The Starter Kit

The realm of photography has a lot of opportunities for people to buy a starter kit – gear that typically comes with a combination of low price, low quality and little room for growth. It's easy to understand why people by starter kit. You think you may have an interest in getting into something, but you're not sure and don't want to spend a lot of money. After all, you don't need a “professional” kit if you don't know how to use it. Starter kits often come with just what you think you need, all in one kit. If you're really lucky, maybe there's also a video welcoming you to the wonderful world of photography/lighting/whatever.

The problem with starter kits is you soon realize their limitations and outgrow them. They often aren't flexible enough to upgrade, so you end up spending money on better gear after you've learned what you really want or need. So this begs the question, “was the starter kit the price you pay to learn, or was it just a waste of money when you realize you need something else?”

My current line of thinking is that you're better off avoiding starter kits. Not only do you outgrow them rather quickly, but they typically have very low re-sale value. It's better to spend a little time educating yourself about what you want to purchase. Maybe you can't afford the top of the line model, but that's OK. Find out what it is you like about that model and use it as a basis of comparison for something you can afford. The idea is simply to become an informed consumer.

Sometimes it's hard to truly understand what you'll eventually need, though. It's easy to be taken with features when you don't really understand what they mean. For example, I knew I wanted to learn to play guitar some years ago (and I'm still waiting to understand it), so I researched. When I marched into the music store, I could tell the saleman that I wanted a guitar with a 5-way pickup, rosewood fretboard, a humbucker on the bridge and single coil pickups in the middle and neck positions. I ended up with a decent mid-level Ibanez guitar that fit my budget and was usable for years. Didn't know how to play the damn thing, but I like it because it was versatile and would fit my foreseeable needs.

Recently, some friends were discussing lighting gear for a home studio. The questions ranged from continuous lights to studio strobes. Some folks recommended the continuous lights because it was easy for a beginner to see where the shadows would fall on your subject. Unsurprisingly, I objected. Lighting isn't that hard to learn and you'll quickly outgrow the perceived need to see the light before you shoot. Furthermore, you won't get as much more or flexibility with strobes. Since the duration of the light is continuous, you can't isolate your subject from the ambient light using shutter speed. Sometimes continuous lights don't put out enough power to let you choose your desired focal length and aperture without forcing you to raise your ISO a few stops just to get a decent shutter-speed.

However, continuous lights aren't necessarily just for starters. They may very well make sense for people with specific subjects, such as product or food photography.  I wouldn't use them to stop motion in a basketball game, but I'm sure they're fine if you want a nice shot of a slice of carrot cake.

My friend wanted lights for portrait and action photography, so she ended up with a strobe starter kit. Based upon the first image she posted, it seems to do a very nice job for a portrait. The kit included three lights, stands, umbrellas and small softboxes included as part of a promotion. Oh, and it also had the ever-popular DVD. Rather than including a wireless trigger, she uses a sync cord for one light and operates the other in slave mode. The listed price (on special) is about $650.

Based upon her first shots, the kit seems to do a fine job for a sitting portrait subject. However, I'll be surprised if they work out well enough for action photography.  Here are the specifications for the lights:

Watt Seconds = 150
Guide Number = 39-mtrs/117ft
Recycle Time = 2 sec.
Flash Duration = 1 ~ 3 m/secs
Flash Variability = 1/4 to full
Color Temperature = 5600K (+-100)
User Changeable Flash Tube = yes
Changeable Reflector = yes
Model Light Wattage = 100
Model Light Variable = Yes
Flash Ready Indicator = Charge Ready Light/Audible Beep
Built in Slave = Yes
Fan Cooled = No
Sync Size = 1/8″
Housing = high-impact poly carbonate

The first thing that grabs my attention is the rating for watt seconds. It's definitely on the low end of the scale for studio strobes, which is not surprising considering this is part of a starter kit. Remember, to increase light by one stop, you have to double your output. In comparison, my mid-range Elinchrom BX500Ri's have a top-end of 500 ws. If she combined all three of her lights, the output would still be somewhat less powerful than one of the Elinchrom's. Is that important? It depends.

Is she going to try to overpower the sun with these lights? Is it enough light to use the aperture she wants, or will the lack of power limit her choices? Will the recycle time be a factor? Can she double her lights (and softboxes) to reduce time? Perhaps, but doing so may rob her of other lighting choices (e.g., background light, hair light, sidelights, etc.).

The flash duration rating of 1 – 3 milliseconds may be insufficient for action photography.  According to this old article by sports shooter Dave Black, the strobe must have a flash duration of at least 1/1200 second or faster to freeze action. At best case (1/1000), these lights appear to be slightly short of that mark and the get three times slower. That lack of speed and inconsistency may cause her to miss shots where the light doesn't measure up.

To be fair, a starter kit really wasn't engineered to be pushed very far. That's the basis of my rant against starter kits. They get you moving, but the don't take you where you want to go. When you first start shopping for gear, you may not know the right questions to ask about a product to determine if they'll suit your needs beyond the learning phase. You may not even know all of the things you want the product to do, since you may get inspired to do more after your initial experience. So what is a person to do?

Here's my basic advice:

  • Expect that starter kits are only good for starters.
  • If they can't grow as you gain experience, you have to decide if you want to accept the cost as money spent for education or buy something that will last you better in the long run. I personally prefer the latter, since I'm going to end up buying it anyway.
  • Spend time learning before you buy.  Determine your needs.
  • Try before you buy. Rent some gear. Take a workshop and experiment with gear.
  • Buy when you are confident that you are getting what you need now and in the future.

Although I've picked on my friend's example with lighting gear, it really doesn't matter. You can find starter kits in almost any field. You can also do some great stuff within the limitations of starter kits, so I'm not totally discounting them.  If they fit your needs, that's great. Just make sure you understand your needs before you plop down your money. Otherwise, you'll end up with a collection of stuff in your closet that you don't use anymore.

Anyone want to buy a guitar amp or three?

3 thoughts on “The Starter Kit”

  1. I feel honored to have been the subject of your blog post today. 🙂 $589 at Amazon and free softboxes and adapter rings thrown in. 🙂 As a newbie, having everything presented to me in this fashion really helped me see what I needed. You’re completely right in everything you wrote. I figured with this I could at least get started, and then in the future, I have some umbrellas and softboxes which hopefully will work with my next set of lights. Westcott makes it really easy to learn these lights – their DVD is really well put together.

    I almost see this one though as a mid-range starter kit since it’s so expensive. I did find strobe starter kits in the range of $200, but they seemed shoddy.

    1. I didn’t mean to pick on you specifically, but your case did give me some detail to explore. I’m glad that the kit is working for you. Like I said, your first shots look fine and you’re getting results. That’s a good thing. You also bring up a good point about the light modifiers. Those can move along to another set of lights, if you ever decide to get something more powerful. You may need to get new speed-rings, but you won’t have to buy a whole new set of light modifiers.

  2. Heh, I didn’t feel you were picking on me at all. Ok, well a little, but not in a bad way, and like I said, you’re right. The industry honestly doesn’t make it very easy to buy your first set of lights. I did a ton of research and still had no real clue what to buy. My husband finally said “just freakin’ buy something” so I did. The real tests will be once I get my background set up and can do real photos. There isn’t a good wall in our basement to use right now. Tomorrow I should be getting my stuff. But Westcott also makes it very easy for a newbie to get started, which was also my draw to it.

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