THIS POST WAS UPDATED ON MAY 28TH, 2020
You have a ton of options for artificial lighting these days, more than ever before. There are the very expensive pro, high end lights for $1000’s of dollars, all the way down to a $20 softbox kit that’s not worth the cardboard box it’s shipped in. So how do you know what to get?
The other confusing thing is that different countries have now outlawed some of our options. They try to do their part with our environment, and companies come up with ways of saving energy, of course this will affect our choices in artificial light for photography.
PLEASE NOTE: You do need to have an understanding of white balance with artificial lights. See this posts for information on white balance and color temperature and see this post about camera white balance settings.
SOME OF THE LINKS ARE MY AMAZON AFFILIATE LINKS. I WILL MAKE A SMALL COMMISSION AT NO COST TO YOU IF YOU PURCHASE THROUGH MY LINK. THIS HELPS TO KEEP THIS BLOG FREE.
Each of the lights I am discussing are bulbs that you would normally use with a softbox, like this to the left, or in a light housing with a reflector. The softbox diffuses the light source – sometimes not enough, and you need to diffuse further by adding diffusion gels to it, but you get the idea. This is the Westcott uLite kit and I talk about one similar to it in other posts.
This kit uses incandescent light bulbs – not flashes. The bulbs simply screw into the light socket and each light has to be plugged in separately.
I’m going to discuss all the options you have for artificial light bulbs, tell you my favorites, and some pros and cons of each one. There are a ton of options for each kind so if you do see other options, feel free to leave a comment to ask me about it.
1. Incandescent Light Bulbs/Photo Globes (Tungsten Filament Lights)
During the days of film, tungsten bulbs were extremely popular. Though they are still heavily used in the movie industry now, still photography in countries outside the US is moving away from the photo incandescent light bulbs, because they are an energy waster.
Many countries have banned incandescent light bulbs altogether. In the US, the specialty photo globes are still allowed, and still popular. They are very bright bulbs that are 250 watts, 300 watts, 500 watts, 650 watts, 1000 watts, all the way up to 24,000 watts – no joke. Oh yeah, that bulb, the 24,000 watt bulb, that’s about $4000.
I personally still like using my tungsten lights when I can.
They have a white balance of 3200-3400 Kelvin.
Please note: I am specifically speaking about photo globes here made for photography – not the common 60watt household bulb.
Pros Of Tungsten Incandescent Light Bulbs:
- The lower wattage photo bulbs that we use in cheaper softboxes made for still photography – 300 – 500 watts are very inexpensive, $3-$6.
- Incandescent photo light bulbs have a very clean light, meaning there is no green tint in the light. I love tungsten light. It’s a very pretty light.
- Easy to purchase in the US.
- The photo bulbs are much brighter than LED’s (with the same fitting) and CFL’s, so you only need one bulb in your softbox to get 500 watts compared to 4 or 5 LED’s, or CFL’s to get the same brightness. This statement seems to be causing some confusion for some readers so I want to make sure I’m being clear here. I am NOT comparing a house hold tungsten bulb that is only 60 watts. I am comparing the bigger photography bulbs pictured above to LED’s with the same household fitting.
- Tungsten is a very clean light, rarely will the Color Rendering Index (see below) be a problem with white balance.
Cons Of Incandescent Light Bulbs:
- They are also called Hot Lights, because they are incredibly hot when used due to the high wattage.
- You must use them in a soft box that can handle these bulbs. Do not use them in a homemade box made out of foam core, and tissue paper – it will catch on fire!
- The amount of energy they use VS the amount of light they emit is extremely inefficient.
- They do not last very long at all. In fact, some bulbs say they last a total of 50-60 hours – but that is a bunch of malarkey.
- The higher wattage bulbs are very expensive – a 1000w bulb can be $30-$50, and barely last 20 hours.
- Several countries have outlawed these bulbs because of how inefficient they are, including the specialty photo bulbs.
- They are very delicate, and the filaments can get damaged easily in shipping.
- These lights have a WB from 3000-3400 so you can’t mix them with daylight, unless you gel them.
- You can not touch the high wattage bulbs with bare hands at all because the oil from your hand can actually make some bulbs pop.
2. CFL – Compact Fluorescent Lights
CFL’s are fairly new to the scene in our photo world because of the ban on incandescent lights. There are all kinds of CFL’s, with all kinds of prices, and I’ve been researching these bulbs to figure them out. I have several issues with these lights that I will share in the “Cons” section below.
You have to do your research with these lights, and you CANNOT buy the cheapest ones you find. This light shown to the left is made by Westcott and is one of the good ones. Not all Westcott bulbs are the same however – so read the reviews!
What Is The CRI Rating?
There is a very important rating for lighting these days. It’s called CRI – Color Rendering Index. To put it simply, CRI tells you how clean your light is. How accurately that light source is at rendering all the colors. The range goes from 0 – 100. This bulb above has a CRI of 91, which is great for a CFL. Do not use lights with a CRI less than 90.
Here’s what that all means. Any light source has two different values to consider, the color temperature, and the tint. These two measurements make our white balance. The color temperature is measured in Kelvin on a scale, and that scale represents the color of light that goes from yellow/orange to blue. That scale goes from 1000k to 10,000k in most cameras, but we commonly use lights that go from 2700k – 6500k.
The tint however, is a value that goes from magenta to green with the color of our light. THIS IS EXTREMELY IMPORTANT. Without getting too technical here – the CRI basically tells us how green a light will be.
Cheap CFL AND LED Bulbs Are Green In Color
So, the cheap CFL bulbs have a low CRI, so low that the manufacturer won’t even tell you what it is. When you read the light coming from their bulb with a color meter, then you can see how much green the bulb is adding to the light that it is emitting. This is obviously a huge problem because a company that is using marketing jargon, calling their bulb a “full spectrum” bulb, would be implying that their bulb renders colors well, but it actually has a low CRI, like 80 for example, and the light has a huge green tint to it. This green tint makes it very difficult to color correct, and should never be called a “full spectrum”, or “pure white” bulb.
These bulbs come in a variety of color temperature options ranging from 3000K up to 6500K.
Here is an example of a cheap CFL that is totally bullsh!tting what they say about it. Do not buy these cheap LimoStudio bulbs. It’s saying it’s a daylight bulb with “Full Spectrum”, then it says in the details that it is “Daylight Balanced Pure White”. This is WRONG. Totally false advertising.
Yes, it might have a WB of 6500, but with a tint of 29 points green (according to my light color meter). I’m sorry, but that is not “pure white light”. 29 points green is a HUGE problem!!! I have two of these, as they came with the cheap crappy softbox I tested.
The entire point of using a daylight bulb is that you can mix it with real daylight if you need to. If the damn thing is green, guess what?? You can’t mix it with daylight because daylight is clean light and will never be green. It just pisses me off all this false advertising.
Ok, technically you CAN mix it with daylight, ONLY if you put magenta color correction gels on the light, and in order for you to know how many gels it needs, you need to have the $1600 color meter.
I go on Amazon and I ask these import companies what their CRI is on their bulbs, and they NEVER answer my questions because they don’t want anyone to know how bad they are, or they just don’t know. I’ve also been flat out lied to about the CRI, got the light, tested it and sure enough the CRI was 82 – not 95 like promissed.
FOR ANYONE PHOTOGRAPHING FABRICS OR GARMENTS: The CRI will be your most important specification with any light you are using. You will NOT be able to get accurate colors on your fabrics if you are using a cheap CFL or a cheap LED that has low CRI’s.
CFL Lights Are Toxic
There’s another huge issue I have with these lights. All CFL’s contain mercury – yep mercury! You know, that extremely toxic heavy metal that can do all sorts of damage to your body. If you break a CFL bulb, you just ingested some airborne mercury powder. Oh they tell you that it’s no big deal because it’s a small amount. That’s fine if you have never come across mercury in your entire life, ever. But I’m sorry, that’s just not the case. We have mercury in our water, the air (if you’re in a big city), in our tuna fish, the list goes on. So this adds up over time. I know this because I had mercury poisoning a few years ago. It’s not a good time. Enough said.
Pros Of CFL Bulbs (Not Much)
- They last a long time – seriously, I was told by Westcott (you can call them and ask any questions btw) that their CFL bulbs last 8,000 hours. So you could, in theory leave the light on all year long, every day.
- They do not get hot – which is really nice.
Cons Of CFL Bulbs
- They contain mercury, and breaking them is a major hazmat clean up situation.
- Some countries have outlawed putting CFL bulbs in the trash. You have to dispose of it as if it is hazardous waste – because it actually is.
- The bulbs that have a high CRI are very expensive – $40 to $50 each.
- They do not emit a lot of light at all. You need several CFL’s to equal 1 incandescent photo light bulb of 500 watts.
- They are huge, so not all softboxes are appropriate for those bulbs. If you are not using a heavy duty light stand, your softbox can easily tip over if you are using four bulbs in one head.
- The cheap CFL’s have a major green tint to them, which really makes them useless.
- It seems the higher the wattage (brighter), the lower the CRI.
#3A LED Bulbs – The Current Winner/Favorite When I’m Not Using Strobes
As of this update, these bulbs to the left are available on Amazon for $32 for the set and are made by Torchstar.
For my EU friends, I found this for you – the brand is Green And Co. They have an LED with a CRI of 90+.
LED’s also do not get very hot when they are on, so that’s great. However, it is very hard finding higher wattage LED’s with a high CRI.
LED’s also come in a wide variety of color temperature options from about 3000 – 6500K.
So what I suggest to do is instead of using the CFL’s, get four of these LED bulbs with this 4 socket adapter (or equivalent), for your softbox. There are many brands that make these, so don’t get the cheapest one and try to find one that is UL listed, or approved in the US, or the equivalent in your country.
This one is made by the LimoStudio Korean import company that I am not a fan of, however this one product IS UL approved – or so they say. I’ve been using them, and they seem to be fine. Just know, I never leave lights plugged in after I use them anyway, just for safety.
Now there are a few LED high CRI lights that are like a flood light, meaning they are very directional so I do not recommend those for the softboxes as they would require a ton of diffusion material so I’m not mentioning those here.
Pros of LED Bulbs
- Very affordable compared to CFL’s – Six LED’s are $32 – Four CFL’s with high CRI start at $160.
- They last an extremely long time.
- They do not get hot when used.
- Very small, compact, and lightweight.
- The good brands do not contain mercury or lead.
- Very efficient, and use very little energy.
- You can get different white balance bulbs for your needs.
- You can get LED’s with a CRI as high as 95 for very clean light.
Cons of LED Bulbs
- The highest wattage I have found with a normal household medium screw base, and a high CRI, is 17W (100W incandescent equivalent). So you have to use at least 4 bulbs in your softbox to get near the output of 1 high wattage tungsten photo globe.
#3B LED Panel Lights – Bi-Color
It is shocking how many different panel lights you can find now. There are panel lights for $20 and panel lights for $1000’s of dollars. These LED lights have the same concerns as the bulbs listed above with CRI – Color Rendering Index.
If you are scanning this post, please look at light #2 above, and see my description of CRI. The cheap lights will be very green, and can’t be mixed with other lights. The lights with a higher CRI, are a lot more expensive.
Pictured above are the lights that I use for video. They are made by Dracast and have a CRI of 95 with only 2 points green, according to my color meter. At the time of writing this, they are under $200 each. They are smaller – at 10×10 inches.
What I love about this light is that it is Bi-Color. This means it has a dial on the back that will let you change your color temperature from a warmer 2700k, up to daylight 6000k, and anything in between.
There are less expensive options that only have one color temperature and that can be anywhere from 3200K to 6500K.
When I am mixing this light with daylight or tungsten light, I use my color meter to measure the ambient light, then I dial that into the Dracast light to match. This light also has a dimmer dial for controlling brightness.
This light source is a pretty harsh light source, if you don’t diffuse the crap out of it. Even if you use the thin diffusion filter that comes with it, and if you want to use these for food photography, you’ll need to use several diffusion gels on this light to soften it, which is what I do.
You should also get barn doors for this light, so that you can control the spill of light. Be careful when looking for these on Amazon – several sellers are selling these without the barn doors.
Also, be warned of the cheaper Asian lights claiming they have a high CRI – they are completely lying about it. They know that most people buying these are not validating their color temperature, and CRI claims with a color meter, like I am. So if the thing is $20, it’s a green light.
#4 Strobe Lights / Speedlites / Speedlights
Strobe lights are in a category all their own. I have to include them though, as they are artificial lights. They are always daylight balanced. For some reason, many bloggers are not calling these artificial lights. Any light that is not the sun, is artificial.
Also, to clarify. Canon calls their strobe lights, “speedlites”. Nikon calls their version “speedlights”. Let’s just confuse everyone, shall we? I grew up using Canon, so I always called them Speedlites.
There are several different kinds of strobes, and this will be its own blog post later on, but for now, here they are.
Speedlites, strobes, monolights, are always daylight balanced but can vary from 5000k to 6500K.
1. Speedlites, like the one on the left, are the smallest strobes. They take batteries, or can be plugged into their own little battery pack. They can be used off camera, and with devices called slaves to make them talk to other speedlites, and talk to the camera.
As you can see by how small the speedlite is, it’s limited in how much light it can put out when you start putting it into softboxes, and other light modifiers.
There’s all kinds of extra accessories for these lights, like big battery packs, so you can take them anywhere. You need to use light modifiers for these as well, as the bare head strobe has very harsh, direct light.
The image to the left is of a small monolight made by Godox that is only 400 watts. So again, like the speedlites, you are very limited in power with monolights.
These lights are great for smaller shots and are nice for doing restaurant shoots. Many new photographers like to start with these smaller lights to learn strobes, then move up to the bigger lights. More wattage = more cashola.
A popular brand of monolights is called Alien Bees. Alien Bees have several strobe options going from 160w, up to to 1320 watts, with prices from $225-$550.
3. Strobe heads with strobe packs. For my commercial ad work, I mostly use large strobes. I use strobes to emulate daylight, and that’s the trick. It’s something I specialize in.
In the image above you can see two large strobe heads, and they are plugged into those large black boxes. Those black boxes are the power packs. Each of those packs is rated at 4800 watts. I bounce light all the time off my studio walls, and you need a massive amount of power to do that, AND to have enough light to shoot an image at F/16, or 22, which is what most of the ad work requires, everything in focus.
I will also use strobe heads inside softboxes, and other modifiers.
So, you can see how the little monolights just don’t have enough power for what is needed when shooting images where everything needs to be in focus, in the kind of set up I am using above. All that for a little burrito!
With using professional studio strobes, you have hundreds of accessory options for strobe head attachments, light modifiers, all kinds of fun stuff to choose from. However, they all come with a steep price. The more power you need, the more money you have to spend to get that.
Using strobe lights is very different from any light source because you are working in stops of light. You measure the light coming out of the head in F-stops, so it’s confusing for folks when they are first learning this. And you have to sync your camera’s shutter speed to the strobes. You must also use a light meter (pictured left), to measure the light coming out of the strobe heads.
I will get more into the details of how to use strobes in another post.
So, there you have it, all our artificial lights that we have to choose from for photography.
Would you like a free guide with more details about artificial lighting? Click the image below:
For more information about food photography, please see my other Food Photography Ebooks.