How to Choose the Right Lights for Your Photography

Photography equipment can be pretty daunting at times, especially with such variety and costs attached to it, but out of all of the gear, lighting is perhaps the most confusing area to buy into. 

I dread to think how many hours I lost leading up to buying my first off-camera flash setup back in the 2000s. Back then, it was still all pretty much a case of just having named brands like Canon, Pocket Wizards, and the big studio brands like Bowens and Broncolor. Today, there are hundreds of brands offering LED, speedlights, strobes, monoblocks, packs and heads, and a myriad of variations in-between from pretty much every brand, with several offering the same products but with different stickers on them. It can be a minefield trying to work out exactly what you need.

In this video, I go through some of the main types of lighting and discuss their pros and cons for various types of photographers. I also look at how I got into lighting and how that might differ in 2020. 

Lighting is certainly more affordable at the entry point today, but it is also very confusing knowing what to go for. The big take-home from this video is that all light sources can be good light sources when used in the correct way for the right task. It is usually a case of simply working out what you need your light to do, which is where I offer advice. 

What is your go-to light source for photography?

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8 Comments

Richard Bradbury's picture

Thanks for the video Scott

My go to are Pixapro Storm heads in the studio and Pika 200 / speedlites on location. That said I have added LED to the kit recently for live streaming and videos... whole new world lol

My take on this is that for stills you are better to go with flash than constant if you do a mix of work then constant may make sense but even then you will need strobe at somepoint.

Barry Strawbridge's picture

For Studio Use

- Profoto B1/ D1/Acutes
- Broncolor
- Elinchrom
- PCB Alienbees/ Einsteins (Bees were how I got started with strobes)

Scott Choucino's picture

We never got the Alienbees or Einsteins in the UK. I remember early youtube days seeing everyone using them and not being able to get anything like it. I think Bowens was the UK equiv

Good summary, a couple of additional thoughts:

“A speed light on full power would not match a studio head on full power”

This is a common thing to say, and while definitely true, the problem is that the people this information is geared towards (beginners) don’t yet understand the practical implications of this. Meaning, they have no point of reference as to what “full power” actually produces on each of these devices and when they would need it.

Situations requiring especially short flash duration aside, I’ve found that the following variables generally work fine for speedlights, but once you start shifting 2-3 of these variables you need more power.

Wide apertures
Close distance to subject
Small to medium modifiers
Fewer layers of diffusion

So, for example, a speedlight could still work fine for headshots since the light can be close to the subject and a medium sized modifier could be used. If you’re shooting a full length portrait, the lights have to be farther away to be out of the frame, and you may be using a larger modifier to compensate for the fact that the light source gets smaller as you move farther away. Not to mention studio work is usually done at smaller apertures (7.1-16), which cuts down on light as well. So right there, if you’re using a speedlight, you may very well be shooting at full power. Add to that the degree you’re feathering the modifier from the subject, and you’re probably not getting enough light at that point. Even if you are, 1:1 on a speedlight leads to dreadfully long recycle times (a second or 2 doesn’t sound like much but if you’re shooting portraits it slows things down considerably) and more misfires. This is really where the 400/600+ watt lights start to become necessary.

Modeling lights are so useful that I can’t imagine not using them.

Regarding power source, the number of studio heads that can now run on batteries is much higher than a few years ago, which makes the portability of studio lights much greater these days.

Lastly, when considering lights, in addition to the budget, think about scalability. I can’t stress that enough. I didn’t comment on your Phottix Juno article but in all honestly, I hate Phottix. I started off with their Mitros+ speedlights for Sony. The shoes are garbage (I’ve had 3 break), 1 capacitor has already blown on a light that was barely used, and Phottix seems to have dropped the Sony version off the face of the earth with no information about why. So not only can I not add more lights to this system anymore, their monolight offerings are pretty minimal (and expensive for what you get), so there was no motivation for me to stick with them. If I had known all of that sooner, I wouldn’t have gone with them in the first place. So instead of continuing to add to the system I had already started, I had to start from scratch with something else (in this case, Godox).

Benoit Pigeon's picture

Now you can do all t.1, HS and/or color accuracy on battery monos or ac packs with Broncolor. I just love the system for it's inccredible flexibility. 2/3 of my inventory was purchased used and even the Pulso line either F heads or packs are still extremely reliable and hard to kill today. I would recommend opening any older than the G head model and place a drop of oil in the fan shaft if used frequently as those are 80v and not replaceable anymore. The G model use 12v but they have the same case as the old Pulso head line and Broncolor can update the board and fan for a fee. The 80v are heavy duty extremely well made fans and prevention can save a lot VS the update.
I know it sounds crazy, but I often bring 3 - 4 packs on location for furniture with a couple models of heads depending on the type of location. Lots of time the variety of product or location type requested by clients can't be totally accurate and extra equipment can suddenly be needed. Having more and back up guaranties that I have what is needed no matter the last minute request. Power range also is a must have but for portraiture they would be a pain to use with wide aperture.

Catherine Bowlene's picture

Thanks for this video!
My usual problem with light is that the photos are either too dark or vice versa. So I have to fix too bright photos all the time. At first that was a big deal but then I found a good tutorial on doing this ( https://photo-works.net/how-to-fix-overexposed-photos.php ). Still, it is better to do things right once than to fix them twice, so yeah, I have a lot to learn yet.

If you're using flash, eliminate the guesswork and invest in a light meter. If you're using constant / natural light, try switching to spot metering on your camera and see what it reads when you place the spot on your subject.

Catherine Bowlene's picture

Wow, that sounds way easier than the advice I've read. Thanks!