Studio lighting, both flash and continuous, tends to be larger and more expensive than portable lights designed for on-location shoots. However, these light sources can pay off in power and performance.
If you’re looking to build a studio lighting package, a three-light kit is a great starting point. A basic setup would consist of a keylight, a backlight and a rim or hair light, with two power packs. Depending on the look you’re going for, one of the lights behind the subject—whether it be a person or a product—can be brought forward as a fill light.
Additional gear to give the aspiring studio photographer a solid base would be a head extension, a softbox or two, umbrellas, a beauty dish, a couple of reflectors, flags, a flash meter, remote triggers, C-stands (which can double as background stands), black, gray and white seamless paper, gels (CTO and CTB in varying strengths), A-clamps and gaffer’s tape.
Which Lighting System Do I Invest In?
I asked two colleagues who are creating magic in the studio—Los Angeles-based Art Streiber and Paris-based Nahoko Spiess—about their equipment usage. Both photographers offer fascinating looks into their modus operandi on their respective Instagrams: @aspictures and @nahokospiess.
Streiber uses both the Profoto Pro-10 2400 AirTTL and the Profoto Pro-8A packs, preferring the Pro-10s for their quick recycling times and ability to be dialed to minimal output. The Profoto Pro-10 is billed as the world’s fastest flash and opens new doors to creative possibilities that were more in the realm of Harold Edgerton’s (a.k.a. “Papa Flash”) experiments at MIT decades ago. The Pro-10 can achieve a flash duration as short as 1/80,000 sec. with extremely short recycling times, higher up the power scale than any other flash. Streiber’s team plugs in Profoto ProHeads, except for when they need an extra stop of power and turn to a BiTube head.
Streiber is also a master of light modifiers, using Chimera Softboxes and Strip Banks (both silver and white), Elinchrom Octabanks, Profoto Beauty Dishes and Photek umbrellas in every size as well as Profoto and Westcott umbrellas in varying sizes and grids to tune in the light to exactly how and where he wants it to fall. He explains, “All of these modifiers are tools to be used when appropriate. There is no formula, and there is no right answer.”
In addition to shaping the light, you must pay attention to the Kelvin color temperatures they emit. For both flash and continuous light sources, it’s best to set the camera to a specific appropriate Kelvin temperature rather than automatic and then have to make major color corrections in post. When using strobes or daylight-balanced LED lights, setting the color temperature to 5600K or to the symbol of the sun or the lightning bolt (which represents a flash) will get you close to the correct white balance. When using tungsten-balanced LEDs and other continuous light sources, the light bulb symbol is the setting for tungsten. It’s the same as setting the camera to 3200K. Remember that the two most important degrees on the Kelvin color temperature scale when it’s applied to photography are 5600K for daylight and 3200K for tungsten. Keeping these two numbers in mind and what they stand for is an excellent starting point for good color balance.
Companies such as Rosco, Pro Gel and LEE make gels designed to balance, enhance or create the exact look a photographer envisions. Profoto makes a number of gel kits to balance color, such as the OCF Color Correction Gel Pack, or to create mood lighting with the OCF Color Effects Gel Pack that includes 20 gels including Rose Pink, Gold Amber, Light Lavender, Just Blue, Deep Straw, Chrome Orange, Scarlet, Peacock Blue, Magenta and Yellow.
In addition to Profoto, companies such as Balcar, Broncolor, Dynalite, Elinchrom, Norman and Speedotron make high-quality products that are variations of the same theme. Elinchrom makes many high-end strobe options used by top commercial photographers working today, but it also has a line of monolights that give those with a tighter budget the ability to enter this high-end arena. Its D-Lite monolights come in 100W/s, 200W/s and 400W/s varieties, and feature a built-in Skyport wireless receiver.
Smith-Victor, a name associated for years with well-made, no-nonsense lighting and affordable lighting equipment, has among its offerings the FlashLite FLC200 and FLC300. These basic monolights put out a maximum of 200W/s and 300W/s, respectively.
Another especially affordable option is the Flashpoint Budget studio monolight, which is available in 120W/s, 160W/s and 300W/s versions. These aluminum-housed strobes leave the least dent in the wallet when trying to create a basic studio setup.
When it comes to capturing the elegance and glamour of couture, fashion photographer Spiess often works with two types of light sources. “Most of the time, I use Profoto B1 and D1 lights with softboxes and/or umbrellas,” says Spiess. “When the ambient light is weak, I add an LED light to help with focus, and when I want to show movement, I’ll combine the strobe with the continuous light with a slow shutter. When I do a shoot that also requires video, I’ll use two or three Astra 1×1 Daylight LED Litepanels as well.”
For a larger constant light source, photographers and videographers can turn to Litepanel’s Gemini 2×1 LED panel for accurate full-spectrum daylight and tungsten lighting. The Gemini’s manual control knobs are sensitive to the speed of rotation and can either be finely tuned or quickly adjusted. Gel Mode allows for a variety of gels to be selected from the menu and the ability to change the source to either daylight or tungsten. RGBW Mode allows for control over red green, blue and white independently, to dial in unique colors. The Effects Mode has fully customizable effects that users can adjust to a variety of parameters as well as TV, Fire, Emergency, Paparazzi, Strobe, Fireworks, Hue Burst, Lightning and Pulse effects.
Kino Flo’s Diva-Lite series cool lighting fixtures are great for both studio and location film and video location shoots. The Diva-Lite 401 has full-range dimming, switching and remote control features. The updated Diva-Lite 401 replaced the Diva-Lite 415 Universal last year. The portable, versatile Diva-Lite runs cool, flicker-free and is energy efficient. The Diva-Lite can go from nighttime to daytime interiors by switching to True Match tungsten for daylight lamps.
Powered by AC or by battery, the Lowel Blender with a 4x3x3-inch lamp head is another continuous light option. It has two sets of LEDs in one unit, tungsten and daylight, which can be blended—hence the name—to match mixed light sources, with dimmer controls on the back of the unit. The Lowel Blender comes with a set of front diffusers for softening light output.
A number of economical constant lighting kits include the Dracast Silver Series LED500 Daylight LED 3-Light Kit that comes with three Silver Series LED500 panels, each with a set of four-way barndoors, a multi-voltage AC adapter, a V-Mount battery plate and a light stand. A set of five filters and a carrying case are also included. The Genaray SpectroLED Essential 365 Bi-Color 2-Light Kit comes with two bi-color panels and two 8-foot light stands, while the Savage Cobra Interview LED Light Kit includes three Luminous Pro LED video lights, a multi-light connector, three 7-foot light stands and a 1×40-inch flexible arm.
Keep in mind that a “studio” can be any shooting space, from a cappuccino-serving Manhattan rental space to a home garage. Practically any location can be used to create high-end-looking imagery with the right tools and vision.
Litepanels Gemini 2×1 Bi-Color LED Soft Panel
The Gemini is a 2×1 LED panel providing a wide, soft source of accurate full-spectrum daylight- and tungsten-balanced lighting. The unit offers quick and easy adjustments of intensity and lighting modes. Its Correlated Color Temperature Mode allows for Bi-Color (daylight to tungsten) operation with the addition of plus and minus green offset. The HSI Color Mode allows for full-color control over hue, saturation and intensity, while the Gel Mode allows for a variety of gels to be selected. The RGBW Mode enables control over red, green, blue and white independently, while the Effects Mode includes options to simulate Fire, Emergency, Paparazzi, Strobe, Fireworks, Lightning and more. The Wireless DMX and Bluetooth-enabled unit is flicker-free at any frame rate or shutter angle at any intensity level, essential for video production. Estimated street price: $3,999. Contact: Litepanels, litepanels.com.
Dynalite MP800 800W/s RoadMax Power Pack
The 800W/s RoadMax pack is powerful and versatile for a variety of studio and location work. Two full-/half-/quarter-power switches provide seven power settings. It has three head outlets, breaks down output symmetrically or asymmetrically over a six-stop range and recycles at a fast 1.2 seconds at full power. Triggering options include a 16-foot Phono to PC sync cord and an IR or optical slave. It’s compatible with most radio remote systems. Estimated street price: $699. Contac: Dynalite, dynalite.com.
Flashpoint Budget Studio Monolight
The Flashpoint Budget Studio Monolight, which is available in 120W/s, 160W/s and 300W/s versions, can fire at 1/8, 1/4, 1/2 and full-flash intensities with a recycle time of 4 to 6 seconds. The 2-pound strobe emits a 5600 Kelvin color temperature flash triggered by its 12-foot sync cable, firing another flash via a built-in photo slave or with the Flashpoint 8-Channel Radio Remote Control Set. List price: $ 69. Contact: Flashpoint (Adorama), adorama.com.
Westcott Strobelite Plus 3-Light Softbox Kit
Westcott has several packages to give photographers a complete studio lighting system at an economical price, including its Strobelite Plus 3-Light Softbox Kit, which provides 1200W/s of power and works off of 110V/120V AC. Light-shaping tools include two 32-inch softboxes with speed rings, a Barndoor set with grid and gels and two heavy-duty light stands. Estimated street price: $899. Contact: Westcott, fjwestcott.com.
Litepanels Astra 3X Daylight LED Panel
The Litepanels Astra 3X Daylight LED Panel is three times brighter than the original 1×1 fixture, using tightly binned LEDs and fine-tuned optics. This higher intensity results in a longer throw and illuminates a wider area, allowing the panel to compete with strong exterior light sources or illuminate a large area effectively with just a single fixture. Weighing in at 7 pounds, the 5600K unit has a silent passive cooling mode with ultra-smooth dimming from 100 percent to 0. There is no noticeable color shift throughout the entire range, and output is flicker-free at any frame rate or shutter angle, vital for video shoots. Its AC/DC 120-240VAC power supply means you can take your studio on the road internationally with just plug adapters for the individual countries. Estimated street price: $855. Contact: Litepanels, litepanels.com.
Kino Flo Diva-Lite 401 Kit
While Diva-Lites have become one of the industry’s most popular professional cool lighting fixtures for film and video location work, they are great tools in the studio as well. The Diva-Lite 401 replaced the workhorse Diva-Lite 415 Universal in 2017. The portable, versatile Diva-Lite runs cool, flicker-free and energy efficient at only 2.16A/120VAC. The unit works with full spectrum (CRI 95) lamps available in 3200K and 5500K. Color gels added over the light do not burn out or fade due to the low heat of fixture. Its honeycomb louvers 90 degrees and 60 degrees, providing barndoor-style light control. Estimated street price: $1,355. Contact: Kino Flo Lighting Systems, kinoflo.com.
The Profoto Pro-10 is billed as the world’s fastest flash with flash durations of up to 1/80,000 sec. There’s a big price tag for this unit that keeps both the flash duration and recycling time extremely short higher up the power scale. But this level of strobe lighting technology opens up a world of opportunities that cannot be achieved otherwise. The unit delivers 2400W/s output with precision and control over an 11-stop power range in 1/10-stop increment on two outlets and can capture fast action with super quick bursts of up to 50 flashes per second. The ambient light can be controlled with HSS to create crisp images without motion blur at shutter speeds up to 1/8,000 sec. The Pro-10 can be wirelessly controlled at up to almost 1000 feet with any optional Air Remote. The unit is compatible with nine different flash heads and 120-plus Profoto Light Shaping Tools. Estimated street price: $14,391. Contact: Profoto, profoto.com.