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Help Please With Studio Lighting Equipment

I want to expand my indoor photography and the camera-mount flash doesn't cut it. I went to a local photography store and they have three options for studio lighting:

(1) Two stands, 130 watt lights, two reflector umbrellas. $270

(2) Two stands, 300 watt lights (higher end lights compared to #1), two reflector umbrellas, $500

(3) Three stands, same lights as #2, two lights with hoods, the third with reflector umbrella, $750

The question is this: What do people recommend? #1 is very affordable but it will cost me more in the long run if I end up buying more equipment because it wasn't enough to do the job.

I think people might ask "What will you want to do?" I can't answer that but I am hoping to do more portrait and people photography, including stock images. I understand lighting concepts but I know virtually nothing about the capabilities of the equipment. If #1 is only good for portraits and the lights have to be three feet from the subject, then that option is probably very limited for any practical use.

The equipment above is made by Promaster.
Nikon D800, D100, Canon G15
Edited: 10/10/2010, 11:26:57 AM
The 130W lights won't really cut it through an umbrella, softbox or other modifiers, especially if you want to put them far from the subject and/or shoot for maxumim focus.

So, if I were you I'd go for the 300W. One important thing to consider, however is how low you can dial the flashes down. Ie, you won't always shoot at max power and if you want to shoot with wide apertures then you need the flash to drop down considerably... or if you want the light modifier to be as close as possible to the subject to achieve a soft light.

Another important aspect is the discharge time of the flashes. It's usually given in t.0.1 and t.0.5. The first being the time during which the flash is discharging more than 10% of its peak value. For the second that's 50%. Basically, if you want to freeze action you want these times to be shorter (ie. the flash discharges faster) and keep in mind that most manufacturers advertise the t.0.5 because it's a smaller number (naturally).

See how you'll be triggering the flashes - wired or wireless. Most of the big manufacturers also make their own wireless triggering systems through which you can also change the power settings (or even more) from your camera (and trust me - you'll use that a lot!).

What's the power of the modeling light in each of the options you have? You don't want it to be too low again because of the modifiers you inevitably will use.

Lastly, just as it is with cameras also with flashes - when you get a system you pretty much marry the system. So choose carefully. ;) I'm an Elinchrom fan myself because they're really good value for the money and have a wide range of modifiers. The other option is to use adapters, but even then - you need to make sure they exist.

Get air cushioned stands if the ones in the kit aren't. The stands you will use pretty much every single time you use the flashes, so don't underestimate their value.

I'd recommend shoot through umbrellas (at least one) as well as a soft box. Do get a reflector as they're very useful. :)
Edited: 10/10/2010, 12:13:11 PM by Admin
Thanks, that helps, I can see now the $270 is not going to be good. I looked up Elinchrom, that seems pretty good but better means that much more money.

The Promaster kits use have a light sensor which is how they fire in sync. It means the little "eye" on them need to be within sight of each other which is a limitation. I had gone back to the shop to look at the equipment again and was shown additional hardware that would sync the flash with a radio signal. Little things like that would add to the cost Details like that I am trying to learn, I have no experience with these kinds of items.
Nikon D800, D100, Canon G15
Posted: 10/11/2010, 09:01:13 AM
Here's a few links from Strobist.com where you can find useful information in general. They're mostly about pricier brands, but it gives you a better view on what is needed. The comments are especially helpful as well, since many of them are by people who actually use the lights regularly.

link 1, link 2, link 3, link 4, and the last one.
Posted: 1 minute ago
OK, Petar, hopefully you are still watching this thread, I have some more questions...

(1) Low end kits I've seen will have either two or three lights. I understand basic concepts for two lights, but is it better to have three? I am thinking the third would be good for back-lighting effects.

(2) Does it matter how the lights sync together?

(3) Anything else the uneducated don't know about? Trying to minimize learning the hard way!

Nikon D800, D100, Canon G15
Posted: 10/13/2010, 09:15:19 AM
1) It really depends on what you'll photograph and where. In my opinion, decide on the brand and the budget. Later on you can (easily) buy one more light if you see that you're really in need of it. Personally, I'd rather buy two lights with accessories than three bare ones...

2) I survived with cable sync for about a month but because my "studio" space was very limited the first moment I had a chance to get wireless - I went for it. Haven't regretted it ever since. I use Elinchrom's Skyports (the old version, not the new Speed) because I love how small they are and that they have rechargeable batteries. Two and 1/2 years later I'm yet to change the little battery on the sender.

I'm really not a big fan of optical syncs - when I shoot I like not having to think whether the two lights can see each other or not. Today there's a tenfold of other options for wireless triggering - some more reliable than others. But if your budget doesn't allow for wireless - try the optical and see how it works. If it's built in on all of them then you don't have to pay extra... Won't hurt to give it a shot for a while.

3) Erm... Can't think of anything else in particular. :)

I actually don't use monoblocks myself. I've got a couple of old Nikon SB-28 which I've modified so they easily connect to the wireless triggers. Next to that I've got Elinchrom's Quadra battery generator with two flash heads. I have umbrellas, softboxes, an octabox, snoots, reflectors, a portable background support system (basically two stands with rolls at the end to slide the paper on)...

With all this in mind, my favorite shots (and often my best selling) are done with a single light... and a couple of modifiers. :D
Posted: 10/13/2010, 11:38:42 AM
I learned a new trick recently... I set my camera up next to a wall and point the mounted flash toward the wall. The light bounces off the wall and diffuses nicely giving an effect equivalent to an umbrella reflector or softbox.

So when you say a many of your good shots are done with a single light, that helps a lot in understanding the physical logistics and results.

I get good shots with the mounted flash with non-stock images, but stock has its own set of rules when it comes to lighting. Bouncing the light is an old trick but I had never thought of pointing the flash backwards in order to diffuse the light. But... try looking through a viewfinder when the back of the camera is next to a wall.

Well, thanks Petar, I think I have a much better idea now of what it will take to get started with studio equipment. I have many attempted stock concepts that failed because of lighting issues, it's why most of my portfolio is outside shots and vacation pictures.
Nikon D800, D100, Canon G15
Edited: 10/13/2010, 12:40:32 PM
You can do a lot with a single light and creative bouncing. A great book to read is Light: Science and Magic...
f/2.8 Pro, ZD 50mm Macro f/2...
Posted: 10/14/2010, 07:53:58 AM
I think I have one more question... is there a minimum wattage of the lights that is recommended? Let's say I would be lighting a "large" room.
Nikon D800, D100, Canon G15
Posted: 10/15/2010, 09:09:44 AM