Wex Guide to Lighting Options: Continuous Lighting

Part 3: Continuous Lighting

Our third lighting option has really expanded as new technologies have been developed and tungsten, fluorescent and halogen are the three main light sources in this category. Each have slightly different characteristics and within those groups the choice for the photographer seems enormous.

Let’s start at the beginning and try to make sense of what’s what. Continuous lighting, as the name suggests, refers to a light source that remains on all the time. The most basic light source in the category being tungsten is still one of the less expensive options. Tungsten refers to the type of screw in lamp used and can be up to 500w in power. It’s worth mentioning that the lamps used, still have the prefix ‘ES’ that denotes their Edison Screw fitting, showing how old the technology really is.

Tungsten Lighting

Tungsten lighting is wonderful to use as it gives a warmer output, usually around 3200K (daylight is about 5600K) that produces very beautiful skin tones and shadows. Many of the photographic greats used tungsten light to shoot superb studio portraits well before the invention of studio flash in the late 60’s.

The company Interfit have always produced very high quality tungsten lighting, available in either single heads or in kit form and will be a very good starting point for the photographer looking to buy for the first time. Kits come in similar formats comprising of two heads, two stands, brollies (or soft boxes) and mains leads that pack away neatly into a kit case. The benefits of tungsten lighting, as I said, has to be the slightly warmer tones that make it an ideal tool for portrait lighting. Accessories can be added, as most heads are the standard ‘S’ type accessory fitting.

The Interfit EZ Lite Tungsten Kit


The output of tungsten 500w lamps can be quite low despite their size, especially if it’s diffused through brollies or soft boxes, so be prepared to shoot with slightly larger apertures and slower shutter speeds. You can use filters to convert 3200K to daylight 5600K, although you will lose a stop or two in the process but with most digital SLR’s now the Auto White balance setting will overcome this.

You can buy Tungsten Halogen heads that are rated at 5800K and Hedler make a pro range of single heads and kits. Unlike the basic tungsten versions, the Hedler halogen heads hark back to the early studio type lighting of the 30’s and 40’s. They can produce a wonderful Hollywood type effect using barn doors that restrict the output, making them great fun to work with. The lamps burn incredibly brightly and will last for up to 6000 hours if treated with respect and are available in outputs ranging from 150w to 1250w.

The slight drawback of using tungsten lighting is the heat that the lamps generate. They can get quite hot and so using accessories like snoots, grids and honeycombs is out of the question as they can affect the life of the lamp.  It’s also worth mentioning that moving tungsten heads when the lamps are still hot can also damage the filaments, so its best to let them cool off before packing them away. It’s worth protecting those 500w lamps, as the average life is around 20 to 30 hours.

Who would buy a tungsten kit?

The basic 500w kits are ideal for the photographer who doesn't want to spend a fortune on lighting equipment but would still like to shoot portraiture and still life on a smaller scale.

What are the benefits?

The key benefit has to be ease of use and cost, making tungsten a very popular option and a good two head kit, like the Interfit Stellar X Two Head Umbrella Kit, only costs around £230.

What are the drawbacks?

I've mentioned the drawbacks, heat is the main one, and not being able to shoot Low Key work is the other, unless you use tungsten halogen. But, shooting with tungsten really can produce wonderful work, especially shot in black and white that will bring out the very best from this medium.

Fluorescent lighting

Fluorescent lighting is a much newer technology and now makes up a large share of the continuous market and there are plenty of models to choose from. The key to these lights is the type of lamp used, as they do vary in power and K rating.  The lamps used are basically straight fluorescent tubes, twisted into a tight, circular shape and have a standard ES fitting, and like the tungsten lamp they simply screw into the head.

Most heads use a number of individual lamps to achieve a high output and the Interfit Super Coolite 9 is a good example that uses 9 x 32w fluorescent lamps. These low powered lamps will give the equivalent of 1150w in tungsten lighting, so you can see the advantages. The other key advantages of fluorescent lighting is that they generate little or no heat and they use long life lamps, often rated at up to 7000 hours of use.

The Interfit INT220 Super Coolite 9 MKII fluorescent head


The output from fluorescents is similar to that of LED’s, and gives a pure, very intense, even light source which is ideal for web or product work. Most heads have large metal reflectors with soft silver linings that give a good spread of light.  Some manufacturers like Bowens offer shower cap type diffusers that fit over their reflectors to soften the light making them much more suitable for portraiture.

Paterson make fluorescent kits designed for product or portraiture that offer a mix of umbrella and soft box configurations. These larger soft boxes will be ideal to shoot products and people, but because the accessories are square or oblong, you won’t get circular catch lights in the eye. You know I’m a purest by now, but if you want to shoot people, go for round reflectors if you can.

There’s not really much more to say about fluorescent lighting, so to sum up this group I would make these points. Fluorescent offers the photographer a pure, intense light source that gives a good even coverage. Different lamp options are available, but I would stick with 5600K daylight as you can leave your camera on auto white balance. Don’t forget that using higher rated lamps above 6000K will give more of a blue cast.

Who would buy fluorescent?

Fluorescent is at its best shooting small and large products, it’s a joy to use. It’s also ideal to shoot High Key work, especially with circular reflectors. So it would appeal to corporate buyers, enthusiasts, semi pro’s and pro’s.

What are the benefits?

The benefits are its simplicity and anyone can use it. It generates virtually no heat making it very safe to work with and the lamps are all long life. During there lifetime there is very little shift or deterioration, so the K rating stays very consistent, an important factor for any studio photographer.

Any downsides?

For portrait photographers it does have its limitations. By nature of its output, it does lend itself more towards High Key and the lack of accessories available makes Low Key work virtually impossible.

Prices of fluorescents, though a shade higher than tungsten are still competitive and a good starter kit like the two head Lastolite Ray D8 5600 will only set you back around £280.

Finally, we move on to the last group in our Guide to Lighting Options: Studio Flash