In an earlier article we covered the basics of flash photography, including fill flash and low-light on-camera flash.
So where do you go from there in flash photography?
Known colloquially as “strobes”, you can take your photography, at least your indoor photography, to a whole new level using one, two or three flash units on light stands with a variety of reflectors, umbrellas, soft boxes, snoots and other ways of controlling the light, changing it from contrasty to soft, from cold to warm and so on.
This is not a difficult step to take. If you like portrait photography, tabletop photography, still lives, indoor architectural photography or any other kind of indoor flash photography, then you will want to break away from the limitations of on-camera flash and on to strobe photography.
You don’t have to spend too much money on a basic kit if you just want to get your feet wet without huge expense. When you start earning extra money because of your strobes, you can invest in something more expensive.
Electronic flash vs. tungsten halogen, etc.
There are distinct advantages to using electronic flash (strobes) as opposed to tungsten halogen lights (the type used for video). The electronic flash gives a very brief, intense flash of light. It is the same color temperature as daylight. It emits negligible heat. In practice this means you can hand-hold your camera without risk of camera shake, you don’t need to correct the color, and your model(s) or subjects are not subjected to the heat generated by incandescent lights. With fairly powerful strobes you get a lot of light! This means you can use a small aperture and get excellent depth of field which may be important, depending on your subject.
Have I sold you on strobes vs. tungsten halogen? I hope so.
You can make do with two strobes, two light stands, two large umbrellas and a large soft box. This will get you up and running.
There are basically two types of strobes. One type is known as a monolight, where the flash head is a single unit that plugs into the mains. The other kind consists of a power pack which plugs into the mains and then a number of flash heads which are plugged into the power pack. I would recommend you start off with two monolights. I use Alien Bees monolights from White Lightning. They work perfectly for advanced amateur and professional location photography. You can also use them in the studio of course. But they are highly portable, work perfectly and are very well built. This is just a personal preference and there are many brands you can buy including very well known brands such as Bogen, Bowens, Broncolor, Dynalight, Norman, Photogenic, Smith Victor and many others. Most of them offer kits or individual items so you can build your own kit.
You can get a decent set of two monolights, light stands, umbrellas, sync cord (to connect one light to your camera to trigger the flash, while the other is triggered by a built-in “slave” or light sensor that will fire the flash when it senses the other flash), plus a carrying case for under $750 This would get you started. The points to watch for are the power of the units measured in watt seconds. 320 watt seconds per unit is very adequate; you can get away with 160 watt seconds at a pinch. The more power, the more light. The light stands should be sturdy. The umbrellas should be large. The soft box, if you get one, should be large. Watch the voltage. You can’t use a 110 volt monolight in a country with 220 volts. You’ll fry it.
The last item you should get is a flash and ambient lightmeter. This measures the light output so that you can set the aperture on your camera (the shutter speed is usually set at the sync speed of your camera). You shoot on manual when you use strobes. You can get a decent flash meter such as the Polaris for about $170.
The above kit will get you going.
Next you have to learn to use it. That’s another article (or several).
David © Phillips is a professional writer and photographer living in Seattle, WA. You can find out more about him and his work at www.dcpcom.com. Photograph(s) in this article are © David C Phillips, All Rights Reserved.