This post is also available in: Dutch
Cameras and glass. You can buy them cheap, or you can spend a lot, buying the most expensive lenses and camera bodies. Several times a week I receive questions from students and other interested photographers about what to buy when making studio portraits.
Those inquiries are just a few, a small selection. But most of the time it’s about quality, details and colors. People who are looking for the best glass and best camera to use in studio situations, to produce the sharpest portraits to share on social media like I do.
Because of all those questions, I decided to make an article about how to take sharp portraits in studio setting, with studio lights. Surprise: you can do it too, with a cheap DSLR (or other camera with flash connection) and a cheap lens (85mm or longer for tight portraits).
The amount of detail visible in my photos on the web doesn’t depend on the used camera or glass or on the points stated above, but on the quality of light. And in this article I’ll explain a little bit about it, including a special graph.
There are a lot of different studio flash systems on the market. Some of them cheap, some of them more expensive. But what’s the difference? Is it only a label like “Made in China“, or is it more? Why do some photographers invest in expensive studio flashes, while cheaper ones are sometimes even as powerful? To me, four reasons:
In this article I’m talking about the first point: flash durations. In 2006 I started with some simple studio lights, a cheap Chinese brand. The brand was and is sold everywhere in the Dutch photo stores. And, I even see them getting used in the supermarket while a lady is photographing babies and children in her portable photo studio on location. It always gives me a smile on my face, knowing that she’s also doing the most beautiful job I know of. 😉
But there was a problem. In studio I was doing my best to focus on the eyes, but now and then some photos were not that sharp on 100% zoom. Together with the model I always had to make a first quick selection, to eliminate the unsharp ones. And not only that, but after some months of doing portrait work on daily basis I wanted to do more with timing and movement. I wanted to capture the model at the moment I wanted, while she was turning around with wind through her hair and movement all over. No matter how hard I tried, taking a sharp picture on 100% zoom was virtually impossible.
I learned it was because of the quality of my studio flashes. Every studio flash emits a flash burst. That flash burst illuminates the subject. Usually, cheap studio flashes have a long flash duration: the flash burst illuminates the subject for a rather long time. More expensive or higher quality studio flashes are designed differently: they have a mechanism to deliver a flash pulse with a very short duration.
When working in the studio with a moving model (and yes, every living subject moves, more or less) it’s only possible to make 100% sharp pictures of the model with a very short flash duration. A very short flash duration freezes the movement of the subject and the movement of the photographer, delivering a stunning detailed image, shot after shot. This is the secret of delivering tack sharp portraits to clients. And yes, this way in studio setting you can take sharp pictures with a cheap kit lens and a cheap entry level camera too. After upgrading my studio lights to the Swiss Elinchrom brand all of my work is tack sharp, no matter what.
But how do you know the quality of your lights? The flash durations? Often, it’s not stated in the technical specifications or in the user manual, especially while using cheap ones. Previously, the common way was connecting a light sensitive transistor circuit to a scope and doing the math.
But as of 2017 things have changed: Sekonic released the L-858D Speedmaster light meter with built-in flash duration measurement mode. Now it’s possible for everyone to measure their studio lights and seeing the flash duration directly on screen, without doing any calculations.
For the first time I was able to do own extensive measurements of all of my Elinchrom lights in my own studio. In this article I will share them with you, in a beautiful handy interactive graph, a flash duration chart.
The flash durations differ a lot. They depend on power level settings, room temperature, flash tube temperature and quality of the used gas in the flash tube.
In the Elinchrom Flash Duration chart you see the ELC 500 and the ELC 1000. Both of them are high quality studio flashes, with a short flash duration to deliver a stunning amount of detail and to freeze every movement. I also measured the ELB 400 with the HS head, the Pro head and the Action head connected to it. And I also measured the same heads on the previous unit, the Quadra Hybrid. This way I could see if there were huge differences in flash durations between those units.
I learned quite a few things:
In the studio I always set the shutter speed of my camera to the X-Sync value as stated in the user manual. This is the shortest shutter speed I’m able to use in the studio if I want to capture the flashes perfectly, while having as little ambient light as possible in the image (actually: none).
In the studio I freeze motion with an ultra short flash duration (preferably shorter than 1/1000 of a second).
When working outside in the sun, things are different. Then the ambient light is so vivid, I need to use shorter shutter speeds in combination with a flash with long flash durations: there the HS head comes to play, and then I freeze the motion with the high shutter speed (ultra short camera exposure time, preferably shorter than 1/1000 of a second). But that’s enough to talk about in another future article, back to studio non-HS photography for now.
Below you see a chart with some graphs. You can switch them on and off and you can hover with your cursor to make the actual measured point values visible.
The room temperature was a solid 21ºC and the duration between every measured flash was about 12 seconds on average. I measured the flash duration on every 1/10 stop of my Elinchrom power settings. I turned off the modeling lights, to ensure the lowest temperature possible. The ELB 400 and the Quadra were connected to the battery and the charger while testing.
On each power level of each flash, I did 3 measurements, then I took the average of those 3 measurements. This way I was able to eliminate most of the tolerance and variance because of the temperatures.
Although I have made the graphs responsive and the layout too, I recommend you to view them on a computer screen. This way you can enlarge them really big, the checkboxes will fit and you’ll see the results in a glance. Or, click HERE for a quick & dirty screenshot.
This chart can make your life easier, while working in the studio. Now you know why it’s better to choose power setting 3.6 on the ELC 1000 for sharpness, in stead of for example 3.7.
So, if you want to buy new studio lights, choose wisely. Aim for a short flash duration on a rather high power level (that’s why I love Elinchrom) and don’t buy the cheapest flashes if you want to capture detail in studio setting. You can look in the user manual or technical specifications for flash durations, or measure them with the Sekonic L-858D.
Be careful though: you’ll also see terms as t0.5 and maybe t0.1. The value of t0.5 is usually about 3 times faster (shorter flash duration) than the t0.1 value. At the t0.5 time, the flash pulse has dropped down to 50% of its peak. At t0.1, the flash has dropped 90% from its peak. Essentially, they are giving you a feel for the shape of the back slope of the pulse. But that’s enough stuff to talk about… in another article.