Choosing a lighting system and why I’ve switched brands!
This is an old post but I have included it as it explains my thought process from when I switched lighting system and has useful information that is worth considering if you are looking at new lighting system.
I was an Elinchrom user for 16 years of my professional career and for the most part I’d been very happy with the capabilities of the system. I’ve taken some great pictures with them and back in the days of film they were perfectly good lights for the job. Yes I’ve had to rent other equipment on specific occasions because Elinchrom didn’t have the right kit, but at the time I always felt that it was better to rent rather than going through the rigmarole of switching my entire system and all the accessories for a new brand. This same dilemma would face many pro photographers considering a switch, so I’m going to tell you my story and views on choosing the right lighting system and hopefully this could make it easier for you!
OK so lets go back over a decade and look at when I first started with Elinchrom lighting. At that time I would say they had a pretty comprehensive range of lights and accessories for the day, plus a great range of softboxes that still hold their own even today. Back then I was using a couple of Elinchrom 101 power packs, where you controlled the light power from the pack, plus I also had a couple of mono-lights where you control the power from the light itself.
I always liked working with power packs because you had all the controls at your fingertips, (which meant less walking around your studio!) and usually power packs had more oomph in terms of output than mono-lights. On the downside my packs were what’s known as ‘symmetric’, which means if you adjusted the power on the pack it adjusted the power of all the lights plugged into the pack by that same amount.
My first studio many years ago when I still had hair!
Other brands were soon bringing out packs with more features and more importantly the ability to vary the power independently of every light plugged into the pack (asymmetric) rather than having to control the power of all the lights evenly (symmetric). Elinchrom didn’t update their pack to true asymmetric until the release of the 3000 digital AS power pack and by this time I had already made the decision to move to mono heads so that I would have 1200 joules of power from each light and could then balance the lights however I liked. But working with mono heads isn’t without its drawbacks… Often you have to get high up on a ladder to change the power or to switch off a modeling lamp or even check the power setting, and if you are working in a cluttered studio this can be more of a problem than it sounds!
As the years went on I moved to the RX mono heads as these had wireless remote control options that allowed me to control the power from a remote control, but even this had limitations because you couldn’t always see the power setting or turn a light off and to be honest the sync speed connection was intermittent at best!
RX 1200 MONOLIGHT
Over the years as my photography work advanced and became more creative I found that I needed more consistent colour temperature and exposure level of light because often with digital capture on a product shoot you needed to combine several different images together. If each image is not exposed exactly the same in terms of light and colour balance then it makes merging those shots in Photoshop far more difficult and in some cases almost impossible!
However my biggest problems were two key things, firstly I was unable to ‘freeze’ fast moving stuff as perfectly as I would have liked and secondly the choice of modifiers (the accessories that shape the light) in the Elinchrom range were becoming limited for many pro level projects and certainly not as extensive as their competitors. Again I found a workaround by configuring lots of Canon speedlites together for short flash durations, or making my own modifiers or by renting specialist gear that would do the job. But why did I never really consider just buying an alternative system? It was as if the whole time I had subconsciously decided that it was better to find a work-around rather than switch brands? Maybe it always just felt like it was going to be too much trouble to switch when all my cupboards were full of accessories and familiarity?
Then came the crunch…. our forthcoming fashion shoot in Iceland. For this shoot I was going to need 3 things, great lighting modifiers that were suited to fashion work. Exceptionally brief flash durations to freeze the models movements and finally portability, because we going to be working in remote locations. So I started to consider my options, was it worth trying to find a workaround again, or rent some better-suited gear, or finally make the decision to switch brands and start working with the equipment I needed for my work going forward?
Creating a workaround wasn’t really an option this time as there were just too many things that could go wrong! Renting was a good option but it always ends with having to give the gear back! So I started to think more seriously about investing in a new system. Two of the brands I had rented in the past were Profoto and broncolor, both were premium brands worth considering for my Iceland shoot. I was already impressed with the capabilities of the broncolor parabolic reflectors but I knew the Para’s could be fitted with adaptors to hold Profoto or broncolor heads (and other brands). So I thought the best option would be to thoroughly test both companies’ battery packs for location work and also take a good look at their overall systems before making a final decision. (you can see my previously posted test review video on the battery pack systems below).
After testing (see the video above) I knew the broncolor Move packs were the right ones for the Iceland shoot, but these alone were not going to be the answer to my ongoing commercial studio work. As well as Profoto gear I had also previously used a broncolor Scorro pack for their fast flash durations (the shot below is one example, this flash duration is about 1/15,000thof a second which is what’s needed to keep all of the movement in this image sharp).
SUPER FAST DURATIONS WITH THE BRONCOLOR SCORRO
So should I rent or buy? I still had my reservations, I knew broncolor and Profoto were good gear but surely too expensive to switch my entire system to a new lighting range!? Subconsciously I just kept considering being already tied to a system with all my modifiers and accessories! But then I began to think more pragmatically about it and I wondered why I was stalling so much on price, especially when this is how I make my living, and especially when I didn’t consider price that much when buying cameras or lenses? Surely the quality of light and what you can do with it is more important than even cameras!
Checking what I could rent, I mentioned my dilemma to Chris Burfoot from broncolor UK and from that conversation I was fortunate to be offered a factory visit to broncolor in Switzerland to properly view their whole range. During this trip I was also able to spend some time in the broncolor studio with Urs Recher a top photographer who works for broncolor in training and product development. It was during this visit that I realized just how little I actually knew about their range and what it could actually do for me! (see the factory visit video below). So finally I accepted that while Elinchrom had served me well for over a decade it just didn’t do what I needed anymore and if I wanted to move forwards I had to switch.
After closer inspection and from my tests the Profoto range just didn’t tick the boxes for me (and bizarrely much of their range was more expensive than broncolor). With my work varying between product photography, people and fashion, broncolor was becoming the most obvious choice.
So what are the key factors a pro photographer needs to consider when choosing the right lighting system for their business and what tipped the balance for me? Well let’s first look at what you need to ask yourself.
What sort of photography do you want to be shooting in 5 years from now?
How many lights do you really need?
How much location work do you think you will shoot?
What budget can you actually stretch to?
Are cameras and lenses more important than light?
What can you do with the light?
Question number one is probably the most important because as a pro it’s not always about what you are shooting now but what you want to be shooting in the future. And if you are ever going to be shooting what you aspire to be photographing then you may not be able to do it with out practice using the right tools for the job.
Question number two might be oversimplified but what you should consider is that you may be able to work with just 3 lights and a small selection of modifiers for 80% of your work and then rent the extra equipment when you need it. That way you may be able to more easily afford entering into the system you really want rather than making a compromise!
Question number three should be simple to answer. Do you need to work outside? For example if you shoot fashion will any of it be on location? If you shoot family portraits, could you win more business by finding some idyllic outdoor locations to shoot at? But consider your kit requirements carefully because money spent on portable location equipment could have been saved and spent on studio equipment if you are only shooting products in a studio!
Question four asks how much can you afford. As with any business your tools are your assets, you and your tools are what make you money. The more your tools are capable of then the more potential you have to develop your business. So when considering the price of one brand against the other you need to carefully consider all five questions before opting for something that isn’t going to meet your demands in the future.
Question five is closely linked to question four. Often as photographers we get too hung up on having a collection of lenses and camera bodies that might be beyond what we actually need (I know because I’ve got lenses that are rarely used) and if you can’t light an object the way a client wants then it really doesn’t matter what camera or lenses you have! Also consider if you are starting a new studio that every £100 or even £1000 spent on décor, sofas, chairs, computers might not be as initially important as taking pictures with the most creative lighting.
Question six is really about how you can manipulate and modify light. Let’s face it, light is light, right?… Wrong! Light has to be consistent and colour accurate, but most importantly you need to have a range of modifiers that can tame, shape and control the light to suit the type of photography you aspire to. It’s also worth considering if some of the modifiers in the system your considering can take the lights you are already using because this could mean you could make the switch in a two stage process to help spread the costs.
THIS LOT WOULD BE NICE!
So what tipped the balance for me? Well I asked myself the same 6 questions and also realized a couple of other points along the way… Here are my answers to those same six questions.
In the last couple of years I’ve started shooting more technical and experimental images with flying liquids or paint and to achieve these I’ve either had to rent or find a workaround. Going forwards I wanted to shoot more of these images and combine them with fashion. I wanted to concentrate on the photography and not worry about a wireless trigger not working properly or poor syncs. So following my own tests I found the broncolor Scorro packs and the broncolor Move Packs right for my work.
I needed 6 lights as a minimum but I found the broncolor picolites so useful for product photography that I opted for a couple of these too and I could plug them into the Scorro or the Move packs.
I do a lot of location work, everything from business portraits, tourism, and fashion. The broncolor Move kit was not only an excellent tool it was also competitively priced especially with some of the kit options available.
How much could I afford? I always consider this question from a business perspective. How much can these tools help further my business in the future? Then I work out a budget or finance plan to achieve this.
Are cameras and lenses more important? No they are not. Light can achieve more than your camera. You can have the best camera in the world but without good lighting it’s worthless. I’m not saying you should sell your camera to buy the very best lights, because clearly you still need a camera. But as a pro photographer carefully weigh up which one is going to work the hardest for the type of work you shoot.
What can you do with the light? Light is only as good as you can shape it and make it work for you. I already knew how to create lots of looks with light but I just hadn’t realized how some systems had a solution for almost every type of scenario that could help you achieve it more quickly rather than trying to create workarounds.
Plus I also realized that I could actually sell a lot of what I didn’t need anymore or even keep some of it for background lights or less important fill lighting. I’d also found adapters that allowed my Rotalux to take broncolor heads or could even get my local metal workshop to refit some of my large Elinchrom softboxes to take my new broncolor lights! (although I decided against that in the end). Conversely my new broncolor Para 88s are very much a multi-function modifier that can work as a beauty dish, an umbrella, a hard light, a softer light, a wide reflector or even a medium sized softbox with the optional front diffuser. So with that in mind you might find you can actually spend less on accessories if certain modifiers are more versatile across a range of lighting scenarios.
That’s why after more than 10 years, I’ve decided to finally switch to a system that meets my needs going forwards and for the type of work I want to shoot in the next 5 years. But don’t dismay if your current budget only allows you to consider an entry-level system. I’ve taken hundreds of spectacular shots with Elinchrom, rented gear, or even my own home made solutions.
Now I’ve moved to broncolor I aim to create even more spectacular images and although you might want to consider much of what I’ve said, remember the most important thing is action! Your ideas and actions are what makes pictures, not sitting around contemplating equipment options! I’ve made good pictures using just desk lamps…so what are you waiting for?!!