floor.
• Softboxes. Square or rectangular in a wide range of sizes, these soften light and often mount to the light head using devices called “speed rings.” Baffles within softboxes help eliminate central hot spots, and cloth grids (a.k.a. “egg crates”) attach to the front diffusion panel to create stronger direction and deeper shadows.
• Umbrellas. Also used to tame harsh light, there are several types. Translucent white “shoot-through” umbrellas soften output while allowing heat to vent, so they’re good for hot lights. Black-backed umbrellas produce a strong, directional light that casts a minimum of the “background spill” throughout a studio. (Ambient spill can brighten overall lighting and diminish shadow intensity.) White-, gold-, or silver-lined black umbrellas throw a soft, warm, or spectrally bright output, respectively. Some umbrellas (Lastolite’s Umbrella Box, for example) surround the light head, mimicking a softbox.
Wires and cords snake through the average studio, waiting to snare the unsuspecting. To minimize the chance for disaster, wireless flash triggers fire lights using radio signals, not with the sync cords that traditionally connected camera and strobe.
A compact transmitter fits into a camera’s hot-shoe and a receiver plugs into the strobe’s PC terminal. When the camera’s shutter fires, the transmitter sends a signal telling the receiver to pop the strobe. Systems start at under $300.