Understanding Photographic Lighting, Part III (Article Series)

Selecting your studio strobe system might even more critical to your future success than picking a camera system. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

Selecting your studio strobe system might be even more critical to your future success than picking a camera system. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

Studio Strobes: What to consider, what to buy

Jumping up to studio strobes is a move that most aspiring professional photographers eventually must make. It doesn’t really matter whether your dream is shooting products in a New York studio, running a portrait business or being the team photographer for an NBA basketball team.  Having access to studio strobes quickly becomes an issue once you’re shooting for your livelihood.

There are simply too many jobs that you’ll have to pass on if you can’t produce this type of light. What studio strobes give you is this: big, bright, color-corrected light, and lots of it, when and where you need it. Any time you need to light a room of any size you need this lighting. Any time you want to shoot through a big soft box, you need this lighting (products, portraits, etc). Bidding on a job to shoot a promotional campaign for a company? (This could be a multi-doctor medical practice, a law firm, a trucking company, you name it.) You’ll have to be able to handle everything from portraits of the company president to interior photos of their offices to shots inside their production facilities-you get the idea. It’s going to take much more than your camera-mounted portable flash to get this type of job. Studio strobes are the answer.

Picking a lighting system

You should view lighting purchases as investments in your long-term photographic career, maybe even more so than camera purchases. Your lighting needs will remain fairly stable while cameras will continue to change and evolve. So picking a good lighting system is a critical decision.

What to consider

Get a system with at least 1200 watt/seconds of power per strobe head. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

Get a system with at least 1200 watt/seconds of power per strobe head. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

You want to buy a system with enough power. Most of these systems use power packs and separate light heads. I think this is the way to go for your studio lighting system since you can send a light head off for repair and still have a functioning system. By enough power, I think the minimum for the first set you buy would be a power pack with at least 1200 watt seconds of power. More is always better. My big pack is 2400 watt seconds and there have been times I needed 2 or 3 of these to do the job. The heads that go with this type of gear will each be capable of firing the full power pack through a single unit, in my case, 2400 w/s per head.

Picking a system

What system to buy? I use Speedotron Black Line power packs and light units. I like them for several reasons: they’re very sturdy, almost never break, and when they do, they are repaired by Speedotron technicians in Chicago. I’ve never had one really go bad, even though they’ve been banged around for over 20 years. The strobe bulbs and modeling lights are easily available, too.  And they’re reasonably priced, as these things go. In addition to the standard heads, they make a quad head unit, very fast recycling times, which is very popular with NBA team shooters that need very fast strobe exposures.

Regardless of which brand you buy, make sure you can get fast service! You may find a good part of your business revolves around these units and when one needs repair, you can’t afford to wait weeks to get it back. (If I were a European shooter, I’d probably try to find a brand made closer to home, for the same servicing considerations.)

Other brands

Other brands I like: well, there’s a lot of this stuff. Two other good brands I like are the Comet and Dynalite flash systems. The Comets are very nicely designed with incremental strobe power adjustment; but pricey;  the Dynalite units are small, something to consider if all of your business will be involve travel. When looking at these systems, talk to photographers that own these systems and see what they recommend. Look at your budget, and think about the most power you think you will ever need. Double that amount, and start shopping for your system.


If you think most of your strobe work will involve travel and location lighting, another system that a lot of photographers are using now is  the Alien Bees flash system. These are self-contained units but surprisingly affordable, with a 1600w/s self-contained strobe unit available for only $359.95. You might buy three of these units and some light stands and a soft box and you’d be set to go. They also make a DC power pack adapter for this stuff which makes the whole thing useable away from AC power, a big advantage in a lot of situations. (I plan a separate story about battery-powered strobe systems later.)

Buy at least three heads

Whatever brand you settle on, you need to buy at least  three heads when you take the plunge. This is the minimum number I would be comfortable having. With three lights you’ll be able to do a lot of interesting and varied lighting, and if one of them breaks, you can limp along with two lights while one is being fixed. But three light heads is the bare minimum for this kit, if you’re serious about this type of work.

Your kit

So to get started under this scenario, you’ll need to buy three light heads and a main power pack. The light heads will come with a standard reflector, probably something around 7 inches, which works with an umbrella. You’ll also want some larger reflectors for these heads, and definitely a couple of grid adapters, whatever your system designs. Grids focus the light more narrowly, an important consideration when you need more of a beam of light. Also, buy at least one extension cable for your strobes, which you’ll use when you need to set a light up further away from your power pack. Get four 8-foot light stands and a shorter stand, and at least one soft box. If you’re buying one, the first one to buy would be a 3ft by 4ft box. I use the Chimera brand of soft boxes but the Westcott boxes are an economical alternative.


That’s about it. You’ll find that studio strobes open up a whole new world of lighting and photography for you. Shoot, shoot, shoot! Experiment. See where this new direction in your work takes you!–DiscerningPhotog
Related posts:

Understanding Photographic Lighting Part I

Understanding Photographic Lighting Part II

selfport1aHi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog

Posted in: How To, Lighting

About the Author:

Photographer, videographer and photo editor. Host and creator of The Discerning Photographer web site. Currently a Canon shooter.

11 Comments on "Understanding Photographic Lighting, Part III (Article Series)"

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  1. That’s kinda complicated, but it’s really a plus of you have knowledge about this. Nice post man!

  2. Strobe lights are used in photography to replace regular camera flashes and the cords that are used with them. Because they flash quickly, they eliminate movement blurs caused by the subject or camera shake.
    Strobes are portable lights that can be disassembled and carried in a suitcase-like storage truck, which makes them useful for photographers who shoot on location.

  3. Nice post! it is very interesting, i enjoyed reading it, thank you so much for the great info, it is very useful, keep it up!

  4. Thanks for your thoughts, Sarah!

  5. Danielle says:

    It doesn’t matter how inexpensive a light is if it’s unreliable or inconsistent. Unreliable ends up being hideously expensive in terms of reputation. The same applies for inconsistency if you don’t get consistent light output, you won’t get consistently exposed images. Extreme reliability tends to come at a cost, and extreme consistency (within 1/25th of an f-stop or better) also tends to cost more than reasonable consistency (1/5th of a stop or so).
    Most existing pack systems are accurate within 1/5th stop or better (mostly better), and most midline monolights are also. I recommend checking a unit before buying, especially if the model is unusually inexpensive; that’s where the largest problems usually occur.
    Reliability also includes overall life expectancy of the system. There are systems 20+ years old still in daily use, and systems 20 sessions old that may not work well any more. Ask about the history of the systems you’re considering. Ask about repair costs.

  6. Great points, Danielle. Good lighting equipment, unlike camera body technology, never goes out of style.

  7. very good points here. Great article

  8. BayouBill says:

    Andrew, if you were going to set up a lighting arsenal from scratch with the currently available technology, would you go with a lighting system based on a power pack, or with monolights? If the former, would you stick with Speedotron (see below), or would you consider other brands (which ones)? If the latter, which brand(s) which you evaluate?

    I see that Speedotron has been acquired by Promark Brands, which has acquired a number of other lighting companies. Does this bode well or poorly for Speedo?

  9. Hey Bill,
    Speedos have been workhorses of the industry for a long time and I don’t think that will change with their acquisition by Promark. However, if I were starting from scratch and buying lights today, I would look really hard at the American-made Alien Bees light units. These are monolights, but they’re small in size, powerful and CHEAP. There’s even a lithium-based remote device that’s in the product line that allows you to take them anywhere. I have several friends that have bought these and been very pleased with them.

  10. BayouBill says:

    Andrew, when using studio strobes, do you consider the use of a digital light meter to be an essential part of the setup? I can see where a meter would save a lot of time vs the shoot-and-chimp approach you’ve described in your posts, but on the other hand I can also see where I could learn a lot about shutter speed and f-stop combinations under different lighting conditions by using the trial and error method rather than letting a meter always tell me what to do, especially since lighting decisions are, it seems to me, so subjective. Thanks for any advice you can offer.

  11. The LCD screen has really eliminated the need for a light meter. We needed light meters when shooting expensive transparency (slide) film; even then, a Polaroid back (the old school method of chimping) as part of the kit. So I say no.

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