Relentless Shopping is the Human Condition in the new Century...
I could make so many smart choices, when it comes to photography equipment (and stocks, and clients, and hairstyles, and diet, and exercise), if I could just hop into a time machine and go back twenty or thirty years while retaining everything I've learned over those decades...
Let's start with studio electronic flash. I learned on big, heavy Calumet units that sat on the floor and had piggy back turbochargers that seemed destined to destroy themselves in a dramatic sound and light show with much drama and danger involved. This was ancient technology, complete with heavy transformers and, I would estimate they actually generated about as much power as a couple of bigger hot shoe flashes today.
After I quit teaching and could no longer depend on the University to buy and (routinely and frequently) service the aging Calumet behemoths I had to make some purchases with my own money; which, for a photographer entering the commercial market for the first time, was a very scary experience --- financially. Hubris seems to cover most technical missteps at a certain age.
Many of the more experienced photographers I knew here in Austin used Speedotron Black Line electronic flash units and another cohort used Norman's. A few daring and really cheapskate operators took a chance and used the Novatron brand of flash. The cheapest flash system out of China would have been like a Lexus in comparison to the Yugo-Like quality of the Novatron flashes. They were truly dreadful. I know, I owned one.
The reality back in the days of film was that there were no Chinese "innovations" (knock-offs, copies) from which to choose. No monolights priced affordably and, with the exception of the unglamorous Novatrons, no pack-and-head systems that were priced in line for entry level users. Maybe that's why so few amateurs maintained home "studios."
Everything has changed. We have an embarrassment of lighting riches and, frankly, I'm shocked that some of the premium brands from our past are still surviving, given the performance and pricing of many, many newcomers. If you still need 2,000 to 4,000 watt seconds through one or two heads your choices are quite limited. You'll no doubt be looking at Speedotron (4800 W/S = $2900; box only, no heads), Profoto (anybody up for the 2400 W/S, two head outlet Pro-10 Air TTL pack? It'll set you back $14,990 and heads are $2,560 each...), Of course there is always Elinchrom or Broncolor (a bargain if you get their "Senso" kit; 2400 W/S and two heads for a bit less than $7000).
These all kind of made sense back when I was shooting with a Linhof Technika, a 360mm f5.6 @ f22 or f32 and a film holder with sheets of ISO 64 color transparency film. Now? With clean ISO at 800, 1200, 3200, even 6400? Lunacy. Craziness. Most just specialty gear. I can't imagine dropping that kind of money on electronic flash for use only in the vicinity of a convenient wall socket. Especially for the way clients want to use images now.
So if Ben, my kid, came and asked me about starting a photography or imaging business (God forbid!!!) right now how would I instruct him in his choices for lighting instruments? What makes sense for someone with a meager budget who is just starting out?
There are four different lighting needs that my business has these days. The first is lighting in the studio. There are sometimes when you just have to use flash and it's great if you can plug your lights into a wall socket and run them all day long. I don't need a lot of power, in fact, 400 watt seconds per instrument is about the most I'd ever need. But I do want good, strong modeling lights. I'd look to a well known Chinese brand like Godox. They have a nice 400 watt second monolight called an SK400 ii with all the power and control real studio workers need. It's fan cooled so it's probably a bit more reliable and it comes with a 150 watt modeling light. That's what I miss when I use battery powered flashes in the studio; a modeling light that's bright enough to focus by and can be left on all day long. This light, with reflector costs about as much as a power cord for a Profoto flash = $139. You can buy three of them for less than $500. This would mean you are set for studio lighting and can now concentrate on finding the right modifiers for your work. The Bowens style mounting ring means your ultra-cheap (but highly presentable) strobes will work with just about every front mounted accessory made. You win.
If you want to leave the studio and do fashion work or commercial work outside and you occasionally need to battle with the sun you'll need one or two lights that can bring the photons while running off batteries. I used to have an 18 pound battery pack with a built in converter for my outdoor flash stuff but that was a super pain in the neck. Too heavy to carry and too heavy to ship. It also made for an ungainly package. When makers started coming out with flashes that had big, built in lithium battery packs I was very happy. I found some by Neewer that I bought over a year ago. They traveled with me on 26 flights last year. They got in and out of rental cars all year long and they even saw duty in a snow storm. They are only 300 watt seconds, which is right on the edge of keeping up with sunlight but at $175 each for a monolight with full controls and an LED modeling light they are a bargain and a good traveling companion. Put two of them into one umbrella and you can even conquer direct, Texas sun.
Beat the hell out of my battery+converter or my 18 pound, $2700 Elinchrom Ranger RX AS system...
A good, two light location kit for less than $500 with soft boxes and stands? Pretty much perfect for the kind or production work one does as a singleton operator on remote locations. Too many more lights and you won't be able to make weight limits on airlines or be able to drag them up a hillside on your own steam. I've used smaller, speed lights but I need to bundle them to get the levels I want in a lot of situations. Speedlights have their own reason to exist. The best equalizer for direct sun is enough power and also a diffusion grip to fly in between the sun and the subject. Scrims help to pull down the exposure a bit and control the contrast and to make clients happier. (Neewer Vision 4 monolight).
Sure, you could drag the Godox SK 400ii flashes out into the field but you'll need a big battery pack and an inverter to run them. Either that or a generator. And you only have to haul a gasoline generator somewhere in your car or SUV one time to enjoy that gas smell for the rest of your car's life.... Plus they are loud, heavy, fussy and so not "portable" in the sense that we understand portability in 2019.
Just get a couple of battery powered units and bask in the joy of having the right stuff for the projects at hand. A pricier by equally proficient solution is the Godox AD200. It's a bit less powerful than the Neewer but you can easily pop two of them into a soft box or umbrella to get the power you need. Smaller to pack. Easy to use. And just a bit more than my ephemeral and fictive $500 budget per light type need.
If you are the type of photographer I seem to have become you'll need one more different kind of electronic flash device. You'll need a dedicated TTL flash that fits into your camera's hot shoe and can be used to shoot event photographs in big, dark ballrooms, small meeting rooms, portraits on factory floors and all those times when you just need a bit of sparkle in someone's eyes and a light touch of fill light in bright but contrasty situations. Just a speed light. I'd get two. Exact matches. The same controls.
I've had my fill of $600 flashes from the manufacturers of cameras. They are almost uniformly underpowered, slower to recycle, quick to overheat and expensive to buy. My last Sony flash tipped the scale at nearly $600. That's now outrageous. Just silly.
I've since been buying much less expensive flashes. I bought a Godox V860ii F for about $170 from a vendor on Amazon.com. It has a large, proprietary, lithium battery that is purported to supply over 400 full power flashes (never checked as that's too many to count...), it has full TTL control with Fuji cameras and also has HSS. I also bought the Godox XT-1 F trigger that allows for convenient off camera use of the flash. How do I use this stuff? I put the flash on my camera, go to galas, corporate meetings, social events and fun stuff and blaze away with the flash set to TTL -2/3rds stop. I sometimes use a white bounce card to soften the light but sometimes I'm just mean and use it bare. I generally put a daylight to tungsten conversion filter on the front of the flash if I'm working a space that's lit with tungsten and the "drag" the shutter to balance between flash and ambient light. It works great if the colors match. I also use any powerful, shoe mount flash for exterior portraits if we're working at night or in cloudy, overcast weather. In those situations even a small, white umbrella doesn't suck up so much power than I'm unable to balance between ambient and flash. It's a nice way to work. HSS also allows one to work at larger apertures outdoors. But when push comes to shove I'm always ready to use a more powerful flash and a neutral density filter on the lens......
If you get a couple of the V860ii's for your system you'll spend about $400. Much less that in "the good old days."
My final lighting suggestion is for photographers who've selected the correct answer to the question: "Should I also offer video services?"
I started shooting video when we lit just about everything with tungsten lights. It was a dreadful time of hot rooms, burned hands, triggered smoke alarms and heavy electrical power use. I could hardly wait to try out LEDs. I liked them so much that I wrote a book about them that was published back in 2012. You can learn more about it here:
It's the first (and only) book I know of that was all about LED lighting for photographers. In the ensuing years I've played with so many different LED light devices that it would boggle the mind. I've owned LitePanels, Fiilex, Lowell, Aputure, Fotodiox, and Godox lights. The most practical of all the light sources for still photographers who want to do video have got to be the latest Godox SL60W units I've been buying lately. They are a loose copy of the Aputure 120D lights but with a bit less power and a bit less build quality. They do have several strengths though. First of all they are available at a fluctuating price range of between $135 and $160 dollars, depending on who you source them from. This compares very favorably with the $650 price of an Aputure unit. The Aputure 120D does give you the option to use the lights in the field with professional Sony V-Mount batteries or Anton Bauer batteries but it adds a bunch of accessory complexity with a power brick, a control brick and two extra sets of cables.
While you can only use the Godox SL60W with an A/C power source you get a modern and efficient appliance that has one power cord, directly connected. With either the Aputure 120D or the Godox SL60 W you get the benefit of a small but powerful light source that lives inside a Bowens speed ring mount. Instead of modifying with a panel on a separate light stand you can put a soft box, umbrella or other modifier that works with a speed ring directly on the unit and go to town. No second stand necessary. That is a huge plus for a singleton operator who, at times, has to carry his own luggage. In conjunction with the current crop of cameras (all capable of great image quality at ISO 800 to 1600 and beyond) you'll have more than enough power for just about any interior video project short of stage work.
The Godox SL60W has all the good specs. CRI is 95+, TCLI is high and red values are strikingly better than previous generations. I've purchased two and am using them both on interior locations all over the place. These are my basic suggestions for any photographer starting out in a commercial field. There will always be outlier projects that will require specialty tools but the lights I've talked about here will most likely get you through 90% of the paying projects that you come across in the first five to ten years of your career. If you stumble into a project that requires super high flash power it's easier than ever to rent the gear you need for a project. The same in video. Nearly every major city has a gear rental facility jammed full of powerful HMIs, Kino Flos, and big tungsten lights for those times when you need to light up the entire town square. And believe me, you don't want to own all those specialty lights that are used once or twice a year; not when you can bill the rental of such units back to your clients.
That's all I've got for you now. I'd write about light stands but I think that might put most people to sleep. Shoot more, you'll get better quicker.