An Introduction to Buying Studio Flash Lights

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home-studio-lighting

A guest post by Andrew Mills.

Confused as to what to look for when buying your first set of studio lights? In this article, I’ll run through some of the things to look for. I can’t tell you exactly what to buy as everyone’s needs and budgets are different, but this should give you a starting point as to help you make a more informed purchase.

Monolights or not?

There are two general “types” of studio flash – one where the flash head and controls are separate, and one where the flash unit is totally self contained (generally known as “Monolights” or “Monoblocks”). The separate versions are handy in that the controls stay within reach, unlike with monolights where you would have to move the light, or use step ladders when you need to adjust them if the light is high up or in such a position that makes them hard to reach.

Monolights are the most commonly sold and used versions these days, and are probably cheaper due to their self contained nature, and as a result, are the type I’ll deal with here (although many things are valid for both types.)

IMG_3857.jpg

How many?

You can start with just one light and use reflectors as needed. Most people will need no more than 4, which will give you a key light (main light on the subject), fill (as its name suggests, just adds a bit of fill to remove excess shadows), a hair light and a background light – or you can use the hair and background light as both background lights in high key photos.

Expensive versus cheap

It’s tempting to just buy a cheap set of lights, but it is a trade off and the old saying “you get what you pay for” does ring true. Cheap flashes can vary in colour temperature and on output slightly with each and every firing of the flash, which can mean extra work for you in post processing. There is also the obvious reliability angle.

What watt?

Studio flash output is measured in watts per second, or Joules (basically the same thing). A home studio or small commercial studio will manage with lights of around 200w/s. Larger studios will mostly only need up to around 400w/s or 500w/s – you rarely need to go any higher. In fact, having too powerful a flash in too small a space will be counter productive and probably flood the space with too much uncontrollable light. More powerful lights are also more expensive (as you probably expected), and may take longer to recycle.

IMG_3856.jpg

“Turndownability”

This is something that people tend to overlook when looking for flashes – I know I certainly did when I bought my first set of lights: How far can your flash lights be turned down? The first set I got can only be turned down to 1/5th (a fifth) of its rated power, so as they were 200w/s lights, they would only turn down to 40w/s. It may not be important if you only ever use them in a basic studio setting, but I needed to use them on location in a house to light a model sat in a window – I found I was unable to turn them down far enough to balance light on the model with the light coming in from outside.

Generally, cheaper flash units turn down to 1/8th, then mid range by 1/16th and higher end units turning down to 1/32nd – my newer 400w/s flashes turn down to 1/32nd power, so go down to 12.5w/s.

Flash duration

This is how quickly the flash will deliver a given quantity of light – will the flash give a brighter burst in a shorter time, or not so bright over a longer period of time (3000th of second versus 1000th of a second for example). What will you using them for? For straight forward portraits and still life, then this is not such a concern. But if you are photographing dancers in action, or even children, you may need flash units that deliver the flash in a shorter period of time to make sure that the action is frozen and that there is no motion blur.

Recycle time

This is the amount of time it takes for the flash to recharge before it’s ready to fire again. Cheaper units tend to take longer to recharge than expensive versions – at full power, this can be up to around 3 seconds. It may not sound a lot, but when you’re snapping away that can seem an eternity, and could mean you miss a shot if you are shooting something like children.

Accessory mount

Sadly, there is no one standard accessory mount to attach accessories such as softboxes and beauty dishes. So you need to be aware as to what mount your flash unit uses and take it into consideration when buying a flash. Here in the UK, the Bowens “S-Type” mount is popular and is now probably as close to a standard that you can get, with Bowens themselves and many other manufacturers using it. There are plenty of accessories that will use this mount made by many different third party manufacturers. Elinchrom also have their own mount, and while there are plenty of accessories that fit it, there are not as many as there are for the S-Type mount, so you have less choice and they can cost more.

However, there are some accessory manufacturers who make their accessories with a universal adaptor that will allow you to use the same accessory on flashes with different mounts.

Modelling light

Most flash units will come with a modelling light – this is a “normal” incandescent or halogen light that is used to get an idea of how the flash will fall on the subject. It also helps illuminate the model and prevent their irises opening up too much if the studio is dimly lit.

How the light is set up to work depends upon the flash unit and it can work in one or more of these ways; straight on or off, variable power in step with flash output (the more you turn up the flash power, the modelling light gets brighter), or variable power set manually by a dial on the flash unit.

Obviously, flash units that allow you to control the modelling light manually and in step with the flash power is preferable as it gives you more control and choice.

Flash tube

Is it user replaceable? Many are, so you can just keep a spare and replace it yourself in the event that it should fail or gets broken. Sadly, mine are not so if it should ever fail, I have to send the flash unit off to have it replaced, meaning I will be without the flash unit for several days.

While on the subject of flash tubes – you should never touch them with your bare hands. Doing so can significantly shorten the lifespan of your flash tube!

IMG_3861.jpg

Ready notification

This is a personal thing that may not affect you, but my first set of lights does not have the ability to turn off the audible beep to tell you they are charged and ready to fire again. It can annoy me after a while when you get several lights beeping away all the time, so you may want to look for lights where the “beep” can be turned off, and/or where the flash unit can make the modelling light flash off when it’s ready.

Firing methods

All flash units will have a socket for a sync cord – this will usually be a 3.5mm jack socket, but some have the smaller 1.4mm socket (both sizes being “mono” versions of the same type you find on headphones). Studio flashes are usually sold with a sync cord to fit your flash, but they are easy and cheap enough to buy if needed. This socket can also be used to attach wireless triggers.

Most flashes also have an optical slave cell fitted (you generally only use the sync cord on one flash and fire others via the slave cells), but make sure it can be turned off if needed – I have been in a situation where other lights (from other photographers) were setting my lights off.

A few flash units now come with wireless slave triggers such as the Pocket Wizard built in, or with the option to fit a special version of the Pocket Wizard internally.

Consistency

I’ve briefly mentioned this above, but flash output can vary between firings – either the intensity, and/or colour balance. But, you can kind of assume that more expensive lights will be more consistent, and mean less post processing.

Unfortunately you can’t really tell how consistent a flash is without some real world tests – you will either have to rely on the manufacturer’s blurb, or read some third party reviews, or test the lights for yourself.

Heat and cooling

This probably won’t affect most people, but if you plan on doing extended periods of continuous flashes, then you should check the flash unit’s duty cycle (it may be more important if you live in a hotter environment). This is how long the flash unit can be operated before you have to stop and let it cool off. Some flashes are more efficient, some use large heatsinks, and some have fans fitted to help keep them cool.

Miscellaneous stuff

It’s certainly possible to mix – or use – different brands of flash (such as Bowens and Elinchrom), but some will advocate that you don’t as they will all have slightly different colour temperatures, which in turn may mean extra post processing to correct. It’s not something I’ve encountered, but it’s something to bear in mind, so you may want to choose a single brand and stick to their products.

Keep an eye out for other features – some Bowens flash units can use specially designed battery power packs, so they can easily be used on location where there is no mains power available. Certain Elinchrom models can be remotely adjusted via their Skyport wireless trigger system (by simply pressing a button on the trigger on your camera), or via a computer.

Conclusion

As I mentioned above, a lot will depend upon your budget, but I would try and avoid the cheapest available. Studio lights can cost a lot of money, but they are for the most part reliable and can last for many years (it’s not unknown for photographers to use the same set of lights for 20+ years).

My personal “must haves” for a studio flash are; ability to turn down by at least 1/16th of its rated power, Bowens S-Type accessory mount, the ability to turn off both audible recharge beep and slave cell, and a recharge time of less than 1.5 seconds at full power.

Check out more about the Author of this post – Andrew Mills at AndyPhoto.co.uk. Thanks also to Chilli Photography for some of the images in this post.

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  • Andre Catalan Punjani

    whats the highest watts you can get out of this flash?

  • Tafadzwa

    Hi,

    I can to your article because I had searched on Google what function the “Modell button” behind lights serves. I was happy to read your “Modelling light” section. Now I have a question, if you can help me:

    Can “Modelling light” be used for filming?

    I need a product that provide me with continuous light for my music videos and short film productions. Here is a photo of the light I intend to use for filming. It’s a 600W Studiohut Strobe. Will “Modelling light” be able to light up a film scene on this?

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  • Rhonda April 11, 2011 08:53 am

    Very Very helpful!!! I'm setting up my first studio and knew I wanted strobe lights but needed this information to tell me more specifics. What a great help you've been. Thank you!

  • Rhonda April 11, 2011 08:53 am

    Very Very helpful!!! I'm setting up my first studio and knew I wanted strobe lights but needed this information to tell me more specifics. What a great help you've been. Thank you!

  • Athena March 6, 2011 02:04 pm

    I have promasters 300c strobes. Im having a problem with them not firing most of the time. There doesnt seem to be a rhyme or reason to their not firing that I can tell. Im wondering how I might tell whether or not my cameras lack of transmission or if the lights are in need of repair.

  • Mohna July 27, 2010 06:33 am

    What a great article thank you! I really want to start doing studio pictures but was clueless as to where to even start with studio lights. Thank you for all the great information!

  • simon July 8, 2010 03:55 am

    "buy cheap buy twice" ... but as I was on a budget I thought all well and good but I'll go for cheaper.... theyre now falling to bits after two /three years of light use

  • mark July 6, 2010 10:53 pm

    andrew this was a very helpful to me since i am planning to buy one.

  • John Dunne July 5, 2010 07:47 pm

    Thanks Andrew, I think you have managed to cover all the basis here on choosing a studio flash set-up. I went down this road last year and have been really happy with the kit decision I made. You are so right that 200 joules is generally about right unless you have a big space to fill, although a buyer does need to consider whether they may end up shooting groups as 200 joules won't cut it beyond a 'couple' shoot I have found.

  • asif July 5, 2010 04:26 pm

    i have a problem with my digital camera, I have Nicon D5000, in the night it is OK but in the day light it whitish the snap 1 out of 4 or 3

  • Jeffrey Byrnes July 5, 2010 01:54 pm

    Studio Strobes are what are commonly used in most commercial and portrait studios. Never really heard them called flash lights. As they are not flash lights, they are strobes, mono or not. A contemporary practice I have seen popping us is the use of continuous lights in replacement of strobes.

  • Nav July 4, 2010 08:24 am

    Thanks again :)

  • Nav July 4, 2010 08:23 am

    Very helpful, exactly what I was looking for. I have been reading about LumoPro 160 n it seems like a hit. Would you recommend the same? Thank you for your help and for always enlightening our minds with great photography tips.

  • Leszek July 3, 2010 09:10 pm

    @Heather,

    you will have to use your brain... fortunately it's quite easy, and with digital you can always do trial-and-error :)

    Look at the Lighting 101, a great resource: http://strobist.blogspot.com/2006/03/lighting-101.html

  • onebluelight July 3, 2010 08:11 pm

    This is a very informative article! Thank you very much.
    I will be buying my first set of lights in the next 6 month, so this article comes very handy, i will keep in mind the “Turndownability”!

  • Heather July 3, 2010 01:10 pm

    I hate to bare all of my inexperience, but I shoot mostly in aperture priority instead of full manual. Would having a flash require one to shoot in full manual mode? Would the camera (Rebel Xti) still be able to select my shutter and ISO or would I have to start using my brain? :)

  • chroma key July 2, 2010 10:25 pm

    Instead of using tungsten bulbs we can use compact florescent continuous light that reduce the temperature and use 90% of less power and also has life span of 100 times more than tungsten light. it is good for in house photography and enable you to work with daylight color balance options. you would not be sweating in the studio

  • Anoushka July 2, 2010 08:46 pm

    Thanks for this article; really helpful!

  • murtuza July 2, 2010 06:05 pm

    Hi !
    i think its always better to buy higher W lights minimum would be 750 and above, it does cost a bit more but at the end of day you will love the result - as you can use faster shutter speed and thus helping you in getting more sharp images plus after a time you want to upgrade so its another expense .... i can say this from my personal experience started with 400 - but then got the 2500 W
    please no hard feeling its just a onion

  • Leszek July 2, 2010 05:52 pm

    Are you sure it's Watts per second (W/s), not Watts-seconds (Ws)??? 1 Watt-second stands for "1 Watt working for one second", and it would be equivalent to Joules.

  • Andy MIlls July 2, 2010 09:49 am

    @udi - The power increment is in stops, usually 1/10th (I believe, not 100% sure though) of a stop if it is not stepless/infinitely variable.

    I'll give you an example on the power control: Bowens spec for its Gemini 500C is from 15ws to 500ws over 5 stops. 500 divided by 32 (1/32) is just over 15.

  • Andy MIlls July 2, 2010 09:28 am

    @Maia - I believe using flash on newborn babies has no ill effect. But it may still startle them - I would perhaps bounce the flash, or at the very least not use bare flash directlt at the baby (which would give unflattering results anyway).

    http://www.babyworld.co.uk/information/baby/ready_or_not_guide/baby_questions2.asp#flash
    http://www.naturescapes.net/042004/do0404.htm

  • Andy MIlls July 2, 2010 09:20 am

    I had thought I had checked about watts and joules, but it looks like the couple or sites I checked on were wrong. The moral of the story is to be more careful where you check your facts (no, not wikipedia, believe it or not).

  • Lighting Rumours July 2, 2010 08:34 am

    As said above, unfortunately you've got it wrong on watt-seconds.

    Joules are a unit of energy.
    Watts are a unit of power (energy over time).
    1 Watt (W) is one Joule per second (J/s).

    But because 1W = 1J/1s
    If you multiple both sides by 1 second, you get
    1Ws = 1J
    1 Watt-second = 1 Joule

    Electrical devices which use energy continuously, such as household light bulbs, are rated by power ("wattage"), i.e. how much energy they use every second. A 60W lightbulb uses 60 Joules every second.

    Flashes are different. They don't use energy continuously (except for the modelling light) but they dump it all at once. So instead, the energy is measured, not the power. This is measured in Joules. E.g. a 500J monolight.

    However, photographers are used to Watts (from household devices such as lightbulbs and microwaves) and seconds (from their cameras), and might not be familiar with "Joules". Using the equation above, Watt-seconds are the same as Joules, so this term is used instead.This way, you can compare the energy input of a flash and a continuous light source:

    A 500J (= 500Ws) flash at full power uses the same energy as a 500W continuous light uses in 1 second.

    Now, most of this confusion is because people see "Ws" (Watts * seconds) and think it doesn't look right, so they put a slash (/) in it. This makes it W/s (Watts / seconds, watts per second) and makes it wrong.

    W/s = J/s/s = J/s²
    So this would be the acceleration of energy. Not helpful.

    Short story:
    Watt-seconds, Ws, Joules and J are right.
    Watt/seconds, W/s, and watts per second are wrong.

  • Paul July 2, 2010 07:26 am

    The power is rated in Watt-seconds, not Watts/second. Note the difference in wording. Watts / second is read as "Watts per second" and implies division. "Watt - seconds" is read the way it looks, and implies multiplication. Since 1 Watt = 1 Joule / second, then 1 Watt * 1 second = 1 Joule.

    I still vaguely remember the circuit design classes I took ages ago. :-)

    On a side note: I never understood why the industry specifies ratings in Watt-seconds instead of Joules, considering that they are the same thing, and a Joule is easier to explain. Probably Watts are more familiar to people, but still...

  • Robert Green Photography July 2, 2010 06:42 am

    Great article Andy, but I would like to point out that Danferno is actually correct when he says you've got your Joules and Watts confused.
    1 watt = 1 joule per second
    1 joule = 1 watt second NOT 1 watt per second. A watt second is the industry standard and is what is quoted in spec sheets. A watt per second is a joule per second squared (or a joule per second per second) which is an accelleration of energy as he says, something totally different. It is all very confusing, but that physics for you!

  • Hynek July 2, 2010 06:17 am

    to Danferno and Andy: true, it should be Ws not W/s :-) so wattsecond NOT watt PER second
    if W=J/s then J=Ws (easy math)

  • Steve July 2, 2010 05:19 am

    Andrew – great article, very informative. Many thanks! Just to get things clear here – it's the manufacturers who have got it wrong when they rate their units in Watts. The Watt is a unit of power. The unit of energy is the Joule. Power is the amount of energy expended in unit time, ie, one second. So, 1 Watt = 1 Joule per second (1W = 1J/s). Flashtubes are rated by energy, ie, J or Ws.

    During the recycle period, a capacitor is charged to a high voltage waiting for a trigger signal. When it gets this from the shutter, the gas in the tube is ionised to become a low resistance (almost short-circuit) load on the capacitor, which dumps its charge very quickly and the gas glows brightly – but very briefly.

    Let's work a few numbers. Say the flash unit is set to 200Ws and the discharge is 0.5ms, ie, 0.5 x 10E-3. Power is energy/time, so the equivalent power is 200 x 10E3 /0.5 = 400 kW. Awesome but true!

  • JG July 2, 2010 05:13 am

    @Andy-Mills: Watt-seconds, or joules, are an industry standard unit of measuring flash output, not watts per second. It's not confusing. Watt-seconds are not the same as watts per second.

  • brain July 2, 2010 04:53 am

    Andrew, I'm going to be very American and ask for easy answers so I don't have to shop myself.

    Say you have $500 right now. What would you purchase as far as lighting equipment for starters? Or would you save up a few more hundred? I would use it for basic portraits and easy studio modeling stuff, no action, and portability doesn't have to be a big factor.

    Whatever you tell me to do I'll do it.

    I love you and your article.

  • udi July 2, 2010 04:00 am

    hi Andrew,
    Thank or this review.
    could it be that the Turndownability section was confused.
    It will be more accurate to say that when you turn down a flash to the "fifth" setting you are knocking down five stops. that would take it from 200WS to (100, 50, 25, 12) 6WS.
    going from 200 to 40 is about 2.3 stops, I never met a studio strobe that narrow in range. Even the one you have in the picture has 5 degrees where the last one is 1/32.

  • MiL July 2, 2010 03:58 am

    Great! I'm looking for spend some money on flash lights...so, now I understand a bit better a lot of considerations...
    Thanks so much, very helpful!

  • Mr. Pramathesh Borkotoky July 2, 2010 03:56 am

    I was just going to search google for studio lights when I saw your mail. And it definitely helped me like always.

  • Maïa July 2, 2010 03:11 am

    Hi !

    I was wondering, when you're shooting babies, especially newborns, I guess you can't use flash lights...What do people use then ? Continous ones ?

  • Doug Sundseth July 2, 2010 02:53 am

    No, the industry standard is that flash energy is measured in Watt*seconds (Joules), not in Watt/seconds, because that's what physics requires.

    One Watt for 100 seconds is the same energy as 100 Watts for 1 second or 10,000 Watts for 0.01 second.

    Mathematically:

    1*100 = 100*1 = 10,000*0.01

    J = Ws

  • Andy MIlls July 2, 2010 02:40 am

    @J-F Nicollet - Continuous is used in photography, but it's not so common these days. Continuous lighting tends to get very hot and uncomfortable for the subject, and others in smaller spaces such as studios. Continuous will also not freeze movement like flash will.

    @Danferno - Watts per second is the industry standard for measuring/expressing the flash's output. 1 Watt is 1 Joule per second, but 1 Watt per second it is 1 Joule. Confusing, I know.

  • scott July 2, 2010 02:38 am

    I am a huge fan of the Alien Bee products (www.alienbees.com). I started with them and still use them today for my professional work. If you doubt they are capable of amazing things because they are cheap, see the images on my blog.

    For around $1k you can have a full studio of lights and some of the greatest modifiers money can buy. I love the fact they have a foldable softbox, as I use them a lot more because they are not a pain to setup and tear-down to take on location.

    -www.lightshootedit.com : Lighting and Photoshop tutorials and blog.

  • Tyler Wainright July 2, 2010 02:22 am

    Great article - now, all I need to do is find some space...oh, and some money. What's the take on used lighting equipment?

  • Danferno July 2, 2010 01:40 am

    Am I missing something, or have the Watts and Joules been mixed up in this article? 1 Watt = 1 Joule / second. Talking in W/s is... weird (it would mean an acceleration of energy, which is... not very scientific).

  • J-F Nicollet July 2, 2010 01:12 am

    Oh ok, it's just a question of comfort, doesn't affect the quality of the photos.
    Thanks Tyler.

  • diegolas July 2, 2010 01:04 am

    great article, you shouldt write something about subject illumination !! :)

  • Tyler July 2, 2010 12:59 am

    Continuous lights are nice for learning, but to have the same output as a good strobe, you will have a lot of heat.... I just got strobes and I am loving not sweating under tungsten lights. My tungsten lights were not as adjustable either.

  • J-F Nicollet July 2, 2010 12:46 am

    I'd like to set up a shooting room, but there remains one question after this article.. flash lighting, or continuous lighting ? What are the pros and cons of each, and in which situations flash is more interesting ?

    Thanks in advance :)

  • Sara Sultan July 2, 2010 12:37 am

    Andrew - thanks for such an informative article. I've been contemplating on which lighting equipment to get and had two setups in mind. The Interfit ex 150 (Cheaper) or the Promaster 300C prof studio flash (more expensive). After reading your article, it makes sense to go for the latter since it encompasses the main points that you highlighted. What do you suggest? I'm building an in-house studio and would like to invest in something that will go a long way.

    Also, is it easy to find voltage converters for lighting equipment? If I'm travelling abroad to another country that uses 220-240V, I would like to have something I can use to have my equipment ready to go.

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