So, you are ready to start working light more intentionally. That’s good. Off-camera lighting is a major crossroads for creativity in the art of photography. You have so many possibilities to discover and explore. Let’s get after it.
In getting started with flash photography, I find it useful to begin with a modest kit. Focusing on what you can do with one light, modifiers and diffusion. Once you have started to get predictable results with that, you will know better why you want more. What more you can do.
Any basic light kit should contain at least a light (duh), a way to trigger the light, a stand to mount the light securely, and a way to modify the light.
We live in the world of cheap food, cheap clothes and cheap fun. Likewise, inexpensive hot shoe flash options out there and unlike the food, the quality is really good. Most of these modestly priced flashes are similar and perform about the same. In my case, I began with the Yongnuo Chinese brand. I went with their system because it was well reviewed, had solid options for triggering and integrating, and it was a great value. Here is a basic kit I would recommend:
The current version of Yongnuo’s most popular flash, the YN560IV has good power output, integrated trigger, and can act as a master to control other flashes in the same family. While the latter feature isn’t critical if you have a dedicated trigger for your camera, the cost between the 560III and the 560IV is negligible. You decide.
The previous generation of the 560 was a big step at its introduction. It was the first to embed the trigger inside. As mentioned above, it is nearly the same price as the version IV and lacks the master controls. If you want to save a couple of dollars, one or several of these will work great with the suggested triggers below.
One trigger to rule them all! The YN560-TX sits in the hot shoe of your camera and allows you to control and trigger your flashes wirelessly. You can set both the power and zoom of a group of flashes or set up each flash specific to it’s role. Two caveats to this option:
You could buy two of the 560IV flashes and mount one on your camera to control the off-camera flash. Personally, I don’t see the value in this. Rarely will I want flash coming straight from the camera. It seems like a waste to me.
Also, Yongnuo does have other, slightly cheaper triggers that will do the basic function of triggering the light. They will not offer you the control at the camera, however. If you value your time or the subject’s time, preventing extra back and forth action is worth the $10 difference.
There are a few pieces of photography gear you will hold onto forever or until it breaks. Support gear, like stands, is one of these items. While you don’t need to break the bank on them, just know that you will be living with them for a long time.
The purpose of the stand is to securely mount your light setup in a way that it can be placed where it needs to be for your shot. The lighter the stand, the less secure and subject to unforeseen actions sending your light and modifier to the ground. Two ideas to consider on this:
The best case: Use assistants
The best way to ensure against a falling light is to have an assistant hold onto it. This assistant also becomes an asset to adjust the position of the light without you having to move back and forth (more opportunities to lose the attention of your subject). To make it even faster, photographers can mount their light to a pole that the assistant simply holds and positions with the photographer’s directions. This can make for a quick, agile shoot.
When going solo
So, either your too shy or your best friend is too busy, you can’t get anyone to go along. The stand’s stability even more critical. Choosing how sturdy to go depends on your light, the modifier, and your level of caution. Since hot shoe flashes are lightweight, you can go for the lighter options assuming you only put umbrellas or small softboxes on them. Just look for a way to add weight to the base because they will get kicked or the wind loves to push them over like a sail. Sandbags are the general goto for weighing down your stand, but you could also explore some DIY options that can accomplish the same goal. Just make sure you are covered.
A kit that gives you two stands and a carrying case (Don’t undervalue traveling cases! They are very helpful). They reach 7’6” in height and are a more sturdy option in compared to many at this cost. Also, note that these do not come with the adaptor to mount the flash and modifier to them. Those will need to be purchased separately. Look for a recommendation further down.
If you want to buy a stand that will be rock solid and will grow with you (Bigger lights and modifiers), the Impact is a solid option. The stand features strong construction and an extended 9’6” maximum height. You will have a hard time growing past this and it should serve for many years.
It is now time for some DIY fun. Simply, you purchase a painters pole like the Mr LongArm or the Shur-Line and add an adaptor like the Kacey Pole adaptor. You will now have a great reach and strength for an inexpensive investment. The flexibility of this setup is fantastic but does require another pair of hands.
Modifiers are a category where you will want to explore. A large variety of options exist and produce different results. The main goal is to create a certain look with your light, so you need to implement a specific modifier for specific looks.
A word about mounts
The mount is the way the modifier attaches to the light. Umbrellas are simple and are generally accommodated by the bracket holding the light to the stand. However, with softboxes and other modifiers, the mount options are mostly proprietary to a particular light manufacturer. My preference is to avoid this as much as I can and so, I have landed on the Bowens mounts as they seem to be the most universal and sturdy. The main benefits of Bowens are:
• Solid and easy to put on and remove.
• You can purchase many lights with the Bowens mount as the interface.
• You can generally adapt any other mount type to it.
The Bowens mount is the option I have gone and recommend it.
Let’s start with the basics. A light umbrella will accomplish what is usually the first goal of a photographer: Make a bigger light source to soften the light. It does this decently well at the expense of dispensing light in a broad pattern. The umbrellas come in two flavors: Shoot through and reflective. The shoot through is simply a translucent material that will diffuse the light passing through, increasing your light source size. The reflective umbrella sets up with the flash pointing into the umbrella which reflects it back onto the subject. The result is more diffusion and a better-controlled spread.
In either case, an umbrella is a good starting point as you start learning how to work with light. The umbrella mounts simply to your light stand bracket so that the flash is pointing through it. While it is ideal to have it in the center, you will most likely be off a little due to the mounting setup and that’s okay.
A cheap option that gives you two 33” shoot through umbrellas for $15. Yes, they will be a bit fragile so, you need to be careful with them. They are not known to survive light stand tip-overs or being stepped on if left on the floor. However, it’s a great starting point with little financial risk. You can pay more, but I think you will find that you would rather spend your money elsewhere.
From the same manufacturer at the same price, you get a set of reflective umbrellas with opaque backs. The reflective will be more efficient with the light utilized, but the material of the interior will add color to the light bouncing onto the subject. They can be purchased with silver, gold or white interiors depending on what your intended use will be.
The softbox is where you start to see more control over light. Since it only allows the light to escape from one direction, it gives you more precision on where the light will fall and what the shape of the light will be. They come in many sizes and shapes as well as construction. You can spend a lot of money on these. For your first, I recommend starting with a moderate size to keep cash outlay in check. Please note that all of my recommendations are Bowens mounts. If you go with a different mount direction, you need to choose your modifier with that in mind.
The 30″x30″ is an inexpensive softbox that has a Bowens mount. It comes with removable baffling (to diffuse and even the light) and a carrying case. Note that this is a rod assembly which can be a bit of a pain when putting it together. I currently own some larger softboxes that sport this assembly type and I never take them apart because of the time it takes. Since they are exclusive to studio usage it’s not a problem, but transporting it to a location would be stomach-wrenching to me. This particular model won’t be as bad because of its size so, it may be more digestible for you.
The 32″ is an interesting option for two reasons. First, it comes with the s-type bracket that you will need to purchase anyway. Also, it is a quick setup due to the umbrella construction. It seems to be pretty sturdy and gives you some decent control. The only downside I can see, for the price, is the lack of internal diffusion for an even softer light. For the price, it’s a great start.
This Godox has a different take on the softbox. The simple foldout assembly is fast to setup and makes for a compact size when stowed. The Godox also provides an inner diffusion layer which is helpful for a softer, even light. It also comes with the required bracket so, it is ready to go out of the box.
At the larger sizes, softbox prices climb quickly. Also, the larger the modifier, the more unwieldy it will be outdoors against even a slight breeze. Why would you want a 40”+ softbox? It will provide coverage for full body shots and groups. The 30” softboxes are great for portraits and headshots, but they don’t produce the spread for a larger surface. The large softboxes produce a good look for studio product photography to get those long highlights on reflective surfaces.
If you want to get a larger softbox, plan to spend anywhere from $100-300. At those prices, you want to make sure you are getting a durable option to enjoy longevity.
To piece all of this kit together, you will need some adapting hardware. Since we are focused on the Bowens mount, I am going to recommend the S-type bracket. It allows you to slip any flash I have seen into a full-sized Bowens mount. The advantages of this approach are that it centers the light in the modifier and it puts the weight of the modifier on the adaptor rather than the light.
Why is it so cheap?
Now let’s address the elephant in the room: cost. Why does one light cost so much and another so little? I know of a few reasons.
Most professional systems focus on having consistent light and color output. In professional settings, this is critical. The photo editor won’t thank you for making them have to adjust a large number of images from shot to shot. It’s also about the accuracy of the colors. Getting them true to the intended output is the goal.
Of course, the more expensive lights tend to offer technology that either makes the photographer’s job easier or even make some ideas possible. For example, high speed sync is a sought-after feature in lights because it allows you to shoot at faster shutter speeds with a flash. This is critical for sports and action.
Some light specifications affect time. One example is recycle times – how long the light requires to reach full charge after firing. The more expensive lights tend to recover more quickly and be ready for another shot. Again, in the world where time is money and moments only happen once, it’s worth the money.
Design quality is also part of the advantage. Making the lights quick and easy to get into the action is a focus of all the high-end manufacturers. They have managed to acheive this objective without sacrificing reliability.
Imagine arranging for multiples of talent, support, and clientele all watching you work and a light isn’t firing. Who is going to get fired? The guy who brought that light! On professional shoots, there are a lot of people committed and their time is easily worth the cost of quality gear. You want equipment that can take a beating and you can still count on it.
Some features do make new ideas possible. While all photographers mostly start out small and creatively challenged, as they get more advanced new concepts start to form. That’s a good thing – beautiful work is mostly about the idea and not the tools. At the beginning of your relationship with lighting for photography, I recommend you worry less about what you don’t have and focus more on what you can do with what you got. Remember, light is a force of nature. Man has just figured out how to manipulate aspects of it.
With all of these pieces, you are ready to start exploring the use of artificial light in your photography. I would love to hear your feedback on what you purchased and how it is working for you. Let’s see the results! If you have suggestions to the list, please leave a comment and I am happy to look at them. The photography industry is an ever-changing field and I am not aware of half of it. Meanwhile, let’s all get off our computers or phones and go chase some light.