Kirk's Top Ten List of Great Lighting Gear.

I photograph lots of different subjects and most of them require lighting that's designed to work best for a specific situation.  Fast and furious PR and event documentation?  Anything that can't be done with available light probably gets lit with a battery powered flash.  Shallow DOF portraits in controlled environments?  Usually big silks and hot lights.  Portraits in red hot Austin sunlight?  Gotta be battery pack driven flashes.  Big studio shots?  You can pretty much count on a couple of electronic flash packs and an assortment of heads.  I have a reputation of being fickle about gear.  I buy new cameras regularly.

I finally broke down and asked a psychiatrist friend who knows me very well, why I seem to churn through cameras like a stock broker through my SEP.  He had an interesting take.  His interpretation was that methodical engineer types run the numbers and shop carefully.  They check all the boxes after establishing rational parameters.  Then they use the gear over and over again in precisely the same way.  This ensures predictable results.  On the other hand, the very nature of being an artist is to master  a tool and a style, followed by the evolution to the next style and set of parameters.  The next step.  In photography, for better or worse, we are wedded to our tools.  They shape our vision.  A new tool means a change in vision, a shift in point of view=  A new way of looking at things.  This sounds right to me.  And it's not a judgment thing.  It may be why artists master more ways of looking at things but die starving in trailer parks.   The constant search and evolution will never equal the production line for productivity and ongoing profitability.

But for the most part the artist doesn't care.  To do the same thing over and over again would be the death of the artist's soul and he might as well give up and do something entirely different than walk the same circular path over and over again.

So this guy has multiple degrees in the science of the mind and I'm ready to believe him.  While I churn through cameras in an endless search for the next step I am not nearly so fickle about lights.  I tend to buy them and use them for a long, long time.  And maybe that's because I can change the shape, quality and the texture of the lights at my will.  That being said, I do want to play with high quality gear because I don't want to become wedded to the necessity of maintenance.  Fixing stuff sucks.  It should just work.

Cameras are critical but somewhat interchangeable.  Lights are the bedrock of our craft.

Without any further inspection into my weathered psyche I'd like to talk about ten pieces of equipment that I love and would not like to create without, even if I change cameras as often as most people change their underwear.

In no particular order:

1.  When I'm shooting a large set or scene in full sun and I need my light to match or overpower the sun's pervasive power I reach for my favorite big battery light, the Elinchrom RX AS pack with attendant flash head.  It's a highly efficient system with a big ass battery that cranks out 1100 watt seconds 250 times in a row before moaning and groaning.  If you need to put a light in a softbox and go outside to shoot, this is the light that makes the slow sync speeds in most cameras worthwhile.
Check it out here:

2.  When I'm moving quickly outside, without the benefit of an assistant (happens more and more these days in the times of "no budget")  I grab the Profoto 600b battery powered flash system with it's cute, black flash head.  It's half the weight of the Elincrhom, takes only one head, has a smaller battery but......it's totally reliable and I can easily carry it in a backpack.  At "only" 600 watt seconds, I might have to use the flash and softbox combination a bit closer than I would with the Elinchrom but I can still get the job done.  Newsflash for anyone who already owns one:  Profoto just came out with a Lithium battery version and the batteries are backwardly compatible.  Cuts down on the weight, adds additional flashes per charge and cuts the recycle times.  If I could only own one flash I'd have tough time deciding between the two.
Check it out here:

3.  When I need a smaller flash I turn to the Metz line.  I've owned Canon, Nikon, Olympus and Vivitar flashes but for my money the little 48 afi flashes are the best price/performance ratio light on the market.  I bought one for my Olympus stuff and have been impressed by the performance.  It's not the top of the line.  Those are too big.  This is the next size down.  It still takes four double "a's" and since it is slightly less powerful it actually recycles quicker.  The quality of the light is great and, at $229 they are a bargain compared to the manufacturer's flashes.  I also use an older 54 MZ3 in a totally manual configuration (without a dedicated shoe, only the standard middle pin shoe.) it works great in both automatic and power ratio settings.  TTL is mostly overrated.  Works okay if you have time to chimp every shot but if you get your chops down and learn to gauge distances then manual is hands down more reliable.
Check out this version for Canon users:

4.  If you shoot portraits you're going to need to soften the light coming from your flash.  There are thousands of products on the market to do this but the physics are basic.  The bigger the total square inches of light emitting or reflecting surface area the softer the light will be.  You can spend over a thousand dollars on an Octabank, hundreds of dollars on softboxes of countless configurations or you can just get over it all and get the most cost effective and beautiful light source out there, the Photek 60 inch Softlighter Two umbrella.  It's basically just a well made 60 inch umbrella with a white translucent "sock" that fits over the front of the umbrella and flash head to make the whole thing a combination softbox/umbrella.  It's much quicker to set up and will only cost you around $80.  Talking attention to detail:  Two different shaft sizes to interface with various flash heads.  If you have European lights like the Profoto or the Elinchrome you'll want/need the thinner shaft.  Super good bargain/must have.  I keep two in the bag in case on overly zealous assistant destroys one.
Here's a peek:

5.  If you do this for any amount of time you'll find that some of the photographers from the 1950's and 1960's had a lot of stuff figured out that vanished from the scene and would be missed if people really knew what they were doing.  You're pretty smart so you probably realize that getting people posed correctly for portraits is tough and it would be nice, for a seated portrait, if the subject had somewhere to rest their arms or elbows.  In the old days every photographer who did nice portraits had a posing table.  Very sensible.  It anchors subjects in place and make the shoot more comfortable for them.  Get one. Make sure it's solid. 

6.  If you are going to put someone at a table it just makes sense to put them on a stool that can be adjusted.  Everyone should be able to sit with  their feet on the ground.  Or maybe one foot on the ground and the other on an apple crate.  A pneumatic stool is just the ticket.  Mine comes from one of the background companies like Denny and is solid and comfortable.  I think just about any good, adjustable stool should work.  This one looks good:

7.  My lighting life would be empty and sad if I couldn't use my big scrim.  A big scrim is just a translucent fabric on a frame.  It diffuses the light.  And the bigger the better, within reason.  You still  have to be able to both afford and transport the thing.  That's why I like collapsibles like the inexpensive one from PhotoFlex.  It's 74 by 74 inches, folders down to half that length for packing and has very few parts to break.  You'll need some adjustable clamps to hook the panel up to a couple light stands but I'll let you research those.......

Sorry, couldn't find an illustration.......

8.  When I work in the studio I really love to listen to music.  Not loud.  Just in the background.  It's calming and helps everyone focus on the job at hand.  I've had stuff hooked up to my computer before but I didn't like that solution.  I wanted something for my workspace that sounds great but doesn't take up too much space.  Believe me,  I've been through a lot of systems over the years.  Got tired of powered subwoofers and all the arcane digital stuff.  I finally settled on a Tivoli Stereo Radio system and a 120 gig iPod.  Who would need anything more.  If you are a rap enthusiast you'll probably want something that will play louder........
I swear by this radio.  It sounds absolutely wonderful.  I bought one in the middle of the great depression of 2009 when the price actually dropped to $139.95.  But back then you could also get a brand new Panasonic L1 with the Leica zoom for around $650........

Everything was on sale then.  Damn, should have bought a factory.

9.  If you work in the studio just skip the light stands and buy a C-stand (Century Stand) from Matthews or Manfrotto.  Super heavy duty and the arm does double duty as a small, strong light boom.  You can get them in black or in Chrome.  I've got both.  I like the look of the black one and in the studio you don't have as many problems with reflections back into the photo.  But the chrome ones are nice working in the Texas sun as they don't absorb heat the same way......you choose.

10.  Finally,  who can get any work done without Foamcore?  This stuff is just essential.  It's the gold standard as a reflector or light blocker and it's the only thing on my list that costs about what morning coffee for me and an assistant costs.  I keep all the scraps.  The small pieces are great for still life set ups.  The large chunks as portrait reflectors and the full sheets, taped together, as 4 foot by 6 foot "V" panels.  Great stuff to bounce a light into.

We cover this kind of stuff in the new book.  If you are interested in lighting, especially in different ways than you have in the past, it might be a handy resource.  I worked hard on the book.  It's pretty darn good.

I'd love to hear some feedback from people who've read the book.  This is one I'll likely want to revise every few years to update new products and new techniques.  It's a world of constant change.

Heading to east Texas tomorrow to photograph some really nice attorneys.  I'm thinking about all this stuff while I'm packing up the Honda Element......


Benjamin Reed said...

Thank you for the information Kirk; of the photographers I follow through blogs, I like your approach to the basics instead of speaking about only one method or one product.

BTW, you've got me almost convinced to pick up one of the micro four thirds cameras! :)

David Coleman said...

Dammit, I was keeping the Metz 48's as my secret! Absolutely LOVE this flash versus the canon house brand. Honestly the 48 is easier to use than it's bigger brother the 58. Now there's gonna be a run on them. ;-p


neopavlik said...

As for your big battery lights conundrum :
checkout the Hensel Lithium 12 Porty. From the specs it weighs ~13 pounds with battery and cranks out 1200 W/S. The downside is that it is as expensive as the two units you'd be replacing.

I'm hoping to get that eventually.

kirk tuck said...


Even thought the field of photography is renowned these days for being awash in cash (tongue firmly in cheek) the new Lith Porty is too rich for my blood. I'll work with those barbells for a while first.

Kurt Shoens said...

More praise for the Softlighter II: it works with any light you have, it's also a convertible umbrella, and it's so easy to transport (lightweight and small folded up).

Two minor caveats, though. I have the thicker shaft one and you can unscrew most of the length when using the diffuser panel. That means you don't have an "eye poker" sticking out the back of the flash. Photek's site says the thinner shaft version won't do that.

Second thing is that it eats light. Compared to the Creative Light 150cm Octabox, the 60 inch Softlighter puts out maybe 2 stops less light at equivalent distance. Indoors, who cares? Outdoors that might be the difference between taking the 600b and the Ranger.

But if I could have only one, I'd take the Softlighter.

Ed Z said...

recently I've been absolutely in love with the elinchrom quadra - tiny little package, with big beautiful light. pairs up perfectly with the apollo softboxes and the PLM

mike wilson said...

Thanks, Kirk! This is an awesome list, and I've just added about $500 worth of photo gear to my Amazon Wishlist. My wife is going to kill me. Thanks... thanks a lot! :)