Lights or no Lights
OK so I'm interested in getting into portraits / fashion photography. As a hobby, not a profession.
I'm contemplating whether or not I should play with lights. There are many reasons for getting into strobes but sometimes I wonder if it is for me. Many of my favorite flickr photographs taken from others were done by hobbyists using available light. Most non-professional photographers use strobes badly, in my opinion but tastes may differ.
I look into my favorite fashion photographers: avedon, penn, demarchelier, etc. and their lights were more or less simple. I'm not an expert on lighting or portraiture but I believe that the former two used north window lighting and demarchelier is known for simple lighting. I can be wrong.
I'm interested in indoor and outdoor portraits so I'm wondering if there are any photographers that worked primarily with available light or simple monolight setups. I believe that Demarchelier's Pirelli calender was done all with available light. I'm interested in more examples like that if anyone knows any off-hand. I just want to see what can be done with available light before jumping deep into a monolight configuration.
Lights do take effort.
Lights are fun.
Lights give you control.
Here's a great place to start exploring flash. It can be done simply and inexpensively.
With flash, you control the light. The light is everything to a photo.
Kent in SD
Light choice also depends on what you're using for camera/lenses. if they have x-sync, then monolights are a good choice. If you have no X flash sync (such as pre-WWII LF, then hotlights or existing lights are your options)
If you want to take existing light as far as you can, get a reflector kit also. Lets say someone is side-lit at a window. you can use the reflector to vary the shadow strength, or the gauze layer to diffuse bright beams. Something like the 5-in-1 reflector from wescott. This is my most useful lighting accessory. It work indoors or out in any situation except high winds.
For doing what you can with two simple hot-lights, read Mortensen's "Pictorial Lighting". A good teacher and photographer. These skills translate to monolights as well.
I have monolights (old white lightning units) which are handy and do a good job, but I can't use them with my most ancient equipment. So I have some aluminum dish worklamps from the hardware store ($7-10) with CFL bulbs in them, and I have a couple LED panels ($35) from ebay that are sold as grow-lights. Monolights are great for lighting a whole group or a whole room because they make a lot of light, but I rarely have to do that. If you use strobes like monolights, you will also need either a flash meter or DSLR handy to determine proper exposure. You can't figure that stuff out in your head like GN from a regular shoe mounted flash.
There are tons of online "garage" lighting tutorials, demos, and build videos. Work lights, homemade diffusers, cheap LED banks, homebrew reflectors can all give surprisingly good results. Before jumping into monolights, do check out the strobist site but be aware it's not totally film-friendly. If you don't have one, a good light meter that's flash-capable is a must-have, especially if you're shooting film exclusively. Keep in mind that the "gods" you admire all had the world's best printers between them and the magazine/book pages, so what you see isn't necessarily what they shot, lighting-wise.
Lights are a lot of joy in portraiture, and can get you creative results not possible with just natural light plus reflectors. On the other hand, natural light portraits are equally beautiful, and can look, well, more natural. If you could, consider renting a 3-head set-up, for a key light, fill, and a hair/rim, and just have a go at seeing if it wows you or not in a day or two. Then you will know if you should buy them.
I started without lights, made my own reflectors. Used hot lights at Ohio Univ in Athens Oh. Learned strobes at a studio job and I'd have to say I had more fun with hot lights.
Learning how to use reflectors and GOBOs outside and inside gave me loads of good skills. Taking time to learn basic lighting like Loupe, Butterfly, Rembrandt, and others was well worth the time. I would start there. Even if you do go on to using hot lights or stobes, you will still need the reflectors and GOBOs you started with.
Some time in the future I would like to "trade up" from my studio strobes and go back to hot lights. I have been wanting to do 1030s Hollywood style portraits. Go for the glowing inner beauty images.