3 Studio Lighting Options for Photographers

I’m starting a new blog category called “Beginner’s Corner,” mainly targeting new photographers seeking technical information about commercial product photography. A successful photograph depends not only on the subject, equipment, and post-production. It’s the lighting that will make or break your image. My studio is equipped with all sorts of lights and accessories, from strobes and continuous lighting sources to umbrellas and softboxes to colored gels and various backgrounds and backdrops. Today let’s focus on the three main lighting options:

Continuous lighting

With this system, the light remains on and at a constant intensity or brightness. Great for getting instant feedback about the highlights and shadows on your subject, continuous lights are also relatively cheap compared to strobe-lighting systems. In video production, they’re used 99% of the time.

Unfortunately, they’re nicknamed “hot lights” for a reason. They get extremely hot because of their tungsten or quartz-halogen bulbs. At 500+ watts each, these lights require special, heatproof accessories for safe use in your studio or home. Tungsten hot lights, can increase the ambient temperature quite considerably, just three 1000-watt units will not only suck lots of juice, but can also wilt or even melt certain props used during a product photography session. For example, prop wax with prolonged heat exposure will no longer hold properly, and if you’ve concocted an elaborate scene, it can be a frustrating event when it all collapses.

Newer lights are on the market today, which use fluorescent bulbs that don’t generate the same heat. The trouble is that you’ll need many fluorescent bulbs to match the intensity of a tungsten bulb.

The second problem with hot lights is the lack of light-intensity control. Most continuous-lighting sources have only one setting for brightness or perhaps a simple toggle with half or full power. To top that off, most lights aren’t strong enough to freeze action at the lowest ISO settings, unless you shoot at relatively large apertures in the f2.8 to f5.6 range. As a studio photographer, lighting is your paintbrush – you need maximum freedom to adjust the lighting conditions in your “controlled environment.” Unless you are on a tight budget, I don’t recommend this route.

Flashguns

These lights are small, very portable units that attach to the camera’s hot-shoe connector. They’re rarely used in studio photography because they don’t provide any visual guide for shadow and highlight placement, which basically means that you’re working blind, more or less by trial and error. Some photographers use flashguns in the studio for high-speed, action-freezing situations, such as capturing liquid splashing (some studio strobes are able to do this as well). They’re most often used outdoors for weddings, reportage, and wildlife or nature photography.

Strobe lighting:

Strobe lights deliver a powerful but short-lived flash as the main light source and are usually fitted with a secondary light, a tungsten-based modeling lamp of relatively low wattage. A modeling light is a continuous light that's used to help show where the light and shadows will fall on the subject. It’s not what lights your subject when you press the shutter – the flash does that. On the strobe unit, there’s a knob or slider that controls the output strength of your light. This is also usually tied to your modeling light so you see the effects instantly. This is especially useful with a multiple light setup. We can modify the intensity of each light to see the general effect with the modeling lamp to “paint” your subject.

The strobe’s strong, short bursts of output allow you to maintain a low ISO in the range of 100 to 200, reducing noise and enabling your digital sensor to produce the best image quality. Secondly, because of the variable power, you still have control over the aperture setting. Reduce the power and you can use f5.6 or crank it up to use f16.

Quality studio strobe light manufacturers provide power packs that let you shoot in the field – giving you ultimate flexibility, which continuous lighting can’t provide, unless of course you have a gas-powered generator!

Shopping guide for continuous and strobe lighting

Continuous lights Affordable: Britek 3-light kit
Britek lights are popular because of their price. Many photographers and especially, videographers purchase these as first lights. They are more fragile and have less attachment possibilities, but for those on a budget, this can suit your needs.

Moderate: Lowel 3 light kit;
Lowel has been around for a long time in the industry, serving both the photographic and video community. We own a set of these lights. The price/performance is great as well as durability.
High: Arri 3 light kit
Arri is an industry standard, used throughout the world, and because of this, they are priced to match. Mostly a video and cinema lighting company, they produce a full range of low to extremely high powered lights. They are very rugged, and can take a beating.

Strobe lights: Affordable: AlienBees
AlienBees are created by Paul C. Buff, a visionary some might call him because of his dedication to producing what I think is the industry's best price/performance lights. They are built in the USA, and come in various strengths (and colors). Many amateur and professional photographers use them in their studio. They do suffer from some inconsistent light output and color. There is a new light being produced called the Einstein and is taking the industry by storm.
Moderate: Elinchrom D-Lite
Elinchrome lights have been used by professionals for years as their trusted light. Not overly priced, they have been a workhorse in the industry.
High: Profoto
Profoto is recognized as one of the top brands of photography lighting equipment out there today. Most top photographers are equipped with these, and rental companies carry them in stock. They are built to last and take a beating in and out of the studio. They have power packs and all the accessories you would ever desire. They are priced extremely high, but some photographers will only swear by them. With the cost of one Profoto strobe, you can almost purchase a whole set of AlienBee lights with modifiers.

I’ll be back in a week with a discussion on light modifiers. If you have topics which you are curious about, please, drop a comment or email me, will be my pleasure to help you.