As a photographer, it could be argued that the best purchase I ever made was a camera. It’s true, without a camera I wouldn’t be able to take photographs... but, when I think about it, the best piece of equipment I ever bought... was actually a light.
Photographers are lovers of light, light chasers, makers, and even fakers. Photography is all about the quality of light and as that is the case, investing in a good light was the best decision I ever made.
Now, I’m not going to tell you exactly which light I bought, because I don’t want you to get caught up on brand names. The best thing you can do is research and find out which light works best(in price range) for the kind of photography you are doing. However, it was this particular light and maybe even more importantly- the modifier I put on it, that provided the quality of light I was looking for in my work. It did take a few good years for me to really understand lighting and what to look for - in order to feel completely comfortable making an informed decision about my lighting choices. Hopefully, reading this will shave off some of that time for you.
Let me take you back to the first time I purchased a light kit, I was a freshman in college. Up until then, I had utilized natural light or ambient light to shoot(outside of my high school classroom studio). When I got to college, it was a requirement to purchase a light kit, so I made the mistake of going to my local photo store where they talked me into purchasing a beginner light kit that would ultimately prove a waste of money.
The kit worked...sort of, and I actually got a lot of use out of it(mostly out of necessity...), but the set up was ultimately unreliable, inconsistent, and, well... cheap. They were strobes that worked more like really dim hot lights that fired every third time... if I was lucky. Let’s put it this way- once, while shooting in the street, a rude man even drove by and made fun of my sad lighting kit.
All is well, because when I finally did the research and made an informed purchase on an excellent light and modifier perfect for my photography, I was all the more excited. Looking back, I would have gladly traded that entire lighting kit for one good light/modifier combo.
Having a reliable light source is important, however, understanding that light source is even more inportant- and no, having quality light does not have to be expensive. Sunlight through a window is free and will provide you some of the best quality light known to mankind. That said, there are endless lighting options available for purchase, from fancy flashes all the way to simple holiday string lights.
Modifiers are also available, including color gels and softboxes, that allow you to control both the direction and quality/tonal value of light your source is providing. The ability to play with light and shadows -and modify their shape- can drastically improve mood and technique in your photographic images.
The most important questions you can ask yourself when purchasing a light and/or modifier are about intention. Are you trying to mix ambient and strobe light? Light a scene completely? Add color and mood with lighting gels? Correcting color? Are you drawing attention to a specific area of an image or evenly lighting the entire scene? Are you looking hard or soft light? These are just some of the questions to ponder before purchase that might save you a lot of grief(and possibly money) in the end.