Choosing the Correct Studio Lighting Kit

There is a huge choice of Lighting Kits in today's market, but where and how do you start to choose the correct one for you?

However tempting it may be, before you make any choices in types/brands of Studio Lighting Kits it is worthwhile taking a back step and deciding exactly what you will be using your kit for - Products/Portraits/Groups/eBay etc etc.

We are concentrating on kits as these offer the best value in terms of contents based over buying the individual items separately, in addition, two heads should always be used to ensure control and reduce/eliminate shadows - one head will always produce shadows that cannot be got rid of.

As a rule of thumb, Continuous lighting is used for Product/Still Life Shots and Flash Lighting for Human/Animal/Large Area Shoots.

Continuous Lighting
Continuous Studio Lighting falls into two categories defined by the colour temperature of the light involved.
  Tungsten / Halogen

Maximum light output, however they generate a lot of heat that will potentially "melt" your subject(s).  Tungsten/halogen bulbs do not have a great lifespan and are expensive to run.

Colour temperature is an issue that needs to be addressed either in camera or at the computer processing stage - this temperature will also vary (sometimes dramatically) depending how long the lights have been running and how the local power supply is fluctuating.

Colour Temperature
Color temperature is a characteristic of visible light that has important applications in lighting, photography, videography, publishing, manufacturing, astrophysics, and other fields.  The temperature is conventionally stated in units of absolute temperature, kelvin (K).  For instance, Light at Midday is measured at approximately 5500k and a normal room bulb at approximately 3200k.
If a camera is not aware of the ambient colour temperature and left on "auto" for instance, your pictures will have a brown/orange colour cast to them when shot indoors with the room light on

Daylight Balanced
These are the latest Continuous lighting solutions and offer greater lifespan of bulbs,  cooler running temperature and lower running cost.  They are colour balanced at "Daylight" temperature meaning that there is no issue with in camera processing - simple point and shoot, what you see is what you get.  Power levels are not as high as Tungsten/Halogen, so do not lend themselves to large area shoots.

Continuous Studio Lighting Kits offer several advantages over Flash Photography;
  1.  They are easier for the novice to use and do not take as long to master as Flash Studio Lighting Kits.
2.  What you see is what you get.
3.  The Photographer (you) can use their camera on one of it's Auto Modes rather than the full Manual Mode required for flash - i.e. Point and shoot
4.  there is no need to purchase a separate Light Meter - Modern camera's are more than capable of working this out for you in their auto modes.
5.  The camera does need to be as "featured" as one required for Flash Photography - i.e. No Flash Hotshoe or Sync Socket required
6.  Generally cheaper than Flash Lighting per watt of light
 As with everything in life, there also disadvantages to them
1.  They are not as flexible as Flash Studio Lighting Kits - especially for effects - (see later sections of this article)
2. They require more power to light up an area, so really only lend themselves to smaller areas than Flash

Flash Lighting
Flash Lighting kits are defined into several categories by functionality
  Studio Packs These offer Precision Colour Temperature output and power control of up to 4 individual heads from one central location - normally only considered for Top End Studios due to their cost.
  Studio Strobes/Monoblocs These are the standard Studio Lighting Kits used in Studios and Homes up and down the country.  Generally speaking, Manufacturers each offer several model ranges within this group differing in functionality, build quality, cost and perceived market (Studio/Pro/Home etc), each range normally offers 4 heads differing in levels of Power and therefore the size of area that you can light up (No. of people you can photograph) 250R Side
  Portable Strobes/Monoblocs As above but with the advantage of an external battery for total freedom to use wherever you need to use them (not waterproof!!)
Flash Studio Lighting Kits offer several advantages over Continuous Lighting
  1.  They are extremely flexible in terms of the effects that can be created thanks to the huge range of accessories available and the ability to
      precisely control the light from each head (think controlled shadows).
2.  You decide exactly what setting to shoot at (if you want to shoot at f8, then set the heads accordingly), with continuous lighting you are
     almost along for the ride! It's all about taking control.

2.  They offer a far greater power range than continuous lighting, so able to light up greater areas (do not confuse a 300w flash head as being
     smaller than a 500w continuous light - the power levels here relate to different things)
3.  Flash lighting is not as harsh as Continuous lighting so is ideally placed for Portrait Photography - producing softer skin tones.
4.  No heat output to worry about.
and for the disadvantages.....  
  1.  Because they are Flash, you don't see what you are going to get - so proper setting up is paramount
2.  To properly set them up, you will also need to invest in a Light Meter
3.  Generally speaking, you will need a DSLR/SLR to operate them (ability to connect to the heads to fire them)
4.  You will be shooting in FULL Manual mode on your camera , therefore you will need to know your camera setting and how to change them.
5.  Cost
6.  There IS a learning curve with them, part of the fun some would say!

Continuous Lighting - Which Kit?
  KARLite Daylight 4 Kit DL4 Each head equivalent to approximately 500w of Tungsten lighting.  Use for Small Product Photography and head/torso shots.
Daylight Balanced DAY-LITE 9
DL9 Each head equivalent to approximately 1100w of Tungsten/Halogen lighting.  Use for Large Product and Full Body Photograpghy.



Flash Lighting - Which Kit?
There are many manufacturers currently offering Flash Studio Lighting Kits on the market these days, but which Brand do you choose?  Factors to consider are:
  1.  Brand recognition It is normally best to stick to a main brand that you have heard of to ensure continuity of accessories, spare parts, repairs etc  
  2.  Fitting Type This relates to the accessory fitting on the the front of the heads - why should this bother you?  Again availability of Accessories, Range and Cost (if it is a proprietary fitting, then costs will sometimes be 300% more than a standard fit like "S Type" for the same accessory)  
  3.  Reliability Speaks for itself, but be warned, this may vary from range to range within the brand
Once you have chosen the Brand, you then need to decide which range (sometimes the range dictates the brand), the ranges will vary from intended use i.e. Home Studio use through to Full Pro Studio and functionality, cost is usually an indicator of functionality and reliability.  Flash duration is also an important factor to consider for some - if you intend to do "LifeStyle" type photography with kids running around the set, choose a set with a Flash duration around 1/1500s or less - "Normal" Flash heads have a duration of around 1/700s which is too long to "freeze" the action in this type  of shot resulting in blurred images (this is not a function of your camera's shutter speed).
No matter which brand & range you opt for, they will normally have 4 different power levels within that range
  150w - 200w Suitable for Full Length Portraiture for up to 2 people
  300w - 400w Suitable for Full Group Length Portraiture for up to 4 people
  500w - 600w Suitable for Full Group Length Portraiture for up to 6 people
  750 - 1500w Suitable for Large Studio use
As a general rule of thumb, work out what type of shoots you expect to do - don't plumb straight for 1000w heads because you MIGHT be asked to do a huge group shot once a year, this will double your cost.  Work out what you are actually going to do and then if the budget allows, buy the next power level up.  That way, you are covered for your normal work but have the ability to "Power Up" should the occasion demand.


What's in the kit?
There are generally three variants of Studio Lighting kits available
Stellar XD 600/600 Umbrella Two Head Kit + FREE 100cm Softboxs
Twin Umbrella Kits
These kits ship with two umbrellas, a good retailer will allow you to choose which umbrellas you have in the kit i.e. pick 2x White Brollies for Shadow free Photography.  These are the cheapest of the Flash kits and are very portable, ideal if you are visiting clients in their own home
  Bowens BW4805 Gemini 500R 2 Head Kit Umbrella/Softbox Kits
Kits come with a Brolly and a Softbox, ideal half way house between the kit above and the kit below
Stellar XD 300/300 Softbox Two Head Kit
Twin Softbox Kits
Kits come with 2x softboxes, these produce the best results with soft even skin tones, ideal for shadow free work.
The size and quality of the associated components (Softbox/brolly/stands) will vary from one manufacturer to another, but here are some pointers
100cm (40in) Umbrella White Satin Shoot Through
Umbrellas Choose Solid white for even tones, White Translucent for shadow elimination, Silver for high Contrast
60cm S Type Softbox
Softboxes Choose Square for general area lighting, Rectangular for Single Person narrow lighting, Octagonal for wrap around lighting.  Generally speaking, the larger the Softbox the greater the diffusion, never opt for a softbox less than 60cm (24inches)
  KARLite Medium Pro Air Cushioned Stand Stands These come lots of different sizes and shapes, but ideally choose one that is around the 2.6m level in height (you shouldn't really need any more than that) and especially try to get an air-damped stand.  Air Damped Stands will slowly lower each section as they are released rather than just potentially collapsing with the shiny brand new expensive Flash head that you have bought sitting on top of it!
  Bowens Gimlet Kit Bag Bag Unfortunately, there is no choice here, the kit will come with a kit bag that may or may not be padded, may or may not have wheels and a handle.  It would be useful if you were given the choice of wheeled/non wheeled and especially if there was a choice of having a separate bag for the heads and one for the stands so that the not quite so strong photographers out there did not have to carry the whole heavy kit in one bag bag!