Cinematic Photography Lights – A Start

This week we are discussing what lights are needed in order to create cinematic photographs. We should start by acknowledging that there are a number of photographers that work within the street photography genre that create a cinematic look to their photographs. They generally do this by finding street scenes with higher contrast between the light and shadows within the scene, isolated people that become their characters and then use focal point, composition and post production techniques to create a cinematic aesthetic. For these photographers, they need only their camera and computer to create a cinematic look to their imagery.

While street photography is a completely valid style of cinematic photography, our focus is on images that are created by the photographer from concept to final print or web presentation. For this purpose the equipment needed, beyond a camera and a computer (for post production work), is a balance between budget and creativity because while lots of fancy equipment is nice to have, it’s better to stay within your budget, avoid credit card debt and add equipment as the budget allows. If your budget is small then think about the equipment we will discuss through this and other posts, what that equipment is supposed to do and experiment with your own alternatives. We have seen some amazing photographs created with simple, sometimes home-made equipment, and so don’t let a small budget stop you from creating cinematic photographs.


Photography has a big advantage over movie production and that is in terms of the lights. Photographers have many more cost-effective choices than do movie cinematographers when it comes to the types, sizes and costs of the lights we use.

Continuous Lights: These are the lights used by cinematographers to create the light and shadows within a movie scene and they can also be used by photographers. There are a number of choices but the most often used continuous lights include (Note: I have provided links to BarnDoor Film & Video LightingB&H Photo and other equipment manufacturers and retailers throughout this post for readers to be able to see and read about various pieces of equipment but I have no affiliation with them and don’t receive any compensation from them in any way):

  1. Tungsten lights
  2. Fluorescent lights
  3. LED lights

I have used continuous lighting at times and have some of this equipment for video work but I wouldn’t recommend it for photographic purposes because it is expensive in comparison to strobes and flash. Continuous lighting is designed to provide a continuous, steady, color correct light that is always on. Photographers only need light to last as long as the camera’s shutter remains open (fractions of a second). Thus, continuous lighting is “over-kill” for photography. It’s fun to use, provides a clear “what you see is what you get” ease of use and so allows photographers to more easily compose an image and visualize the lighting because we can actually see the lighting as we go, but the higher cost is rarely worth it.


Gregory Beams, 2015, Technology’s Promises – (created with continuos lighting)

Strobe Lights: These lights are used by professional and serious amateur photographers to create all manner of photographs. There are a variety of brands, sizes, etc., that are available. Strobes are generally divided into two groups – mono-lights and pack & head units.

Mono-lights are self contained units that are plugged directly into a power source with the power and other adjustments made on the back of the mono-light. Pack & head units separate the light from the controller and the light then plugs into the pack or controller and the pack then plugs into a power source. Light and other adjustments are made at the pack unit. (Note: Pack’s are not batteries and so they still require a power source in order for the lights to work.) Don’t confuse a “pack” with a “battery unit or pack” that provides a mobile power source – they are definitely different and if your strobe lights don’t have power, they don’t work!


Paul C Buff – Monolight – Einstein 640 ws

Flash Lighting are self-contained battery powered units that don’t require an external power source. There are many brands, including the two big names in 35mm DSLR cameras, Cannon and Nikon, that are available. Many of the brands will provide TTL or “Through The Lens” flash capabilities. This is an automated flash function that takes the lighting control away from the photographer and gives it to the camera. Since this is the opposite of what cinematic photography is about, (i.e., the photographer should control everything about shaping the light) then buying flashes that have TTL capability isn’t necessary.


Lumopro LP180 Flash

The Costs of Lights

In order of their cost (highest $ to lowest $), the lights discussed above are:

  1. Continuous Lights $$$$$
  2. Strobe lights – pack & head $$$$
  3. Strobe lights – mono-lights $$$
  4. Flash lighting $$

How Much Light is the Question

For purposes of creating cinematic photographs we need light but which lights we need (strobe or flash) is a balance between the types of images we want to create and the equipment costs our budget will allow. The discussion below is in generalities and there are lots of exceptions to the guidelines I discuss below. Also, lighting can be a sensitive subject for photographers and cinematographers and so other photographers may have other opinions but the lighting discussed below has been my general experience. I have used and continue to use each of the lights discussed below when the scene & image call for it but I have acquired these lights over a long period of time. Also, we haven’t discussed how to “fire” these lights – which will require a trigger (wired or wireless) so that the lights “flash” when the camera’s shutter is open.

  • Flash: Generally are best in darker, more confined spaces where the flash is expected to be the primary light. Dark interior scenes that are more intimate in nature, with less movement (by the character or other image content) and daylight images with one or a very few characters/content in shadow. These types of images are best shot with flash. In terms of the light’s output – flash generally operates at a maximum output of 60 watt/sec. The light from a flash unit decreases from the maximum output to the minimum output in relatively small “steps” which provides the photographer with significant control over the amount of light being used. Using multiple flash units allows the photographer to use multiple lights to shape the character and the space within which he/she is placed. Strobe lights are often too powerful in these more intimate settings and can’t be adjusted low enough to create the lighting nuances as well as a flash unit can. Combine this with the fact that flash units are battery powered and so need no external power source and they become a very functional and effective lighting source. If the scene calls for more light than a single flash can provide then photographers can combine multiple flash units to increase the output but this starts to get challenging in terms of the number of flash units required and their costs.


  • Strobe lights – mono-lights: These lights are best for larger scenes with more distance needed between the character and the light (so as to keep the lighting equipment out of the picture frame). These lights are also good for brighter scenes, i.e., daylight, etc., where the scene will be dimmed through the camera settings and the mono-light then “lights” the character or other scene content. The cost of mono-lights is impacted significantly by their maximum output in terms of watt/sec. The more watt/sec the strobe can produce, the brighter the light and the higher the cost. Most mono-light strobes operate in the 400 watt/sec to 800 watt/sec range but there are higher and lower outputs. The Paul C Buff Einstein pictured above puts out a maximum 640 watt/sec (10-11 times the maximum output of the Lumopro flash unit pictured above). The Einstein costs about 3 times as much as the Lumopro and the Einstein requires a power source in order to work. As noted above, strobe lights can only be turned down to a minimum output in set “steps” and so if the photographer doesn’t need the higher brightness, and is working at the lower end of the mono-light’s output, then the extra power is actually getting in the way of controlling the light.


  • Strobe lights – pack & head: These lights are best for large areas where the light won’t be close to the subject or other image content, for brighter natural scenes such as daylight scenes where the light needs to overpower the sun and allow the sun to become the fill light and the strobe light to be the primary light, etc. Pack & head units are typically more powerful than mono-lights (but this is not always the case and some pack & head units operate in the same watt/sec ranges as the mono-lights discussed above) and can provide brightness in the 1,000 to 5,000 watt/sec range. There are operating benefits of a pack & head system but the real reason to use them is because they allow the photographer to generate a brighter light.


Before you invest in any lights make sure and do your homework. Like many other photographers I use Paul C Buff’s strobe light equipment because I have found it to be well made and priced fairly when compared to other equipment available in the market. For flash units, I use the Lumopro LP180 pictured above. I have found it to be a solid piece of equipment without unnecessary add-ons that I don’t need or use. There is lots of “cheap” equipment available on eBay and other sites that have the same watt/sec ratings and features as the equipment discussed above but they generally are NOT very good lights. The color of the light may shift as the light gets used, may not be consistent between units, etc., and they generally don’t last for very long before they get damaged or stop of their own accord. I would recommend buying fewer better lights rather than buying more cheaper lights. Also, I have purchased a good amount of used lighting and camera equipment over the years and while you need to do your homework on the seller, the age of the equipment, etc., some of this has turned out to be my favorite equipment to use.

We’ll talk more about lighting equipment in the future.

As always, this has been

Only My Two Cents,

Gregory Beams


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