What kind of studio photography lights should I buy
February 23, 2011 Photography
Should I just get speedlites and put them in a softbox?
Is constant lighting bright enough for studio photography?
What brand lights should I get?
Should I use a softbox or umbrellas?
If you are new to lighting and you ever asked yourself any of these questions, then this article is for you. I had all the same questions when I was first getting into lighting. I was confused at the differences between all the different types of lights you can find on eBay. I didn't know if I wanted to spend the extra money on getting speedlites or if I wanted to get studio strobes for indoor use. I felt that if I got speedlites, it would be 1 solution for both indoor and outdoor. After investing in speedlites, I still ended up also buying studio strobes. They really do serve different purposes. I use the speedlites when I need portability, and I use the studio strobes when I'm indoors doing a photoshoot. Will speedlites work for indoor use? Absolutely. The only reason I bought more indoor studio strobes is because you don't have to constantly mess with changing out batteries, and they don't over heat as quickly. Keep in mind, I'm not sponsored and I'm not getting paid by anyone to say anything. This is just my opinion from my own personal experience.
If you are constantly looking at which new lenses to buy, and you don't have lights yet, you're crazy
Ok.. so you're not crazy, you just don't understand yet that a simple set of lights (even a $100 light kit from eBay) will improve the quality of your photos way more than a new lens will, and for a lot less money. You can have the best lens and camera, and still end up with crappy pictures if you don't have enough light.
Non Variable Lights - Don't Buy This(unless your budget is $100)
When I first bought a lighting kit on eBay (in 2007), I made the mistake of getting a non-variable strobe light kit. Meaning, I could not adjust the output of the brightness of each flash individually. This is important because you will quickly come to love using different lighting ratios (where one light is brighter than the other) to create dynamic photos. You might be asking "Couldn't I just move the light closer or farther from the subject to change how bright it is?" Yes, you could, but its a pain to always be moving the lights. Plus, you are usually working in tight spaces. It will also effect the quality of your shadows (making them harder or softer). When you are trying to light something, and you just want to adjust the output of the flash power, you will really wish you had purchased a lighting kit that has a variable output. But, keep in mind, if your budget for lights is too low to buy a kit that includes variable lights, even the first kit I bought was better than nothing. And it was only $100 and got me started, included 2 lights, 2 umbrellas, 2 light stands, and some wireless triggers. If you start with the best, you won't appreciate the features as much as if you upgrade later :) The thing is, if you get this kit first, then later upgrade to a variable light, you will never go back and use these again. If you at least start with a variable kit, and you upgrade and get nicer lights, you can still use your variable lights as backup or for additional lights. A couple more bad things about these lights. The trigger port on the light isn't the standard 3.5mm jack, its a 2.5mm jack. All my other lights use a 3.5mm jack, so just to test these lights, I had to track down a converter. Also, the power cord is not removable, and its not very long either. You might need to grab a couple dollar store extension cords. Not expensive, but annoying.
$70-$100 on eBay, includes 2 light stands, 2 umbrellas, carrying case, wireless trigger, and 2 Non-Variable strobes. Great deal if your budget is only $100
Constant Lighting (Lights that are either "on" or "off") Don't Buy This(unless you are buying these lights mainly for VIDEO and not photography)
eBay is filled with these. If you search for "studio kit", a lot of kits come up but they include a bunch of florescent bulbs in a cluster to make the light bright. If you are looking for strobes (the lights that go off only when you take a picture), make sure to include the word "Strobe" in your search. The problem with constant lighting, is they are way less powerful that strobes, they use up a lot of electricity, some get really hot, and most importantly, and you have to jack your settings up to unacceptable settings to get a decent exposure. Even really expensive lights, like the ARRI light I review below, its good for video, but not good for taking photos. You'll get a lot nicer photos getting actual strobes / flashes, instead of a light that's always on. You might be thinking that constant lights are easier to use cause you can always see the final result, but you will quickly learn to already know what the strobe will look like. Think about a flash light. Can you picture in your head what kind of light a flash light will make before you turn it on? Of course you can cause you've turned on flashes lights so many times in your life, you already know what it will look like. Same with light through a window. You can already imagine what that kind of light will look like without actually seeing it. You will quickly learn how to imagine what kind of light your strobes will make. It's easy, it just takes repetition.
Constant Lighting - Stay away from these unless you are doing video. Even if you are doing video, buy two sets of lights. One for video and one for photography, cause these just don't work great for photography.
Even the ARRI lights I have for video, are just not good for photography. ARRI is a huge name brand, expensive lighting, built like a rock, made to last forever. But it's made for video. For my video lights, I have 4 ARRI lights. I have 1x 300w, 2x 650w, and 1x 1000w. These aren't florescent, these are Tungsten. And they get hot! I don't mean like warm, I mean if you touch any part of the light without special gloves, you will burn yourself. They will also burn/melt your umbrellas and soft boxes, so if you get some of these lights, you have to buy quality ($$) umbrellas too. I also have to make sure I don't plug more than 2 lights into the same circuit in my house or I'll trip a fuse. So I have to run extension cords all over the place just to use all my lights at the same time.
ARRI lights are awesome for video. They get very hot, and you need a lot of high powered lights to simulate the same results as a cheap strobe. These can range from $370 for a 300w light to $700+ for a 1000w light.
Variable Strobes - We have a winnerOk, ok, not so quick. The term variable strobe could mean a million things. I'm just saying, a variable strobe / light / flash / speedlights is what you want to end up getting. Now that we are in the right category of lights, the options are unlimited. From cheap eBay strobes; Canon, Nikon, or Knock off Brand speedlights; Alienbees; Dynalite; Profoto; etc... But, I am assuming if you are reading this blog, you fall into the category of the first 3 items I listed. Either eBay strobes, Speedlites, or Alienbees. I use all 3 regularly. We'll be going over each one below.
Variable Strobes - 300DI
The next studio kit I bought on eBay was a 900w Strobe Studio Flash Kit. It included three 300w strobes, two softboxes, barndoors, a grid, gels, 3 lightstands, 1 wireless trigger and a case. I think I paid around $350 - $450 for the entire kit. I'm calling this strobe the "300DI" simply because that is what's printed on the side of my lights. These are just Chinese knock offs that has been rebranded a million times by a million different companies. As long as they "Look" like these (same shape and color), then they are the same. Mine in particular say 300DI on it. The only problem with this kit was some of the unnecessary accessories it comes with. You will quickly come to realize that soft boxes are a pain to setup, take down, store, move around, etc.. Umbrellas are a million times easier, they are cheap, easy to travel with, easy to setup and take down, and can create a bunch of different lighting effects. There are additional kits on eBay I have found that include Umbrellas instead of softboxes (Or Both). Though, it is good to try to find a kit that contains barndoors and a grid, cause sometimes you want to directly the light a certain direction. To find this kit on eBay, search for "900w studio strobe kit". If 250w per light is enough (which it should be if you are in a home studio), the kits are about $384 instead of $450. Make sure the picture of the strobes looks similar to the ones I reviewed below. If you need more umbrellas (or a different kind, like white shoot through umbrellas), you can buy them as cheap as $10 each from bhphoto.com. I highly recommend white shoot through umbrellas cause they make a really soft light, and you can put the light as close as you want to the subject. If you end up getting the 250w lights, you'll defiantly want the white shoot through umbrellas so you can get the light closer. Keep in mind, these kits usually only come with 2 or 3 lights. I ended up buying an extra light so I had a total of 4, because if you are ever trying to do a seamless white background, or green screen, you need to light your background evenly and separately from your subject. You can get away with 3 lights, but you'll be glad you had 4. You can usually find a single strobe on ebay for $100. Or buy a 250 watt strobe on ebay for around is $75.
Variable Strobes (300DI) This is an awesome kit you won't regret buying if your budget is $350 - $450
Speedlites / Speedlights(These are variable too, meaning you can adjust the brightness of the flash)
If you're primary subject for photography is outdoors, and you want to do off camera lighting, then you'll want to go with speedlites. Nikons brand is Speedlight, and Canon's brand, is Speedlite. There is a company called "YONGNUO" on ebay that sells Chinese knock off speedlites. They are actually surprisingly good. They have great power output, well made, look almost identical to canons lights, and they are cheap. They are anywhere from $50 - $100 depending on the model you get. The lights themselves are great, powerful, built well (not as well as the name brand, for example, the battery door is often very flimsy on the non-name brand flahses.), they do lack some of the features the name brand speedlites have, but they are 1/4 the price! Below, I review the differences between the Canon Speedlite 580ex II ($460), Canon Speedlite 430ex II ($284), and the Yongnuo YN467 ($90). These flashes suck a lot of battery power, so you will want to get Sanyo Eneloop rechargeable batteries. You can find them on eBay, BHphoto, and Amazon for about $30 for 8 AA's and 4 AAA's, and a charger. They are amazing batteries, provide extremely fast recycle times on the speedlites, and they keep their charge for 2-3 years. This is great cause you want to keep a set of already charged batteries in your bag at all times so you have a spare when you batteries in the flash dies. To be honest, this isn't an option. If you get speedlites, you NEED these batteries. If you don't get these batteries immediately, you'll get them one day when you get tired of buying new batteries every other day and waiting 5-8 seconds for your flash to recycle. Then, when you get them, you'll be kicking yourself for waiting so long. One of the disadvantages of speedlites is how often you need to change the batteries. Lets say you have 4 speedlites, and each one is at a different power. Even if you put fresh batteries in each flash, they will all drain the batteries at different speeds. When the batteries get low, it takes longer for the flash to recycle. If the flashes are all recycling at different times, you'll start to take more photos before one of the lights is ready, resulting is inconsistent light output or lights not triggering. When you're working indoors, you'll really appreciate studio strobes that plugin. Even that simple variable kit for $350. Thats as cheap as 1 quality speedlite. If you get speedlites, you will also need a light stand and umbrella adapter. http://www.mpex.com/browse.cfm/4,4722.html You'll want a gel kit too. http://www.mpex.com/browse.cfm/4,13229.html
Canon 580ex II @ $460
Canon 430ex II @ $284
Yongnuo YN467 @ $90
Triggering Your LightsThere is still one more thing you need to make this complete. A way to
trigger the lights. This is where it gets tricky. The kit above will most likely come with a simple wireless trigger. The problem with these triggers is, they don't always work. Sometimes they will work great, sometimes you can't get them to work at all. They are not consistent at all. And if you're trying to get paid for your photography, you can't be messing with your equipment when a client is there. One thing that is nice is that these variable strobes have optical triggers build into them. This means, you can hook up one light to your camera and when the light goes off, the other lights will "see the light" and go off too. So really, all we are trying to do here is some how get your camera to tell at least one of the lights to go off. The kit trigger will work for now, and as a backup, you can buy a simple 16' cable on ebay for 10 bucks that will connect your camera to the light. Its a thin cable, flexible, and is a great backup if the other ones stop working for some reason. You're looking for a cable, you want to search for a PC Male Sync Plug to 3.5mm Phone Plug Cable.
It has an audio cable plug on one end, like headphones do, and the other end has a circle metal plug that plugs into your camera. Some lower end cameras don't have this port, but you can buy a hot shoe to pc sync adapter for 5 or 10 bucks that will give your camera that port.
PC Sync Cable to 3.5mm - Optionally, you can hook up your camera directly to your off camera flash with a cable. This is the cheapest method and it works 100% of the time. The disadvantage is you're tethered with a cable
But lets get serious here. You don't want to buy all these cool lights, and end up having to tether your camera to one of the lights with a cable. It will limit your creativity. And the problem with the cheap wireless triggers is, they are not consistent... at all. It will work for 1 photo.. then stop working for 5 photos, then work again randomly. Its very frustrating.
Triggering Your Lights, The Right WayOne of the coolest, and easiest wireless triggering systems is the "RadioPopper JrX" studio system. Its $159 and comes with the transmitter and receiver. You put the transmitter in the hot shoe of your camera, and hook the receiver up to 1 light. Every time you take a pic, it triggers the 1 light, which will optically, by the light, trigger your other lights. Another reason the RadioPopper JrX system is by far the best system to get, is because they have this thing called an RPCube. It lets you control the output (brightness) of the flash by changing a simple dial on the transmitter (Which is attached to your camera... so instead of walking to your lights every time you want to adjust the power, you can just control directly from the camera). Changing the output from the RadioPopper only works with Canon Speedlites or Alienbees, NOT these cheaper 250w or 300w studio lights. If you are planning on controlling the power output from the transmitter, then you need to buy an RPCube for each Speedlite (and receiver for each speedlite too). For Alienbees, you need 1 receiver for each Alienbees Strobe, but you do not need an RPCube. The RPCubes are for Speedlites only. You attach the speedlite to the RPCube via the hotshot. Then you plug the RPCube into the RadioPopper JrX Receiver through a 3.5mm audio cable.
I created custom colored labels on my RadioPopper JrX transmitter so I can easily see which dial goes with which receiver.
I also added velcro to the back of the receivers and to the side of the RPCubes.
I didn't even talk about ETTL and HighSpeed Sync. If you need that... then you need pretty much need to get Canon Speedlites (or Nikon) and PocketWizards, which are expensive. $200 for the transmitter, $220 for the receiver, another hundred or so for the controller to control the power output. RadioPopper has a higher end line of triggers too that support High Speed Sync, but for High Speed Sync, I actually prefer PocketWizards over RadioPopper.. but this is only if you need High Speed Sync.
AlienbeesOne of the coolest things about using Speedlites with RadioPoppers is the ability to control the output of the flash from the camera. The problem with a lot of the studio strobes (like the inexpensive variable kit above), is that if you want to control the output of the power, you have to physically walk over to the strobe and adjust the power. The RadioPopper JrX Studio kit not only lets you control the power output of speedlites with the RPCube, they also let you control the power output of a studio strobe called Alienbees. If you wanted something "better" than these cheap studio strobes (which are awesome by the way), the next step up (for indoor strobes) is Alienbees. They are $279.95 each (For the B800's). I noticed in my comparison below, that the Alienbees have a wide range from its full power output to its lowest power output, which is very useful when taking photos. The Alienbees are bigger than the 300DI's, they feel more fragile (or at least I'm a lot more careful with them), the Alienbees have a fan to help keep it cool, but to me, thats kind of a draw back since the 300DI's don't have a fan, and I've never once had a problem with them over heating. The AlienBees fan is not super loud, but its defiantly not quiet. These lights are a must if you want to control the output of the power remotely from the camera with your RadioPopper. You can see from my sample images below, the cheaper variable strobes are practically as powerful as the Alienbees. But on the lowest power setting, the Alienbees win cause the Alienbees power can be set to such a smaller output than the 300DI lights.
Alright... that was long. Now.. what I'm going to show is each light, at its full power, and its lowest power. The purpose of this diagram below, is to illustrate the range that the lights have from highest power to lowest power, and to compare the light out when keeping the camera at the exact same setting for each photo. The speedlights have the widest range, so their "lowest" images look almost black, but thats just because you can really make their light faint. This is actually really cool, cause the lower a light can go, really means the "faster" its going. So with speedlites, you can easily do High Speed Photography by setting the speedlite to the lowest power setting. MAKE SURE YOU DON'T just assume that because a photo is dark below, that the light isn't powerful enough to light your subject. Each and every one of these lights will work great. You would just need to adjust your camera settings according to each light. This example would show what it would be like if you were mixing all the lights together, because my camera is at the same setting for every photo. This is with a 5D Mark II, 24-105L lens, at 1/160 sec at f/5.0 ISO 100. The light is using a White Shoot Through Umbrella. The light is 9 feet away from my face. Again: Please do not think that any of these lights are not powerful enough to properly expose the image. This test is only to compare each light. I could easily change my camera settings for each light to get a perfect picture.
Highspeed Photography with Canon Speedlites - Set the flash to the lowest power setting!
In ConclusionIf you're going to get Speedlites, get the Canon 430ex II and RadioPopper JrX with RPCube. Keep in mind, the RadioPopper can control 3 different "groups" of lights at different power settings (You can have as many lights as you want in each group). So if you want to get a multi light setup, you can get 3x Canon Speedlite 430ex II's, 1x RadioPopper Transmitter, 3x RadioPopper Receivers, 3x RPCubes, 3 white shoot through umbrellas, 3 light stands, 3 umbrella adapters. Minimum cost for 1 light with RadioPopper is at least $515, not counting shipping. Minimum cost for 3x Speedlites with RadioPoppers, stands, umbrellas, etc is $1339.56.
If you're on a budget and you want multiple speedlites.. then get the YN560 with 1 RadioPopper. Cost for 1 light and accessories w/ RadioPopper: $288.00. Cost for 3 Lights with 1 RadioPopper and accessories is $546.00 (you would trigger the other lights optically)
If you are going to get indoor wall power studio strobes, get the 300w x3 kit on eBay for $438, or the 250w x3 kit on ebay for around $385.
If you want to control the output of your indoor studio strobes, and you're getting the radiopoppers, then get Alienbees instead of the cheaper alternative. Don't forget to add up the cost of the accessories, since it isn't a kit. You need light stands ($20ea), umbrellas ($10ea), and the RadioPoppers $159 for 1x transmitter and 1x receiver and $99 each additional receiver.
Hopefully this 900 page article helps.
More photos from this shoot
Other Behind The Scenes Photos