Studio Light Buying Guide

Studio Light Buying Guide


Jump to...


Studio lights are an essential component of any studio whether it is amateur or professional. The best photography skills, sharpness of the lens or the number of pixels on the camera sensor won’t help if proper lighting is not achieved in the studio. It's definitely worth putting both thought and resources into studio lighting equipment. Most professional photographers are aware of this fact, and therefore spend a sizeable amount on their lights, sometime more than their cameras and lenses. However, there are those who take the opposite approach without realizing that they are skimping on the equipment that will make a real difference in their photography.

Purpose of the Guide

The purpose of this guide is to assist people to make an informed decision about the kind of lights that are available in the market, and what lights are most appropriate for them so they can take their photography to the next level.

Features of Studio Lights

There are 3 general options that exist when choosing studio lights: flash, hot lights and cool lights. Lets look at them in slightly more detail:

Hot Lights (also called Tungsten Lights)

Their name comes from the fact that they generate excessive heat. They are ordinary quartz halogen lights of around 500-800 watts and can be used for video and photographing small products. They do not produce enough power to photograph people, often requiring high ISO settings and slow shutter speeds. Because of the excessive heat they generate, they are prone to causing fires. They are very uncomfortable when shone in someone’s eyes. They deliver a very warm (orange) color which simply will not mix with daylight or flashes.

Cool Lights

They are fluorescent lights, meaning no fire hazard, and are much more comfortable to the eyes. They are similar to daylight, and can be used to emulate the same. It also can be used alongside with flashes. Despite the fact, they have little power, and thus incur the same hurdles faced by hot lights when photographing people. Some of them can be adjusted by removing one or more bulbs, however the range of adjustment is still pretty limited.


The favorite among photographers and lacking the limitations of the above two. They come in two flavors: one is where the controls are separate from the flash unit, and one which is fully self contained, which are monoblocks. The separate versions are handier because they can be adjusted from a distance, unlike monoblocks, which may be difficult to adjust if they are placed in high locations. Monoblocks however are the more popular choice because they are cheaper and due to their self contained nature.

Apart from the ones mentioned, above there are other lamps as well:

LED (Light Emitting Diodes)

LED's have made a foray into photography only recently, but they are quickly carving out a niche for themselves. Daylight balanced LEDs can be put together by the hundreds and configured in a multitude of arrays and formats like ultra flat, diffused light panels, floods & spots. Since they are a continuous light source, it is easy to light up the subject for video and still image applications. They have an edge over tungsten lights here because they consume little power and have extremely low heat generation. They are available in a wide variety of sizes and configurations. Many of them employ dimmers that maintain color balance throughout their range, however there are others that give you the option of warming or cooling the color temperature as and when required. LED technology is still new so there is much to be done in terms of output levels and product introductions.

HMI (Hydrargyrum Medium-Arc Iodide)

A standard in the motion picture industry, these lights are high intensity and provide continuous output, however unlike tungsten lights, these are daylight balanced and much preferred for outdoor use.

HMIs are also called by other names like MSR (medium source rare-earth), CID (Compact Iridium Discharge), GEMI (General Electric metal iodide), Brite ARC and DAYMAX. The HMIs are also a much steeper price than tungsten lights. These lights also require more pampering. They need a bulb change every 300 hours (approx) to avoid “non-passive failure”. These lights can be used bareheaded or with light shaping accessories. They are useful in both video/ motion picture applications as well as in lighting stills.

Back to Top

Utilities of Studio Lights

Monoblocks or Flash Pack and Head Systems

As seen above, flashes come in 2 types: monoblocks and flash pack and head systems, but which one do you choose? Most power packs allow you to add 2/3 or even 4 heads. Most heads have wires going up to 10 to 20+ feet. Most packs and heads allow for control from the control panel, and therefore flashes and modeling lights can be placed at your discretion, barring the length of the cable of course.

The above arrangement is fine for studio still life, but you may find yourself limited by the length of cables, and in need of a second set of illuminators while shooting interiors and large studio sets. Self contained mono lights come equipped with their own power source and control panels, and allow you to both decentralize and expand your lighting range to best suit your requirements.

Monolight flashes have another distinct advantage that if the power pack of one fails the rest are still viable, but if one of the packs with four heads fail, you can pretty much wind up the shoot.

Lighting According to Requirements

For Pieces and Specific Shots

Wide angle or video have different considerations than portrait photographers who have special lighting requirements. Portrait photographers often avoid constant light sources and prefer remote flashes while those wanting headshots have a different setup for their lights and flashes.

Back to Top

Other Accessories for Studio Lighting

Light Stands and Booms

Lighting kits may or may not have light stands. If you are buying light stands, account for the weight of the lamp heads and any light shaping accessories that may go up there too. Boom stands are handy when you require the light to be above or over the subject without the need to shoot around the light stands.

Light Shaping Tools

These are addons to your lighting systems for getting the best out of your lights. Typically one should have an assortment of reflectors, umbrellas, light banks/boxes, snoots and fresnels. The exact requirements of course, depends on your subject and how you want it presented.

Flash Meter

Even though cameras have a built in meter, it is ill equipped to read flash exposures. Exposures can be estimated by looking at the LCD screen, but a flash meter can give you an accuracy of 1/10 stop. This is extremely useful in portrait photography as well as studio still life. An added edge is that the flash meter is able to measure ambient daylight with the same accuracy.

Back to Top

Top 5 Manufacturers


Check out Profoto's systems for an affordable and reliable lighting option.


AlienBees's lights are very affordable, durable, light weight and their flash tubes run for long periods. Besides, they have a built-in slave. One drawback may be that their lights are not powerful enough for all projects.


Dynalite produces very small and compact light heads but are quite powerful for their size. Due to their compact nature they require special care during handling. They also require two power packs and may lead to a mess of cables in your studio.

White Lightning

White Lightning is equivalent of AlienBees’ bigger brother. They are more rugged, more powerful and more durable too.

Smith Victor

Smith Victor makes very affordable hot lights. They do not require radio/optical slaves or sync cables, and finally they have a portable design and use minimal power.

Back to Top


Non Passive Failure:
This is an industry term used to describe the rupturing of a pressurized lamp.

Back to Top

Still have questions or need more information on studio lights? Contact us so we can help!