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This chapter is from the book

Lights, Camera, Action

What follows is a brief introduction to the types of light sources typically used by portrait photographers in the studio and on location. In Chapter 5 you’ll find an in-depth discussion of light modifiers and how to actually work with these lighting tools. For now, there are three decisions you need to make to begin working with flash:

  • Lights. Select a light source.
  • Camera. Set your camera to sync with the light.
  • Action. Choose a method to trigger the flash from your camera.


The sheer number and variety of lighting choices on the market can be daunting, but you’ll find that most portrait photographers use only one or two types of light sources: studio strobes or speedlights. Studio strobes come as either monolights or strobe pack systems. Speedlights are small flash units used mostly for location work.

Studio strobes

Studio strobes are powerful flash units that plug into an AC outlet in the wall. The term strobe refers to lighting units that use a flash of light to illuminate the subject. Flash and strobe are interchangeable terms. When you’re shopping for strobe lighting, there are two main items to consider:

  • Strobe power. The amount of light produced by the strobe unit, measured in watt seconds.
  • Recycle time. How long it takes for the flash to recycle and be ready to shoot again.

Digital cameras are very light sensitive, so you don’t need the most powerful lights on the market. But recycle time is a major issue if you are planning on capturing action shots of kids.


Monolights are manufactured with the power pack and bulb housed in the same unit. Monolights are the most common form of lighting used by studio portrait photographers (FIGURE 4.3). The pros of working with monolights are:

  • They are easy to use.
  • They are more affordable than strobe pack systems.
  • If one light goes down and you have a backup monolight, you can still keep shooting.
  • Monolights come with continuous modeling lights, which allow you to visualize how the light will fall on your subject. Modeling lights also make it easier for your autofocus to lock onto your subject in a darkened studio.
  • They are made to work with a wide range of light modifiers, such as softboxes, umbrellas, grids, and so on (see Chapter 5).
  • Some monolights (like the Profoto D1 Air) come with dedicated radio controls that allow you to control your lights from a remote on your camera.

FIGURE 4.3 Monolights are usually the most affordable type of strobe lighting you can buy.

ISO 100, 1/200 sec., f/18, 70–200mm lens

The cons of working with monolights are:

  • Monolights are heavier than power pack heads because the power pack is built into the light. This can make it more difficult when you’re using the light up high and overhead, especially with heavy modifiers like softboxes.
  • Monolights don’t pack as much power and can have slower recycle times than strobe pack systems.

Strobe pack system

A studio strobe pack system consists of lighting heads that are run from a separate power generator or “pack.” All the lighting controls are on the pack. Power packs are used by both portrait and commercial photographers (FIGURE 4.4). The pros of working with strobe pack systems are:

  • The heads are lighter weight than monolights because the power pack is separate.

    FIGURE 4.4

    FIGURE 4.4 More expensive than monolights, power pack strobes pack more power. You may not need all that lighting power, but they come in handy when photographing kids because of their fast recycle times.

    ISO 100, 1/200 sec., f/18, 70–200mm lens

  • Power packs tend to have more power and faster recycle times than monolights.
  • You can run three or more heads off one power pack.
  • The power pack is usually closer to the camera than a monolight, which makes adjusting the lights faster and easier.
  • Like monolights, they are made to work with a wide range of modifiers.
  • Like monolights, they come with modeling lights.

The cons of working with strobe pack systems are:

  • If the power pack dies, you have no lights at all.
  • They are more expensive than monolights.
  • Cords from the head to the pack can restrict light placement.


Speedlights are dedicated flash units that can be used on the hot shoe of your camera or set up to use off-camera (FIGURE 4.5). Speedlights are manufactured to be used with your particular brand of camera and can work with your camera’s metering system and program modes. They are most commonly used by portrait and wedding photographers on location. The pros of working with speedlights are:

  • They are small and lightweight, perfect for location work.
  • They are slightly more affordable than strobes.
  • They can be used with the program modes in your camera.
  • Tons of great new modifiers are available for this type of flash.
  • They are battery powered, so there is no need for an AC outlet.

FIGURE 4.5 Speedlights are compact, lightweight, and ideally suited for location work.

ISO 100, 1/200 sec., f/22, 70–200mm lens

The cons of working with speedlights are:

  • They are powered by batteries (so are not as powerful as strobes).
  • They have slower recycle time than strobes.
  • They require adapters to mount to a light stand.
  • Speedlights do not have modeling lights.

So what do you buy? If you are primarily a location shooter, stick with speedlights or find a battery pack for your studio strobes. If you prefer to work in the studio, the monolight/strobe pack may be a better equipment decision for you. Start with what makes sense for how you work and add gear as your needs develop.


My best advice on camera bodies is to buy the one that accommodates the way you actually shoot, not the camera you think you should buy. I learned this lesson the hard and expensive way when the Nikon D800 was released. It had been almost four years since I’d upgraded my camera, and when the D800 was announced as the camera for shooting in studio, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on one. I promptly dropped the requisite four figures and began shooting. I hated it, immediately. What I had failed to realize was that although I do photograph kids in a studio, I don’t shoot like a typical studio photographer. For instance, I don’t shoot on a tripod.

I am constantly in motion and my subjects are rarely, if ever, still. I should have realized that a camera advertised as the studio camera means that it has lots of resolution and is great for still subjects. The camera produced gorgeous files with amazing detail, but the focusing system just couldn’t run with me. So I put the D800 back in its box and, painfully, laid out another four figures for the Nikon D4. Why the D4? The D4 is the photojournalist’s workhorse; it’s made for capturing action anytime, anywhere in just about any light. Duh! The moral of this story is, buy the camera with features that facilitate how you shoot, not necessarily where you shoot with it.

Sync speed

Using any type of flash requires you to know your camera’s sync speed. The sync speed is the fastest shutter speed at which the shutter is completely open when the flash fires. If you select a faster shutter speed than your sync speed, you’ll notice a shading or dark black area on one side of the frame. The reason is that the shutter is opening and closing faster than the flash can fully illuminate the scene.

Nikon and Canon cameras list their sync speeds as 1/250 of a second, but that is when you are using one of their dedicated speedlights (i.e., a Nikon- or Canon-manufactured flash). If you are using studio strobe lighting, your sync speed for Nikon or Canon will be closer to 1/200 of a second.


When using flash, I shoot in all manual mode all the time. I don’t use any program modes through my camera, even when using a dedicated speedlight. Shooting in manual means my results are consistent from shot to shot, which saves me hours in postproduction time. Because every exposure in a given lighting setup will be the same, I can use the Sync tool in Lightroom to apply color or tonal correction to all of those images at once versus having to adjust each frame individually. Some photographers love the TTL (through the lens) metering features available through their cameras and can rock it like no other (I’m looking at you, Joe McNally). As for me and my studio, we’ll be over here shooting in manual.


You have the lights and the camera, now how do you make the lights flash? When you’re shooting with flash units that are not attached to your camera, you’ll need a way to trigger the lights. You have two ways to do that: Use a PC cord or a PocketWizard.

PC cord

For about $20 you can get a cord that connects your camera directly to the light (FIGURE 4.6). PC cords are cheap and easy but are not recommended when you’re photographing kids. It’s always good to have one on hand for emergencies when your other gear goes down, but with kids running around, PC cords can be a tripping hazard. If you want to use a PC cord when you’re first starting out, buy the longest cord possible and tape it down when you’re shooting.


FIGURE 4.6 A PC cord connects your camera to the light source.

ISO 100, 1/320 sec., f/14, 70–200mm lens


The industry-standard radio transceivers, PocketWizards mount to the hot shoe of your camera and transmit wirelessly to trigger your flash (FIGURE 4.7). Most strobes come with built-in radio receivers that work with the PocketWizards. Other, older strobes and speedlights require you to have a second PocketWizard connected to the flash to receive the signal sent by the PocketWizard on your camera.


FIGURE 4.7 A PocketWizard is a radio transceiver that triggers your flash wirelessly.

ISO 100, 1/320 sec., f/14, 70–200mm lens

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