Should you spend big bucks on studio lighting? - eraeber

Fellow photographers often ask me what lighting equipment I use. At least I find this a more worthy question than asking what camera I use. It is not that the type of lighting equipment counts very much. Using any type of controlled light at all contributes far more towards the final result than the brand of lighting gear or the camera model.Should you spend big bucks on your lights?

However, I have always enjoyed achieving the best possible image with the most reasonably priced lights by combining do-it-yourself options with well chosen equipment. Hence this blog post to walk you through the various lighting options I have been using over the years, in the hope of giving you a perspective and help you make your own choices.

Let me first start with a disclaimer. The majority of my photography is not large production. I can afford to reschedule a shoot due to gear failure (although it has not yet happened). Therefore, I value cost over quality when it comes to lighting equipment. This allows me to purchase redundant gear and I take the Mc Gyver approach to fixing problems on the spot when a strobe occasionally fails or when I face a malfunctioning RF trigger. I will often tend to recommend affordable equipment rather than reliable and expensive equipment, unless the stake is high (such as with light stands).

It has served me well. I have stopped counting the number of broken umbrellas. My strobe has fallen into a fountain. The beauty dish, blown by the wind, has knocked the monolight speedring fixture off and radio triggers have died because the batteries leaked. This is the price to pay for equipment that cost a third of the price of professional equipment.

Finally, if you decide to purchase any equipment, note that some of the links below will earn me a referral fee. I thank you in advance!

For the story

I started my studio photography years ago in the basement of my parent's house while at college. I was the proud owner of two 500 watt halogen construction lamps, a wood panel which I painted in different shades of gray as backgrounds and a set of second hand desk lamps. I used black-and-white film, which came in handy because I did not have to worry about color temperature.

Christian Denisart from Nina’s friends - Eric Raeber 1989<br />
two 500 watt halogen lamps and a tungsten table lamp<br />
Ilford FP4 135-36 film

Christian Denisart from Nina’s friends - Eric Raeber 1989
two 500 watt halogen lamps and a tungsten table lamp
Ilford FP4 135-36 film

Why artificial lighting?

Before you purchase any lighting equipment, you have to consider your style of photography and how you will use your equipment:

Do you have a dedicated location for your studio?

If you setup your studio in your living room, as I have, you need to consider how easy it is to deploy and fold everything down. A solid softbox is more cumbersome to fold than an umbrella. Mine are hanging, assembled, from the ceiling of the garage. A paper seamless background is also more difficult to store than a muslin cloth.

Do you travel with your gear?

If you do travel, consider the power supply: the 4 AA batteries in a speedlight are easy to carry or replace. AC power is not always available and AC battery pack can be heavy. Consider also how much space your light stands, umbrellas and tripod will take when folded into the suitcase. Can they fit into your carry-on luggage?

Do you shoot outside?

If you want to shoot in/against the sun, you will want to overpower the sun. Speedlites are too weak to use with a light modifier. You will need monolights of 300 W/s or more. Alternatively you could use a camera with a leaf shutter such as the Fuji X100s or the X100t. These allow sync speed upwards of 1/1000s.

Do you photograph people?

If you shoot mostly inanimate objects, you have all the time in the world with your shutter speed. You can even use a flashlight! If you shoot people and you decide to use a continuous light, you will need to work at relatively slow speeds (1/60th) or open your aperture all the way to catch that quick smile with a nice bokeh. Flash is more comfortable.

Do you like action?

If you want to catch that hair in motion or take dance photography, your standard strobes will be too slow. Unlike the speedlight which have a thyristor to stop give a light pulse, strobes generally have a "slow" (1/300th) exponential discharge through a capacitor. If you need to freeze action, you need to use a speedlite at 1/2 power or higher end strobes as I will describe hereafter.

Do you shoot large groups?

If you shoot groups of 2 or more. You definitely will need something with more power that a speedlite.

Are you always on the move?

All options I propose hereafter use manual light settings. This is how I shoot. If you are wedding or a event photographer and you have an assistant holding a strobe, you will want to consider TTL flash. A number of options exist in that domain. I will not cover these here as I am shooting prepared images.


Option 1 - light painting ($17)

The very first stage for studio photography, which is also the cheapest is to "paint" your subject with a flashlight. This is perfect for tabletop photography of inanimate objects such as flowers, etc. It requires very minimal equipment which you may already own:

- $5 LED flashlight

- $6 two white foam boards 20x30 inches (50x70cm) which you use as either background or reflector. You can also simply paint a large piece of cardboard.

- $6 white cooking parchment paper to use as diffuser

Note that the use of an LED flashlight is important, because it has a similar light temperature to sunlight or to flash strobes, which allow you to mix lights

Light painting - Eric Raeber 2013

Light painting - Eric Raeber 2013

Option 2 - Continuous light ($80)

The next most affordable option to cover a larger studio area is to use continuous lighting. I have never tested that out as the limited amount of light these simple lamps produce requires a high iso and rather long shutter speed.

-  $80 Continuous lighting kit such as Cowboy studio with 4 lights

If you decide to purchase this kit and later want to move on, the light stands and umbrella can be reused with speedlights

Option 3 - Single Speedlight ($170)

The next step up in your studio is to use a speedlite. You may have seen the high end flash from your camera brand, such as the Canon Speedlite 600EX-RT or the Nikon SB-910. These $550 flash units offer automatic light control (E-TTL). But in the studio we want manual control of our light, so would instead recommend a more affordable option which has the same output power but is much easier to operate. Here is the step up:

- $75 Speedlite Yongnuo YN-560 IV model can be manually adjusted from full power to 1/128 and includes both an RF and an optical trigger. 

- $30 The Yongnuo RF-C603 II for Canon or the Yongnuo RF-603 II for Nikon RF flash wireless trigger connects on the flash shoe of your camera and can either trigger your flashes remotely or it can be used to trigger the shutter from the another RF-603 unit. Make sure you pick the model for your exact camera if you want to use it as an RF remote trigger.

These models are by far not as robust as the industry standard: the Pocket Wizard, but they cost literally 1/5th the price. I have instead an extra replacement unit with me.

- $26 80cm umbrella Octabox which I highly recommend (or the $20 70cm x 70cm umbrella square softbox). I like softboxes much better than silver reflector umbrella for the uniformity on the light they produce. They also give you nicer reflection in the eye with portraits. This specific has a fiber structure rather than a metallic profile, which makes it more resistant when the wind blows it over. It is not unbreakable and I have broken the shaft a few times with a really hard fall. But I don't mind, because I'd rather break the softbox umbrella protects the flash inside  very well.

- $18 7ft light stand

- $14 Hotshoe flash swivel that can hold your umbrella/softbox as well as hold the flash. Choose one in metal and with a long hole for the umbrella shaft for increased rigidity.

- $14 The Strobist gel kit which allows you to modify the color of the flash and its temperature with tungsten or fluorescent. Note that if you decide to stick the gel between the flash window and its wide angle fresnel diffuser, do not use the flash at full power on a more opaque gels. The heat will rapidly damage them.

This is equipment you definitely want to start with. Even when you decide to upgrade to option 5 or 6, you will always use your speedlite as an auxiliary light and you will carry it with you for extra light traveling.

When you start feeling limitations because you only have one light, use the foam board from option 1 and hold it on the other side of your subject to reflect the light. This will brighten the shadows and act as a second light.

When you start feeling really too limited after trying every combination of speedlite and foam board, it is time to move on. You can choose two routes. If you want a very lightweight studio equipment which you can carry around, purchase a couple more speedlites (option 3). If you think you want to get serious with large studio setups or more powerful lights, go to option 4.

Single speedlight in a 60x90cm softbox - Eric Raeber 2013

Single speedlight in a 60x90cm softbox - Eric Raeber 2013

Option 4 - Double the speedlights ($320)

Here is some equipment you will want to consider to grow your speedlite setup:

- 2 x $70 another pair of Yongnuo YN-560 IV speedlight

- $60 Another pair of light stands, umbrellas, and flash swivels such as Cowboy Studio set

- $18 reflector such Neewer 43" reflector to either use to shield a rim light, or you can use as a reflector/diffuser. Note that the boards you had from option 1 can serve a similar purpose.

- $36 The large 60" Impact Convertible Umbrella is extremely useful to produce a soft light for portraits. It cannot be used outdoor with the slightest of winds.

- The $55 Yongnuo YN-560TX for Canon or YN 560-TX for Nikon is an absolute treat to use with the YN-560 iii flashes. In addition to triggering the speedlight, it allows adjusting individual flash power remotely from your camera. This is an incredible time saver and easy to use.

If you shoot a lot outside, with your new total of 3 speedlights, you may want to consider a $20 tripple hotshoe. This will allow you to place 3 flashes into your softbox to make overpowering of the sun much easier. 

If you are into people studio photography, you might consider a $65 Savage seamless paper backdrop as well as a $80 Linco crossbar backdrop holder. The latter is steel and holds weight much better than some entry level stands. You will want something strong if you upgrade your lights.

Option 5 - Real studio strobes ($650)

When you want powerful studio strobes, you are looking around $200 for a 400 watt/seconds strobe unit. I have had good experience with Visico but they do not seem widely available any more. I have tried cheaper units in the past (around $120) but they tend to have a custom speedring (the part that attaches accessories) and they don't last. You will have difficulties finding replacement bulbs. Here are a few things to look for:

1. Make sure the front adapter is compatible with a major brand for light modifiers (i.e. Bowens, Elinchrom, AlienBee)

2. Ensure that the strobe has a fan - otherwise your flash bulb will wear out fast.

3. Check that you can control the power all the way down to 1/64th and not just a switch to set to half the power

4. Does the unit have a modeling lamp? I do not find modeling lamps indispensable any more since the LCD screen on your camera gives you instant feedback.

If you intend to later upgrade to Option 6, you may want to consider AlienBee units which have compatible accessory ring.

Here are some other accessories and light modifiers:

- 2 x $30 Linco 8ft light stand in steel

- $72 Visico foldable octabox which has an outstanding and directed key light

- $90 Beauty dish with honeycomb grid for front lighting

- 2 x $70 Strip box 14x55 with eggcrate grid is used for rim light

Option 6 - High speed studio strobes ($1400)

If you need powerful stobes that have a very short flash duration to capture motion, your most affordable choice are the Einstein E640 units by Paul C. Buff

- 2 x $500 Einstein E640

- 2 x $75 PLM 64" soft silver umbrella These are large and create a beautiful soft light

- $120 for various PLM front fabrics or reflectors

Meagan Ahern, 2013

Meagan Ahern, 2013

Option 7 - And if money was no object ($$$)

Assuming big fat checks come in repeatedly from your clients. Or that you need to write off some new capital equipment. Or that you feel an urge to impress your clients... you might wonder "What is next?". Unfortunately I will not be of much help as I have not yet had the chance to use much of that equipment.

However a self-contained strobe such as the $2000 ProFoto B1 TTL look awfully good! And so does a medium format digital body!

Miscellaneous 

I have another set of useful tool that I use and reuse frequently. Here they are:

- The $10 Clamp on a 60cm flexible arm  comes in handy to hold a small reflector or a flag. It is not strong enough to hold a speedlite though.

- The $30 Rosco Matte Cinefoil is wonderful to restrict and modify light.

Conclusion

I have shared with you just one path. This is the path that has worked for me in realizing my vision. Yours may be different, but I hope you will have found a point or two in my experience that may influence your own path in acquiring the studio lighting to support your art.

If this is the case, I’d love to know how your path differs or which points you have found interesting. Please leave me a comment.

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