I have used a few different types of studio lighting units and have stuck with Alien Bee units for now. One of the main reasons was price, I was able to get three Alien Bee 800 units for a very reasonable price from a company going out of business. I found a few more on eBay for a good price and that completed my collection for now. I really like them and they do a great job.
I use them for both studio work and have used them for outdoor shoots and even to light an indoor basketball arena for some high school ball games. The outdoor shots have benefited from a battery source from Paul Buff who makes the Alien Bee flash units.
I have used Westcott Spiderlite 6 unites as well, but I wasn’t overly impressed with them. They are not a flash unit but a continual light source. As bright as they are, camera settings must be adjusted a great deal to use these lights. The high ISO settings needed, along with the slow shutter speed, just weren’t what I wanted. There are some nice qualities for having continual lighting, but the negatives outweighed the positives for me.
I have purchased several soft boxes, a beauty dish, and some Parabolic Umbrellas to go along with the lights. At first I triggered them with cords that came with the units but have since switched to Pocket Wizard controls (more on them in another post another day) for flexibility.
These units aren’t too big or heavy to use outside the studio and work well with the Vagabond Mini Lithium battery supply. The combination is awesome for outdoor sessions or when you aren’t sure there will be power readily available. The Vagabond Mini can be used for other project too.
There are so many brands of lights and the sky is the limit on cost. I know the higher costing units are well made, but I haven’t had any problems with my Alien Bees and they seem to be well made and have taken some abuse. You do need a good light meter if you are going to be doing much with flash lighting, so there is an additional cost there. I found a used Sekonic L-358 meter for a great price on eBay. The unit works well and has a model to integrate with my Pocket Wizard wireless system. One advantage to continual light sources is that you can get by without a hand-held meter, but many would still recommend the use of one.
You will need nice light stands to mount your lights no matter what type you select. I was lucky enough to get some nice Manfrotto stands with my lights as a package deal, so that helped me out cost wise. There are as many choices of stands as there are for lighting. They can get very expensive as well depending the quality and the features (like having wheels and booms).
This post was about studio lights, but remember you can always create natural lighting situations and use inexpensive reflectors to give you some great lighting situations. You will want to look into some workshops or training on lighting techniques if you want to really use lighting well. There are those who just seem to have a natural ability with lights in the studio, find then and pick their brain if you really want to learn how it is done. I mentioned Kelbytraining.com in a prior posting, they have some great training sessions on the use of lighting. Spend the time, it will pay off when you are in the studio and need to quickly make changes so that you can get the results you want.