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• The DIY studio - choosing lights

Buying studio lights

I frequently get calls from students wanting to purchase studio lighting kits. There are some really nifty kits out there at a fraction of the price of what it would cost you to build up a set yourself from second-hand units. The problem is - how do you decide on a kit?

First look at what you would need for a typical portrait setup: * at least two flash heads, preferably three * a stand for each * an umbrella (white or silver inside) for each * a sync chord from your camera to one of the lights * 2 optical slave units to trigger the other two lights * a backdrop which you can manufacture yourself * poly boards of white foam sheets to use as reflector boards.

Some kits come with two lights, two stands, two umbrellas and built-in slave units. Sounds cool, doesn't it? This can set you back anything between R10 000 and R14 000, if you buy reasonably strong lights. Strong? It means the output is such that you can light a big scene, or pump enough light into a setting to enable the use of a small aperture for big depth of field.

And this is the point of the newsletter this time: the "working aperture" that a set of lights allows you should be the first factor to look at when choosing your light set.

Let's say you see an ad in the smalls for a studio kit. It turns out to be a mismatch of lights from various makes. Much like my own. You decide you would like to take them since they're going for only R7000. Are they going to be up to the job? Do a test: set up the lights 2 or 3m away from an object, then use your flash meter, if you have one, or your digital camera, to check the output. On your digital back, check your exposure after each test shot to see at what aperture you have to shoot to get a spot-on exposure (you always shoot on manual in the studio). If the minimum aperture that you can use at that distance away from the subject is less than f8, don't touch. Why?

To be able to shoot groups or close-ups of products, you would have to move your lights further away to get an even spread of light. Each meter you move them away, the amount of light falling onto the subject decreases. So f8 becomes f5.6 and so on, and each time you have to stop down, you lose depth of field. So the person in the front of the group may be in focus, but not the tall guy at the back. You have a problem.

Always buy the strongest lights you can find. Which means a working aperture of around f11 or f16. You can always move them further away or diffuse them. The opposite, unfortunately, does not work.

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