As amateur photographers develop their skills and upgrade their equipment, starting with a DSLR camera, they eventually need additional tools to master more advanced techniques. One important element, especially in portrait photography, is the use of external studio lighting, specifically studio strobe lights. Learning the basics of strobe photography is a simple way to vastly improve the look, details, and professionalism of studio portraits and it involves understanding the process and gathering the proper equipment.
Understanding studio lighting
Studio photography is different than action photography or photojournalism, which relies on natural light and capturing life and moments as they really exist. When working in a studio, it is the photographer's job not only to frame and position the photograph, but to also set the lighting.
Hot lights vs. cold lights
The two main types of studio lights that photographers use are generally referred to as "hot" and "cold" lights. Hot lights get their name from the fact that they are constantly turned on and thus generate an enormous amount of heat over the process of a shoot. So-called "cold" lights, on the other hand, only turn on in time with the camera's flash. Strobe lights fall into the latter category.
Why photographers use external strobe lights
By using a basic DSLR camera with a flash, photographers can inject light into a scene when it is not already there; however, built-in flashes are limiting, even if purchased separately from the camera itself and added for a particular shot.
The limitations of the built-in flash stem from its location, usually just above the camera's lens. Although they provide an even field of illumination, they always go off from the same angle as the lens itself. This results in a shadow behind the subject. In addition, the harsh, unrealistic lighting of the flash obscures details and often makes the skin of a human subject appear washed out and unnatural.
Strobe lights, on the other hand, are timed with the flash and placed in specific locations around the subject. This allows photographers to control the direction of light, eliminate background shadow, and enhance important details.
Essential strobe photography equipment
Choosing to incorporate external strobe lighting into portrait photography is no small task. Photographers must not only experiment with techniques and understand the behaviour of light in their scenes, but they also need to acquire the necessary equipment to create that lighting in the first place. To do this, there are four major essentials that photographers need to get.
Strobe light or light head
Clearly, a strobe light or strobe light head is essential for strobe photography. These are small units that photographers can mount on poles or aim from the ground. Generally containing Xenon gas, different types or settings on strobe lights illuminate the bulb anywhere from 1/1,000th to 1/50,000th of a second.
Flash diffuser or reflector
A photographic flash diffuser or reflector is usually white or light coloured and, as its name suggests, diffuses light by dispersing it evenly across a subject or frame. There are many different sizes and even different types of flash diffusers, but professionals generally prefer umbrella reflectors since they are the best shape for even light distribution.
Alternately, the use of a softbox, also known as a lightbank, can help photographers using strobes to create a specific type of natural lighting effect similar to sitting near a window. Lightbanks come in many shapes and sizes, but the direct approach of these lighting tools has a harsher effect on the subject. For that reason, they are considered an advanced piece of strobe photography equipment.
In order to ensure that the strobe light goes off in time with a camera's flash, photographers need to sync the light to the camera itself. The easiest and most effective way to do this is through a physical connection between the two. Sync cords therefore must adapt to both the strobe light and camera.
Portable battery pack
Although not required, any photographer who wants to experiment with strobe lighting techniques on location, particularly outdoors, should have a portable battery pack. This ensures there is adequate power for both the light and the camera itself throughout the course of the shoot.
How to buy strobe photography equipment on eBay
Buying all the equipment you need to get started with strobe photography is easy on eBay. Reliable sellers offer individual tools as well as studio and strobe lighting bundles that contain everything you need to get started with this portrait lighting technique. Simply use the main search box to query keywords describing what you need, such as "strobe light" or "flash diffuser". From there, it is easy to narrow the options according to specific factors, such as price and brand.