Pro Photographers Reveal Their Go-To Lighting Tools

MAY 08, 2014

By Theano Nikitas

We’ve rounded up some of our favorite lighting gadgets released in the past year, and asked a few professionals to share their go-to lighting tools. Here you’ll find lighting sources and accessories that address the needs of just about every photographer, whether you’re building your studio, adding to your gear in order to venture into video or just looking to shake up your photographic style.

Manfrotto Spectra LED Lights

Photographers who want to take advantage of LED lighting for video and/or still shoots but have a small budget should take a look at Manfrotto’s Spectra LED lights, which start at less than $200 each. The Spectra lineup consists of five models, all of which are powered by AA batteries, are dimmable from 100 to 0 percent and can be used on-camera with the bundled ball head/hot shoe accessory. The LEDs are also compatible with ¼-inch threaded accessories including Manfrotto stands and arms for off-camera use.

The Spectra models range from the basic 500S, which offers a fixed 5600K color temperature and a 30-degree beam angle, to the high-end 900FT with adjustable color temperature from 3200K to 5600K and a 50-degree beam angle. Other than the 900FT, which is best suited for location shooting where lighting conditions vary, the lights offer a fixed color temperature of 5600K or, in the case of the 500F, 5000K. All the lights come with a trio of filters—1/4 CTO warming, full CTO warming and opal diffusion, which can be used individually or stacked—so you can easily tweak the color balance. Depending on the model, the Spectra LEDs are capable of producing from 300 to 900 lux of light (at 1 meter).

The Spectra LED lights are relatively compact and lightweight and don’t take up much space in your camera bag. Battery life averages about 1.5 hours, but if you’re near an outlet, continuous power can be provided via the optional AC adapter, which comes with an international plug for jet-setting photographers. These LEDs are worth a look even if you’re not currently shooting video.

Price: Starting at $189

Adorama Flashpoint Budget Studio Monolights

If you want to pick up some inexpensive but quality monolights, Adorama’s Flashpoint family of Budget Studio Monolights may be the perfect solution. Available in 120, 160 and 300 watt-second (Ws) models, all three are priced under $100 and come bundled with a sync cord, AC power cord and instruction manual. Plus, they are all covered by a one-year warranty.

Each light is equipped with a 3.5mm mini jack, a modeling lamp and a built-in reflector. An aluminum housing keeps them lightweight, averaging around two pounds each. The lights measure between 7.75 x 7 x 4 inches (for the 120Ws unit) and 9 x 7 x 4.25 inches (for the 300Ws unit). With flash durations ranging from 1/2,000 of a second to 1/800 of a second, they’re not the fastest lights on the market but, combined with a four-stop output range, they’re more than sufficient for standard shoots. Recycle time measures from 0.5 to two seconds, with audio and LED alerts that indicate when the lights are good to go. If your studio is in your home, don’t worry: A modest amp draw means no blown fuses on regular household electrical circuits.

The lights are equipped with a pre-flash test button, optical slave/master setting with LED indicator, a 5A fuse-protected circuit, replaceable flash tube and an umbrella shaft lock. The monolights can be purchased individually, or in a kit that includes a 40-inch white umbrella with a removable black layer and a six-foot, three-section light stand. If you want to take them on the road, Adorama also offers a portable power pack called the Flashpoint PowerStation. Bonus: These monolights and kits ship for free in the U.S. You can’t beat that.

Price: Starting at $50

Broncolor Octabox 150 & Move Outdoor Kit 2 

Well known for its powerful and versatile lighting products, Broncolor is a great source for everything from softboxes to power packs. Last spring, the company launched a new series of nine softboxes in a variety of sizes and shapes including rectangle, square, strip and octagon. Each softbox can be modified with up to three diffusers (two are included) for fine-tuning the light source, and speedrings are available for most of the current heads on the market.

Fashion and beauty photographer Lara Jade is a big fan of the Broncolor Octabox 150. She uses the Octabox, paired with the Senso A4 power pack, on almost all of her studio shoots—either as a single light source or with a second light for fill and background. “I find that the 4.5-foot Octa is ideal for providing a soft but strong light source that is great for mimicking natural light in the studio,” Jade says. She also notes that it’s versatile. “For example, I can change the shape or contrast of the light by simply feathering the light or adding another diffusion cloth inside the Octabox itself.” But Jade’s images aren’t all shot in the studio, so she often takes her kit with her on location. “The Senso A4 is a powerful battery kit but still quite light, which allows me to bring it almost anywhere without the help of assistants.” 

But perhaps the ultimate portable lighting product from Broncolor is the Move Outdoor Kit 2, which PDN tested last year with photographer Jordan Matter. Matter, whose best-selling book Dancers Among Us features more than 200 dancers in everyday situations around the country, considers himself a “run-and-gun” photographer. Although part of the charm of his images is that they are completely “unplanned and spontaneous,” the process—he admits—has its disadvantages. “Most notably,” he tells us, “I always rely on available light, which can be limiting, especially at night.” Shooting with the Move kit on the streets of New York City at night was Matter’s first experience photographing dancers on location with lighting and, he says, “It was thrilling! We wasted no time on set up so I could shoot quickly and keep my high-energy pace. The kit is lightweight so my assistant could move it easily as I changed the composition.” Matter adds, “The light was just enough to freeze the action without looking artificial. I’ve never been able to get sharp jumps and leg kicks at night until this shoot and I’m very happy with the final results. I only wish I had discovered this kit before I published my book.”

The Move kits are available in different configurations; Matter used the Move Outdoor Kit 2, which consists of the Move 1200L power pack, two MobiLED lamps, one softbox, one umbrella, one RFS 2 transmitter set, one MobiLED continuous light adapter, a waterproof power pack soft case and a trolley backpack.

Prices: $362 for Octabox 150; $7,195 for Move Outdoor Kit 2

Dynalite XP-800 Pure Sine Wave Inverter 

Like the best real estate, great photography is all about location, location, location. With its XP-800 Pure Sine Wave Inverter, Dynalite has added another option for powering your lights while shooting in the field. The XP-800 is powered by a 12000mAh rechargeable lithium-ion battery that can be fully charged in under three hours and, with the Dynalite MP800 power pack, the inverter can recycle to full power in as fast as 1.4 seconds. Output power ranges from 750w to 1400w, and the XP-800 can operate in temperatures as cold as 32 degrees F and as hot as 104 degrees F. The inverter weighs about 15 pounds (with battery) and is equipped with a trio of AC outlets as well as three USB ports, so you can easily charge your—and your client’s—mobile devices while you’re on location. Be sure to pick up a spare battery, the XP8Li, in case you need to swap it out during those long days on set.

Prices: $999 for XP-800; $1,137 for MP800; $359 for XP8Li

Sekonic C-500 ProDigi Color

With all of the functionality available in digital photography, including in-camera metering, white balance settings and post-processing, many photographers may be using their light meters as paperweights these days. In still photography—especially with a single type of light source—you can generally do OK without a handheld meter. However, if you’re shooting video, you need to rethink your approach, according to videographer Eduardo Angel. Sure, if you’re doing a single scene and don’t have to repeat the lighting (exposure or color balance), then, he says, “You should be able to do it by eye.” But if you want consistency across shoots, you’ll have to meter—particularly for color. Angel’s constant companion for just this purpose is the Sekonic C-500 ProDigi Color meter (he also uses the L-308DC DigiCineMate and sometimes the 478D LiteMaster Pro). He generally shoots with two to three cameras from different angles and says, “setting the white balance for all of them is key,” particularly when shooting under multiple light sources.

The C-500 ProDigi Color meter is designed specifically for digital photography (although it works for film photography, too). It’s compact, lightweight and runs on AA batteries. Readings displayed by the meter include brightness (lux or foot-candle), color temperature, LB and CC indices to simplify filter selection, and LB and CC filter numbers (the latter is used primarily for film applications). You can simultaneously measure the color of flash and ambient lights, and the meter is programmed with 19 presets for color compensation adjustments. You can also quickly set a target color temperature in Kelvin.

Price: $1,216

Limelite Mosaic Bi-Colour LED Panel

In videographer and visual storyteller Eduardo Angel’s video lighting tips article (page 42) he recommends using adjustable-temperature LEDs. In fact, Angel says, “Right now I’m shooting almost everything with Limelite’s Mosaic Bi-Colour LED Panels.”

Citing some of the light’s main attributes, Angel points out that the panels are “extremely portable; are dimmable from 100 to 0 percent; can be easily adjusted from 2800K to 5600K; and work with Anton/Bauer batteries.” While those may be the main benefits for Angel, other features add to the Mosaic Bi-Colour’s appeal. For example, the light bank consists of 576 power LEDs that provide from 2400 to 5200 lux of light (at 1 meter).

The LED light bank uses a standard V-lock battery but is also available with an optional Anton/Bauer battery. It’s equipped with an onboard digital control panel with full DMX in and out, so the light can be operated remotely. Because the Limelite Mosaic line is modular, you can customize the Bi-Colour LED Panel with optional mounting kits to create two- and four-panel light banks and, with standard RJ45 Ethernet cables, control them from a single panel.

While the Mosaic Bi-Colour’s features are ideal for video capture, like other LEDs, it can easily be used to light still photo shoots, too. But unlike most LEDs, it offers a special mode that displays the light output in f-stops on the control panel, so you’re good to go regardless of what you’re shooting when using this ultra-versatile light.

Price: $1,119

Profoto B1 & Deep Umbrellas

Perhaps one of the hottest lighting products on the market today is the Profoto B1 off-camera flash, although the “off-camera flash” designation is a little misleading. It’s not a Speedlight, nor is it a monolight; rather, it’s sort of a mashup of the two. The battery-powered, cordless B1 is highly portable. It weighs 6.6 pounds and measure 12.2 x 8.3 inches (L x H) with a diameter of 5.5 inches and, from the short time we had with the flash, feels solidly made. This 500Ws device can shoot up to 20 flashes per second, and in 1/10 or full f-stops. At full power, the battery will last for up to 220 flashes. The B1 is equipped with a modeling light, and with the optional Air Remote turns into a full TTL device. The Air Remote, which attaches to the camera’s hot shoe, is currently only available for Canon users (TTL-C), but a Nikon version (TTL-N) is in development and should be released sometime this year.

Senior Technology Editor Dan Havlik and photographer David DuPuy reviewed the light in the April issue of PDN. DuPuy gave us some feedback about his experience with the B1 and says that it “seems to be a template for the future of flash photography.” According to DuPuy, the light is “easy to work with, feels solidly built and makes a good impression with clients,” noting that his client asked a number of questions about the B1 light, “which helped create a good energy for the shoot.” DuPuy adds that the B1 “was reliable, consistent, and enabled a greater level of creative freedom and risk-taking during the shoot. I think if you take the B1s out on assignment, you may be surprised where you end up!”

The B1 is compatible with all of Profoto’s light-shaping tools including the company’s relatively new set of umbrellas. Swedish photographer Klara G is a huge fan of using umbrellas to create her signature photographic style and has been working with Profoto’s Deep L umbrella more recently. “The reason I love umbrellas is that I love to be able to work fast and on set there is rarely a lot of time to spend, so I don’t want to take time away from working with my model,” she says. “With umbrellas, I can put up a really simple, yet beautiful, light in minutes.” Additionally, she points out, “They are easy to bring to any shoot, easy to store, and inexpensive compared to other equipment and accessories.” With the Profoto Deep L, she says, “since it’s deeper than other umbrellas, the light is captured in an embracing way and bounces in a more concentrated way … It makes your subject even more mystical and interesting.” The depth of the umbrella also provides greater control over how the light is shaped.

The Deep Umbrellas are available in large (51-inch diameter) and extra-large (65-inch diameter) sizes. Silver, white and translucent options allow photographers to choose the most appropriate material for their shoot. Profoto also offers optional diffusers to further customize the Deep Umbrellas’ lighting capabilities.

Price: $1,995 for B1; starting at $249 for Deep Umbrellas

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