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BR> General Information, Photographic Lights

General Considerations for Buying. Money Saving Tips.

Consider what format camera you are using. Larger cameras need more light. Smaller subjects need less light. Power of light is measured in Joules or the equivalent Watts-Seconds (w/s). For a studio photographer typically 2000 watts-seconds is a starting point. Table top photography requires less, large subjects may require more. If you are mixing ambient light with flash, you might get by with just 1000 watts-second. Whatever lights you use for your studio, consider buying a top brand name for reliability, features and the compatibility.

Powerpack/head Systems (Strobes)

The predominant lighting for a studio is the Powerpack/head studio flash system. A powerpack consists of a heavy power pack and cabling run to a set of lightweight heads. The heads are flash tubes around an incandescent bulb. The bulb is a modeling light intended to allow the photographer to see the lighting that the flash will generate when triggered. Power distributed to the heads is individually adjustable. The principle drawback of a powerpack system of strobe is the hassle of a large number of cables. A key consideration for purchase is extensibility: are accessories available to fit the heads (see section below on light control products). Many vendors sell kits that include the most common accessories. A second purchase consideration is the color temperature. The lower-end systems vary widely in color temperature. An option to consider is a Pencil Light. A pencil light is just a thin light head (no fan, or reflector). Since it is so small it can be hidden in places on a set to provide light. Some units can be converted into regular light heads and use normal accessories.

Monolights (Monolight Strobe)

Monolights are lights with the powersource built in next to the flash head. Instead of running off of a powerpack, moonlights run off of 110V power. The main advantage is portability. Output is adjustable. Slaves are built in so timing of flash can be synchronized. Monolights are frequently used as a supplement for ambient light conditions. Expect about $500-750 for a monolight. Monolights are sold in kits from numerous vendors.

(monolight shown above)

Ceiling Light Systems

Ceiling systems are also called rail systems. The lights are suspended from a rail to allow lateral movement, and counterbalanced to allow you to pull a light down to the right height. Ceiling systems get the lights out from under foot. Most often combined with ceiling backdrop roll systems (to get backdrop stands out from under foot). A good ceiling system costs about $1000-1200 more than the comparable floor system. Rail systems are hard to find in the US.

The obvious disadvantage of ceiling systems are that they are built into the studio and cannot be double purposed to use on location. Most photographers with studio ceiling systems still need some lights and stands.

Hot (Continuous) Lights

Hot lights are lights that burn continuously. Using these lights you don�t need the same light metering supplies and aren�t likely to need test shots. Normally these lights are Tungsten, or Metal Halide Iodide lights. Not surprisingly a drawback is that they are very hot to be around�expect to sweat. They also are harder to control both for color balance and because not many accessories (softboxes, umbrellas, diffusion materials) can handle that level of heat. Hot lights are more common in film, theater and videography. If you need more information on hot lights consider theatrical sources, and books on cinematography. If you are investigating consider looking up theatrical Fresnels, scoops and spotlights. The theatrical versions are much more heavy-duty than the photographic versions.

Sun Light

A studio with good natural lighting can minimize the lighting equipment needed, but adds the consideration of the weather and the time of day. The light from a skylight or window is not the same as an outdoor shot. Also be sure to understand the color temperature requirements of your shot. Morning color temperatures differ from mid day. An overcast day can have a blue color temperature. Consider how to block the light for shots needing tightly controlled light.

Light Timing Devices Sync cord vs. Wireless

Sync cords handles flash timing between the camera and the strobes. Sync cords have the disadvantage of existing and being easy to trip over and the photographer must be eternally conscious of their location. Fortunately, most strobes can use a wireless system. These are infrared or radio remote, one side connects to the camera. The other attaches to the strobe powerpack.

Light Control Devices

Note: Specular light is light that is organized in one directional; Diffuse light is composed of several different directions of light; Hard light is generated by a small, far away or specular light source and generates defined shadows; Soft light has undefined shadows and is created by a large diffuse light source .


A softbox is a cubical fabric cover for a light. A softbox covers the light head, containing and directing the light. The interior of the softbox is covered in a reflective material, the front of the softbox has a diffusion material. The reflective material directs the light, the diffusion material softens it. In some cases the front material is removable for a �harder� light. With the material in place the light is �soft�. Softboxes have several accessories: interior baffles, which make the light appear a little harder; grids and louvers to control light direction and prevent light from spreading.

(softbox shown above)

A variation of the softbox is made for directional lighting, it�s called a striplight. A striplight is a long thin softbox that produces a narrow soft light. The light falls off quickly on either side allowing for a very targeted light.


Snoots fit over the light head and contain and direct the light. The result is a very small tight light is useful for a directed backlight�typically a hair light. Snoots can be purchased, or fashioned-- a quick trick is to use a dryer vent cut into a 10� length.

(two types of snoots shown above)

Barn Doors

Barn doors are a technique borrowed from theater. A barn door is a set of metal flaps that fit around the light head. You position the flap to control the light and block it from parts of your set.

(barndoor shown above)

Shading devices

French flags are small masks hung from an arm on a light stand. You position the flag to shade the lens.

(french flag shown above)

A yashmak is a framed piece of gauze mounted on an arm on a light stand. You position the yashmak to control the light and reduce the light reaching parts of your set.

(yashmak shown above)


Gobos are metal patterns meant to �go between� (where the term gobo came from) the light source and the subject. You can create your own from aluminum sheeting, and other materials or buy gobos. Gobos typically are cut into window patterns, trees, etc.

(gobo shown above)


Pieces of photographic scrim with areas cut out mounted on a frame.

(leaf pattern cookie shown above)


Optical grade materials mean to be fitted over the lens for special effects.


Any of a variety of materials typically meant to be placed in front of or attached to a light source. Diffusion materials cause the light to soften. Try Rosco Tufflux. A quick homemade source of diffusion is a vellum sheet (be careful of use with hot lights).

(diffuser shown above)

(scrim diffuser shown above)

(halfscrim diffuser shown above)


Photographic reflectors are panels of fabric or metal sheeting to reflect light off of. Sizes range from 6x6 inches to 4x8 feet, many are collapsable. The smaller versions (and sometime the larger) are called cards. If the reflector panel is fabric it usually is framed to make it rigid. Shapes of panels are typically round, square and rectangular. The reflector lining or surface color and texture are buying considerations. A matte surface finish is less reflective and offers a softer light. A silvered surface is highly reflective and offers a hard light with strong shadows. Usual colors of reflectors are white, silvered, super silvered and gold. White is the least reflective, Supersilvered is the most reflective. The gold is used to change the light color especially in shady outdoor locations. Typically, a reflector is a flat surface, but there are different types. 120 ° umbrella reflectors reflect light and diffuse it. An easy substitute is foamcore cut to the right size with an exactoknife and clamped into position.

(shallow bowl reflector shown above)


Umbrellas are translucent or silver fabric lined. When light it bounced off the interior of the umbrella a soft diffuse light source is created. White translucent lined umbrellas can be used in a second way, you can shoot through the umbrella and get a light that is harder and still diffuse.

(umbrella shown above)

Translucent backgrounds can also be shot through to give a diffusion effect, in this case a diffusion of the image not the light.


Gels are colored acetate. Gels are placed in front of lights and alter the color of light projected on the subject.

Like this article? Try   Scrim Effects.

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