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Light Stand Basics Part 2

In my previous post, Light Stand Basics Part 1, I gave you some safety tips and jargon to get you started working with light stands. A light stand is one of the only things you can buy that will actually make your photography better. Getting consistent results from your light requires keeping it the same distance from your subject from shot to shot, and even my best assistants can’t keep the light in place for more than a few minutes without tiring. Use a light stand to make better pictures. There are many stands to choose from and they vary greatly in price from $20 to over $200. Here are some ideas about what things to look for when you’re shopping for light stands.

Plastic or Metal?

There is huge variety in light stands, but basically you’ll have legs, and a telescoping upper section with knobs that tighten to keep legs and sections in place. All the stands I’ve seen have metal sections, but they may have plastic joints. With care, any light stand can last you a long time, and I’ve gotten more life out of my cheapest stands than I ever expected possible.

Plastic parts don’t mean a stand is cheap, and metal doesn’t mean a stand is good. There’s a huge range of types of plastic and metal. I’ve had the worst luck with stands that use pot-metal joints which are usually brittle and easily cracked if they are dropped or smashed against something else while traveling. Similarly, plastics may wear well.

Brass studs reduce the chance of the light rotating because the mounting screw will bite into the brass.
Brass studs reduce the chance of the light rotating because the mounting screw will bite into the brass.

I’ve found that name brand stands that cost a twice as much as a cheap stand of similar design are worth the extra cost. My favorite stands are made by Kupo, but Matthews and Manfrotto also make high quality tools. Adorama’s house brand, Flashpoint, offer very fine features at less cost, as well.

In my last article, I introduced the standard 5/8″ stud at the top of all light stands. You may notice that some stands have a steel stud, while others are brass. Brass is slightly more desirable because it is softer so when you tighten your light in place, the screw will bite into the brass a little and be less likely to twist if the stand is at an angle or in a breeze. Kupo even makes some with a hexagonal stud that makes unintentional rotation practically impossible. Both the brass and the hexagonal stud are more costly than round steel.

Locking Systems

Not only are the joints made of different materials, they are also of different designs. The most common design is pictured here, and it consists of a collar that wraps around the riser. The collar is tightened around the riser by the knob and the tension around the riser section keeps it from falling.

The most common collar style tightens around the tubing; the knob tightens the collar together.
The most common collar style tightens around the tubing; the knob tightens the collar together.

I’m not sure why it is, but this design always seems to weaken over time. On very cheap stands, you’ll need to be careful that the riser doesn’t slip down. Sometimes, a riser extended to its full height may lean slightly to one side which puts it on a bind in the collar and it appears to be tightly in place. However, a slight bump or breeze may momentarily straighten the section out, relieving the bind, and it will come crashing down.

As I said, most light stand use this collar design to secure the risers, and they generally work pretty well.

My preferred design, however, is this brake style. It has a collar at the riser joint, but riser is secured by a flat section attached at the end of this knob and it presses directly against the riser, like a brake shoe on a car. This style requires a beefier joint construction, and that means it’s going to last longer with travel and use and abuse. It also seems to hold the riser up better, and the leaning riser/binding problem I described above is less common.

I prefer this design. The knob tightens a brake shoe directly against the riser tubing and is very secure.
I prefer this design. The knob tightens a brake shoe directly against the riser tubing and is very secure.

Besides beefy joints and brake style knobs, you can also watch for air-cushioned risers. These use air to slow the riser as it is collapsed, which means it’s less likely to crash down and break bulbs (and heads!). It’s a nice feature, and if it’s convenient I’ll buy it, but I don’t think it’s essential. Just make sure you “grab the riser then loosen the knob.”

A few years ago, I arrived on location to shoot a bunch of portraits for my biggest client. I was eager to do a good job, and I arrived plenty early to get things setup, but I was really disappointed to see that the collar on one of my main light stands had cracked in transport and wouldn’t raise up like I had planned. I was really nervous now because I had to scramble to MacGyver a fix. It worked out ok in the end, but on the way home from that shoot I stopped at Pictureline in Salt Lake and bought my first C stand. These things are solid steel throughout with brake style knobs and are simply bomb proof. I’ve since bought more C stand accessories, and I love them, and I’ve traveled around the world with them and never had a problem. However, they are really heavy. I’ve recently bought the stands you see above, which are Kupo Click Stands, and I’m impressed with their build quality, and especially with their weight and compact size. If you want light stands that will last the rest of your life, and you don’t mind the weight, get C stands. Otherwise, I can recommend checking out these Kupo stands, or others with the features I described above.

Mike Kubeisy recently wrote tips for C stands, so click here to check that out, and click here to read Light Stand Basics Part 1.

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