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.