What studio light should you buy?
This is a complicated question to answer without knowing your exact needs, but I can certainly make some generalizations.
First question: Are you going to need the light to work outside, away from AC wall power? If you are, you will need a battery-powered strobe light. The plus side is that you won’t have a power cord. The downside is that batteries can run low and, in general, battery-powered lights have a slower recycle time between shots.
For battery powered lights, you have two real-world options:
Option 1: Buy a Godox light. They make three versions to consider – the AD300 Pro, the AD400 Pro, and the AD600 Pro. For most people using reasonably size softboxes and shorter distances will appreciate the AD400 Pro for size, weight, and price. If you really need small and light, look at the AD300 Pro. For more oomph, the AD600 Pro. I never recommend that AD200 for most folks new to location lighting, and certainly never as a first light. Godox is far less expensive than other options and they work well. Getting a broken Godox repaired is… difficult. Godox is a manufacturer that doesn’t have a distribution network – so whoever sells it to you is the one warrantying it – and they have to repair it. Oh, and don’t forget to pick up their wireless [email protected] Pro transmitter specific to your camera’s make.
Option 2: Buy a Profoto light. Here you have three lights to choose from – the B10, the B10 Plus, and the bigger B1X. For most people the B10 will get it done, but I choose the larger B10 Plus for more power. The B1X I rarely recommend any longer unless you really light the beefier light – but it has the same power as the B10 Plus, so …. Yeah. Profoto is pricy compared to Godox, sure, but quality usually is. I use Profoto exclusively now. Getting a Profoto repaired is easy – you ship it to Profoto. You will also need their AIR TTL transmitter for your camera’s make as well.
I no longer recommend speedlights as they are too weak and too fiddly. I also do not recommend using a light with a battery/inverter pack (read: Alien Bee with a Vagabond Mini Lithium) as there are way to many cords and points of failure, and all in one systems light the Godox and Profoto are just too awesome to not use!
Second Question: Are you going cheap or are you investing? (This assumes you have AC wall power available).
If you need to go cheap, you can buy used (more on that in a minute) or buy the Godox lights listed above.
For used, look at lights from the Paul Buff Company. While their new offerings are… dated… I would point to used because their lights have TANKED in value in the last year – with lights going for far less than 40% of the new price. The lights last forever and you can still get repairs and parts. Look at Alien Bees (skip the 400, go for 800 or 1600 models), DigiBees, or the Einstein (best value!). Wireless receivers are separate with these units, so look for used Cyber Sync receivers and transmitters, or Pocket Wizard Plus X or Plus III units. Do NOT buy Paul Buff lights out of the United States – they don’t support outside the USA reliably (nor easily).
If you can spend a bit on used, I won’t fib – I wish I went Profoto form the beginning. Yes, they are way more money than Godox or used gear, but holy smokes are they better. People love to argue with me on this, and that is okay – but once you use Profoto, you won’t want to use anything else. The older D1 Air lights are fine, but the current D2 Air is fantastic. Unless you really know you need power, you will be absolutely fine with the D2 Air in the 500 ws model.
What we do.
Kim and I are portrait artists. Most of our work is on dogs. We need fast recycle time, so we use Profoto D2 Air lights. All of ours are the 500ws models, but one is the 1000ws model that drives our huge 4x6 Softbox. The recycle time is stupid fast – at our power levels, we get about 3-4 frames per second. Not seconds between each shot – FRAMES PER SECOND.
Previously we used Einsteins. The color inconsistencies alone drove us away from them, but so did the relatively slow recycle time (compared to a D2).
What most people do.
People always gravitate towards what most folks do – so here it is. The vast majority of folks starting out right now buy a single Godox light, usually an AD400 Pro, and start there. The Godox compatible light modifiers are cheap, as is the transmitter for your camera. You can easily justify it to your life partner when those UPS and FedEx packages start showing up on the porch – the value is high for what you get. Is Godox better than Profoto? Ah, no. Not even close. But is it close enough for most people? Sure.
Where to buy your lights.
I buy mostly from Adorama and occasionally B&H both out of New York City. My local camera store does not sell either Profoto or Godox. If you are looking to buy Godox lights, I would also point you to Michael Mowbray (Go Mo Lights) as he has he imports Godox as well, and his reputation is good in my world of photo educators.
What to avoid.
I cannot recommend speedlights for serious work (See above), the AD200 Pro (see above) or anything generic off Amazon or eBay. Lights by Neewer, Jinbai, Orlit, and other such no-names are the type of stuff that works okay now, and dies two months later with zero resale value. Save your money and at least buy something that will last longer than your morning coffee!
Other stuff you will need.
You will need a light stand, either a softbox or white umbrella, a wireless transmitter for your camera, and a flash meter. Please please please – learn to use studio lighting by using a meter! This advice alone can shave months off your learning process.
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