After a camera and a tripod, a light stand is the one piece of equipment I use more than anything else. For a long time (too long) I used assistants (like my wife) to hold lights and reflectors for portraits and product photography. Once I started using light stands, I had much better results because the light wouldn’t change from shot to shot. I was able to work with my subjects to acheive more subtlety because I could trust that there face was the only variable, as in the photograph above. I highly recommend you use light stands, so I’ll show you some tips on the basics of light stand use, and in a later article, I’ll give you tips about what features to look for when buying light stands.
First, you should know there are some standards in the lighting world. The standards are good because any light you buy should fit the stand. Occasionally I run into a light that is designed to fit only the stands that came with it; these are usually cheap quality tools, and should be avoided.
The top of a light stand has a 5/8″ stud (read, five-eighths). All strobes and most lighting tools are designed to couple with this stud. It’s flared at the top so that when a screw is tightened on the light it won’t fall off the stand even if the stand is positioned upside down. There are larger studs out there, but the 5/8″ is the photo standard. I’m telling you these things and the numbers so you’ve got some of the lingo for working with lighting and communicating with other photogs (and camera store employees).
The top of the stud often has a 3/8″ 16 (read, “three-eights-sixteen) screw. This is also a standard size in both photography and cinema. You’ll find that your tripod head could even mount to this screw. Sometimes the screw may be the smaller 1/4″ 20 thread (read, quarter-twenty, the first number is the diameter of the screw and the second number is the pitch of the threads). 1/4” 20 tops are more likely intended for photography use, and there are plenty of accessories to fit, including the tripod screw on the bottom of you camera.
There are two things you should always do that will save you money and headaches. First, always grab the section of tube (called a riser) above a knob before you loosen the knob. When you loosen the knob on the shaft, the upper riser will be free to come down, and it may come down very fast.
I know this sounds like common sense, but you’ve got to make it a mantra: “Grab the riser then loosen the knob.” This will save you a headache because I’ve had a light fall straight down on my head. Sometimes you’ll have a stiff knob and it’s natural to grab it with both hands to loosen it, but you’ve got to resist and keep a hand on the top. It’ll also save you money because when that light came down on me, one of the bulbs broke, and bulbs are not cheap.
The second thing to pay attention to is that you always place a leg under the load. When the heavy part of the light is placed over one of the legs, it’s much more stable. On a C stand, this should be the tallest leg. If you position the load over the space between legs, it’s much less stable and will easily be knocked over by a light breeze, a little bump, or a tug on a cord. The higher the light is raised, the more important it is to have a leg under the load.
Third, make sure that you open the legs to their most stable position. Adjust the legs until the stabilizer bars are perfectly horizontal. When the stabilizer bars are horizontal, this is the widest the legs can be set, and a wider stance makes the light less likely to tip over. Also, make sure you use some weight on the legs, like sand bags, or a heavy camera bag, to keep the stand stable.
If you can make a habit of the above tips, your lights will stay where you want them to be and you’ll have a safe set, and safety is more important than making pictures. In my next article, I’ll show you what to look for when buying light stands and which features you’ll appreciate.
Be sure to check out this article on C stand tips by Mike Kubeisy.