Let There Be Light

One of the biggest debates I encounter is big lights and low ISO vs. little lights and high-is ISO. Which is best and why?


First thing that you need to know; Big lights and low ISO came from the days of film when 50 ISO had the lowest grain count, but you needed powerful lights to get a high quality image. With the arrival of digital capture and the ever-growing sensitivity of DSLR sensors, high ISO capabilities, and impressive dynamic range the need for the old ways of photographing went out the door like film in the early 2000’s.


The next question I get is which do you use? Both! Although I mostly stick with small light because they’re easy to pack in my cases and take on a plane, but big lights are nice to use. 


When I’m lighting a scene most of the time the subject doesn’t need to be hit with a massive 5x8 softbox putting out tons of watt-seconds. In my time as a Photo Assistant we used little hotshoe flashes with radio slave and they did the job 99% of the time. When that wasn’t enough we used a Quantum T5 light that pushed serious power out in a handheld device. “ You only need this when you need to light up a big room.” He would say. And he was right.


“But when do you use big lights?” This is subjective. If I’m shooting a car then absolutely yes: tons of big bright lights, if a client wants them, or in some cases if you need to look slick.  To me most of the time big lights are just that, big, overkill, time consuming, and cumbersome. That’s why I prefer small lights. I try to be fast and efficient.


As always take what I say with a grain of salt. The photographic process is unique to everyone and in the end what matters is the image and not how you got there.