www.dpreview.com
www.dpreview.com

Buyer's Guide: 10 Home Studio Lighting Kits

Josie Reavely | Product Reviews & Previews | Published Dec 16, 2011

Investing in a studio lighting kit can open up a range of creative possibilities and help take your photographic skills to the next level.

There was a time when the studio environment - with flash heads, diffusers, sync cables and power packs - was largely the domain of the professional photographer. Today, however, with a wide range of pre-packaged kits on the market, enthusiasts are finding it easier than ever before to obtain the gear and accessories necessary for creating a complete home studio.

When it comes to studio lighting kits, the general rule is ‘you get what you pay for’. You can pick up a basic package very cheaply that will allow you to dabble in the art of studio-based photography. Or you can shell out thousands of dollars to buy a dazzlingly sophisticated and powerful set-up. There are options available for every level of experience and budget.

Your very first choice will be to decide between two main options: continuous  or strobe (flash) lighting. The former comes in two flavors - tungsten or fluorescent - and the choice is largely a matter of personal taste. Both can give great results.

The chief benefit of continuous light sources is that they provide instant feedback on how your lighting will look in the exposed image, allowing you to adjust the angle and intensity of the lighting quickly and visualize the shot more easily. They can also do double duty as video lights.

Continuous lights allow you to view the light output as it will appear in the photograph. Strobe lights can be used to freeze fact action and can snyc with the camera at high shutter speeds.

These types of lights do, however, have a tendency to get very warm during use (although ‘cool’ fluorescent varieties offer improvement in this aspect), which can make long portrait sessions an uncomfortable experience for your subject. Neither is a continuous light source the best option when photographing moving subjects, as its output (measured in watts) is less efficient than that of an identically rated strobe, resulting in slower shutter speeds that make it difficult to freeze fast motion. As a consequence, continuous lights are more typically used in still life and product photography.

Strobe lighting is a highly popular choice that offers a great degree of control and flexibility. The ability to precisely adjust the intensity of the light as well as the option to sync at faster shutter speeds makes this type of lighting system far more suitable for capturing subjects in motion, although you’ll need to check the specifications of the kits that you shortlist to make sure they meet your requirements. Cheaper kits generally tend to be slower and/or less powerful than their pricier counterparts.

While technology varies greatly between products, you will find that many entry-level kits benefit from some of of the features found in more expensive models of the same brand. As such, it’s perfectly possible to pick up a beginner-friendly kit that’s still packed with features, for a modest price.   

The goal of this buyer's guide is not to list every kit on the market. Rather, it's designed to give you a taste of the features and performance available at varying price points. For this particular round-up we're concentrating on complete kits rather than individual heads, however we couldn't look at studio lighting without mentioning the superbly-named manufacturer, Alien Bees. They produce quirky self-contained flash heads in five bold colors, starting at $224.95 (via Paul C. Buff Inc.) offering excellent value-for-money. They may look like fun on the outside, but each Alien Bees product incorporates some serious specs, making them worthy of consideration whatever your level of skill or budget. The company does offer pre-packaged kits on its US site, but not via its international distributors.

The kits that follow are arranged by price in ascending order and you’ll find direct links to each manufacturer’s page where you can glean more information. ‘Buy Now’ links will take you to the item's product page on Amazon.com, unless indicated otherwise.

As always, if you have any recommendations of your own to share with fellow readers, feel free to add them in the comments section below.

Here's our selection:

CowboyStudio 220 Watt Photo Studio Monolight Strobe Kit

This low-cost strobe kit is a good fit for those on a tight
budget. It provides sufficient power and control over output
for users to create high-quality shots straight out of the box.

If you want an affordable option that will give you everything you need to start assembling your first home studio, then take a look at this inexpensive kit. It includes a comprehensive array of equipment, including two 110 Ws Strobe Flash MonoLights, two 7ft metal stands, a 16 x 24 in. softbox with Spring Ring and a 33" black/silver umbrella.

The lights themselves will fit onto any standard 5/8" light stand, so if you do already have a few accessories with this fitting (or smaller) then chances are they’ll be compatible. The flash heads are daylight-balanced (5600 K), so you can be sure of getting accurate colors in your studio shots – provided you set your white balance correctly! With a relatively low guide number of 30m (98.5ft) at ISO 100 you will need to work with larger apertures and/or boost your ISO a little if your subject is a fair distance away, but if you tend to work at close quarters to the object(s) you’re photographing (e.g. for product or macro work) then this kit should be adequate for your needs.

Each 110Ws head has an average recycling time of 5-7 seconds; certainly at the slower end of the spectrum. If power and speed are crucial to your photographic work then you’d be better off with a more expensive option. Overall, however, this kit is a smart choice for beginners looking for a low-cost easy to operate home studio setup with versatile accessories, quality metal stands and flash heads offering full output control.

Calumet Genesis 200 2-Light Kit

The two large umbrellas included in the kit can be used to bounce light (as configured above). Remove the black covers, however, and you can shoot through the umbrellas. The flash head's digital controls, configured in a simple layout, make it easy to ensure consistency in light output across multiple exposures.

Moving up the price scale buys you extra power (each Genesis 200 head has a 200Ws output) as well as a greater level of control. In addition to the flash heads, the kit includes a pair of reflectors, 10ft metal light stands and two versatile white umbrellas with removable black covers. Flash tubes, modeling lamps, sync and power cables as well as spare fuses are also included.

Additional features worth mentioning include the compatibility of the bayonet fitting on the Genesis 200 with Elinchrom gear, which means that you have a huge range of high quality light modifiers available to choose from if you want to get creative. The heads also incorporate an optical slave unit that can be triggered using your own flashgun. You can even set the Genesis 200s to ignore up to three pre-flashes before being triggered.

The controls on the fan-cooled heads are digital; providing consistency and the ability to fine-tune the output with precision. Each head incorporates a modeling lamp that can be set either to full power or to match the output of the flash proportionally. The recycling time for the heads is rated at 1-3 seconds, which isn’t bad for a kit at this price-point, but again, won’t be up-to-scratch for fast-paced photographic shoots. Overall, this kit offers an impressive range of features for its relatively small price tag. It's a worthy contender for newcomers interested in table-top, still life or portraiture in a small studio environment.

Lastolite RayD8 C3200 Two Head 500 Watt Tungsten Kit

The RayD8 continuous lighting system is ideal for still life applications such as product photography.
It's also a good choice for those who like to shoot video with their cameras as well.

Continuous lighting - as we explored in our introduction - comes with its own set of pros and cons, but is certainly worth exploring as an alternative to a flash kit. Lastolite’s budget-friendly RayD8 heads start at just $124 (MSRP) for a single unit and come in two ‘flavors’: tungsten or fluorescent. The heads can also power  halogen bulbs, but you’ll need an adapter (purchased separately).

This kit is aimed at beginners and is powered by two continuous 500W tungsten (3200K) heads with detachable reflectors. You get a pair of 31.5" white umbrellas for shoot-through lighting but removable black covers are also included giving you the option bounce light instead. The kit is rounded out with two light stands and all of the necessary power cables and bulbs. There are no dials or controls on the heads with which to familiarize yourself - simply an on/off switch - so setup couldn't be any easier.

Should you want to expand your lighting options, the RayD8 heads feature an S-type bayonet fitting which is compatible with a wide range of (optional) light-modifying accessories. Overall, this kit represents a good buy for those who value ease of use: just plug in the heads and start shooting!

Interfit EXD400 Softbox Umbrella Kit

This competitively-priced strobe kit combines high-end features with an easy-to-use interface. Both a softbox and a translucent umbrella are included in the box.

With Interfit’s EXD400 Softbox Umbrella kit, a marginal step-up in price gives you double the power of the previous strobe kit in our round-up. The high-quality, soft-touch polycarbonate EXD400 heads offer easy-to-use controls, with digital power level input for the utmost precision. Each daylight-balanced 400Ws head has a guide number of 60m (196ft) and incorporates a tungsten modeling light that can be set to reflect the flash output proportionally, giving you a useful preview of how your lighting will look.

High-end features such as fan-cooling (a huge benefit when you shoot for extended periods of time) are among the list of specs that attracted our attention, as are user-changeable flash tubes, a five-stop power range selectable in 1/10 stop EV adjustments and a fast 1.5 second recycle time. The kit includes both a 24 x 24 in. softbox and a translucent umbrella (bounce or shoot-through), two EXD400 heads, metal light stands, power and sync cables and a carry-case. You get everything you need to start creating your studio masterpieces straight out of the box.

Of particular note is the EXD400’s versatile triggering system. Each head incorporates Infrared and white light-sensitive sensors, plus a pre-flash function that allows them to ignore pre-focus and AF-assist discharge from both external and built-in flash units, while being capable of triggering on the first, second or third flash from your camera (meaning that you can even use the kit with a compact camera if you wish).

The heads employ Interfit’s proprietary EX-type reflector mount, so you sacrifice the benefit of being able to couple the kit with items from other manufacturers. Interfit, however, is a well-established producer of studio lighting equipment with a vast array of light modifiers and accessories under its own name. Investing in the brand doesn't meaningfully limit the the type of products available to enhance your system in the future.

Westcott Photo Basics Strobelite Educational 2-Light Kit

Westcott's Photo Basics branded products combine lighting hardware with instructional content
aimed at beginners who are keen to learn on the job.

With this kit you don’t just get the tools necessary to start taking high-quality studio shots, you receive the added benefit of being taught how to get the very best from your new setup. Westcott has identified the need to offer more than just the equipment for those exploring studio photography for the first time. The result is a line of 'educational' kits sold under their affordable Photo Basics brand.

The instructional content includes a DVD that not only offers a step-by-step guide on assembling the kit but walks you through the key points of shooting in a studio environment. A beginner-friendly floor-positioning mat is also included to help you put these tips into practice more easily, showing you exactly where to place your lights, camera and subject. The DVD also covers an array of stylistic techniques covering everything from lighting to posing your subject for portraiture work.

The hardware itself includes a pair of StrobeLites, 43" white umbrellas and 6.5' air-cushioned light stands. Rounding out the kit are sync and power cables plus the floor-positioning mat (which includes its own Guide Card), all of which fits neatly into the supplied carry-case. The 150Ws rubberized, polycarbonate heads are daylight-balanced, sport a respectably mid-range guide number of 39m (117ft) and feature 100W adjustable modeling lamps (with a proportionate ‘variable’ setting) so you can easily preview the effect your lighting setup will have on the shadows and highlights in your composition. The flash output can be finely controlled from 1/4 to full power and each head has slave cell for wireless triggering. All this makes for a comprehensive, cost-effective choice for beginners looking for easy-to-follow instructions for developing their studio skills. 

Bowens Gemini 400/400 Umbrella Studio Kit

This powerful strobe kit manages to fit everything you need to get started in a single supplied hold-all. This makes it very appealing for photographers on the move.

Renowned for the quality and consistency of their products, Bowens is one of the big names on the studio flash scene - and for good reason. Striking a healthy balance between power and portability, this kit provides enough output for photographing everything from table-top subjects to small groups of people in a medium-sized studio environment. The 400Ws heads are also compatible with the Bowens Travelpak portable battery system. Best of all, the whole setup - comprising a pair of Gemini 400Ws heads, wide-angle reflectors, 35" (90cm) umbrellas, air-dampened metal light stands, plus all the necessary lamps, cables and power cords - packs down into one neat hold-all, allowing you to take the lot of it on location.

Other features worth mentioning include a modeling light that can be operated at full power, set proportional to the flash output or switched off (it’ll also turn itself off after 30 minutes of inactivity), as well as an automatic power-dump function that safely dissipates any excess charge when reducing the flash output; a feature that some of the less expensive kits lack. Unlike some of its competitors, Bowens opts for manual dials rather than a digital display. While perhaps marginally less precise than a digital system, many photographers share a preference for this type of interface as it’s quick and simple to use.

While this kit is largely aimed at the amateur studio photographer, its price does represent an investment for the absolute novice. There is, however, a cheaper Gemini 200/200 kit available for those who want these same accessories, but don’t require the output of the Gemini 400 heads. Whichever kit you opt for, experience tells us that you won’t be disappointed with either the feature set or robust build quality of the components. As it stands, we’d happily choose this kit either as a start-up solution for a serious enthusiast or for a professional working in a modest studio environment.

Elinchrom D-Lite-it 4 To Go

The D-Lite-it series strobe kits are available in multiple configurations, all of
which include built-in wireless control.

Shelling out just over $800 US buys you this all-inclusive set from Swiss company Elinchrom’s excellent D-Lite-it (Intelligent Triggering) collection. Although the kits in this range are labeled as entry-level, there’s nothing basic about them. In the kit you get two D-Lite-it 4 flash heads, two air-dampened metal stands and two Portalite 25" softboxes – all of which fits neatly into the two included carry-cases.

Where the kit really trumps its rivals is Elinchrom’s decision to also include a Skyport ECO Transmitter - a 40 bit encoded digital radio trigger with 4 selectable frequencies - which communicates with the built-in receivers in each of the heads. This means that you have complete wireless control over triggering of the flash heads, at sync speeds of up to 1/250 sec. 

Digital controls afford precision and consistency when it comes to adjusting the power output, while the ability to ignore pre-flashes means that you can combine the heads with an existing Speedlight-based creative lighting system, if you use one. Elinchrom provides a D-Lite user manual to help you get acquainted with your new kit, in addition to a useful DVD-Guide that introduces the D-Lite and covers the basics of working with studio flash.

This kit is a solid choice for an enthusiast with the space to justify the investment in a more powerful set-up. For those with a more modestly-sized home studio, there is a less expensive 200Ws version that will serve you just as well when shooting at closer-quarters.

Elinchrom BXRi 250/250 Studio To Go

This comprehensive lighting kit includes everything you need to start shooting
right away, with built-in wireless flash control being a particularly attractive
selling point.

Yes, we’ve just looked at one Elinchrom kit, but we just couldn’t leave out the formidable BXRi range from this round-up. The BXRi 250 heads take the fundamental aspects of simple operation, accurate power control and versatility that the less expensive D-Lite-it heads offer, and add in a range of upgraded features and sophisticated technologies that take their functionality to a professional level.

At this price-point you can expect more robust build quality, faster recycling times and more high-end features than lower priced kits. To that end, Elinchrom has incorporated an impressive range of functions into their BXRi heads, including a built-in slave cell, automatic pre-flash detection with a selection of programmable modes, a visual flash confirmation option, control over the output in variable f-stop steps, an automatic temperature controlled ventilation system, a programmable ready-beep function and safety features like power auto-dumping and multivoltage auto-detection (90-270V, excluding the modeling lamp).

The BXRi units incorporate built-in EL-Skyport receivers, allowing for radio remote control over flash triggering and power settings. This kit pairs them with the newly upgraded EL-Skyport Speed transmitters.

This transmitter earns its name by  offering two distinct synchronization modes: Standard and Speed. In Standard mode you can sync at shutter speeds up to 1/150 sec. over an indoor range of 60m (197ft) and an outdoor range of double that distance. When set to Speed mode, however, the sync speed increases to a maximum of 1/250 sec. with indoor and outdoor ranges of 40m (131ft) and 70m (230ft) respectively.

Other benefits of the EL-Skyport Speed include an LED status light indicating the sync mode and battery status and the ability to trigger your camera using a direct connection via a sync cable. Additionally, if you tend to work in environments where other photographers are also using radio-controlled flash, the EL-Skyport Speed features four groups and eight different frequencies to choose from, minimizing the risk of interference.  

All told, the kit includes two BXRi 250 heads and their associated sync/power cables, two 25" (66cm) Portalite softboxes and a pair of metal, air-dampened light stands. The whole lots packs down into two separate bags: one for the heads and accessories and one for the stands. This kit is obviously not cheap, but for the features it is hard to beat.

Westcott Spiderlite TD6 Perfect Portrait 2-Light Kit Deluxe

The Spiderlite TD6 continuous lighting system houses a total of six fluorescent lamps in each head, delivering an industry-leading level of lighting power.

This high-end compact fluorescent lighting system lays claim to being the most powerful on the market, with the kit comprising two heads, each of which features no less than six individual 50W daylight-balanced fluorescent lamps. When combined, the two-light setup racks up over 2,400W of power!

The Spiderlite TD6 heads feature an all-metal construction, making them ideal for withstanding the rigors of daily professional usage, while the ability to switch off pairs of lamps at a time affords greater control over the light output, without affecting color temperature. Little added touches like a cord-mounted switch for operating the lights when the controls on the back of the head are mounted up too high to reach, plus support for tungsten lamps if you prefer (up to a total 1200W maximum), reveal Westcott’s attention to detail when developing this kit with the professional in mind.

Also inside the smart-looking wheeled carry-case are two 10ft metal stands with tilter brackets, plus Westcott’s revered 36 x 48 inch Shallow softbox, which - as the name suggests - sports a narrow profile that makes it ideal for producing even lighting when working in tight spaces. There’s also a 12 x 36 inch Stripbank that serves as an ideal hair light in portraiture for instance, while the included 40-degree grid helps to control the contrast and amount of spill. Continuous lighting can’t compete with a strobe when it comes to capturing movement, but the level of power and control provided by this pro-level kit is ideal for photographing static subjects like still life compositions, food and products as well as portraiture.   

Profoto D1 Studio Kit 250/250 Air

This pro-level lighting kit features plenty of high-end features and technology, offering the ultimate
in power, speed and control.

When it comes to professional-level studio work, the priority is for a kit that’s reliable, consistent, powerful and fast; all attributes for which prestigious manufacturer Profoto is renowned. As mentioned at the start of this round-up, when it comes to build quality and features, you tend to get what you pay for. And the pumped-up price tag of this pro lighting kit buys you two D1 Air 250Ws strobe heads (500 and 1,000Ws versions are also available) with built-in reflectors, two D1 umbrellas, a pair of air-dampened metal light stands and a Profoto Air remote. A robust padded carry-case is included for storing all of this kit.

The D1 Air flash heads feature digital controls, plus digital internal flash output control circuitry, promising the highest level of consistency in terms of color temperature and power with each discharge. You can adjust the head's seven-stop power range in 1/10 stop EV increments. Add a short flash duration of 1/3700 - 1/1400 sec. and fast recycling time of just 0.2-0.65 sec. and you can see the appeal of this high-end kit. Each head benefits from a modeling light that can be turned on/off, set to be proportionally to the flash output, or set for customized output. The heads also have automatic power-dumping and multi-voltage operation, plus a temperature-regulated fan cooling system, as you’d rightly expect at this price point.  

The other big attraction of the D1 Air kit is that the heads integrate Profoto Air technology, allowing for wireless remote control over their output and triggering using the bundled transmitter. With 7 channels and 6 groups to select from, professionals working in proximity to one another can avoid interference from other flash setups. The system offers an impressive radio sync range of up to 300m (1,000ft). You can take this wireless functionality even further by investing in an optional Profoto Air remote - or for the ultimate in flexibility - plug an optional Profoto Air USB transceiver into your Mac / PC and use the Profoto Studio Software to take complete wireless remote control over your entire studio setup from your computer. Pro level features, at a pro level price.