Articles > Studio Lighting

Making the Equipment Decision

When dealing with studio lights for the first time, it's easy to get bogged down in the "what brand should I get" questions. Unfortunately, as the technology is constantly changing, any document that tried to answer that definitively would be out of date by the time it was written. Rather than do that, I've aimed for a set of issues each photographer should be aware of, to help them make a good decision about what equipment they need, based on what's available at the time.

Overview

There are currently two main categories of studio lighting: constant-source lights, such as household lamps, quartz-halogen lamps, HMI, fluorescent, LED, etc. and flash lights. While constant lights have some clear advantages in certain situations, for most photographers, flash is a better option, and this article will focus on flash systems; constant-source lights will not be discussed here.

Studio flash systems themselves fall into two main categories: Pack-and-head systems and monolights.

A pack-and-head system has a flash head that emits light, and a powerpack that one or more heads can be plugged into. The majority of electronics and controls are on the pack, permitting a lighter and/or smaller head design. Each pack must be connected to a power source, either battery or wall power, and each head is attached to a pack via an electronic cable.

Pack systems control the output of their lights at the pack. Some have multiple "channels" which can have different heads connected, and each channel controlled independently of each other; other packs may only vary the overall power of the pack, and not individual heads.

A monolight combines the two: all the electronics are in the same unit as the flashtube. This removes the loss of power by not having a long cable between the electronics and the flashtube, but increases the weight of the flash head itself. Typically, a well-designed monolight will emit 20 to 50% more light for the same input power ("watt-seconds", discussed below) than pack systems will. (This is not an absolute.)

There are also some hybrid systems: monolights than can provide power to an additional flashhead, but these systems are fairly uncommon.

Both categories have advantages and disadvantages, though the majority of them are model-specific rather than pack vs monolight. When making the final decision, don't overlook the possibility of a mix of pack-based lights and monolights.

In addition to the lights themselves, the various light-modifiers--softboxes, snoots, grids, spotlights, umbrellas, etc.--should be considered. They are not discussed here, however, as it's too broad a topic for a single article.

At the end of the document, there are some additional comments. relating to purchasing used equipment and my own gear.

If you have any suggestions on expanding this, or areas you feel need clarification, please feel free to contact me at portraits@kevinconnery.com

Reliability

It doesn't matter how inexpensive a light is if it's unreliable or inconsistent. Unreliable ends up being hideously expensive in terms of reputation--your reputation. The more important it is to not have a failure during a shoot, the more important reliability becomes. Hobby shooters who aren't on a tight deadline or aren't shooting a non-repeatable event don't need to worry as much about this as would someone photographing a celebrity for a magazine or a wedding.

Extreme reliability tends to come at a cost. While even the less expensive units such as Alien Bees tend to have decent reliability, many of the lowest-priced units are simply unreliable. Check out the history of the manufacturer and vendor before committing to a purchase.

Good customer service, while important, does not replace reliability: if a unit fails during a shoot, they're probably not going to be able to send you another in time to finish that shoot.

A side issue related to reliability is getting backup equipment if needed. If you have a pack, head, or monolight die before you absolutely need to use it, how quickly can you get a replacement? That may include checking local dealers for rentals, or on-site repair, or whatever. In most cases, repairs won't be immediate (excepting major cities), and rentals may be difficult. If that's the case and you anticipate needing your gear on schedule all the time, you should check with your local dealer(s), and see what they can offer to help fill-in. (Mixing systems with monolights isn't as awkward as mixing them for packs-and-heads; one more monolight will simply have to be tweaked for output levels [see modeling lights discussion in Features]

Reliability also includes overall life expectancy of the system. There are systems 20+ years old still in daily use, and systems 20 sessions old that may not work well any more. Ask about the history of the systems you're considering. Depending on your expectations, a "more expensive" system may end up costing less in the long run.

Consistency

It doesn't matter how inexpensive a light is if it's unacceptably inconsistent. If you don't get consistent light output, you won't get consistently lit and exposed images.

As with reliability, extreme consistency (within 1/25th of an f-stop or better) also tends to cost more than reasonable consistency (1/5th of a stop or so).

Most existing pack systems are accurate within 1/5th stop or better (mostly better), with shot-to-shot variances well under 1/10th of a stop. Most midline monolights have similar reliability. At the lower end, many monolights may have much larger shot-to-shot variations. Typically, as price goes up, variation goes down.

Another aspect of consistency is color temperature. Most units from a given manufacturer will have the same base color temperature, but not all manufacturers use the same baseline; it may vary from roughly 5000K to 6500K or so. If the temperatures are sufficiently different between different lights (main vs key, for example), it may be noticable, and a single custom white balance won't address the mismatch; it will only average the two, still leaving one warmer and one cooler.

Additionally, most units output light of slightly different color temperatures at different power levels. Some inexpensive units may vary by 1000K or more between full and minimumm power, or even vary color temperature from shot-to-shot even at the same power. (Usually this happens at the lowest power settings.) Better units have smaller variances.

For casual shooting, this is rarely significant. For instances such as product photography or catalog work where exact color matching is critical, it can be very important.

Power

First off, watt-seconds are not a unit of light output; they're a unit of electrical usage. Different lights at the same power may give different levels of light. That depends on efficiency of the light tube, the power system, the cabling involved, the reflectors, and other details. I use watt-seconds here only for convenience; you must check the candidate systems for actual light output. A 100 watt-second unit that gives more light than a 1000 watt-second unit is unlikely, but 2:1 differences are not unheard of. (A Real World example--not photographic--would be "regular" tungsten light bulbs vs fluorescent light bulbs. A fluorescent 17 watt bulb might give off as much light as a 100 watt tungsten one. Electical power isn't the same as light output.)

The key information you need to know is

As you can see, the range is very broad. A 4x5 shooter expecting to use f32 and an ISO 50 film is going to need 64 times the power that a digital SLR-based photographer would need if shooting at ISO 100 at f5.6. If 500 watt-seconds is enough for the 35mm example, 32,000 watt-seconds would be needed for the second. (Fortunately, there are sometimes alternatives to raw power, but that does show just how much different these needs can be.)

The only rule-of-thumb I can provide is that 100 watt-seconds/head is more than enough for a small studio doing portraiture of individuals and small groups (up to 6-8 people) using 35mm film, 'full-frame' digital camera, or a smaller than 35mm digital sensor.

Minimum Power / Power Adjustments

Minimum output is linked to convenience. If you had, for example, a unit which only output 1000 watt-seconds at 100%, and no switches, you'd have to move lights around a lot more to get proper exposure than if you had a light which could switch from 60 to 1000 watt-seconds (full to 1/16th power). On the other extreme, a unit that only puts out 100 watt-seconds won't do much except for small settings where it's in close. (Outside of softboxes, a 400 w/s pack to 4 heads is more than enough to permit f8 with 100 ISO film for a 1-2 person portrait. Put the heads into softboxes, and you may [MAY] need 800 or more w-s.)

Currently, most monolights offer more power flexibility than most pack-and-head units, though that's not absolute. Most monolights give at least full-to-1/8th or so power settings, at least on full stops, if not third-stop settings or continuously variable. Most pack units only have full-to-1/8th or so, sometimes at 1/3 stop settings, but rarely fully continuous. (But some monolights are only full or half, and some pack units are continuously variable over 6 or more stops.)

Similarly, most pack units permit more total light than most monolights. 4000 watt-seconds is not uncommon in a pack system, while very few monolights exceed 1500 watt-seconds. While banks of lights, either monolights or heads, can be used, if you need a single light head/unit, with a particularly high output, generally that's only going to be available from a pack-based system.

Features / Convenience

A studio setup must be convenient enough to operate, move, adjust, setup, etc. It's tricky to judge what's convenient for someone else, though.

Key features for most photographers include system adjustability (See Power, above), modeling lights, recycling time, duty cycle, slave capabilities, controls, flash duration, and cabling issues.

Modeling Lights

A characteristic of studio flashes is that they have a modeling lamp/light. This is a constant-source light that's used to help show where the light and shadows will fall on the subject.

Many inexpensive lights use low-powered modeling lights--50 to 100 watts. That's somewhat useful in a completely dark studio, though it can make it difficult to focus. In a situation where there is uncontrolled ambient light, or an only moderately dark studio, that may not be enough to 'see' the lights and their shadows properly. Better lights use 250 watt modeling lights or more, and that can be very useful when using outside or for environmental work with a moderate level of ambient light. Note however, that the brightness of the modeling lights is not always indicative of flash power, though, especially in a system with mixed brands, models, or other parts.

Some--mostly older--systems can't vary the output of the modeling light to the flash itself, making it much harder to 'learn by seeing'--there's nothing approximating WYSIWYG if one light is set for 100 w-s and another at 1000 w-s, but both modeling lights are equally bright. My opinion is that if the modeling light cannot be set to be proportional to the flash, you're going to have a VERY difficult time learning your system. Similarly, having different flash units with different flash power that cannot be visually balanced can be tricky as well. (This can be worked around by always running full-power and using barndoors or gels to control the output. This works best if using panels; it's not useful for softboxes; marginal for umbrellas; and tricky for direct light.)

Recycling Time

Recycling time may be a consideration. Depending on what you're shooting, a fast cycle time can be a convenience or a necessity. Typically, the faster the recycling time, the more expensive the unit; a unit with 1 second recycling time in a moderately-powered system (~2000 watt-seconds) can cost 50% more than an otherwise comparable system with a 2 second cycling time. If you're shooting still-life setups, that's not an issue; if you're shooting fashion or other rapidly changing situations, it will be.

Duty Cycle

Generally an issue only for fast-recycling lights, some systems are not designed for constant use at fast recycling times; the flash heads will overheat and fail far sooner than they would otherwise. If you expect to shoot hundreds of exposures/hour for long periods, ask about the duty cycle of the lights you're investigating.

Slave Capabilities

Many modern pack systems and most (all?) modern monolights include an optical sensor that will trigger the unit when another flash goes off. Some sensors are more sensitive than others, or more sensitive to sunlight, some permit 'coded' signals to reduce cross-firing in multiple-lighting setups, and others come with integral radio triggering capabilities. Depending on your usage, this may be an issue. In most single-photographer studios, the standard sensors/slaves are fine. If you'll be shooting outside, you should ask about how well the system responds in sunlight (some slaves will not properly trigger in direct sunlight). If you often shoot with other photographers in a confined area, check into whether the triggers can be isolated in some way, either via coded IR triggering or radio triggering.

Controls

Remote controls are available for some lights. That may be very handy, or largely meaningless; it depends on how you operate. The ability to controlling a light that's on a boom or otherwise has an inaccessible head can be very handy, however, whether that's because the pack is on the ground, or there's a wired/wireless controller available. At the high end, some systems can even be computer controlled wirelessly.

Flash Duration

Flash Duration is something that may also have an impact, depending on the type of photography you do. Unlike hand-held or shoe-mounted flashes, the duration of a studio strobe may be fairly short (1/5,000 second), or fairly long (1/200 second). If you need to stop action, a faster strobe may be important. Checking the specifications from the manufacturers is suggested. (A table showing some different flash models' durations can be seen here

Times are usually listed either as t=0.1 or t=0.5. t=0.1 identifies the time elapsed for 90% of the light output; t=0.5 identifies the duration in which 50% of the light is output. (Generally, t=0.1 times will be very roughly 1/3 the t=0.5 times.)

Cabling

Cabling can be another issue for convenience. Monolights merely need to be plugged into the wall (excluding battery-powered units), while pack systems have to have the pack plugged in and each head attached. Either can result in difficulties depending on the situation. If there's a limited number of power outlets, there may not be enough for the full set of monolights or enough amperage on the line to use splitters; if the lights need to be far apart, the cables may not reach from the pack to all the heads. Extension cords can help in both cases, either plain power cord extensions or flash head extension cables.

In a single light setup, the only difference is that there's a big 'lump' in the line from the power outlet to the head in a pack system. one power cord to the monolight vs. one power cord to the pack, and one cord from the pack to the head.

System Weight and Size

Weight and portability are somewhat linked. The heavier the system, the less portable it is, and system weight needs to consider more than just the weight of the lights themselves.

Monolights are usually heavier at the head itself (having all the weight in the head except for power cords) than pack/head combinations. Pack and heads units usually weigh more than monolights, but the heads tend to be much lighter (say, 2-6 pounds vs 4-10 pounds), due to the pack carrying most of the 'heavy stuff' (capacitors and electronics), and that can be left on the ground. On a straight stand, that's not a significant difference, even attached to a moderate sized softbox; on a boom, it's a serious consideration. (Some photographers use smaller packs as counterweights to their lights. I've never tried that myself.) When calculating total system weight, be sure to include the weight of the required stands based on the weight of the head. A 9 lb head on a boom will need a much sturdier (aka heavier) boom and a sturdier stand than a 3 lb head, for example, making the difference more than just 9 lbs minus the weight of the pack. The more heads you have, the larger this factor becomes.

A very closely related issue is system size: how bulky is it? If you travel, how much space can you dedicate to your gear? Airlines go primarily by weight, but if you expect to do much on-location shooting, you should consider how much room you have in your vehicle. Heavier heads tend to require physically larger stands as well.

Portability

In addition to weight, another portability issue is power requirements. If you often travel overseas, different countries use different power systems and connectors. Check that your candidate system will support where you expect to go.

Do you expect to use the system away from "wall power"? Look into battery powered lights. There are a few lower-end systems (Lumedyne, 200-2400 w-s, 50 watt modeling light), and some more pricey ones (e.g. Hensel's Porty, Elinchrom's Ranger, and Profoto's B2 at 1200 watt-seconds each, Speedotron's 1500 watt-second Explorer, and Balcar's Concept B [up to 3 1600 watt-second heads on one pack]). They're all more expensive than AC-powered units, but if you do outdoor work often, it may be cheaper than renting / buying a generator or batteries and an inverter.

Note that most systems require a "true sine wave inverter" when using a battery and inverter. The less expensive and smaller modified sine-wave inverters generally will not work with modern flash systems; in extreme cases, they may damage the flash unit.

Expandability

Expandability depends on what accessories are available for whatever system you choose. That includes softboxes, barndoors, gel holders, ringlights, spotlights, etc. It also includes the costs of expanding. Pack systems make it easier to add another light (without adding more power) fairly inexpensively until you hit the limit of each pack. (2-3-4-6 outlet packs are available.). Expanding a monolight system means adding another light. Adding a new head to an existing pack setup doesn't increase the total available light, while adding a new head to a monolight system does.

Few monolights support ringlights or spotlights. If that's a specialty you expect to use often, it's something to consider. (Mixed systems are possible and can resolve this, even if the monolights and pack systems don't share any modifiers.)

Cost of Overall System

What is the budget? That budget must include more than just the lights themselves unless you plan to set them on the floor or tape them to the walls. Reflectors, softboxes, diffusion panels, umbrellas, stands, barndoors, flags, etc. are all part of the lighting setup.

If you have a dealer who sells used lighting, you can save lot of money, but I recommend that only if you trust that dealer, and/or you can use the units for a while with return privileges. Some enormous savings are available from pack-and-head units in particular, as they've been around a lot longer than monolights. (I managed to get 2 800 watt-second packs and one head for under $200 [US] for the set.)

Reliability, part II.

No matter what you do, make sure you avoid the Single Point of Failure problem. Don't get just ONE light if you anticipate having to have things work on schedule; if it's out, you're completely out. If you absolutely need 3 heads, get 4; that way, if (when!) one goes out, you're OK. If you get pack/head units, consider purchasing 2 lower powered packs rather than 1 higher powered pack; again, if one goes out, it leaves you still operating. (Much the same as always having a backup body/back/lens/spare tire, etc.)

It's also worth noting that reliability may be achieved by deliberately buying more than is needed-plus-spare, and bringing extra spares along. Depending on price and weight, that can be an effective option.

Additional Comments

Used Equipment

Buying used equipment can save a lot of money. It can also be somewhat risky, as some used studio gear has been heavily used. While most gear is very sturdy, it's best to be cautious when buying used strobes. It can be done, but it's somewhat risky unless you buy from someone you trust; there are more chances for dramatic failures (AKA lightning bolts) with high voltage equipment than there are for simple cameras and lenses.

Brands I've used

Now that I've bored you with that, brands on which I've worked with are: Photogenic, Speedotron , White Lightning, Alien Bees, Calumet's Traveler (made by Bowens) and Dyna-lite. All worked well.

I started with Speedotron Brownline, then added some Blackline gear to take advantage of their focusing spotlight. I've since converted to all Speedotron Blackline, with a mix of pack-and-head system and monolight.


If you have additions, comments, or questions, please e-mail Kevin Connery [portraits@kevinconnery.com]

This page was last updated: November 29, 2013