Best budget studio lights: 8 tested
6th Feb 2012 | 16:18
We name the best home-studio lighting kit
Budget studio lights explained
When you want to shoot portrait photos indoors, what should you do about lighting?
On a bright day with big windows, ambient light might just suffice, but most of the time you'll be reaching for your flashgun. Yet no matter how good your bounce and swivel technique, or what fancy flashgun diffusers you have to hand, the results are always going to be second best.
It's time to step up to a proper home-studio flash kit. Many photographers shy away from the prospect, thinking studio flash will be complicated, fiddly and expensive. We beg to differ.
Some of the latest kits are amazingly simple to use, offer excellent versatility, and are almost infinitely more controllable than a flashgun (or multiple wirelessly linked flashguns) for creating beautiful lighting. And that is, naturally, the most important ingredient for great shots.
Better still, some of the complete studio kits on test here actually cost less than a single mid-range flashgun.
So what do you get for your money? At the heart of each kit on test is a pair of flash heads. Each head plugs directly into a mains electricity outlet and mounts on its own lighting stand.
The heads range in power from 150Ws (Watt-seconds) to 400Ws, the latter being preferable if you want to shoot family groups rather than individual portraits or relatively small still-life subjects.
The maximum height of the stands ranges from 1.9m to a giraffe-like 3.52m, but most top out at about 2.3m. That's plenty high enough for getting a respectable downward angle for portraiture, even when people are standing up.
The main advantage of studio flash compared with a flashgun is that you can get much softer, more natural-looking lighting. It all comes down to the size of the light source and its distance from the subject.
For example, the sun is huge but is 93 million miles away, whereas a flashgun is much closer but has a very small flash tube. Both give a hard light that's harsh, unflattering and can be downright ugly. By contrast, the business end of a studio flash head is larger, and its area is made bigger still by fitting a softbox or brolly.
Opinion is divided on which is best. Brollies take no time at all to put up, just like a regular umbrella. Most of the kits in this group that come with brollies have one or two translucent models. Also called 'shoot-through' brollies, these mount in front of the flash head and the flash fires through them, so the effective light source becomes the same size as the brolly itself.
Silver brollies work the other way around, in that they face away from the subject and light from the flash head is bounced back off the silvered surface. This tends to produce a slightly harder light, which works well for children with young, wrinkle-free skin.
The downside to brollies, especially shoot-through ones, is that the light fires out at all angles, bouncing off walls and ceilings, so it's more difficult to control.
A softbox has black sides so all the light is essentially forward-facing. They're much more time-consuming to put together than extending a brolly, but are a better bet when you want a more directional light source.
Flash heads contain not one but two bulbs. As well as the main flash tube, a secondary 'modelling lamp' gives you a preview of how the results will look.
In every kit here apart from the Proline Apollo 180/180 Twin Head Kit, you can set the modelling lamp to a 'proportional' setting. This means that as you increase or decrease the power of the flash tube, the modelling lamp varies in intensity accordingly. It's handy for getting a rough idea of how the end results will look.
Even so, it's not as critical as used to be the case with film photography, since you can simply take test shots and review them on your camera's LCD screen.
The same goes for exposure, where a reviewed image and histogram on the camera's LCD display help you to fine-tune exposure settings. A typical camera setting for studio flash shots is f/8 at 1/125 sec.
This hits the sweet spot of most lenses for optimum optical quality, while a shutter speed of 1/125 sec ensures that the shutter is open for long enough to accommodate a full-power flash, complete with any slight delay in triggering. You'll therefore usually set the brightness of the image by altering the power setting of the flash heads.
Precise, easily adjustable controls are a bonus.
Key studio light features
Look out for these key features when buying your budget studio lights:
The absence of a handle is hardly a deal-breaker but, where fitted, they do make for more secure carrying, especially with hot lamps, and lessen the likelihood of an expensive accident.
Modelling lamps in this group range from 50W to 250W. Higher wattage lamps give a brighter, clearer view, but will tend to run hotter. It's a good idea to buy a couple of spares.
The back of the head usually features all the available controls, as well as a photo-electric slave cell, for triggering one head from another without extra cables.
These generally have a bayonet-fit and are available in standard or wide-angle versions. They're not used when a softbox is fitted, which mounts on the head in the same way.
A sturdy clamp enables you to lock the flash head securely in position. There are normally splines on the joint to avoid the head slipping downwards during use.
Flash tubes don't last forever but are generally user-replaceable. This is the case with all flash heads in the group apart from those in the Lastolite Lumen8 SV 400w Twin Head Softbox Kit.
Using the bottom clip lock, you can splay the legs as far apart as possible. Position the front of the flash head directly over one of the legs to give maximum stability.
These should be robust and sturdy, so they can give plenty of support to flash heads even at their maximum height and with a large softbox attached.
Bowens Gemini 400/400 Twin Head Studio Kit
Bowens Gemini 400/400 Twin Head Studio Kit - £545
Not for the faint hearted, the Bowens Gemini 400/400 Twin Head Studio Kit comes in a single padded case and weighs in at 16.2kg. It's not too hard to lug around though, as the case features wheels on the bottom so you can pull it along.
The flash heads have a particularly robust, industrial feel to them. Like the Elinchrom D-Lite it 2/4 Two Head Umbrella Kit, the Elinchrom D-Lite 4it Studio To Go Two Head Kit and the Lastolite Lumen8 SV 400w Twin Head Softbox Kit, they have a 400Ws rating. But these have the highest maximum light output, at GN 76.
Helpfully, the rotary power adjustment knob is fitted on the side of the head rather than around the back. It gives continuous, stepless adjustment with nominal markings through a five-stop range.
Where other heads in the group feature modelling lamps of 100W or less, the Bowens has a bright 250W bulb, which you can set to full power, proportional or off. When reducing output power, there's an auto-dumping feature that eliminates the need to fire a test flash to dump additional power manually. For large adjustments, however, auto dumping is quite slow, so it's quicker to fire a test flash anyway.
A neat extra feature is that you can power the heads from an optional Bowens Travelpak battery unit, which plugs into a connector on the back panel. It's useful for location work where there's no mains supply, but comes at a hefty price of £500.
The two 90cm brollies supplied have clip-on covers so you can use each one as a silver or translucent brolly. However, switching between options is a fiddly chore.
Firing each flash head at 2m from a target through a translucent brolly gave an aperture range of f/3.6 to f/18 at ISO 100, when increasing power from 1 to 6 on the rotary control. That's pretty powerful, but the dial lacks the precision of some push-button systems, as seen on the Elinchrom D-Lite it 2/4 Two Head Umbrella Kit and the Elinchrom D-Lite 4it Studio To Go Two Head Kit heads.
Elinchrom D-Lite it 2/4 Two Head Umbrella Kit
Elinchrom D-Lite it 2/4 Two Head Umbrella Kit - £460
Uniquely in this group, the Elinchrom D-Lite it 2/4 Two Head Umbrella Kit has two heads of different power ratings. The 400Ws head is intended as the main light source, whereas the 200Ws head is more ideal for use as fill-flash, a hair light or for illuminating backgrounds. The Guide Numbers are 64 and 45 respectively.
Although the heads are of different powers, the control layout is identical. Everything in the kit is beautifully designed and built with Swiss precision. Simple push-buttons on the back of the head enable power to be increased or decreased over a five-stop range in 1/10th stop increments, and the LED display is easy to see in dark studio conditions.
The kit also contains two 83cm brollies; one silver, one translucent. They're very good quality, but a cheaper option than the softboxes included in the dearer Elinchrom D-Lite 4it Studio To Go Two Head Kit. A bonus of both kits is that wireless radio triggering is built into the heads and a hotshoe-mounting transmitter is part of the package. Everything's wrapped in two smart, slimline carry bags; one for the heads, the other for stands, brollies, and other bits and bobs.
Good for prolonged use, performance is enhanced by the fact that the heads are the only ones in this group to feature cooling fans, which kick in automatically when needed.
Colour temperature was consistent throughout the power range, and the push-button controls adjust flash power with precision. Throughout a series of shots, the output stayed consistent as well, so performance is pretty much flawless. Our only slight criticism is that the 200Ws head lacks oomph, needing f/10 for a correct exposure in our 2m translucent brolly test. On the plus side, it has a quick recycling time of just 0.6 seconds from full-power flash, and the 400Ws is pretty quick too, at 1.2 seconds.
Elinchrom D-Lite 4it Studio To Go Two Head Kit
Elinchrom D-Lite 4it Studio To Go Two Head Kit - £550
There's plenty of power on hand from this kit's two 400Ws heads, which have a GN of 64. As with the cheaper Elinchrom D-Lite it 2/4 Two Head Umbrella Kit, it's easy to set up even if you've never used studio flash. There's a good handbook, plus a video DVD guide that demonstrates lighting techniques for getting great results.
As well as two full-power heads, this kit includes a pair of excellent-quality 66cm softboxes, rather than the brollies supplied in the cheaper Elinchrom kit. Both kits include full wireless radio triggering and auto power dumping, plus auto-sensing cooling fans in the heads. Plus, unlike some of Elinchrom's previous softbox-based kits, this includes a reflector. It's handy when you want to use bare-bulb lighting for a harder light source, or for illuminating a background with one of the heads.
The softboxes are quick and easy to put together and deliver a lovely soft lighting effect, and they're more directional and controllable than brollies. The bayonet attachment is reassuringly rugged, and the whole kit feels like it's really built to last. Our only slight complaint is that Elinchrom uses a non-standard 7mm brolly shaft, so you have to buy own-brand brollies if you want to extend your kit. Even so, the price of a pair of 83cm silver and translucent brollies is quite reasonable, at £25.
Shooting through a translucent brolly positioned 2m from a target, we got an aperture range of f/4.5-16 in our tests. Impressively, the 1/10th stop push-button power controls were entirely accurate throughout testing.
As with the other Elinchrom kit, which features one of the same flash heads, power output was remarkably consistent throughout a long series of shots and colour temperature didn't change at all throughout the power range.
Interfit EX150 Mark II Home Studio Kit
Interfit EX150 Mark II Home Studio Kit, £220
Remarkably, this complete Interfit EX150 Mark II Home Studio Kit costs less than many a mid-range flashgun. Open the box and you'll find two 150Ws flash heads, light stands, two reflectors, a 60cm softbox, a 90cm translucent brolly and all the cables. However, you don't get a carrying bag, so the emphasis really is on 'Home Studio Kit', and there's also no handbook. The latter omission isn't too much of a problem because at least there's a video DVD guide to setting up and using the kit.
The flash heads are compact, but they're also basic. For example, the modelling lamp only has proportional and off settings, there's no auto power dumping facility, and you can't even turn off the audible recycle/ready beep. The lack of auto-dumping means you have to manually fire a test flash each time you reduce power in the head, or risk over-exposure.
The flash heads don't feel very robust and the light stands are a bit on the wobbly side, especially when extended to their maximum height. By contrast, the square softbox is well made and even features a secondary internal diffuser for super-soft lighting. The translucent brolly is of reasonable quality too.
With a power rating of just 150Ws and a GN of 32, these are the lowest-powered heads in the group. The calibration of the stepless rotary power control proved fairly accurate between 2-4 but power dropped off dramatically at the lower end of the scale.
Firing through the translucent brolly from 2m, each head gave a maximum power level equivalent to f/11 at ISO 100. At the lowest setting, the flash wasn't even strong enough to trigger our Sekonic flash meter. At least power was consistent throughout a long series of test shots. If you're after a super-cheap kit for occasional home use, this is worth considering.
Interfit EXD200 Home Studio Kit
Interfit EXD200 Home Studio Kit - £295
At £75 more than Interfit's EX150 kit, the Interfit EXD200 Home Studio Kit is still one of the cheapest options in the group, and has a lot more going for it. The upgrade from 150Ws to 200Ws heads might not sound very dramatic but, in our tests, maximum light output was much greater than the rating would suggest.
The flash heads are also much more sophisticated than Interfit's cheaper options. You get push-button power control in 1/10th stop increments, complete with an LED display, similar to the Elinchrom heads on test. The modelling lamp has proportional, free (manually adjustable) and off settings, and the annoying recycle beep can be switched off.
There's still no auto-dumping facility, but the head fires a test flash automatically when you reduce power, so you don't have to do it manually. For large reductions in power, this is actually a lot faster than waiting around for auto power dumping to do its thing.
The EXD200 heads also have a programmable slave mode, like that of the Elinchrom heads. You can use this to trigger the heads from a flashgun, in which case pre-flash pulses are ignored and the heads trigger at the right split-second for the actual exposure.
Other differences between the two Interfit kits are that this one includes a carrying bag, and features a handbook, but no DVD video guide. The good-quality softbox and brolly are the same in both cases, and so are the slightly rickety stands.
Recycling times from a full-power flash are pretty respectable, at 1.5 seconds, which is the same as with the lower-powered Interfit 150Ws heads. In this case, though, the EXD200 heads achieved a much more intense maximum light output, sufficient for an f/18 aperture when fired through a translucent brolly.
Lastolite Lumen8 SV 400W Twin Head Softbox Kit
Lastolite Lumen8 SV 400W Twin Head Softbox Kit - £455
This complete studio kit is based around a pair of robust, well-engineered 400Ws heads that sit on particularly sturdy stands. It's just as well, because the stands extend to a towering 3.52m, dwarfing everything else in the group. The stands are air-cushioned too, which is a nice touch.
At a GN of 60, the heads are a little down on maximum light output, compared with other 400Ws heads in the group. They also lack an auto-power dumping facility, but a test flash is fired automatically, as needed, when you reduce the power setting. The only downside is that the flash tubes are fired more often than necessary and, unfortunately, the Lastolite heads are the only ones in this group where the flash tubes are not user-replaceable.
The 66cm softboxes are of luxurious quality and feature a secondary internal diffuser panel. They produce a very soft, even light, but aren't ideal if you're in a hurry. They're fiddly and time-consuming to set up – the softboxes have their own illustrated assembly guide with no fewer than 30 individual steps.
On the plus side, a reflector is supplied for each head, so you don't have to buy these separately if you want to use bare-bulb flash or add brollies. As with all but the Elinchrom heads, they feature a standard 8mm brolly shaft.
The stepless rotary power dial enabled an aperture range of f/2.2-14 in our tests, firing each head from 2m using a translucent brolly. The calibration scale is only nominal, however, and proved quite inaccurate. The maximum power equivalence of f/14 is quite disappointing for a 400Ws head. In other respects, colour temperature and shot-to-shot power output is consistent throughout the power range and over long sequences of shots.
Photo Basics Strobelite 2-Light Educational Kit
Photo Basics Strobelite 2-Light Educational Kit - £350
Like both Elinchrom kits and the Interfit EX150, the Photo Basics Strobelite 2-Light Educational Kit includes an instructional DVD to help beginners get up and running. Indeed, the video runs for two hours, and the 'educational' aspects don't stop there.
The kit also includes a floor positioning mat and a floor mat guide card, to help you place the subjects and the flash heads in the right positions for various lighting effects. It's a bit like the studio photography equivalent of painting by numbers.
In other respects, the kit is rather lacking. The heads don't live up to their 300Ws potential, and lack auto-dumping. You have to manually fire a test flash every time you reduce the power setting. There's also no facility for turning off the recycle/ready beep. Power adjustment is via a stepless rotary control, which enables a nominal four-stop range.
The heads are quite compact and lightweight, but the light stands feel flimsy and only extend to a maximum height of 1.9m, which is the lowest in the group. The two translucent brollies are of reasonable quality, but we'd rather have one translucent and one silver to add versatility.
The Photo Basics heads gave less light output at their maximum power settings than either of the lower-rated Interfit heads. Shooting from 2m through a translucent brolly, the aperture range stretched from f/2.2 at minimum power to f/10 at its highest.
The calibration of the power dial was fairly accurate, but the consistency in flash output throughout a series of shots was disappointing. We experienced fluctuations of +/-0.3EV throughout sequences of shooting, with changes in light intensity occurring at random from one shot to the next. Overall, this is poor value, especially compared with the cheaper Interfit EXD200.
Proline Apollo 180/180 Twin Head Kit
Proline Apollo 180/180 Twin Head Kit - £265
The second cheapest kit in this group, at only £45 more than the Interfit EX150, the Proline outfit nevertheless comes in its own carry case complete with roller-wheels. But while the case looks smart, what's inside is a bit of a letdown.
The 180Ws heads are extremely small and disappointingly basic. The low-power 50W modelling lamp is an on/off affair that lacks a proportional setting, and there's no auto-dumping facility. Overall build quality feels a little on the cheap side, and the recycling/ready beep can't be switched off, which is frustrating.
The light stands are similarly flimsy, but at least you get a 50 x 70cm softbox as well as a 105cm translucent umbrella. The softbox is of rather better quality but, again, the umbrella has a fragile feel to it and our review sample soon started to come unravelled. The heads are designed in such a way that there's a small reflector built into the front end, but we still suffered a lot of light spill.
At its full power setting, each head enabled an aperture of f/11 in our standard test, firing through a translucent brolly, two metres from the target. The power is nominally adjustable through a four-stop range, although in our tests it was rather more than four stops, at f/1.1-1 1. Frustratingly, almost all of the power adjustment was in the final quarter of the knob's travel, at the maximum end of the range. This made fine adjustments in flash power difficult.
At full power, the recycle time is a sluggish three seconds, which is about twice other heads on test here, apart from the Photo Basics Strobelite 2-Light Educational Kit, which takes two seconds. Power output also varied somewhat between +/-0.2EV in our tests. The inconsistency wasn't quite as bad as with the Photo Basics heads, but still rather worse than all other heads in the group.
Verdict: best budget studio lights
Both of the Elinchrom kits in this testing group offer supreme sophistication and excellent build quality. They're also very easy to use, thanks to highly intuitive and versatile controls.
Of the two kits, the D-Lite 4it Studio To Go is the more appealing, because both flash heads are of the more powerful 400Ws variety. You also get a pair of high-quality 66cm softboxes, which are a step up from the translucent and silver 83cm brollies included in the cheaper D-Lite it 2/4 Two Head Umbrella Kit.
Both Elinchrom kits come with wireless radio trigger systems, auto-sensing cooling fans and video DVD guides, as well as quality carry cases.
Next on the list, it's a close call between the Bowens Gemini 400/400, Interfit EXD200 Home Studio and Lastolite Lumen8 SV 400W. The Bowens kit has impressively strong build quality and powerful maximum output, but the overall design and controls feel a little too utilitarian, especially considering the high asking price.
The Lastolite kit is quite similar in all respects, but is rather better value for money at nearly £100 less. However, the heads are a bit down on maximum light output for their 400Ws rating and the softboxes are annoyingly fiddly to assemble.
The Interfit EXD200 has refined controls and advanced slave modes, more akin to the Elinchrom kits. The heads also punch above their weight for light intensity, considering they're only rated at 200Ws. By comparison, the rest of the lighting kits on test look like also-rans.
An unbeatable combination of power, versatility and ease of use, the Elinchrom D-Lite 4it Studio To Go Two Head Kit boasts intuitive control panels and built-in wireless radio triggering. Every item is beautifully made. It's marginally the most expensive kit, but worth every penny.
For power, sophistication, quality and ease of use, the Elinchrom D-Lite 4it Studio To Go Two Head Kit delivers the perfect package.
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