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Studio Lighting and Strobes
© 2006 KenRockwell.com

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Xmas 2005 Doggies

Why studio strobes? So it looks like I didn't use any lights! You can get these at Adorama, (I use Novatrons), and it helps me keep adding to this site when you use these links to get yours. Thanks! Ken.


DEAL: $400 for a three-light strobe set.



This page is about choosing among strobes and hot lights and how to get them. I have a different page on How to Use Strobes and Lighting. See also Product Photography.

You can forget cool florescent and LED lighting. They are expensive, and a bad idea for still photography since you have to worry about longer exposures or big apertures. The only reason I talk about hot lights is because the results look so good and mostly because they are dirt cheap.

Continuous lights are for video. For still photography, strobes are the way to go.

I use a set of cheap second-hand Novatron portable studio strobes. I've bene usingthem for abotu ten years. It's is the best $550 I've ever spent. They give much better light and are much easier to use than regular camera flashes. They also work with every brand and type of camera.

You can buy a new set of these for the same price as buying several regular flashes and all the frustrating dedicated cords needed to make them work with your camera. If you're cheap like me there are plenty of these for sale used. They don't go obsolete like digital cameras.

There are more brands of professional lighting than there are cameras. I just happened to luck into a set of Novatrons, which is exactly what you want if you're new to this. I've never grown out of them, although I got mine because my friend loved them so much he got much more expensive permanently installed lighting when he converted his garage to a studio.

Novatrons come as complete sets with two, three or four lights complete with stands, umbrellas and all the cords. I prefer three lights. All this fits into their portable case. You can take everything with you by grabbing one case.

Strobes versus Flashes

The terms are interchangeable. Most photographers use "flash" to refer to small battery operated flashes and "strobes" to refer to the large units plugged in the wall for power.

Why Lighting?

Lighting is the most important technical part of photography. Outdoors you're at God's mercy, but indoors you have to make your own.

You need lots of lights to make photos look like they were made with no lights at all!

That's why movie sets are loaded with lights, scaffolding and generator trucks. Cameras pick up much more contrast than our eyes, so lots of special lighting is used to make it look natural. It makes little sense to most people, but just think how movies look like there aren't any artificial lights while you know there are lights all over.

Nikon F2AS Black

Nikon F2AS shot with my Novatrons, my D70 and these same techniques

Why not Nikon or Canon's Latest Multiple Flash Setup?


Ritz Camera

I personally buy from Adorama, Amazon, Ritz, B&H and J&R. I can't vouch for ads below.


Are you kidding? it costs too much, is too complex to figure out and gives too little low-quality light.

1.) I can't figure out how to set up multiple Canon or Nikon flashes. Good luck figuring out channels and wireless sync or complex dedicated cords. It's easier than it used to be, but it's still something you have to figure out.

2.) They go obsolete every two years. Spend $1,500 on a dedicated bunch of battery powered flashes and in two years it probably won't work with the newest cameras.

3.) Even if you get three battery flashes to work together, how are you going to put them where you want? You still need to mess with stands and more adaptors to get the flashes on the stands.

4.) Quality of light. You almost never point the light at the subject. You almost always soften it with an umbrella or soft box. Not only do you have to figure out how mount battery powered flashes on stands, you also need to figure out how to mount all the light modifiers on those stands.

Regardless of cost, I find it easier to place Novatron strobes on their included stands and umbrellas than having to jock-strap battery powered units to stands and then tape umbrellas to them. To each their own; clearly the battery units are great for small size and travel.

5.) Power. Battery powered flashes have about one-tenth the power of studio strobes which plug in the wall. Battery flashes have a tough time making enough light to be used with the mandatory light modifiers like umbrellas. With the Novatrons I'm always shooting at f/11 at decent distances with umbrellas, and they recycle faster than the battery flashes.

A battery-powered flash is similar to a 50 W/s flash head, thus my small Novatron system is as bright as a dozen SB-600s. Don't worry about getting a 3,200 W/s system unless you're shooting an 8 x 10" film camera for concert hall interiors at f/64 on ISO 50 film. The least expensive 240 W/s systems are fine if you're on a budget.

6.) Cost. Canon and Nikon will love it if you go spend $1,500 just to get three flashes and all the special dedicated cables. You can spend that same money on a much better and easier professional system. It's easy to find used pro systems. It's next to impossible to wrangle all the dedicated cords and flashes you'd need at the same time used for the battery powered flashes.

Nikon, Canon and other camera makers promote their expensive but puny battery powered flashes for multi-flash use because that's all they have to sell you. It's a good idea for them, but not for you or I.

Where to Get What

You can get a new three-strobe system complete with matching stands and umbrellas in a portable case here for $1,200. This is a better system than the older one I have. It's all hard wired and just works. I have a 500 W/s (Watt-second) system which is all the power I need; I usually turn it down to 250 W/s for faster recycling. Today you can get them in 240, 400 and 600 Watt models, any one of which ought to be fine. Feel free to poke around that link or Novatron's site to pick among the various setups. I prefer three lights.

Novatron is made in the USA and is inexpensive, easy to use and practical.

Monoblocks or Power Packs?

I prefer Novatrons and their single, central power pack. You put the heavy power pack to the side, plug it into the wall, and then you plug the flash heads and your sync into the power pack. It's easy.

More complex systems use independent flashes. Each of these monoblock strobes have to be plugged into the wall and synchronized. Too much work for me!

The inexpensive Novatrons control light ratios at the heads, not at the pack. As you vary the setting on any head the overall exposure stays the same, which I prefer. More expensive and complex powerpack and monoblock systems allow setting each light's power individually, which means your exposure changes, too.

The Novatrons distribute the same total power for each shot to all the flashes regardless of how each head is set. The switches on each head control how that power is spread around.

What's a Modeling Light?

Strobes only go off in bursts. You can't see the lighting unless you use a digital camera or Polaroid film.

Modeling lights are regular light bulbs in each head. They usually vary in intensity as you change the strobes' power settings.

Presuming it's dark in your your studio you can see the lighting effects without making a picture. it also means you can see what you're doing.

My Novatrons all have modeling lights and I suggest them.

What About Hot Lights?

I prefer strobes.

Hot lights are ordinary tungsten lights. They are extra bright and extra hot compared to home lighting. They are also extra inexpensive!

They work fine and cost next to nothing. Even better, you can go to the home improvement store and build your own out of halogen work lights, complete with stands. Be careful making umbrellas and diffusers since these 500 Watt lights get hot and will burn down your house if you're not careful.

If you have the cash feel free to buy professional quality hot lights like Lowell or Arri. I still prefer strobes, and if you have more cash there are many more expensive European-made strobes instead of Novatron.

Next: How to Use Strobes and Lighting.



I support my growing family through this website.

If you find this as helpful as a book you might have had to buy or a workshop you may have had to take, feel free to help me continue helping everyone.

If you've gotten your gear through one of my links or helped otherwise, you're family. It's great people like you who allow me to keep adding to this site full-time. Thanks!

If you haven't helped yet, please do, and consider helping me with a gift of $5.00.

The biggest help is to use these links to Adorama, Amazon, B&H, Ritz, J&R and when you get your goodies. It costs you nothing and is a huge help to me. eBay is always a gamble, but all the other places have the best prices and service, which is why I've used them since before this website existed. I recommend them all personally.

Thanks for reading!


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