When dealing with studio lights for the first time, it's easy to get bogged down in the "what brand should I get" questions. Unfortunately, as the technology is constantly changing, any document that tried to answer that definitively would be out of date by the time it was written. Rather than do that, I've aimed for a set of issues each photographer should be aware of, to help them make a good decision about what equipment they need, based on what's available at the time.
Key things to consider are
At the end of the document, there are some additional comments. relating to purchasing used equipment and my own gear.
If you have any suggestions on expanding this, or areas you feel need clarification, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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--your 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.
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.
A side issue related to reliability is getting backup equipment if needed. If you have a pack, head, or monolight die before you absolutely need to use it, how quickly can you get a replacement? That may include checking local dealers for rentals, or on-site repair, or whatever. In most cases, repairs won't be immediate (excepting major cities), and rentals may be difficult. If that's the case and you anticipate needing your gear on schedule all the time, you should check with your local dealer(s), and see what they can offer to help fill-in. (Mixing systems with monolights isn't as awkward as mixing them for packs-and-heads; one more monolight will simply have to be tweaked for output levels [see modeling lights discussion in Features]
First off, watt-seconds are not a unit of light output; they're a unit of electrical usage. Different lights at the same power may give different levels of light. That depends on efficiency of the light tube, the power system, the cabling involved, the reflectors, and other details. I use watt-seconds here only for convenience; you must check the candidate systems for actual light output. A 100 watt-second unit that gives more light than a 1000 watt-second unit is unlikely, but 2:1 differences are not unheard of. (A Real World example--not photographic--would be "regular" tungsten light bulbs vs fluorescent light bulbs. A fluorescent 17 watt bulb might give off as much light as a 100 watt tungsten one. Electical power isn't the same as light output.)
The key information you need to know is
As you can see, the range is very broad. A 4x5 shooter expecting to use f32 and an ISO 50 film is going to need 64 times the power that a 35mm photographer would need if using an ISO 100 film at f5.6. If 500 watt-seconds is enough for the 35mm example, 32,000 watt-seconds would be needed for the second. (Fortunately, there are sometimes alternatives to raw power, but that does show just how much different these needs can be.)
Minimum and maximum output is linked to convenience. If you had, for example, a unit which only output 1000 watt-seconds at 100%, and no switches, you'd have to move lights around a lot more to get proper exposure than if you had a light which could switch from 60 to 1000 watt-seconds (full to 1/16th power). On the other extreme, a unit that only puts out 100 watt-seconds won't do much except for small settings where it's in close. (Outside of softboxes, a 400 w/s pack to 4 heads is more than enough to permit f8 with 100 ISO film for a 1-2 person portrait. Put the heads into softboxes, and you may [MAY] need 800 or more w-s.)
Currently, most monolights offer more power choices than most pack-and-head units, though that's not absolute. Most monolights give at least full-to-1/8th or so power settings, at least on full stops, if not third-stop settings or continuously variable. Most pack units only have full-to-1/8th or so, sometimes at 1/3 stop settings, but rarely fully continuous. (But some monolights are only full or half, and some pack units are continuously variable over 6 or more stops.)
Similarly, most pack units permit more total light than most monolights. 4800 watt-seconds is not uncommon in a pack system, while few monolights exceed 1500 watt-seconds. While banks of lights, either monolights or heads, can be used, if you need a single light head/unit, with a particularly high output, generally that's only going to be available from a pack-based system.
A studio setup must be convenient enough to operate, move, adjust, setup, etc. It's tricky to judge what's convenient for someone else, though.
Things to consider in this category--exclusive of the other categories, are the adjustability of the system (see Power for more details), remote controls (wired or wireless), slave capabilities (optical or wireless),
Two critical features relate to the modeling light: how bright is it, and how well does it 'balance' to the output of the lights you're using?
Many inexpensive lights use low-powered modeling lights--50-100 watts. That's somewhat useful in a completely dark studio, though it does make it hard to focus. In a situation where there is uncontrolled ambient light, or an only moderately dark studio, that may not be enough to 'see' the lights and their shadows properly. Better lights use 250 watt modeling lights or more, and that can be very useful when using outside or for environmental work with a moderate level of ambient light. Note again, that power for the modeling lights is not always indicative of light power, though; tungsten-halogen lights vs plain tungsten vs fluorescent are significantly different in power-to-light ratios.
Some--mostly older--systems don't vary the output of the modeling light to the flash itself, making it much harder to 'learn by seeing'--there's nothing approximating WYSIWYG if one light is set for 100 w-s and another at 1000 w-s, but both modeling lights are equally bright. My opinion is that if the modeling light cannot be set to be proportional to the flash, you're going to have a VERY difficult time learning your system. (This can be worked around by always running full-power and using barndoors or gels to control the output. This works best if using panels; it's not useful for softboxes; marginal for umbrellas; and tricky for direct light.)
Recycling time may be a consideration. Depending on what you're shooting, a fast cycle time can be a convenience or a necessity. Typically, the faster the recycling time, the more expensive the unit; a unit with 1 second recycling time in a moderately-powered system (~2000 watt-seconds) can cost 50% more than an otherwise comparable system with a 2 second cycling time. If you're shooting still-life setups, that's not an issue; if you're shooting fashion or other rapidly changing situations, it will be.
Remote controls are available for a limited set of lights; Photogenic, White Lightning, some Profoto and Speedotron units that I know of, and a few others. That may be very handy, or largely meaningless; it depends on how you operate. (Though I suspect once you get used to having remote controls, it'd be a very big deal to go back. [I don't have that option, so I can't speak on it.])
Flash Duration is something that may also have an impact, depending on the type of photography you do. Unlike hand-held or shoe-mounted flashes, the duration of a studio strobe may be fairly short (1/10,000 second), or fairly long (1/200 second). If you need to stop action, a faster strobe may be important. Checking the specifications from the manufacturers is suggested .
Cabling can be another issue for convenience. Monolights merely need to be plugged into the wall (excluding battery-powered units), while pack systems have to have the pack plugged in and each head attached. Both can result in difficulties depending on the situation. If there's a limited number of power outlets, there may not be enough for the full set of monolights (or enough amperage on the line if using splitters); if the lights need to be far apart, the cables may not reach from the pack to all the heads. Extension cords can help in both cases, either plain power cord extensions or flash head extension cables.
In a single light setup, the only difference is that there's a big 'lump' in the line from the power outlet to the head in a pack system. one power cord to the monolight vs. one power cord to the pack, and one cord from the pack to the head.
I personally find pack-and-heads combinations to work conveniently for me, but I usually use light panels, and don't mind using neutral density gels to adjust output levels--others find that very INconvenient. If your lights are in softboxes, for example, it's harder to do that than if you use panels or direct lights (or small softboxes and gel the outside)
Weight and portability are somewhat linked. The heavier the system, the less portable it is, and system weight needs to consider more than just the weight of the lights themselves.
Monolights are usually heavier at the head itself (having all the weight in the head except for power cords) than pack/head combinations. Pack and heads units usually weigh more than monolights, but the heads tend to be much lighter (say, 2-6 pounds vs 4-10 pounds), due to the pack carrying most of the 'heavy stuff' (capacitors and electronics), and that can be left on the ground. On a straight stand, that's not a significant difference, even attached to a moderate sized softbox; on a boom, it's a serious consideration. (Some photographers use smaller packs as counterweights to their lights. I've never tried that myself.) When calculating total system weight, be sure to include the weight of the required stands based on the weight of the head. A 9 lb head on a boom will need a much sturdier boom and a sturdier stand than a 3 lb head, for example, making the difference more than just 9 lbs minus the weight of the pack. The more heads you have, the larger this factor becomes.
A very closely related issue is system size: how bulky is it? If you travel, how much space can you dedicate to your gear? Airlines go primarily by weight, but if you expect to do much on-location shooting, you should consider how much room you have in your vehicle. Heavier heads tend to require physically larger stands as well.
In addition to weight, another portability issue is power requirements. If you often travel overseas, different countries use different power systems and connectors. Check that your candidate system will support where you expect to go.
Do you expect to use the system away from "wall power"? Look into battery powered lights. There are a few lower-end systems (Lumedyne, 200-2400 w-s, 50 watt modeling light), and some more pricey ones (Hensel's Porty, at 1200 watt-seconds, Balcar's Concept B [up to 3 1600 watt-second heads on one pack]). They're all more expensive than AC-powered units, but if you do outdoor work often, it may be cheaper than renting / buying a generator or batteries and an inverter.
Expandability depends on what accessories are available for whatever system you choose. That includes softboxes, barndoors, gel holders, ringlights, spotlights, etc. It also includes the costs of expanding. Pack systems make it easier to add another light (without adding more power) fairly inexpensively until you hit the limit of each pack. (2-3-4-6 outlet packs are available.). Expanding a monolight system means adding another light. Adding a new head to an existing pack setup doesn't increase the total available light, while adding a new head to a monolight system does.
Few monolights support ringlights or spotlights. If that's a specialty you expect to use often, it's something to consider.
What is the budget? That budget must include more than just the lights themselves unless you plan to set them on the floor or tape them to the walls. Reflectors, softboxes, diffusion panels, umbrellas, stands, etc. are all part of the lighting setup.
If you have a dealer who sells used lighting, you can save lot of money, but I recommend that only if you trust that dealer, and/or you can use the units for a while with return privileges. Some enormous savings are available from pack-and-head units in particular, as they've been around a lot longer than monolights. (I managed to get 2 800 watt-second packs for under $200 [US] for the pair.)
No matter what you do, make sure you avoid the Single Point of Failure problem. Don't get just ONE light if you anticipate having to have things work on schedule; if it's out, you're completely out. If you absolutely need 3 heads, get 4; that way, if (when!) one goes out, you're OK. If you get pack/head units, consider purchasing 2 lower powered packs rather than 1 higher powered pack; again, if one goes out, it leaves you still operating. (Much the same as always having a backup body/back/lens/spare tire, etc.)
Buying used equipment can save a lot of money. It can also be somewhat risky, as some used studio gear has been heavily used. While most gear is very sturdy, it's best to be cautious when buying used strobes. It can be done, but it's somewhat risky unless you buy from someone you trust; there are more chances for dramatic failures (AKA lightning bolts) with high voltage equipment than there are for simple cameras and lenses.
Now that I've bored you with that, brands on which I've worked with are: Photogenic, Speedotron (I use a mix of Brownline and Blackline packs and heads [non-interchangable, but I needed a spotlight, and there was no Brownline unit available at that time.), White Lightning, Calumet's Traveler (made by Bowens?) and Dyna-lite. All worked well.
If you have additions, comments, or questions, please e-mail Kevin Connery [email@example.com]
This page was last updated: January 9, 2003