Subject and style may vary, but consistency is a quality shared by all successful photo studios. When working indoors, that begins with lighting. Strobes remain the bread and butter of many still photography studios. Unlike natural light, which can be finicky and unpredictable; on-camera flashes, which are not typically designed for studio use; or continuous lights, which can become costly as output increases; strobes are built to withstand the rigors of studio life while providing flexible and powerful light. But with so many options on the market, how do you decide which is right for you? The following guide covers which features and specifications to consider when choosing your first light.
A word of advice before getting started: there is a temptation to prioritize quantity over quality when it comes to lighting—don’t succumb to this urge. Get the best light that your budget will permit and allow your kit to grow organically. It is much better to have one ride-or-die light than three bargain lights that cannot be counted on. Read reviews, go to the B&H SuperStore and try different units, or rent before buying. Lighting is as important as your camera and lenses; treat it that way.
The first thing to consider is how much power you need from your light. Options range from modest 100Ws fill lights to monstrous 6000Ws heads that require separate power packs. For most purposes, a unit in the 500-1000Ws range will serve as a solid starting point. It is better to err on the side of more than less. You can always find ways to further diffuse a light source, but generating additional light may require divine intervention—or another trip to the store. Note how much control the model you are considering offers. Most new lights can be adjusted by fractions of stops so you can refine output precisely for a given exposure.
The next thing to think about is speed. If you plan on capturing action, choosing a light with a fast recycle time is crucial. To maximize a unit’s ability to discharge consecutive flashes quickly, many manufacturers have a mode that reduces duration and output to minimize recycle time (e.g. Broncolor’s “Speed Mode,” Profoto’s “Freeze Mode,” Impact’s “Quick Mode”).
Do you need a light that can leave the studio with you? Do you have a tendency to trip over cords? If your answer is yes to either of these questions, go for a battery-powered strobe. If you are planning on being away from outlets for extended periods of time, make sure you either choose a light with long battery life or—better still, pick up additional batteries. Note the recharge time of your model and plan accordingly. This is no different from your camera—don’t be the photographer who has to stop shooting to wait for batteries to recharge.
No matter which light you choose, you will need a way for your camera to trigger it when making an exposure. You can do so using radio, optical, or cable connections. A PC Sync Cord will connect analog or other older camera models. Radio transmitters are the most popular method with newer cameras since they eliminate messy cables and provide a more robust connection than optical triggering. Some lights can even be controlled using apps on your mobile device. To get the most out of your specific camera-light pairing, most manufacturers sell proprietary remotes tailored to different camera brands that expand functionality to include TTL and other options.
Modeling lights provide a helpful preview of how your light will affect your shot. Depending on their strength, they can also provide a continuous light source if you are in a pinch. LEDs are replacing tungsten modeling lights, providing the benefit of reduced heat and the possibility to control color temperature, in some instances.
A solid light meter will go a long way in helping you balance exposures when working with your light. Make sure to get a meter that is capable of triggering your light.
Finally, once you have settled on a light, you should give some thought to modifiers. Umbrellas and softboxes are the most common methods of diffusion. If you go the softbox route, don’t forget to purchase the appropriate speed ring to connect light to modifier. Reflectors and beauty dishes provide harder, directional light when necessary. Gels can be used to change the color of your light for creative applications. And, for even more information on shaping your light, take a look at our more comprehensive article on Choosing a Modifier for Portraiture.
What are you looking for in your next strobe? Let us know in the Comments section, below.