Some of the items listed here is more or less required to be able to get anything done. Many of the items I will mention is there to make your life simpler, and save you time and effort and just generally hassles. You can get along without them, but it might just be worth your while to get them and stop screaming at the roll of duct tape.

Also, please note that there are options and options and more options on everything I mention here. This is not supposed to be all encompassing history of studio photography.

So first off… Lights

You basically have three options here.

  1. Standard studio lights
  2. Strobist kit
  3. Constant light

No matter which of these you choose, you will have benefits and shortcomings, and still need some form of light diffusion and shaping that needs to be done for most of your studio needs.

Profoto-D1 travel kitHensel flash headStandard studio lights
These are generally between 200watt and 1600watt for standard kits (although you can get both smaller and much larger) and can either be an all in one unit, run from a battery or run from a generator. If it’s run from a battery or generator, the light unit itself is usually quite a bit smaller as most of the electronics and circuitry is in the generator unit and not in the lamp head. These units tend to be faster. By faster I specifically mean the light duration (generally referred to as a t.3 value)

Why would you want studio lights? They tend to recycle faster than strobist kit (so the time between shots is less), they can be much more powerful than strobist kit, they can work much harder per session than a strobist kit.

Strobist kit
All the rage, “strobist” is a term coined by David Hobby and refers to studio type flash photography with on camera flash units (like the canon 580ex or 430ex series flash units, or strobistNikon SB600 – SB900 series camera flashes)

The idea is to remotely trigger your flash units just like you would ordinary flash and model your lights the same way, but you are extremely mobile. The units generally run of AA batteries or smaller battery packs, the can be mounted on just about everything, and can be hidden away in obscure places for dramatic lighting effects.

They do tend to be a bit slower on the recharge, and you can overheat them quickly if you are not careful, but very little can beat them for fast flash duration (t.3 flash duration can be more than 1/20,000th of a second. That is 5 or 6 times faster than a standard studio unit!)

strobist-umbrella-headGenerally you will also need to buy some light stand or clamps to mount your flash units on. I tend to carry some superclamps with me as well as two or three smaller light stands with adjustable heads that can take an umbrella as well as a flash unit and trigger. I also have small 40cm and 60cm softbox units that can fit on the light stands or superclamps should I need more directed light.

Constant light
Also used to be called “tungsten” or “hot lights”, these are the various forms of constant lighting. You can buy various types of constant light, from Eco friendly bulbs to tungsten and high power halogen lights (often, basic construction floodlights are used as a cheap alternative) with the latest and greatest being LED light panels.

CreastiveLight Constant Light lampheadThe Eco friendly lights is the “best of both worlds” solution as they tend to run fairly cool, so they don’t have a problem living inside a soft box. LED light panels are obscenely expensive, and halogen and tungsten lights are tremendously hot.

None of the current constant light sources can give close to the amount of power of a standard studio head or strobist flash, but their main advantage is that you can see and model light exactly. It’s the ultimate wysiwyg setup. What You See Is What You Get!

Canon 580exIISo, is any type better than another?

Nope… They are all ideal!

Let me explain. If you need to stop action or shoot anything at high speed (an ice cube splashing in water or a golfer hitting a golf ball) you need a flash unit with a short t.3 flash duration, otherwise you will get some motion blurring on the edges of movement. So the ideal is strobist kit

But if you need to push out a lot of light to get decent Depth of Field for a beauty shot of a face (say, f/11), then a bog standard set of 500watt flash units will be ideal, and much easier to set up with large diffusion panels or light modifiers.

So, is there any room for constant light? Again, absolutely! Shoot food, or pack shots (still life) where the exact design of the light is critical, then it generally makes sense to shape and model a light as you see it. Even with something like bodyscapes it’s a very nice setup to use.

I personally use all three types of lighting on a very regular basis and mix and match different lighting types as I need them.

As you can see, what you start off with is going to be your first decision, but it might become more clear as you go through this article.


Pocketwizard plusIINow, PC-sync-cablewhatever you decide on a light source, you will need to trigger the light when you take a picture. (Obviously this is not an issue with constant lights)

You can either go wired or wireless. Generally the cheapest option is to go wired. Most studio light sets will arrive with one or two PC cables. One side plugs into your camera, and the other side into your studio lights. Some cameras does not have a triggering jack or PC jack, but this can be overcome by buying a cheap and small hotshoe adapter for the purpose. The nice thing about this route: it’s cheap and consistent

The bugger is the actual cable. You are always attached to something and there are more chances for an accident or to trip over a cable.

If you decide to go wireless, then there are various options ranging in just as many price ranges. The first and easiest is simply to use a flash unit on your camera to trigger the studio flash units (most have this built in so that you trigger one light, even if using a cable, and that light’s ‘flash’ triggers the second light. This slight delay is so fast that it won’t register on your photographs at all!) your flash can trigger the other flash units.

Hahnel Combi TFSome strobist kit can also do this. Or be enabled to this by attaching a small photocell to the unit.

The most convenient way is by wireless remote triggers. These also come in various price ranges and with different abilities, with the industry standard being PocketWizard remote triggers. PocketWizard triggers can be adjusted and used in conjunction with lots of units and can trigger lights, cameras or both. Other triggers, like the Hahnel units can do the same, but with slower response times, and can only take a limited amount of triggers… Your future needs and current budget will be the deciding factor.

One note I need to make here on cheaper remote triggers. Because of the wireless signal delay from your camera, you might find that a cheaper remote trigger might reduce your flash sync speed by as much as half the actual camera capability. They also tend to be more prone to interference.

Light Shapers and Modifiers

Right, so we have lights, and we can trigger them (if we need to) now we need to start shaping the lights.

These are done by the plethora of tools available to you. I will quickly try and cover the basics of some of them (once you get the basics, you can work out the rest)

Translucent UmberellaUmbrellas
These generally come either as translucent or reflective umbrellas. Translucent umbrellas are also known as “shoot through” umbrellas and as the name suggests, you shoot the flash through the diffusion material of the umbrella.

Silver Reflective UmbrellaThen you get reflective umbrellas, and they are generally white, silver or gold. So which is which and why the differences?

Umbrellas are good for lighting in a circular shape, evenly away from the umbrella surface, which means they are great for spreading light and just throwing a bit more light on the environment you are shooting in.

The shoot through and matt white reflective umbrellas give you a more even light while the silver and gold reflective (metalic) umbrellas gives you a bit more pronounced specular highlights

The actual size of the umbrella (or any diffuser for that matter) influences the “softness” of the light. But more about that later

Something to keep in mind with umbrellas is that they can create lens flare very easily, so take care when placing them that your front lens element is not exposed to the light directly (I personally always shoot with a lens hood, regardless of setup)

Elinchrom Rotalux softboxSoft boxes
A soft box is a much more directional light shaper, and because the back is generally covered in black, as long as your camera doesn’t see the front panel the chances of picking up flare is much reduced.

Softbox gridSoft boxes are great for controlling light spill to the sides of a subject, and also for creating a soft even light.

Because the also come in various shapes and sizes, (striplights, giant softboxes, mini softboxes, octoboxes, etc) they are great for creating very defined effects.

These tend to fit on the front of a softbox and basically directs and polarize the light into a narrower beam. Because e light cannot spill away to a side, it’s a very directional light, from an already directional light source.

These tend to fit onto the flash head directly and worksnjust like a miniature grid for the soft box, except it’s a much smaller and directed light beam. This is quite literally a spotlight effect and they come in 10 to 40 degree honeycombs

Beauty dish
The mythical beauty dish is great, but a bit of a bugger to move around, and not always a requirement if you want to shoot beauty work. Essentially it sits just in-between umbrellas and softboxes for the lighting effect.

Hensel Beauty DishReflectors
The must have of any studio. Silver and gold reflectors helps to bring in just a little bit more light on a subject and can subtly enhance highlights and colour of the subject without the need for extra lights. I find that many times I will rather use a reflector than an extra light to ad a little bit extra to an image.

SLS_5-in1_Circular_Reflector_Kit_105cmAlso, reflectors are handy to wave around to get some wind on your model, or to place as flags (a flag is anything the can block off light from a certain area) reflectors, clamps and gaffer tape is the Swiss army knife of studio lighting.

So what size do I need?
I wish I could say “all sizes” but that is not true. You will end up with a few sizes most probably as your needs increase, but you will also start to creatively use what you have to get a specific effect. But as a start, let’s get down to why there are different sizes of everything.

Basically it comes down to how soft you want your shadows to be.

Hard shadows = small light sources
Soft shadows = large light sources

It’s quite simple… If the light is small in relation to the subject you are shooting, then light cannot shine past it, and you have a hard and harsh shadow area.

If the light source is big in relation to the subject, then light can shine ‘behind’ the edge of the subject in varying degrees and that makes the shadow ‘soft’ or diffused.

It’s important to note that the material in front of the light has very little to do with how soft the light is at the end of the day.

So if you want harder and stronger shadows, then smaller light modifiers, if you want softer, more even light, then get larger modifiers.

You can cheat a bit with the power and distance of your flash units away from the subject, but that is a whole different issue, and not a big part of today’s discussion.

Hard Light vs Soft Light - Size of the Source

What else?

Sekonic-L308sNow depending on what and how you will be shooting, you might want to invest in a light meter. It’s not critical as most of the lighting information you need can be garnered from the camera’s histogram. That said, my lightmeter comes out at almost every shoot to double check what I am reading from the histogram, and definitely when I start to build up larger or very creative lighting setups.

GlamourLightingColourChartAnother tool I never leave home without is my colourchecker passport. This is essentially a GretagMacbeth colour chart which I use as colour reference and greycard for both exposure as well as for removing colour casts in my RAW converter during post processing of the images.

Apart from that, make sure you have some clamps, some duct or gaffer tape, a few extra leads (and/or batteries if you are shooting strobist) and maybe a beanbag or sandbag or two just to keep everything steady.

Depending on your space and the type of shooting you want to do, you might considder getting some backdrops, but this is not essential. You can shoot against a paper backdrop, or a reflector, a wall… up to you!

What do I carry?

On more or less any given shoot, you will find me with my basic lighting bag, which contains:

2x Canon 580EX ver II flash units
Sekonic L-308s light meter
Colourchecker passport
2x leads
2x lightstands
2x strobist umbrella heads
40cm strobist soft box
60cm strobist soft box
1m gold/silver reflector on a stand
Gold and white foldable reflector
Silver and white foldable reflector
Giant 2m, 5-in-1 reflector and scrim
2x beanbagssuperclamp
Various clamps
Superclamps and Benro BH-2 ballheads
Gaffer tape

Lately you will easily find me shooting with one or two ProFoto D1 travel kits (500 watt)

Depending on the conditions, I will also rent more lights and modifiers as I need them. I don’t see the need to own 6 sets of lights if I will only use them once in two months. Buy what you need frequently and rent the rest!

I also tend to carry a set of CreativeLight constant lights and softboxes with me (except if I absolutely know I will not be using them)



by Sean Nel

Sean Nel

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