A brief debate on the merits of lighting stands and autopoles

12 April, 2021

Continuing in our series of niche comparison blogs I’d like to take a quick look at our experiences of using both autopoles and the more traditional lighting stands. For the uninitiated, a monopole is a lighting support that extends between the floor and ceiling and wedges itself in place between them. The more traditional lighting stand uses three more legs to provide stability.

The autopoles have a giant positive, which is safety. A monopole has no legs, corners or bases to bump or trip over. This means less chance of falling over, which is not something you want to do around a priceless cultural artefact.

The fact that the poles are wedged between the floor and the ceiling also makes them quite stable, lessening the chance of the stand itself toppling over when heavy light heads are added. This stability also means that an accidental bump should not shift the lights.

So, if the two main advantages of autopoles are stability and safety, why would anyone not use them? Firstly, as stated before they need to be wedged between the floor and the ceiling. If you have lofty ceilings in your studio, then that is a problem. If you have many ceiling lights or, in our case legacy pipes and an air handling unit, covering part of your studios ceiling, then you can only use them in areas where you do not have these intrusions.


Our basic studio set up.

The Manfrotto Master Lighting Stand. Image courtesy of www.manfrotto.com.

The Manfrotto Autopole. Image courtesy of www.manfrotto.com.

You see, one of the drawbacks of the great stability of the autopoles is their rigidity. They need to be used in a particular way and if that can be achieved then they are fantastic but if there are slight deviations then they rapidly become cumbersome.

In our case, we photograph a lot of manuscripts and books. For each of these books we will photograph the covers, every page and all the edges of the manuscript. The problem with this is that the lighting set up changes for the images of the edges as these are not taken from above the image but instead the camera is set up in front of the image. In our studio changing the lighting for the new set up is difficult as this is where there are obstructions on our ceiling.

It is also quite difficult to move a monopole without taking down the lighting set-up and then having to reset the whole set-up once in the correct place. This can take a fair amount of time and is quite inconvenient. For those lucky enough to have a large studio (and lots of equipment), perhaps one could set up multiple staging areas for each of the lighting set ups. Unfortunately, for us, this is not an option.

So, lighting stands, if they aren’t as stable or safe as autopoles, why would we use them? Their flexibility is definitely their biggest advantage. In our studio we have several different lighting set ups that we use depending on the reflectivity of the objects being photographed. When using the lighting stands changing these set ups is simpler and quicker than when using autopoles. In a busy studio saving time is an important aspect of our job.

The biggest question is whether convenience can ever trump the safety of the photographer and the objects being photographed. Our reality is that one can make lighting stands significantly safer, if not quite as safe as a monopole.

Firstly, one should be aware of areas of heavy foot traffic in the room. Often one can set up the lighting outside of these areas.

Secondly, we have found that placing weights on the legs of the stand is essential. It not only counteracts the weight of our enormous soft boxes but it also lends a reassuring solidity to the stand, so that even if it is bumped there is often no consequence. When using weights on the legs of the stand, it is important to be aware of the layout of these legs as the weight is only effective if it is counterbalancing a weight, in our case our enormous lightboxes.

As you can see, both autopoles and lighting stands have their advantages and disadvantages. If you’re working in a studio that does not have a lot of variety between the lighting set ups, then autopoles would be ideal. Set them up once and leave them be. If, on the other hand, you’re forced to change lighting set ups quite regularly, sometimes even during a single shoot, then I would go for lighting stands but make sure that you take a few safety precautions.

Jon Riordan, Digital Photographer at the Chester Beatty

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