How To Get The Best Lighting

A gear guide for every type of shooter.

What makes a great monolight, umbrella, or softbox? That depends. The perfect light for location shooting is completely different than one suited to the studio. Beginners, advanced amateurs, and seasoned pros each have different needs, goals, and budgets. Same for location portraitists and event photographers.

To help you make informed choices about lights and lighting accessories, no matter where you are on your photographic journey, here's some of our favorite lighting gear, with something just right for you.

Location Kits

Location kits always entail trade-offs. You want gear rugged enough to weather the rigors of the road, but that won't weigh you down. Your lights must be bright, but without blowing fuses. The six Profoto Pro-7 A packs Ty Allison used for this photo of pro volleyball player Denise Johns did the job, and never got in the way. Our favorite location gear includes:

LIGHTS: Calumet Travelite 375 ($500, direct; www.calumetphoto.com) Well constructed, with an ample 375 watt-second output, this conveniently configured monolight is bright enough and, at 6.4 pounds, light enough, too. Its continuously adjustable power output spans 5 stops, and it offers a full catalog of useful add-ons such as the inexpensive Bowens Ringlight Converter ($400, street) and Calumet Travel-Pak Battery Starter Kit ($530, direct) Delivering 200 full-power pops per charge, the Travel-Pak can support up to two Travelite 375 heads for a bright 750 watt-second output. Best part? At just 9 pounds, the battery is one of the lightest.

STANDS: Lowel Uni-TO lightstand ($55, street) The lowest leg sections of this featherweight fold upward instead of down (like most lightstands), giving the Uni-TOs a desirable ratio of extended height (about 8 feet) to contracted height (21 inches). They're unusually flexible-the legs can be positioned from flat on the ground to a minimal 7- inch footprint for use in tight confines. As a location stand, it's not made for heavy loads, but will easily handle a centered 5- or 6-pound head with umbrella.

METER: Kenko KFM- 1100 Auto Digi Meter ($260, street) A remarkably easy-to-use flash-and-ambient meter, thanks to its few buttons and large LCD display. (Go ahead, leave the manual at home.) Thin (1-inch deep) and light (under 5 ounces), it takes universally available AA batteries. Ty Allison, www.tyallison.com (Volleyball player) for location shooterS

RADIO REMOTES: PocketWizard MiniTT 1 transmitter ($199, street) and FlexTT 5 transceiver ($219, street) For wireless triggering of offcamera strobes, the latest PocketWizard set is the first to offer TTL-compatibility with Canon and Nikon flash systems. A fraction of the size of previous models, both transmitter and transceiver are perfectly scaled for location work.

EQUIPMENT CASE: Photoflex FV-Multibag Transpac ($190, street) An excellent compromise between utility and affordability, this large, wheeled case offers protective rigid walls with hard plastic corners, double stitched seams, padded interior walls, and a water repellent polyester shell.

ACCESSORIES: California Sunbounce Windkiller ($144, street) An unusual location accessory that can prevent wind from ruining a model's carefully styled coif, the Windkiller slides onto the Sunbounce mini 3x4-foot frame ($275 kit, including reflector) where it not only calms the breeze, but, due to its dark-gray textile surface, doubles as a subtractive gobo, deepening shadows and shaping in head-and-shoulder portraits. Also nice: The built-in baffles prevent blow-overs.

OPTIONS & UPGRADES:

  • Dynalite Roadmax location light kits In a variety of combinations, each kit offers heads, umbrellas, stands, and a case. Starting at about $1,925, they're expensive, but for such features as the built-in PocketWizard receiver for wireless triggering and unusual AC-powered accessory battery, the Dynalite XP1100 ($1,436) may make them worth the price for some.

  • SP-Systems Excalibur Lancerlight 320 monolight kit ($395, street) Anyone who wants to try battery-powered location lighting on a budget should consider this bargain-priced kit. It offers a 320 Ws strobe head and reflector, lightstand, battery pack, charger, and all the cords.

For Events

Event photographers need a fully articulated on-camera flash with power enough to bounce off distant walls or ceilings-such as the Canon 580EX Speedlite ($204, street) that Jonathan Young used for this happy couple. Event shooters also demand a professional-looking rig that won't have the bride wondering why the photographer she hired uses the same flash as her nephew. They also need a belt- or shoulder-carried battery that will provide a day's worth of power and split-second recycle times.

LIGHTS: Quantum Instruments Qflash Trio QF8C ($875, street) In TTLdedicated models for Canon or Nikon cameras, the Trios sport a built-in FreeXwire TTL radio slave that lets you place them on lightstands around the perimeter of a pitch-black reception hall and trigger them wirelessly from your camera. The only line of shoe-mount flash capable of bare-bulb use, and the only one with user-interchangeable flash tubes, the Trio (and other Quantum Qflashes) give event shooters an edge-or two.

Studio Strobes

For studio strobes, pros need full lines of light modifiers and shapers, with construction quality that lasts for decades. Miami pro Matt Stock used White Lightning X800 strobes ($399, direct; www.white-lightning.com) for these South Florida interiors. He prizes them for the finely adjustable power output he uses to blend ambient and strobe sources seamlessly. Other pro gear we like…

LIGHTS: Elinchrom Digital Style Combo 600RX ($1,650, street) This kit of two 600RX monolights (with cords) is intentionally simple, without the stands and umbrellas which most pros already own. The kit's killer feature is its EL-Skyport RX wireless radio slave set. Unlike most radio remotes, which simply fire strobes, these let you adjust RX output from the camera-mounted transmitter.

STANDS: Photogenic caster-equipped lightstand ($150, street) Prized for its brushed stainless steel uprights and air cushioned action, this stand is unique for clutch-and-gear section locks that can support the heaviest studio loads. The rolling casters make for easy and precise adjusting of large light fixtures, but the wheels are also removable. Its built-to-last cast iron base is only 19-inches in diameter-a very small footprint for such a heavy lifter.

METER: Sekonic L-758DR ($500, street) The only flashmeter that you can program to match the dynamic range of specific camera sensors, Sekonic's L-758DR can help you set and fine-tune flash exposure without ever firing a shutter. Its built-in PocketWizard transmitter lets you work wirelessly (with an optional receiver). While version 1.0 of the programming software required a computer-science degree, version 2.0 will profile your sensor in minutes.

RADIO REMOTES: Elinchrom EL-Skyport USB transceiver ($105, street) For some users, this is a natural and inexpensive upgrade for Skyport flash triggers. It adds the unusual ability to control (and save for later reuse) strobe settings from a computer.

EQUIPMENT CASE: Tenba 1030 PAT TriPak ($265, street) Among the best-designed grip bags, the TriPak holds up to four lightstands or tripods, each in its own ballistic nylon pocket-convenient because legs and locks won't catch or snare on each other.

ACCESSORIES: StudioBall Graf Strato Mini Tubing studio set ($750, street) Tabletop product shooters who wish they had an extra hand will find several in this multipurpose tool. Able to aim numerous small reflectors, gobos, miniflashes, or filters, and hold small subjects, the many-armed Graf Strato is infinitely customizable, and for complex setups, indispensable.

OPTIONS & UPGRADES: AlienBees ABR800 ringflash ($400, direct) For a visual kick, creative shooters like the youthful, shadow-free quality a ringlight offers. This unit takes ringlights a step further by including accessories such as a cool mounting bracket, diffusion cover, and filter holder for its 10-inch ring reflector.

Versatility

Versatility is the key for serious amateur and beginning pro shooters-versatility to explore new forms of lighting across a wider range of possible subjects, from portraits to products (like Christine Blackburne's colorful ice pops) and beyond. The up-and-comer could get a boost from products such as…

LIGHTS: F.J. Westcott TD3 ($420, street, with bulbs) and TD5 ($650, street, with bulbs) Spiderlite kits One of the few lights that can actually be called fun, the Westcott Spiderlites accept all three popular light sources: tungsten, compact fluorescent, and strobe. Not the most precise option (the bulbs are either on or they're off) Spiderlites are perfect for mixing and matching color temperatures­­-exactly what we mean by "versatility." There's even a battery for off-grid location projects.

METER: Gossen Digipro F flash and ambient meter ($240, street) offers a lot at this price point. The industry's only full-featured meter that's small enough to be stuffed into a shirt pocket, it was designed to be used single-handedly. It takes incident or reflected readings of flash or ambient light, with a digital and analog readouts, ambient versus flash analysis, programmable exposure compensation, shadow versus highlight latitude readouts, exposure averaging, and cumulative multiflash readings. A lot of meter for the money.

REFLECTOR: Lastolite TriGrip ($75, street) Like most nylon reflectors, this collapses for easy transport. Unlike most others, though, the TriGrip offers a set of accessory slip-on sleeves ($64, street), and its built-in handle easily enables single-handed use.

CASE: Tenba's Roadie Rolling Grip Case ($227, street) A yard long, with built-in wheels and a dual-mode rolling design, this case can be pulled at ground level on all four wheels or lifted for rolling on two. It will accommodate a tripod plus lightstands, with pockets for smaller grip items.

ACCESSORIES:

  • Manfrotto AutoPole 2 kit ($380, street) Our favorite background support can handle up to three cored backdrops, allowing you to raise and lower them via color-coded pull chains-no stepladder required.

  • Westcott's rentable backdrops ($49 per week, direct; www.rentscenicbackgrounds.com) They're easy to hang from your AutoPoles, or, less expensively, on 3M adhesive hooks via built-in grommets. With over a hundred to choose from, they range from realism to fantasy to abstractions. If you develop a special fondness for one, buy it for between $120 and $150.

OPTIONS & UPGRADES: Sunpak DigitFlash 500 ($400, street) is a flat panel flash well suited to working in small spaces and is easy to pack up. With a bright 500 Ws output and proportional fluorescent modeling light, the unit's flash output can be set from full to 1/32 power. A relatively large light source, it produces a very soft light without the dimming effect of a softbox.

For Beginners

For studio newbies, inexpensive and simple is the way to go. Simplicity in gear and style, as exemplified in Kyle Christy's one-light portrait of actress Gabriella Union, means no complicated controls (what is asymmetrical, anyway?), heavy packs, or softboxes that are difficult to set up and/or mount. Some of the best at being simple include...

LIGHTS: Interfit 150 Ws Stellar X monolight ($207, street) Well constructed and straightforward, this entry-level strobe has well-marked controls and simple dial-set output-no labor-intensive, multi-press push-buttons. A grab handle allows easy aiming and carrying. While simple, the unit also offers its share of sophistication in stepless power setting, fan cooling, auto dumping, and a long list of groovy accessories.

BACKGROUND STANDS: Savage Port-A-Stand ($110, street) With a carrying bag and free roll of white seamless, this favorably priced background system includes a telescoping cross bar (9.4 feet) and two risers (8.3 feet) that can double as lightstands. All together it weighs a mere 12 pounds.

CASE: Flashpoint CS770 lighting case ($170, direct; www.adorama.com) This is a procaliber case at an amateur price. Interior dividers include a long shelf to create top and bottom compartments, plus vertical dividers. The tough-guy construction includes high impact plastic walls with foam padding plus a weather-resistant outer nylon shell. Its 38x10x10-inch dimensions are big, but not too.

LIGHT MODIFIERS: Photogenic Eclipse 32- inch white umbrella ($22, street) This umbrella has something extra: a removable black backing. The backing prevents ambient spill, creating visibly stronger shadows, especially in small studios. Also nice: its highly reflective, white satin internal surfacing prevents the umbrella ribbing from appearing in reflective subjects.

STUDIO ACCESSORIES: SP-Systems Grip Clamp ($27, street) Studio clamps are indispensable. They handle reflectors, diffusers, filters, backdrops, and more. Start with a selection of various-sized A-clamps, and then graduate to a heavy-duty, gear-driven tool like the SP Grip Clamp. It can hold accessories and light fixtures weighing up to 33 pounds.

OPTIONS & UPGRADES:

  • MicroSync Digital Radio Slave kit ($190, street) Once you've tripped over a PC cord a few times, you'll see the point of wireless strobe triggering systems. One of the most novice-friendly is the MicroSync Digital, thanks to its favorable pricing and compact proportions. The smallest radio transmitter there is, it will fire strobe at distances up to 100 feet and free you from that trip-wire otherwise known as the PC cord.

  • Lastolite EzyBalance gray card ($49, street) Depending on the color and reflectivity of your subject and the color temperature and consistency of the light source, setting an accurate white balance in-camera can be tricky. The best hedge is including a white balance target in one shot per lighting setup. Light and collapsible, Lastolite's EzyBalance offers a washable white surface for custom white balancing, and a gray side for finetuning white balance later in software.

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