Let There Be Light… And Photography

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You’ve finally decided to invest a reasonable portion of your hard earned money into a reputable camera. And when the sales clerk ask if you’d like to add an electronic flash with your purchase, you go blank… Yes, that’s right, photography is all about light, and the best camera in the world will do you no good if you have no light.

To those of you who believe that your smart phone can do wonders with “low-light” photography, you don’t know what you’re missing with real photography.

Everything is cool and dandy if you choose to limit your photographic activities just to outdoors, during the day, where sunlight is plentiful. But what about when the sun goes down? What about when you need to shoot something indoors? What about when you want to shoot something against the light? Well, for that, you’re gonna need to bring your own little portable sun to light up the subjects where the big sun up there doesn’t shine.

So do you really NEED to spend more money to purchase your own portable light source? Well… Yes and no… No, if you choose to limit your photographic activities to the great outdoors, bathed in the ample natural sunlight. But that will mean limiting what you can shoot, and when you can shoot it. And that also means photography is nothing more than just a hobby to you. But if you choose to earn some money out of your photographic endeavour, whether to help recoup some of your hard-earned money already invested in your hardware, or to earn a living out of it, whether full-time or part-time, you’re gonna need some sort of light.

So here comes the next tough question :-

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High-tech, portable, hot-shoe mounted, full TTL connection, electronic flash (think precision surgical scalpel), or a hulking, low-tech, high-output, studio light (think chopping wood with a huge axe), which is your choice?

While the hobbyist photographers and the weekend-warriors would prefer the portability offered by the electronic flash, there are professionals in the business who actually uses the electronic flash too. The few examples that come to mind are the photojournalists, sports photographers (for the times that they need to shoot on the podium and award ceremonies) and maybe even travelling photographers (think National Geographic Photographers).

And those who choose studio lights, well, they’re mostly professionals. Not to say that there aren’t any photographic hobbyists who chooses to use studio lights, but I personally don’t know any non-professionals who do.

So, here are the low-downs on on why you’d want to choose one over the other :-

Electronic Flash

They generally don’t come cheap, unless you’re looking at some budget models. The fact that you’re even reading this article at all, it’s highly likely that you’re giving those models a pass. You’d also normally have a choice of going for the same brand as your camera body (guaranteed compatibility), or you can go for a third-party models that is designed to work with your camera body. And some of these third-party manufacturers make their electronic flash units “better” than the original models too. Some names that come in mind include Metz, and Sunpak.

And unless you really believe what the manufacturers show you in their colourful and exciting brochures, you’d want to limit your lighting gear to only the flash unit itself, and maybe a handful of optional passive attachments.

Multiple flash units rig, linked through wireless TTL to the host camera body, enhanced with expensive looking light modifiers, should be relegated to the academic discussion forums only. Trust me, you don’t wanna look like a very rich kid with lot’s of expensive toys, and not too sure what you’re doing if you were to break out your multiple flash units rig for a shoot… any shoot…

Electronic flash units are useful if you’re shooting on-the-go, packing everything you need on your body (or bag). Powered by batteries (or battery-pack), you can literary carry more power than you need for any given shoot. It’s the only way to go if you’re planning to go off the grid, or at least will be away from the wall-plug for extended periods of time.

However, the lighting effects from the portable electronic flash units can be a little unflattering. Normally positioned front-facing, directly onto the subject, it can make the subject appear really flat. Of course, you can always bounce the light off a wall or ceiling, but let’s face it, how many of us really have the luxury of time and space to do that when you’re shooting on-the-go? And the little “bounce-attachment” that I see usually see permanently attached to the business-end of their flash units don’t do you much good either. You can argue all you want, but your results will show you that the difference ranges from insignificant to none at all. Do yourself a favour, and don’t buy into the advertisers’ lies.

The samples you see on the brochures? Well, they’re taken using a full-fledged studio lighting system. How do I know that?… Well, that’s because I’ve personally worked on brochures like that before in the past…

Studio Light

Studio lights are generally divided into two distinctive types – Studio Flash and Constant Light. The difference is in the way they work.

The traditional studio flash works in a similar fashion as the portable electronic flash, by the way it gives off a short burst of high-powered light, synchronised with the shutter curtain of the camera body. But that’s where the similarities ends. Besides the flash-tube (which gives off the high-powered light), there is also a user-controllable, always-on, lower-powered light. This is referred to as the “Modelling Light”, and is normally powered by an incandescent bulb. This is what makes the studio flash so indispensable. You actually get to see how the light falls onto the subject with the modelling light alone.

While the output of the modelling light isn’t on par with the output given off by the flash-tube, it’s presence is invaluable in a studio shoot environment. Considering the fact that you’d normally be using more than one studio flash for any shoot, having the ability to fine-tune the subject before the shoot is indeed very useful. You definitely don’t want to end up with the subject casting two (or more) separate shadows in the final image, right?

The other type of studio light – Constant Light, also known as Daylight, Metal Halide Light, Artificial Sunlight, etc., is physically identical to the traditional studio flash. It takes on the same types of reflectors, mounts on the same types of stands, and works almost identical to the way you’d work with Studio Flash.

The only difference is, as the name suggests, the maximum output of light is always on, and you can’t adjust the light output, like you do with the traditional studio flash. This is pretty useful if you’re shooting in an environment where more than one photographer are shooting at any given time, since you don’t need to synchronise the light to any individual shutter curtain.

However, it does take a couple of minutes to “warm up” to the optimum operating light output (think xenon car headlamps). And that you’ll have to adjust the exposure with the camera’s exposure meter, since you can’t adjust the light output on the light itself.

Conclusion

So which one is the best choice? Well, there’s no such thing as a “best” choice. It all really depends on what you really want to achieve with your photography.

Price factor doesn’t really make much of a difference anymore these days. Portable electronic flash units are actually comparable to studio lights when it comes to the moolah. The only thing you need to really consider is that if you were to choose the path of studio light, you’re more likely to use more than one at any given time. Then throw in the stands, the various types of light reflectors, the whole sh-bang of accessories that you can’t work without, and not forgetting a dedicated bag to carry all of your lighting equipment in, it’s gonna cost you quite a bit more than if you were to choose the path of the portable electronic flash.

There, I hope that I have shed some light on the topic for you guys out there.

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