Studio Flash Lighting; There’s A System To Fit Every Need Page 2

What Features Do I Need?
When it comes to monolights and power pack systems (excluding AC slaves), there are numerous important considerations. Regardless of the type of studio-strobe lights you buy, there are a number of features common to most, if not all.

High or low tech? High-tech systems with fancy digital displays come to you at a price. They're also more costly to fix. And the places that fix them may be limited. However, sophisticated computer circuitry ensures consistency in output and color temperature. On the other hand, some low-tech, largely electromechanical systems, with their conventional knobs and switches, have been known to last years and to endure serious punishment. For a starter package, go low tech and put the extra money into accessories.

Flash head. While the flash head on a monolight is fixed, there may be options even here in user-replaceable flash tubes and accessories. Power pack systems offer a wide variety of available heads (each adding to the overall cost), making them more versatile. Special types of heads are uniquely suited to different applications. A beauty dish, for instance, throws a soft, flattering light used in beauty photography. A ring flash head, which is larger than the typical macro ring flash but is similarly fitted to the front of the camera, also finds use in beauty and portrait photography. A bi-tube head throws off a large quantity of light, but may need two packs to power it. The list seems endless.

Reflectors. Flash heads, whether hooked up to a power pack or integrated into a monolight, generally feature an interchangeable reflector (bowl or dish) used to shape the light. More compact units may come with a built-in reflector. Interchangeable reflectors give photographers numerous options. For one, bare-bulb photography, which produces an even light around the entire room, reminiscent of sunlight. Certain reflectors are designed to accommodate a photographic umbrella, whereas many heads require an accessory replacement dish for this purpose. The shape of the bowl and its finish also determine the throw of the light and its quality.

Flash tube. Flash tubes are normally user-replaceable. Aside from replacing worn bulbs, you may want to substitute a UV-corrected tube for the one that routinely comes with the unit, for improved daylight color balance. There may be a heat limitation. One manufacturer, for example, routinely fits their 1600 ws flash heads with a UV-corrected flash tube, whereas 3200 ws tubes would burn off the coating. So the UV coating is instead applied to the protective dome, which may be a further element helping to control the light (but more importantly is there as protection against a shattered bulb/tube).

The modeling light. The decision maker may come down to the modeling lamp, or lack thereof. The modeling lamp is an essential ingredient in studio lighting. It lets us preview the lighting effect (to judge contrast and where shadows fall) prior to making the exposure. This is usually an incandescent bulb, normally a long-life halogen (tungsten or quartz) or as simple as a household light bulb, or fluorescent in flat-panel lighting. Whereas many modeling lights are 250w (serving also as low-output hot lights with tungsten film), others may be of considerably lower wattage and less suitable in relatively bright ambient surroundings. Modeling lamps should ideally quench (or at least dim) when the strobe is fired so as to not affect the lighting, and output should vary directly (proportionally) with strobe output, to better enable you to judge the effect, with the option to turn them off entirely or set them at full when needed.

Built-in slave sync. Increasingly, more sophisticated systems are integrating a radio-remote wireless capability. But practically every power pack and monolight has a built-in photocell, and some have infrared triggering capability. For everyday use, anything with a photocell will do.

Stepless power output. If output cannot be varied steplessly, or at least in 1/3 steps, you may find yourself physically moving the light closer or farther away more often than you'd like. Keep in mind, however, that stepping down power is often accompanied by a color shift in light output toward blue (with shorter flash duration and faster recycling).

Recycling time. The faster the better, but that depends on your needs. You can shorten recycling by reducing output.

Accessories. A photographic umbrella or softbox (each resulting in a different type of soft light), barn doors (to prevent light spilling onto unwanted areas), and grids (for tighter light coverage) are just a few of the options. Because it operates
off-camera, the flash head or monolight requires a light stand. Make sure that it's one suitable to the load. Heads with strong incandescent modeling lights should be fan-cooled (an important consideration when using a softbox).

Remote operation. In this increasingly sophisticated age, it's not enough to centralize control of the lights in one box or on a monolight. Now, we want to remotely control everything. Remotes are optional accessories that let you remain at the camera position, so that you can better visualize the combined effect of multiple lights on the subject. More and more systems now also feature computer control, requiring a desktop or notebook computer (PC or Mac) and special software.

Keep this in mind: You don't need to buy everything all at once. Build the system as needs emerge. Many pros successfully work with only one or two lights. It may even be possible to rent a system, so you can get a feel for what works best for you and your type of photography.

Match Your Lights And Lighting Accessories To Your Needs
Studio portraiture. The lights don't have to be more powerful than 400 ws. Often, one light will do, plus a white photographic umbrella (which produces a softer, more neutral light, compared with silver umbrellas, which tend to go cool). Add a second light for the background or as a hair, accent, or fill light. In a pinch, the camera's built-in flash will do as fill, while also triggering the studio strobes (via their built-in slave cells). More powerful lights, say 800 ws, will ensure greater depth of field. You'll only need something even more powerful, for even more depth of field and with faster recycling, if you're shooting fashion or groups of people. Now, the question becomes: power pack system or monolight? The simplest answer is a monolight. One often works wonders. A flat-panel AC monolight is great for head-and-shoulder portraits, with a fill card to reduce contrast.

Tabletop/still life/food. Stopping down to small lens apertures is often required, though not always. You should consider one 800 ws light for starters, more if you can afford it. A softbox is a wise addition. As your photography grows more sophisticated, you'll add to this, with more lights and such things as honeycomb grids and barn doors, both of which control the spread of light. You might also want a diffusion housing (a cube-shaped or rectangular light tent, for instance) to further reduce contrast. I've found flat-panel self-contained strobes work well here, and these lights don't require a softbox or umbrella.

Interiors. If you're simply lighting a room or just some furnishings, then three lights will do as starters. The choice here is a power pack system. The downside: If you need to space the lights far apart--or to optimize the output generated by the power pack, you might need to use one pack per flash head--and that translates not only into greater initial cost but a need to find outlets that don't run off the same circuit breakers, to avoid shorting out the lights. Here umbrellas are an economical way to spread the light out evenly over a large area, or you can use 4x8-foot white foamcore flats (panels) as a bounce light source. Obviously, little nooks and crannies may need more light. And that's where small AC-powered slave strobes come in, hidden out of camera range. These small lights may have to be finessed with some diffusion to avoid hot spots.

Location portraiture. In someone's home, one or two monolights will fit nicely, with umbrellas. Again, find separate outlets to avoid an electrical short. However, when shooting fashion on location, power packs often work best. You may need several packs and several heads to achieve the necessary results. If you're doing something like a wedding or executive portraits outdoors, then a battery-operated flash will do--either a power pack or monolight, or one of those smaller battery-pack handle-mount-style systems (from Quantum, Lumedyne, or Norman, for example). If you expect to be shooting on location, away from AC outlets, consider a mobile pack system or battery-operated monolights.

Shooting digitally. The lighting has to be even more consistent here than with film, both in terms of color balance and output. Digitally-controlled lighting systems, especially those connected to a computer, may work best, but they're often expensive. Anything that performs consistently will do. When dealing with digital backs on medium or large format cameras, the software (that came with the back) may dictate certain procedures for achieving optimum color balance. Many camera systems require a maximum 6v sync voltage to trigger the strobes safely.

Traveling With Your Lights? Consider The Following...
I can load up my SUV. Then go with power packs. Don't forget the various reflectors, stands, and other grip equipment, umbrellas, softboxes--and possibly extension cords. I'm assuming you'll have an assistant to help you set up and break down the lights. And be sure to bring gaffer's tape, in case wires have to be taped down so people don't trip over them.

I can take a cab. Load up one case with whatever fits. This may be a small power pack and two heads, or two compact monolights--with stands. You might have to leave the softbox at home and make do with umbrellas (there are, however, some softboxes that are almost as compact as umbrellas and attach to a head in a similar fashion). Camera and lenses should be in a separate case.