Have you been wondering which kinds of lights to get? And which soft boxes? Or maybe umbrellas? or LEDs… It seems like there are so many options out there. It’s overwhelming to find a place to start. I’m sure you’re also like me in that I didn’t have $10,000 to spend on lights when I got started. I have good news! You don’t need $10k, and there’s an easy way to figure out what kind of equipment you need. Let me show you.
Just like your camera, your lights are tools that do a specific job. And just like you don’t use a knife to cut your grass, even though it cuts things, you should choose the lights that are meant for your kind of photography. That should immediately rule out a vast majority of the options out there. Your life just got easier. Hooray!
I remember when I went to the store to buy my first professional DSLR. My 5d mkii was my new favorite thing, but it didn’t come with a lens. The guy at the store asked me what I like to shoot, and I listed off a bunch of things. People, pets, landscapes, food, architecture… basically everything. Then he asked what I want to shoot the most. I couldn’t decide. That’s a lot of pressure! So he asked what I had been using. I had an 18-55 kit lens before and he suggested another wide angle zoom lens, but of much higher quality. I went with that. Soon I learned that this 17-40 f/4 was awful for portraits and head shots, and that’s what I wanted to learn. So I had to buy another lens. I got a 50 f/1.4 and an 85 f/1.2. It was a game changer. I now had the right tools for the job.
The same goes for lights. Choose the kind that are designed for the kind of photography you want to shoot. Are you interested in:
Just because you choose your favorite doesn’t mean the lights won’t help you do the others. They just won’t be optimized for it and you my have to improvise on a few things. Take some time to figure out what your goal is. There is no rush. And your goals can change. But don’t make a hasty decision that you regret a week later.
There are three basic types of flash. Each one has its own benefits. Knowing this will help you eliminate 2/3 of the available options and will make your decision a whole lot easier.
Monolights are self-contained strobes. This means that the computer that runs them is in the same body as the actual flash bulb. They just need to be plugged in and you’re all set. You can adjust the power levels on the flash itself, and each light operations independently. This is generally a less expensive option, but they still provide great quality options.
If you have more than one monolight in your setup, you can still trigger them all at the same time very easily. They come with a sensor on them called an ‘optical slave.’ This sensor detects when another flash goes off and it will trigger it’s own flash. You only need to trigger one light and the rest will all fire automatically, as long as they can ‘see’ each other. If you are shooting out in direct sunlight, the sensor can not detect the other flashes and it won’t trigger. But if you are in almost any other situation, you shouldn’t have a problem. This will save you some money since you don’t have to buy remote triggers for all of your lights, unless you plan to shoot in direct sunlight.
A flash head is essentially just a housing with a flash bulb. It doesn’t have any controls on it and it doesn’t need an optical slave. Do you remember the move Independence Day? All of the aliens were controlled by the mothership. The mothership made all of the decisions and the aliens did as they were told. This is how flash heads work. Each flash head plugs into a central power supply/set of controls. This one box houses everything needed to control the individual flash heads. This makes controlling all of your lights much easier, since you can adjust them all from the same place. You don’t have to walk around from strobe to strobe to adjust their power levels.
The other main benefit of flash heads is that they generally have quicker flash durations than monolights. That means they’re better for photographing moving subjects. And since they have to be plugged into the power pack, they are portable by default.
There are some downsides though. The heads be around the same price as a monolight, but you have to buy the power pack, and those can quite pricey. The power packs are what you would actually shop for. The heads are secondary. Overall, it’s a much bigger investment than buying monolights. They also weigh a lot less than monolights, so if you have big softboxes on them, they tend to drop down or tip over if not properly weighted down.
This is where most photographers start out. Speedlights are the easiest to use and the least expensive, but they have the most limitations. Speedlights are the small flash unites that usually sit on top of your camera. They are the more powerful and more dynamic version of the flash that is built in to most DSLRs.
Speedlights run on AA batteries, and are the most portable of any flash. They can be fired with a trigger or as a slave. They have a wide range of light modifiers and work well in small spaces. They also have an insanely fast recycle time which means they can fire rapidly, often faster than your camera can take the next picture.
They have a few major downsides though. The first being their power level. They can not put out the light that monolights or heads can. It’s not even close. You have to link multiple speed lights together in order to match that kind of power, which is usually more expensive and less versatile than just using a monolight. They are also very limited in the light modifiers that you can use with them. Large reflectors and softboxes won’t work with them. They’re not powerful enough.
Choosing the right features will help you get the job done right, with a lot less work and consideration. There is no perfect setup that will do everything, but you can sure get close. Think about what’s most important for what you plan on doing.
Do you plan to take your lights outside or leave them in the studio? Taking them outside means you need power supplies for them, and they need to be durable. Having to purchase portable power supplies will increase your costs and this needs to be accounted for.
Are you going to be taking photos of an entire class or small groups? You will need more powerful lights to cover that much area. If you are going to be in a smaller studio space, too much power will prevent you from shooting at wider apertures. Lights have a range of minimum and maximum power. Too much is just as bad as not enough.
You can get a set of lights for $300 or a set for $20,000. You certainly get what you pay for, but you might not need everything they have to offer. Make a list of the important features you need and use that as your base to make a decision.
Not only can power levels fluctuate from shot to shot, but so can color temperature. Certain brands are better with this than others. The variations might be small, but they could be very significant if you’re doing product photography and the colors need to be consistent and true.
This is one of the lesser-known features that actually makes a huge difference. While a flash may be fast, they vary in speed just like your shutter. If you have a slow flash duration, and your subjects are moving quickly (running, dancing, swinging a bat, playing…) they will come out a little blurry. Use the flash duration just like you use shutter speeds. If a shutter speed of 1/1000 is needed to freeze motion, your flash duration must also be at least that fast.
Investing in a set of lights can be a pricey purchase, so it’s also important to consider the other items you will need to be able to use your flashes.
You need some way for your camera to tell the flash when to fire. Some cameras and flash units have built in radio transmitters, but most don’t You can also connect your camera to a flash using a special kind of cable, but that’s one more thing to trip over, accidentally unplug, or forget about and pull over a light stand if you walk too far. It’s best to use wireless triggers. They either use radio frequency or infrared signals.
When choosing your remotes, check the usable distance of the signal. Some will only work in close quarters. It is also important to check the sync speed. Sync speed is how fast your shutter can be before it is too fast for the lights to sync. Most camera/light combos can not go any faster than 1/200 seconds. Some radio triggers will allow you to shoot much faster using Hypersync of High Speed Sync technology. They cost a little more, but it will allow you to use the lights in many more situations that would otherwise not be conducive for slow shutter speeds. You can also find triggers that will allow you to do rear curtain sync. This lets you use flash with longer exposures.
Certain triggers are meant for specific brands of cameras because of the programming they need. So make sure you buy the triggers that fit your brand. Some triggers will work on any camera, but some won’t. Make sure you check that before purchasing your triggers.
Now that you have your flash units, how are you going to shape the light. Larger softboxes and umbrellas will give you softer light, while smaller reflectors will give you harder light. Adding grids or barn doors will help you shape the light so you can aim it at specific parts of your subject or background. There is no ‘best option’ for light modifiers. They are specific tools for specific jobs. Choose the ones that fit your style and genre.
One important thing to consider when buying your light modifiers is that every flash needs a specific kind of mount to attach your modifier. For example, you can not use a Profoto modifier on an Elinchrom light without an adapter. These mounts are called ‘speed rings’ or ‘adapter rings’ or ‘mounts.’ It’s like trying to use a Canon lens on a Nikon camera.
Flash units need power to run. As mentioned above, some run off power packs, some need batteries, and some plug into the wall. You can also buy power supplies that your monolights will plug into so you don’t need a wall socket. Whatever the power source is that you need, it’s always best to have a backup. Purchasing another power pack for your heads can cost thousands, but having portable power sources can save you a lot of money, and a giant headache if you run our of juice during an outdoor shoot. Always have extra batteries with you, but if you need something bigger, here are some recommended options.
Just like everything else in our industry, there are a bunch of choices when buying equipment. And each option does something that the others can not. Most of the variations with light stands come down to convenience and stability. Here are some of the options to consider:
This is the most common type of stand for lower budget setups, but that doesn’t mean that they’re inferior. These stands have air cushions inside each segment of the stand that prevent it from closing too quickly, which can break your light. The only downside is that sometimes they are tough to close. They might take a little more effort to collapse them down. But that’s how you know they are working.
This is one of the original types of stands that has been around for a long time, but that doesn’t make it obsolete. They are generally heavier duty, but that also means they weigh more. The main benefit of a C stand is that it comes with a boom arm so you can position your light a few feet away from the stand. So if you want your light directly in front of your subject, but don’t want the stand in the shot, this is the way to go.
Similar to a C stand in build structure, these stands have wheels on the feet. This makes it easy to move them around the studio. You don’t have to pick them up. These work best indoors on smooth surfaces. You should keep them away from grass, rocks, or dirt, as it will not sit as evenly and it could ruin the bearings inside the wheels.
These stands are very heavy duty and come equipped with a crank handle on the base. Turning the crank will raise and lower the light. This is ideal for heavier lights and requires the least amount of effort to adjust the height of your light.
No matter what kind of stand you get, I strongly recommend buying sandbags to weight down your stands. When you have a heavy light on top of a stand, it is easy for your lights to tip over and break. If someone trips over a cord or you move the stand to quickly, it can fall over. Having a heavy base will prevent that from happening. This is also invaluable when shooting outdoors. A little bit of wind can catch your softboxes or umbrellas like a sail and send your light crashing to the ground. Don’t just pick up sand bags from the hardware store. Get ones that are made for photography. They are specifically designed to attach to your stands.[/vc_column_text][vc_separator style=”shadow”][vc_column_text]
So now that you know what kind of lights, triggers, stands, and accessories you need, let’s chat about how to use them! I’m writing another MASSIVE article about lighting setups so stay tuned! This was posted as of August 27th, 2017. The next one should come out in a week or two. There’s a lot of useful info in there and I want to make sure I cover a much as I can.
Keep shooting, and remember, every photo you take, brings you one step closer.
Mike is the Tim Burton of photography. He tells powerful, imaginative stories with cinematic photography. He specializes in dramatic, film-noir style boudoir and epic cinematic portraits. He's also the creative force behind Photogs Unite! which focuses on learning from professionals outside the photography industry to learn marketing, sales, branding, and everything else you need to know to build a thriving photography business. And burritos are the key to his happiness.