Choosing the right studio lights for your photography setup can be challenging, especially for beginners. In this guide, I’ll walk you through the key factors to consider when purchasing your first set of studio lights. While I can’t recommend a specific product since everyone’s needs and budgets vary, this should help you make a more informed decision.

Monolights vs. Separate Flash Heads

Studio flashes generally come in two types: monolights, which have a self-contained flash unit, and separate flash heads, where the controls are detached from the flash. Monolights are more popular due to their convenience and affordability, so I’ll focus on them here.

How Many Lights Do You Need?

Starting with one light and reflectors can be sufficient for many setups. Typically, four lights will cover your needs: a key light for the subject, a fill light to soften shadows, a hair light, and a background light. You can also use the hair and background lights as both background lights in high key photos.

Quality and Price

It’s tempting to buy cheaper lights, but remember that you often get what you pay for. Lower-priced flashes can have inconsistent color temperature and output with each use, resulting in more work during post-processing. More expensive lights tend to offer better reliability and consistency.

Light Power (Wattage)

Flash output is measured in watts per second (w/s) or Joules. For a home or small commercial studio, lights around 200w/s should suffice. Larger studios might require up to 400w/s or 500w/s, but rarely more. Excessively powerful lights in small spaces can lead to uncontrollable lighting issues.

Adjustable Power Levels

Ensure your lights can be adjusted to lower power levels when needed. Cheaper flashes may only adjust down to 1/8th of their rated power, while mid-range and high-end units can go as low as 1/32nd. This flexibility can be crucial for balancing indoor and outdoor light.

Flash Duration

Flash duration refers to how quickly the flash delivers light. For most portrait and still life photography, this isn’t a significant concern. However, if you’re photographing fast-moving subjects like dancers or children, look for units that deliver a shorter burst of light to freeze the action and avoid motion blur.

Recycle Time

Recycle time is the interval between each flash before it’s ready to fire again. Cheaper units usually take longer to recharge, which can cause delays when photographing dynamic scenes. Look for lights with a shorter recycle time, ideally less than 1.5 seconds at full power.

Accessory Mounts

Different flash units use various accessory mounts for softboxes and other attachments. The Bowens “S-Type” mount is a popular choice with many compatible accessories. Elinchrom also has its own mount, but with fewer compatible accessories.

Modeling Light

Most flash units include a modeling light to help you see how the flash will fall on your subject. Look for units that allow you to adjust the modeling light’s power in tandem with the flash output for greater control.

Flash Tube

Check if the flash tube is user-replaceable. If so, you can keep a spare on hand for easy replacement. Avoid touching the tube with your bare hands, as oils can shorten its lifespan.

Audible Alerts

Consider whether you want to be able to turn off the audible beep that signals when the flash is charged and ready to fire again. This can become annoying in a studio setting with multiple lights.

Triggering Options

All flash units have a sync cord socket for connecting to your camera. They may also include optical slave cells for triggering other lights, or wireless trigger options like Pocket Wizard. Look for a flash with flexible firing methods that suit your needs.


More expensive lights are generally more consistent in intensity and color balance, leading to less post-processing work. Research reviews or test the lights yourself to gauge their consistency.

Heat and Cooling

If you plan to use the lights for extended periods, check their duty cycle and cooling mechanisms to avoid overheating. This can be especially important in hot environments.

Miscellaneous Features

Some lights offer advanced features like battery packs for portable use or wireless remote control. Consider these options based on your shooting needs.


While your budget will play a role in your decision, aim to avoid the cheapest options available. Quality studio lights are an investment that can last many years. Consider your specific needs and prioritize features like power adjustment, accessory compatibility, and consistency to choose the right set of studio lights for you.