Choose Affordable Lights for Studio-Style Dog Portraits - dummies

Choose Affordable Lights for Studio-Style Dog Portraits

By Kim Rodgers, Sarah Sypniewski

Studio lights come in two varieties: hot lights, which are akin to really strong light bulbs and stay on continuously, and strobes, which use flash tubes to create powerful bursts of light. For dog photography, strobes are the way to go.

As you’d expect from their name, hot lights get very warm very quickly — not exactly ideal for a dog, unless you want photos of a panting Penelope. Most dogs don’t even notice that powerful flash of light.

The downside to studio-style lighting is cost. Yes, you will need special lights if you plan to continue shooting this way, but you can find ways to keep costs down. The most affordable option is to simply use your external flash unit (you know, the one that snaps into your digital SLR’s hot shoe) as an off-camera flash.

Just purchase a light stand to hold your external flash unit, an umbrella to bounce your flash into (or a softbox to shoot through), and a radio transceiver and receiver designed to work with your camera and flash, such as a PocketWizard.

You may not even need a radio trigger; some digital SLRs can trigger an off-camera external flash unit on their own. This is called using your external flash as a slave flash.

The slave flash fires when it senses any other flash going off — in this case, another external flash unit connected to your hot shoe or your digital SLR’s built-in flash if it’s capable of commander mode, a special setting that allows it to act as a master flash.

Just keep in mind that the slave flash fires within milliseconds of any flash firing, so if you suddenly find yourself in a room with multiple photographers, all of whom are using flashes, your slave flash will be triggered by their flashes, too (this may seem like superfluous information now, but it won’t be when you become a famous “pup”arazzo).

Also note that your external flash unit has a limited amount of power and may take awhile to recycle (that is, you may have to wait for the flash unit to fully recharge before you can take your next photo).

Regardless of the limitations, using your external flash unit as an off-camera flash is a great way to experiment with a studio-style setup before deciding whether to buy more powerful strobes.

If you fall in love with the look of your studio-style portraits and decide you want a more powerful external lighting system, you have two options: a monolight setup or a power pack setup, both of which are used with a wireless transceiver/receiver setup like the PocketWizard.

Monolights are self-contained lighting systems, meaning they have a small capacitor (the place where all that energy is stored) built right into the flash head that provides the power needed for the flash to fire. All you have to do is plug each monolight directly into an outlet.

Monolights are compact and affordable (starting at about $200 for a new AlienBees flash unit) but are limited in the amount of power they provide.

Conversely, a power pack setup includes a separate capacitor that all the flash heads plug into. The power pack itself then plugs into an outlet. Power pack lighting systems provide more flexibility and power than monolights but generally cost more money (starting at about $1,000 for a new two-head lighting system from Speedotron).

The good news is you don’t have to buy a new power pack lighting system; these systems have a long life span and can last decades, so look for a used one.

Decide what you’re looking for and do an Internet search for “how to set up a Craigslist alert” to find out how to have an e-mail automatically sent to you every time a post containing your desired words (for instance, “Speedotron,” “AlienBees,” or “monolight”) appears on your local Craigslist site.

Always be mindful of just how powerful studio lighting equipment is and practice safe handling techniques to avoid any accidents. Never connect or disconnect your flash heads when the power is on. Never replace flash tubes or modeling bulbs when the flash heads are plugged in, and never touch the bulbs with your bare hands.

Not only are they hot after use, but the oils from your skin can shorten the bulb’s life and cause it to eventually explode! Also, never attempt to make repairs to your monolight or power pack; these are high voltage systems that can cause serious injury if you attempt to open them up. Familiarize yourself with your equipment’s operating instructions.

If you purchased your equipment used, you can usually download the user manual from the manufacturer’s website.