What Are The Best Lights For Still Life & Product Photography?
Still life photography can be one of the most demanding in terms of gear. As a portrait photographer, you may covet some ludicrously expensive, gigantic modifier but generally speaking you can “get away” with far less. Unfortunately for still life photographers, that is not the case, you need quite a lot. Plus, if you want to get into more specialist areas, like high-speed photography, the price of your required strobes can skyrocket.
These days, there is a bounty of possibilities when it comes to strobes. In the interest of being succinct, I will not cover every light the market has to offer. Instead, I’m going to tell you exactly what features are important to still life photographers and give you my recommendations.
Considerations For Still Life Photographers
There are three to four essential things that every still life photographer needs to consider when selecting their lights.
- Color Consistency
- Power Consistency
- Remote Power Control
First and foremost is color consistency. If you’re photographing a product for e-commerce, re-producing artwork, or creating an advertising campaign for a well-known brand; color consistency is key. You’d be surprised to see the fluctuation that some lights can produce and the headache this can cause you in post. I’ve tested lights which have shown a 1000 Kelvin swing from shot to shot. Heck, even for portraits that’s pretty useless. For less color critical work I can deal with +/- 300k but ideally it would be closer to +/- 100k.
Our next consideration is power consistency. Again, I’ve tested lights that varied by over a stop between shots. To be fair, this was the same light, and it was in its “speed” mode but I was shocked, to say the least. Why is power consistency so important? There are two main reasons; compositing and focus stacking. Still life photographers will often take multiple images of the same product and then blend these together in Photoshop, aka compositing. This process is made far easier if the difference between your exposures is minimal.
Focus stacking is a very common technique in still life. It’s a relatively simple process in which you merge multiple photos to ensure your image is sharp from front to back. On certain occasions, it’s not necessary but with jewellery, for example, it’s an absolute requirement; your depth of field is far too narrow. When focus stacking, if your exposure alters too much between shots you’ll get a dodgy pattern on the stack and, most likely, have to do it again. Trust me, it’s annoying. I recommend Helicon Focus for focus stacking, check out my review here.
Hand in hand with power consistency, is the ability to modify your output in 1/10th stop increments. Some may ask “why can’t you just move the light? It’s true, you could make minor adjustments to power by altering the position of your light. But, and it’s a very big BUT, if you’ve spent 10 minutes getting your light positioned perfectly to illuminate just the right spot on a tiny ring, watch, perfume bottle, etc. you do not want to move it. In those situations, being able to adjust your strobe in 1/10th stop increments is invaluable.
Our final consideration which applies to the majority of still life photographers, is remote power control. This is not essential but given that most manufacturers offer it these days, I don’t see why one would select a light that does not have it. Without doubt, it is extremely useful. Imagine a complex set, multiple lights very close to one another, extension arms, scrims, card on flexible arms. In other words, a bit of a nightmare for a 6’2” bloke who needs to adjust a light buried deep within his set. Remote power control is a god send. – I’m still waiting for a joystick style lighting system which lets me sit at my desk and not have to get up, one can only dream.
Recommendation – The Basic Still Life Photography Light
For the photographer that needs all of the above, I’d recommend either the Bowens Gemini 500R or the Elinchrom BRX. If I was pushed, I’d recommend the Bowens over the Elinchrom as I hate the Elinchrom mount. Many large studios use Elinchrom lights and, from my experience, the mount is so fragile that speedrings often get bent and they can be a difficult to get on a and off. That said, the Skyport system is better than Bowens remote control system.
For a basic strobe, there is no point spending tons of money on the best out there. In a moment, I’ll cover when that is necessary and give some more suggestions. Elinchrom and Bowens both have newer models, the Bowens XMS and the Elinchrom ELC. However, I don’t see the benefit in spending an extra $500 per strobe when their existing strobes will work for most still life photographers. If you’d like to waste your cash then by all means do so, but there is lots more kit you’re going to need so it may be better to use your funds elsewhere.
Getting Serious | Flash Duration For Still Life Photographers
Right, this is where we get expensive. The final requirement for still life photography is flash duration. If you have no need for high-speed photography then you can ignore this section and go ahead and purchase one of the above lights. For photographers interested in the exciting realms of high-speed photography, read on.
For high-speed photography, we want a light which can produce a flash duration of at least 1/4000th of a second, ideally that would be achieved well before minimum power. Flash duration is how long a strobe takes to go from OFF > FULL POWER > HALF POWER (that’s called the t.05 time) or OFF > FULL POWER > 1/10th POWER (that’s called the t.1 time). For our purposes, we focus on t.1 times. Why? Imagine your 500w strobe is firing at full power, at half power it’s still putting out 250w and as such it’s still having a significant effect on the shot. At 1/10th power it’s only putting out 50w. When freezing motion, this is very important.
Recommendation – The Advanced Still Life Photography Light
Unfortunately, as this is such a specialist type of photography, strobes are expensive. A lot of manufacturers only quote t.05 times so before any of you comment saying “what about this or that”, find out what those times are. In addition, finding a light which has 1/10th stop adjustments, is consistent in both power and color, and has a fast flash duration is even harder.
With all this in mind, I have a couple recommendations. For the more budget conscious, I’d recommend the Profoto D2. I own this light and it’s fantastic, it ticks all the boxes. The only negative is it does have quite a large color shift in its speed mode, however, it remains very consistent shot to shot and hence that can be worked around. It costs about $500 more than the new Bowens and Elinchrom lights. There’s also the Broncolor Siros which are brilliant. You can see our review here.
Getting into the “I’ll never be able to afford this realm”, we have the Broncolor Scoro s (we’ll have a review of that very soon) and the Profoto Pro 10. I had the pleasure of using the Broncolor for a couple days but sadly have not had the chance to give the Profoto a whirl. In all honesty, I think that the Profoto D2 will be suitable for most things. The advantage to getting either one of these power packs is an increase in color stability while taking high speed shots, and more power.
Before we get a tirade of “what about Paul C Buff Einstein” comments, let me cover that. For those in the US, they are a great option, for everyone else I cannot, in all good conscience, recommend them. I owned a few for a brief period and had issues with two out of the four lights, and problems with the remote. The issues were so severe I would have had to send them back. If you live in the US that’s not a big deal, but for customers outside of the states you have to pay for returns postage and then pay import fees again when the lights come back. Granted you can get that fee refunded by customs but it’s a big annoyance. Bear in mind I’m in London and can’t speak for the import/export laws of every country.
If you need the features of these expensive strobes, still life photography is an expensive endeavor. If not, you can get away with some relatively affordable strobes. Believe me, you will always covet the more expensive versions, that’s human nature, but you can get by without. If, however, you are a still life photographer like me, then get the Profoto D2’s and be done with it.