People often ask me for advice on studio lighting for photography to either set up a small studio at home or about purchasing the right studio lighting setup for their commercial work. So in this post I am going to try and demystify the studio lighting question a bit, give you some ideas on what you might need for lights, and how to get a good set up, while balancing cost with both functionality and quality.
The very first decisions you will need to make when buying studio lights are the 3 basic questions of how much power, how many lights, and what type. There will be other questions that come in later like which modifiers should you buy to attach to your lights. Things to consider like softboxes, umbrellas, grids, barn doors, strobe head reflectors, and then other things like light stands, wireless triggers, bounces, scrims, etc. But for the most part, the first 3 basics that I mentioned here are the most important and then the accessories can be added later as needed.
Without getting too much into how many lights one would need for each different genre of photography, because it can vary, I think it is safe to say that the optimum minimum number of lights to have is 4 if you can afford it, and at least 3 if you are on a smaller budget.
The reason I say this is because for almost all types of studio photography you will want to be able to throw a minimum of at least 2 lights onto your subject from different angles. Either to create some contrast or provide an even coverage of light on both sides of the subject. This applies whether you are shooting people, food, or other objects, and then you still want to have at least 1 more light available to use to illuminate your backdrop.
I would say though that I use 4 lights for most of my setups and sometimes more. So 4 really is ideal, but you can still do a lot with just 3. But the more lights you have then the more creative you can get with setting up different high contrast lighting effects that employ small splashes of light here and there throughout the frame.
The next decision to make is what type of lights to buy. What I mean by this is choosing between continuous or intermittent lights. The main difference is that a continuous light is always turned on, consuming power, and potentially making the subject you are photographing feel or appear hot in the photo.
Intermittent lighting refers to lights which turn on and off for very short durations and emit just enough light for each exposure. Intermittent type lights are often referred to as “strobe heads” and strobes consume much less power too than continuous lights overall.
But nowadays, continuous LED lights are coming of age in photography. Although still relatively expensive for what they offer, and more limited in terms of power than strobe heads, they are an option now too for continuous lights that consume less power than the old fashioned “hot lights”. Plus, LED lights don’t emit much heat, if any at all.
But in this article I am going to focus on strobes because they are for the most part the standard now for lighting in studio photography. With strobes you also need to consider whether to buy monolight strobe heads or a power-pack setup. I don’t like power-pack setups because they are bulky and involve the use of usually heavy and expensive additional equipment (power packs) to power the light heads. So I use only monolights.
A monolight (a.k.a. monobloc in Europe) is a self-contained studio flash head which has the power transformer built into the light head itself, versus a power-pack setup where the lights are separate from the power supply. One advantage of power-pack setups is they allow you to control the power of all the lights from one central point (from the power pack), but I still prefer monolights anyway because each light can function independently. If your power pack has a problem you are stuck and can’t shoot at all. If one of your monlights fails at least you can still use the others.
Then comes this issue of power itself. Strobes are usually rated in watts per second (W/s). The more power you have, then the greater your ability will be to shoot at narrower apertures and reveal finer detail within the subjects you are photographing. You also need decent power to light up your backdrops, especially if you are shooting with a white colored backdrop and you want to blow it out to appear pure white in your photos. So the more power, then generally the better as you can always reduce the power output of your lights if you don’t need so much light, but you can’t add more power that you don’t have if needed. So better to have too much than not enough power or you might find yourself not being able to carry out certain types of shoots the way you want to.
Monolight strobes are generally available with power outputs as low as 250 to 300 watts per second, but I would say you want at least 500W/s strobes at a minimum, and ideally 600W/s if you can afford them. I use all 600W/s as a standard and then I have a couple of 1,000W/s strobes which are handy when I need a lot of power to light up a larger backdrop. The 1000W/s strobes are used less regularly though as they are heavier to transport, consume more power, take longer to recycle the power, and are generally less convenient for shooting with on location.
The issue of power capability also involves the issue of cost unfortunately. So the more power the strobe has, then the more money the strobe head will cost you. People are often tempted by the lower price of 400W/s strobe heads, thinking they can get away with less power by shooting with wider apertures, but if you cut corners on cost when it comes to power then you risk not being able to shoot subjects that require a narrow aperture and sharper detail. I have one 400W/s strobe I bought a long time ago which seemed like a good idea at the time because it was inexpensive by comparison, but frankly I hardly ever use it, and I only take it out if I need an extra light in an emergency.
So that covers the basics and I am going to stop here for just now. In Part 2 of this article I am going to get more into some of the brands of lighting to consider, some interesting lighting sets that are available, and some of the various options within different price ranges. Check back in the near future to see the next installment of this article, or feel free to subscribe to the forum to be notified of future updates.
*UPDATE #1 / 26-Jan-15* – I just posted part 2 of this article entitled How To Choose The Best Studio Lighting Setup – Part 2. You can read the new follow up article here.