Right with light, part 6: strobes and strobe systems

Let’s talk about strobes and strobe systems. This may seem like a contradiction in light of my advice to move your skills into video capture and cinematic lighting. However, the ability to offer your clientele as many services as you can (stills, video, animation, multimedia or all of the above) is the new model of a professional photographer or at least one who will be successful in the future.

In this discussion we can’t omit strobe lighting, because there are images you just can’t get with out them. If you have ever shopped for a strobe system I’m sure you were plenty confused. I’ve been at this game for thirty years and am still sometimes baffled by what’s out there. Suffice it to say that, as with most photo gear, spend what you can afford. The super high-priced systems are very nice and have features that are worth the price, but they are not always necessary.

If you’re at the point in your path where you need to add a flash system to your studio, carefully consider your specific needs. The system you choose is something you will build on over time or as your needs change. Once you commit to a given system, it may be costly to get out or change if you find you have made a bad initial choice.

If fashion is your game, speed and portability are the key options you need to look for. Speed has to aspects: The first is recycle time or how fast you can shoot. Few systems can keep up with the burst rates on today’s professional level cameras. In fashion, things move fast so recycle time is key to capturing the action as it happens.

The second aspect of speed is flash duration. This refers to how long the burst of light lasts. I won’t get in to the science or physics of this, but, trust me, it makes a difference. High-powered systems designed for tabletop photography slow down at the top end of their output range. It’s not by much, but if the flash durations is 1/30 of a second and your shooting a fashion model dancing about the set, you will have hard time getting a crisp, sharp image.

The portability factor is important as many fashion shoots aren’t in the studio, and trust me you don’t want to lug around hundreds of pounds on location. Not to mention the sky-high costs you will run into when you travel with overweight bags.

On the other side, if you’re a studio shooter capturing still life, food, and products, then power and flexibility are the key features to look for. Studio systems tend to be larger and offer more options, power levels and accessories. The power to apply high levels of light to your images gives you the ability to pull focus over a large depth of field. The accessories these systems offer allow you to augment and control the quality and shape of the light you apply to your subjects.

The types of system you choose, again is a personal preference. There are two basic styles, the more traditional power pack and flash head type and the mono light units. Each one will offer their own benefits and limitations and will have a huge range of manufactures, quality and price points. If you’re new to the world of strobe systems by all means do your research, read reviews and talk to your peers before you take the plunge. You can build on what you start with as your business grows, adding the tools and accessories as they are required.

Best,
Ric.

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