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
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 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.
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
Hi, 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