Studio flash systems offer endless creative possibilities for the keen portrait or still-life photographer. And DSLRs make it easier than ever to use them because you can experiment with the lighting and see the results immediately. Studio flash offers several advantages over portable flashguns: greater output, mains power (so no batteries), the ability to attach a huge range of modifiers to mould and sculpt the light as required, and to see the effect you’re going to get before shooting.
Of course studio flash won’t give you dedicated TTL exposure control – for that you’ll need a lightmeter. But it can be easy to work out the correct exposure using the LCD screen and the Histogram.
Don’t forget that you will need a camera with either a PC flash sync socket (the ideal) or at least a hotshoe so you can attach an adaptor or use a radio trigger.
Although you can achieve a lot with just one light, two will give you more options. Most manufacturers offer a selection of kit packages containing two or more heads and a range of accessories, often for less than the cost of a single top-of-the-range flashgun.
There’s a huge choice of brands and types of studio flash available, offering various levels of sophistication at different prices. We’ve picked five two-head kits for under £500 to find out which is best.
We also enlisted top studio photographer Jamie Harrison to give his verdict too. Jamie uses studio lighting every day, photographing models for a top hairdressing website and various glossy magazines, and in this test photographed model Daniela Finley from Mission Models to see how the lights fared.
What To Look For
Measured in Watt Seconds (W/s) or Joules, the higher the number the more powerful the flash. Most of the heads in this test are 200W/s.
How long the actual flash burst lasts. The shorter the duration, the more suitable the flash is for stopping high-speed subjects.
Power Level control
You don’t always want to use the flash at full power, but it’s useful to be able to reduce it steplessly, rather than in pre-set increments.
When you reduce the output, this eliminates the need to discharge the excess stored flash power before shooting.
How long you have to wait when the flash is fully discharged before it’s charged and ready to fire again.
A sensor that fires the flash it’s attached to when it detects another flash going off. You connect the camera to one head, and the slave triggers the other one. All the heads featured here have built-in slaves.
Wireless radio trigger
Uses a radio signal to fire the flash wirelessly, avoiding the need to use a sync lead to connect the camera to the flash.
The continuous light source that lets you see the effect of the lighting, before the flash lights the actual shot. There are different types of bulbs in use. With most heads the modelling light can be set to reduce in proportion to the flash output level, so you can see the relative brightness ratios of the lighting.
The flash tube produces the actual flash. With most units it’s user-replaceable, but with some it must be done at a service centre, which makes it more costly.
Bowens’s three-point bayonet mount for attaching dish reflectors, softboxes, etc., now adopted by many other brands including Lastolite and Lencarta.
When studio flash is used continuously for long periods it can get hot, especially the more powerful ones. Although less of an issue with 200W/s heads, it’s still a nice feature to have.
See the following pages for a comparison of five two-head flash kits for under £500.
Key Studio Flash Accessories
The most basic diffusion device spreads, softens and reflects light back onto the subject, and comes
in white, silver or gold surfaces. You can also get translucent ones to shoot through.
come in various sizes and produce more natural, window-like lighting,
and can simulate a daylight sky if used overhead.
Metal dishes that come in various depths and diameters for direct, usually hard lighting.
A narrow cone that channels the flash light to a narrow beam – ideal for hair, for example.
A grid that narrows the angle of the flash, somewhat like a snoot.
A rim with four hinged side flaps, like a cardboard box, which can be angled to control the spread of light.
need to be sturdy enough not to become unstable when large accessories
such as softboxes are fitted to the light. Some are air-damped or
spring-loaded so if you lose your grip while raising or lowering the
column the head’s fall will be cushioned, protecting it from damage.
Useful for changing the colour of the light, either for creative purposes or to convert daylight to, say, tungsten.
Budget Studio Flash – Conclusion
Budget studio flash kits – our conclusion
Not one of these flash kits is bad. The two leading pro brands, Bowens and Elinchrom, are unsurprisingly the most expensive for what you get, but build quality is high and after-sales service and support probably the best. If you’re looking at heavy-duty professional use these will be the safest bets. Of the two the Elinchrom kit is the better deal. The solid and well-specified Lastolite kit undercuts them both, however, and performed well. Its biggest problem is that if you’re looking to make savings the excellent Lencarta kit undercuts Lastolite by a good margin and is even more impressive. The Proline Creative kit is okay for the occasional home user who wants to shoot still life, but the initial outlay is among the highest and the heads aren’t in the same league as the competition.
In summary, if setting up a pro studio is your primary concern then the Elinchrom kit can offer the peace of mind that a pro brand with over 50 of years of experience brings to the table. For location shoots, albeit for considerably more cash, the Bowens kit is the only one specified for remote battery use. But as a hobbyist looking to save money then the outstanding Lencarta Smartflash kit is hard to beat.
– Apollo 300/300 kit £350
– Apollo 180/180 kit £250
– 2 Apollo 300 Heads
– 2 Halogen 75W Bulbs
– 2 Soft Boxes 50 x 70cm
– 2 Sync Leads
– 2 Power Cords
– 2 Light Stands
– 1 110cm White Umbrella
– 1 80cm Gold/Silver Reflector
– 1 Barn Door Set
– 1 Honeycomb & Gel Set
– 1 Snoot & Honeycomb
– 1 Lamp Reflector
– 1 Wireless Radio Trigger
– 1 Equipment Case
We Tested: Apollo 300/300 creative kit
The Proline flash heads are by far the smallest and most portable here, but also the most basic. In addition to the usual twin head kit options the Creative Kit includes pretty much every conceivable accessory that an amateur could want for a home studio, all in a sleek case. To add all these accessories to the other kits on test here would add several hundred pounds to their cost.
The black, rubberised heads are appealingly small but the build quality isn’t up to the standard of the others. The tilt joint is jerky and the plastic stand bracket cracked when we over-tightened the locking screw. The accessories are small and the snoot is plastic but all do what they’re supposed to. They attach to the head via a clamp system, like a watch bracelet. The kit comes with a wireless radio trigger but we couldn’t get it to work.
At a claimed 300W/s, the Apollo X300 head should be 50% more powerful than the 200W/s heads in this test, but in practice were about the same, and shot-to-shot output was not very consistent. Recycle times are the slowest too, taking about two to three seconds to recharge, and the modelling light is not proportional, only on or off.
The Proline Apollo X300 Creative Kit is ideal for hobbyists wanting to experiment with creative lighting and seeking a complete solution in a box. It’s especially suited to occasional still-life work, where all the accessories come into their own, and the slow recycle times are not an issue. Travelling photographers looking for the lightest possible studio flash kit should also look at the basic 300/300 kit. Otherwise, for more demanding uses such as portraiture, there are better options.
Our score: 82%
– SmartFlash twin softbox kit: £310
– SmartFlash 3 head 2 softbox kit: £400
– 2 SmartFlash 200 (200Ws) Flash Heads
– 2 Studio Light Stands
– 2 Umbrella Reflectors
– 1 White shoot-through Umbrella
– 1 Silver reflective Umbrella
– 1 4-channel Radio trigger/receiver
– 1 80cm 5-in-1 reflector
– 1 Carry bag for light stands
We Tested: SmartFlash twin brolly starter kit
From: www.lencarta.com or ww.photomart.co.uk
Lencarta was the big surprise of the group. At £270 it’s the cheapest kit here (though you don’t get any softboxes) yet the stylishly designed heads look and feel so much more expensive, despite being made from polycarbonate rather than metal (which has no bearing on the performance). Despite the price the specs are impressive – fan cooling, fast recycling and the fastest flash duration of the group (1/1800sec). The stands are the sturdiest of the bunch too and are spring-loaded to protect the head if dropped. You even get a radio trigger for the camera, though it was missing from our review kit so we couldn’t test it.
The back panel of the SmartFlash glows orange so you can see it’s on. The power ratio dial covers a four-stop range steplessly. Flash output was consistent during our test and the recycling time was quick, though the confirmation beep is so quiet you may not hear it in a noisy environment. In addition to Lencarta’s wide range of well-made accessories (14 softboxes alone, starting at £56 for the 40cm model) you can attach any S bayonet fit modifiers, such as those from Bowens.
The Lencarta Smartflash is a much better flash head than its price would lead you to believe. Well made, stylish, well-specified and with impeccable performance. You won’t find a better kit for under £300. If you prefer softboxes you can get the three-head, two-softbox kit instead for a remarkable £400.
Our score: 95% Gold Award
– Lumen8 F200 Twin Head Umbrella Kit: £320
– Lumen8 SV F400 Twin Head Umbrella Kit: £380
– 2 heads
– 2 softboxes (or umbrellas)
– 2 stands
– 2 cases
– 2 sync leads
We Tested: Lumen8 SV 400w Twin Head Softbox Kit
The Lastolite heads are the largest and heaviest here but feel well made if somewhat visually uninspiring. Still, it’s what’s inside that counts, and here Lastolite has delivered a well-specified product. The heads offer a generous five-stop power control range, marked in 1/10th stop increments and a fast flash duration up to 1/1700sec, making them better for moving subjects than many rivals.
The softboxes are fiddly to assemble but once up they’re sturdy, and pleasantly deep for effective, even diffusion. The stands are robust and air-damped, and there are two cases included, one for the heads and the other for everything else.
We were given the 400W/s F400 heads, as supplied with the softbox kit, rather than the 200W/s F200 heads, and as you’d expect they were a stop more powerful than all except the Bowens heads, which gave a similar output. Despite their size Lastolite was unable to find room for a cooling fan, relying instead on air vents and a thermal cut-out to prevent over-heating. It’s disappointing that the flash tube isn’t user-replaceable so if you break it you’ll have to send the whole unit away.
Lastolite provides a fairly high-specification kit that undercuts Bowens and Elinchrom and offers some advantages over both – such as faster flash durations and lower minimum power settings – but some disadvantages too, such as the non-user-replaceable tubes.
The heads are pretty hefty too so wouldn’t be the best choice for those who’d have to carry them around a lot. For the static studio, however, they’re a pretty safe bet.
Our score: 85% Recommended
– D-Lite it 2/4 Umbrella Kit: £470
– D-Lite it 4 Studio to Go: £560
– 2 D-Lite-it 2 heads
– 2 stands
– 2 40cm softboxes
– 1 Skyport ECO Wireless Transmitter
– 1 carry case
We Tested: D-Lite it 2 Studio to Go
Swiss company Elinchrom is one of the world’s leading pro studio flash brands. Its budget D-Lite range comes in two flavours: 200W/s and 400W/s. You can buy two head kits with either head or one of each, but the best value options are the Studio to Go kits which include two softboxes. The ‘it’ suffix stands for ‘Intelligent Transmitter’ because they feature wireless triggering from the camera.
This is the most expensive kit here in terms of initial cost, but you get two softboxes and a wireless transmitter so it’s good value. If you prefer, you can save £30 by getting the brolly kit, which has one 400W/s head.
Besides the Proline lights these are the second smallest and lightest lights in the group, but the build quality is much better. The heads are fan-cooled and come with integral dish reflectors as standard. There’s a digital display of the power setting and the controls are via push button pads, which is a bit more fiddly than a dial but probably less likely to fail. The Skyport ECO transmitter fits on the camera hotshoe (rather than dangling from the sync socket like the Proline one) and works like a charm. Accessories, such as the supplied softboxes, attach via Elinchrom’s two-point bayonet mount.
The aptly named D-Lites are a delight to use: consistent and the fastest to recharge of the group. The only negative is the relatively slow flash duration, which makes them less suitable for freezing moving subjects.
We liked the Elinchrom lights. Although they’re at the top end of the price scale you do at least get two softboxes, which is far preferable to the two brollies in the similarly priced Bowens kit, and you also get the excellent Skyport – making it a better value choice than the Bowens for those favouring the pro brands.
Our score: 90% Gold award
– 200/400 twin head brolly kit: £530
– 400/400 twin head brolly kit: £550
– 2 Gemini 200
– 2 90cm Silver/White Umbrella
– 2 120° Wide-Angle Umbrella Reflector
– 2 Stands
– 2 250W Modelling Lamp
– 1 Sync Lead
– 1 User Guide
– 1 Canvas Carry Bag
We Tested: 200/200 twin head brolly kit
Bowens has been one of the top pro studio flash brands for decades, and even though these Gemini lights are at the budget end of the company’s range they still reflect that heritage in their tough-as-nails build quality. The heads are well specified, with fast flash durations and recycle times, a four-stop output control notched in 1/10th stop increments, auto power dump and proportional modelling lamp. The accessories are equally tough and attach firmly via the S bayonet system, though you only get two dish reflectors and two brollies with the Gemini kits – softboxes are extra and cost from £140 each.
The Gemini kit is the only one in this group that can be powered by battery packs, making them truly portable, though even the small Travelpak costs around £500, so it’s not a cheap option.
For what you get, this is the most expensive kit here, but the money is invested in build quality. They were the most powerful 200W/s heads in the group, by almost a stop. That said, it was disappointing to note that the slave cells failed to react when the main light was set to less than half power even with the room lights turned off.
Nothwithstanding the slave issue, these lights are well made, powerful and consistent; they would be a good choice for pros and other heavyweight users, but it’s a wonder whether the hobbyist needs this level of engineering and whether those kits that contain a bigger selection of accessories would be a smarter choice.
Our score: 87% Recommended