If you are looking to purchase studio lighting, you likely have a lot of questions about what the right solutions and tools are for you. If this is your very first time purchasing gear the entire process can be intimidating. You want to make sure you buy the right gear without wasting your hard-earned money, especially when gear can be so expensive.
Today we are blessed by rapid improvements in technology around lighting and gear has a lot more bells and whistles than ever before, but that tends to leave us with even more questions. Searching online can lead down an endless rabbit hole of gear reviews and online forums. These certainly have their place, but you need to be sure you are asking the right questions and have a basic understanding of fundamental lighting options.
I’ve been working with studio lighting for nearly 20 years now and have purchased a little bit of everything along the way. Various brands, modifiers, kits… you name it, I’ve experimented! I’ve worked as a wedding photographer, portrait photographer, and for the last 10 years as a NYC fashion photographer — so I’ve put a lot of different solutions to the test.
If you’ve started on the journey of purchasing studio lighting equipment I’d love to help you by answering the top 10 most commonly asked questions. I will definitely not get into every different brand, different modifier, or every different technical option. Intead, I’ll equip you with the most important questions to give you a strong understanding of what solutions may be right for you. Then, if you want to nerd out in forum and gear reviews… more power to you! 😀
Asking the right questions
To get you started, you must start by asking yourself questions. Depending on your budget, skill level and subject matter you shoot, different solutions will be more or less appropriate for you.
- What subject matter do I shoot?
- Do I need to shoot indoors, outdoors or both?
- What is my total budget?
- Do I have special technical considerations: fast speeds, portability, stylistic considerations etc?
No one lighting solution will ‘do it all’ and for cheap. Figure out what you really need, and start there! There is no such thing as ‘the best light’, but instead the ‘best light’ of your needs and budget.
Question #1: Which is better, constant light or strobes?
First of all, let’s discuss the difference between the two. Another name for a constant light is a ‘continuous’ light source. It doesn’t flash and what you see is what you get. A constant light source is what is required to shoot video, and you can also shoot stills.
A strobe, on the other hand, is a pulse or flash of light. This is typically what you think of with “studio photography”, and you must use modeling lights to simulate what the scene looks like but cannot actually judge exposure with your eye.
Different photographers have very different opinions on which is ‘better’ for their photography. Let’s review the pros and cons of both.
- What you see is what you get, so there is minimal learning curve!
- Great for shooting stills and video
- Lots of new cost-effective LED solutions
- No flash may be preferred for newborns and babies
- If you want a lot of output, typically this is very expensive
- Much harder to shoot groups or when you require a lot of depth of field
- Fewer modifiers available
- More difficult to control ratios (relative power) between lights or overpower ambient light in the space
- Must be careful of shutter speed to avoid camera shake
- Typically you can get more output from a strobe than continuous light
- You can more easily control the relative outputs of different lights
- Easier to overpower ambient light in a space
- More modifiers available
- You must learn new concepts for exposure
- You cannot shoot video
- They can be more expensive for entry level solutions
- If you like shooting with wide apertures, it is more challenging
- You must consider recycle times, meaning that time between shots before the strobe has ‘recharged’ and is ready to shoot again.
So what is the right answer for you? I personally prefer studio strobes except for when I am shooting video. I shoot strobes because I like the precise control of getting the exact power output I want and relative powers between many strobes with many different modifiers.
Question #2: Can I use speedlights for studio lighting?
To put it simply… yes! You can absolutely shoot with speedlights as studio lighting but you are making a few sacrifices that you need to be aware of (and account for).
Let’s start with the benefits of speedlights. First of all, you may already own them! If you are a wedding or event photographer and own speedlights already but want to try your hand with studio lighting, there is no extra cost involved. Speedlights are also a solution for people who want the most lightweight and portable solutions possible for the way they shoot.
Speedlights also have TTL and HSS capabilities. TTL (through the lens) means the camera/flash help you to determine the correct flash output. This is great for outdoors and moving subjects. HSS (high speed sync) allows you to shoot at shutter speeds faster than your camera’s sync speed, which is great when you want to shoot at a wide aperture outdoors or darken down the environment on location. Nearly all speedlights have these capabilities, and many new strobes are starting to incorporate this extra bells and whistles as well. These are not part of anything that is ‘required’ for studio lighting, but depending on what you shoot you may find them beneficial.
Speedlights also have some distinct downsides. First and foremost, most speedlights do not have modeling lights. Modeling lights are a constant light that help you visualize the placement and quality of light on your subject before taking the flash exposure. To put it simply, they help you see what you are doing. Without this, it is much harder to learn the essentials of studio lighting or use precise lighting setups.
Next, when shooting at full power, speedlights typically have slower recycle times. In other words, it takes a longer time between shots that you must wait before the flash is ready to fire again. Using a battery pack or shooting at lower power can help with this problem. You may also experience inconsistent results as battery power starts to diminish.
Another downside is that speedlights have less power output than most strobes. While high output is not always necessary, it is extremely helpful when using big modifiers, lights with diffusion or when you need a lot of depth of field. You may need to shoot at a higher ISO to help counteract this problem.
Question #3: What wattage strobes do I need?
Put simply, wattage is a light’s capability for power output. The higher the wattage, the brighter/more output you will get from that strobe. You may also hear this referred to as ‘watts’, watt seconds’, etc.
Here’s the thing… we often think that more is more, but that isn’t necessarily the case with wattage. You can have too little light output (too low watts) and you can also have too much light output (too much watts). It all depends on how and what you shoot. Keep in mind that you can vary the power output of a strobe and typically you’d look for something around a 6 stop range between lowest power and highest power.
You’ll need more wattage (higher output) if you shoot large groups, in big spaces, outdoors, or with lots of depth of field.
You’ll need less wattage (less output) if you shoot in very small spaces or regularly shoot with a very narrow depth of field (super wide apertures).
Typically higher wattage will cost more money, so its not always required to get the most output possible. Also keep in mind how exposure works within the confines of the studio. If you bump up your ISO, you are effectively making your strobe appear brighter (the entire exposure).
What are you lighting?
- Small spaces (newborns, headshots) – Lower wattage: 160-500
- Mid-sized studio – Medium wattage: 250-500
- Large spaces/groups – Higher wattage: 500-1000
- Outdoor portraits – Higher wattage: 500-1000
- 400-500 Watts = closest to “all purpose”
- 250 Watts at ISO 800 = 500 Watts at ISO 400 = 1000 Watts at ISO 200
In the studio you can get more depth of field out of a lower power strobe simply by bumping up ISO. If you want to take a strobe outside and ‘over power the sun’, however, you will need more output.
So… what do you shoot? How much depth of field do you need? Do you shoot at wider apertures? Do you shoot big groups? Do you need to shoot on location? Ask yourself these questions to determine your needs.
I personally find that 400-500 Watts is somewhere closest to ‘all purpose’. You can turn the power down low enough to shoot wide apertures but you can also get enough power to shoot groups even when shooting through big modifiers that cut light. Some lights that are mean’t to be portable will have lower outputs to help have a more compact size, and this is a tradeoff you have to consider based upon your needs.
Be sure that when you purchase a strobe that you look at the specifications. Sometimes they have a misleading product name — the name may say 600 or 800 in the name, but only be 250 watts. Just take a closer look at the product details!
Question #4: Pack & Head or Monoblock… what are they and which should I get?
Studio strobe systems fall roughly into two categories (though recent changes in technology are opening up more options).
First is the pack and head system. The head (flash unit) plugs into the pack, which controls all out the output, modeling lights, ratios etc. Typically the most high-end studio strobe solutions are pack and head because they have extremely fast recycle times, great color consistency, and a slew of other special capabilities.
Next is a ‘monoblock’ aka ‘monolight’ system. This is a self-contained unit where no pack is needed to function. Everything from the modeling light, power output and more is controlled directly from the head. Typically a monolight is going to be a bit bigger/bulkier than the head from the head/pack system because it has contains more tech/gadgetry in it.
Also called a ‘monolight’, the strobe is self-contained and does not need a pack to function. All power output and modeling light functions are controlled on the head of the unit.
So, which is right for you? Most of the time all you need is a monolight system, which happens to be much less expensive than most pack and head systems. For 95% of people monolights will be appropriate.
When would you need a pack and head? If you are shooting something where you require extremely fast recycle times or you need a light head to be boomed out over a scene.
Question #5: How many lights do I NEED to buy?
The age old question… how many lights do you need? The key word here is need. As we all know, want and need are two very different things and of course you must consider your budget. The first image below was lit with a single light, the second with a whopping 5!
To begin with, simply master 1 light. One light is going to allow you to understand how to flatter your subject and shape the light in your image. Once you have 1 light truly mastered, then you can start adding more.
Okay, so you may be thinking… but I know I can do more with more than one light. So how many do I need? In my opinion, if you can aim for 3 lights in the studio you can ‘do it all’.
- 1 Light – Main light, essential portraits
- 2 Lights – Separate subject from background
- 3 Lights – Flexibility, 3-point light, stylized
- 4 Lights – More flexibility, backup
One light allows you to achieve what you really need for a portraits. Adding a second light allows you to separate the subject from the background by lighting the background or adding a rim light. A third light gives you flexibility so that you can control the shadows or achieve more stylized effects like 3-point-lighting. Beyond that, additional lights help you light more complex scenes and environments, but that is for when you are much more advanced in your studio lighting experience.
- 1 Light – Headshots, newborns, children
- 2 Lights – Portraits, groups, and above
- 3 Lights – Stylized images, and above
Question #6: Should I buy inexpensive strobes, ‘name brand’ professional strobes, or try DIY solutions?
Is the light that much better when shooting with a ‘professional strobe’? Is it worth the extra cost? Can’t I just make my own modifiers? These are questions I’ve heard dozens and dozen of times, and are all very valid, relevant questions as you invest in your photography career.
I usually explain it like buying and driving a car. A junker, basic car will get you from point A to point B. It may not be as fast, or reliable, but it gets the job done.
A more expensive luxury car on the other hand will likely be more reliable, have more bells and whistles, and be of a better build quality overall. But, of course, you pay for these things.
I think often the same is true with lighting. The most basic, inexpensive light will do the job… it will flash and allow you to make an exposure. How the shot looks is based upon YOUR understanding of lighting, light placement and modifiers, not the light coming out of the strobe necessarily.
But what do you get from a more expensive option? Faster recycle times, more modifiers, longevity, quality, and specialized features. You need to balance your budget and your needs. A more expensive option may be more portable and go on location, or may have much faster shooting speeds… but are these options you need when starting out?
Let’s take a look at these side by side examples. One shot was taken with a ‘professional strobe’, the next with an inexpensive brand, and the last with speedlights. Can you tell which without me telling you? Probably not with certainty! Plus, they were all taken with different modifiers. Again, it’s about the photographer and how you utilize the lighting, not the label on the lights.
All that being said, I shoot pretty much exclusively with Profoto strobes. I LOVE them. I love their speed, I love how intuitive they are to use, how much control they give me, how easily the modifiers go on, the quality of the modifiers, and on and on. I love that when I travel I can easily find Profoto modifiers and gear so I can comfortably use a system I am used to even when I’m on the go. If I ever need to find replacements, not a problem! Early in my career I actually started with Paul C. Buff and shot them for years (and made both terrible and beautiful photos with them). Lights are a tool, so figure out your budget and needs.
Lastly, if you decide to do any modifiers as DIY (Do it Yourself) be sure that you consider safety (nothing that will catch on fire when near a firing light etc) and how much time/effort goes into making this gear. If you are budget conscious there are likely some great inexpensive options out there (including renting gear to try out or sharing with a friend!).
As you start to research brands, you may want to take a look at Profoto (pro level), Broncolor (pro level), Elinchrom (mid-level), Godox aka Flashpoint (budget), and Alienbees/Einsteins (Paul C. Buff) to get you started. There are many other brands (Phottix, Cactus, Dynalite, Hensel and so on, plus new brands coming to the market), but you don’t want to overwhelm yourself with choice.
Question #7: If I can only have one modifier, which should I get?
When you are first building your studio lighting kit, you probably can’t afford to buy a whole bunch of modifiers. Plus, you don’t want to buy something you don’t really need. So where should you start if you can only get one modifier to begin with?
If you photograph people, you will likely want to start with a soft light source because that is most flattering on the skin and best for most headshots and portraits.
Believe it or not, I’d actually recommend checking out a larger umbrella (42in or more) with diffusion as a cheap, portable and easy-to-set-up solution to begin with. It’s a beautiful, large, soft light source and will be the least expensive modifier for its size. A softbox is a great solution as well, though it will likely be more costly.
This is my generic recommendation, and of course you must realize that your individual style and needs (size of your space, budget, etc) will affect your final purchase.
With that being sow, allow me make a few more recommendations:
For headshots — particularly in a small space — you will likely find that you don’t need such a large modifier. Or perhaps you are looking for something a bit more portable. Check out a 3ft octabox, a 3x4ft softbox, or a M-L umbrella with diffusion. If you photograph groups, you are going to want to grab a larger soft modifier, like a 5ft octabox or a large umbrella with diffusion (42in-72in). If you shoot beauty photography, you might find a 20” white beauty dish as another great solution for a bit more contrast to your shots but still maintaining soft light.
- Portraits & headshots: 3ft Octabox, 3x4ft softbox or M-L umbrella and diffusion
- Groups: 5ft Octabox or large umbrella with diffusion (40”-72”)
- Beauty/fashion: 20” white beauty dish or large umbrella with diffusion
You’ll have to weight considerations for size, easy of use, and budget, but typically these guidelines will be a good place to start!
Question #8: What system do I buy to trigger my strobe?
When you buy a strobe system, you need to have a way for your camera to trigger your lights. The most inexpensive way is ‘hard wired’ with a sync cord that plugs in from your camera to your strobe. Most strobe systems will actually come with a sync cord.
That being said, being physically connected to your light is not usually ideal. Furthermore, it only triggers the light it is attached to. You’ll need to set the other lights to ‘optical’, meaning that if it sees any light fire, it too will flash. This works great in a controlled studio setting, but if you are on location (like a wedding) with other flashes going off, this will become a problem.
Most brands of lights actually have their own system of hot-shoe trigger that will fire the lights (they will fit on top of your camera and you can control the settings/outputs of the other strobes).
If you are mixing many different brands of lights together, you’ll need to look into another solution to get them to all ‘talk’. Take a look at the Yongnuo or Catcus solutions. You’ll need to buy one trigger for your camera, and then one receive for each light.
Inexpensive (but reliable) Triggers
Sync or Hot Shoe Trigger Transceiver
Question #9: Can I dual-purpose studio lighting as a location lighting solution?
You may be interested in shooting in the studio, but also want to ability to take your strobes on location. There are several solutions that allow you to do so. Be aware that often these dual-purpose solutions are often a bit more expensive, but perhaps less expensive than having to purchase two different systems.
You fundamentally have three main options: to use a battery pack, use your portable strobes in the studio, or to purchase dual-purpose strobes. Each has it’s pros and cons.
When buying a battery pack, check out solutions like the Vagabond Mini Lithium. You can plug any studio strobe (monolight) directly into this pack solution as if it were a wall outlet. Typically the downside of this solution is that you will suffer from much slower recycle times, particularly when shooting at high output.
Your next option is to check out portable strobe solutions like the Profoto B1x or the Godox AD200/AD600. Though these are intended for location photography (both have their own battery operated systems), you certainly bring them into the studio. The downside is that after a lot of flashes the batteries start to lose their charge and you can achieve fewer flashes per full charge. After awhile you may need to buy new batteries (which may be costly).
You can also look for dual-purpose solutions that you can use on location but also have the ability to plug into the wall. The Profoto B10x is one such example. This small strobe is just the size of a large lens, 250 watt seconds, can charge its battery and shoot on location OR plug into the wall as a studio strobe.
Question #10: What types of things do I need to buy to get my studio up and running?
The last question is kind of a catchall. Basically, what else is mandatory to help get your studio up and running and ready to go? You may want to start to look into the idea of ‘grip’, tools that help you use your gear and space more easily. There is a lot I could talk about, but let me touch on three helpful tools.
Speed rings: Speed rings allow you to attach a softbox to your light source. While a softbox can fit into many different speed rings, you’ll need to be sure you have the right speedring for your brand of light your purchased (different brand attach in different ways).
Gaffers tape: This is a strong tape used specifically for photo and film shoots because it is heat resistant and won’t leave unwanted residue on your lights or other surfaces. It costs more money than an option like duct tape, but it is superior for photographic uses.
Light stands: There are many different options for light stands. The most basic stand will work for a small light and modifier, however you may want to look into a heavy-duty C-stand if you are using larger lights and modifiers. It is much sturdier with a wider base, but also more costly. Don’t forget you’ll also need a background stand, and some light stands can actually dual-purpose as a background stand if you purchase the correct cross-bar solution.
Choosing a stand:
- Wider base = more stability
- Light-weight Air-shock: Air-cushioned stand helps prevent gear
- C-Stand: Heavy-duty metal. Sturdiest but also the biggest, heaviest and most expensive.
As you can see, there is a lot to think about. While I’ve made some suggestions on what you could buy, I recommend you try whatever gear fits your budget and needs. Since technology is always changing the options do as well. That being said, if you know the right questions to ask and are equipped with the understanding of the questions above, you’ll know how to find the right solution for your photographic needs! I hope you found this article useful. 👍