Lighting 101 - An Ideal Beginner's Lighting Kit
In addition to a flash, you'll need some basic gear to begin using that flash off-camera and shaping it into a much better quality of light. The good news: getting started with a basic Strobist kit is very inexpensive, compared to the cost of your cameras and lenses.
If you already have a flash, you can build a very good quality, wireless lighting kit for under $150. Even better, the gear is also small, light and very portable.
For starters, you'll want to work with a simple inexpensive one-light kit, which you can see in action above. If you stick with it and grow as a lighting photographer, you'll probably choose to add a second light later. A two-light kit will serve the needs of the majority of lighting photographers, across many circumstances.
Don't believe me? Here's my go-to camera kit: One camera, one zoom lens—and an easily transportable two-light studio. I could happily shoot assignments with this bag for years. I know that, because I have already done it.
Let's Build Your One-Light Kit
My ideal lighting kit recommendation for beginners is built around a Phottix Ares remote trigger and LumoPro grip equipment. (FYI, "grip" is a catch-all term for the gear that positions a light and modifies its quality.)
Below is each piece of recommended gear, along with why it was chosen. We'll discuss how to use it in subsequent lessons. If you already have some of the gear, you can buy the other pieces a la carte. If not, you'll save by buying them as a kit, as shown at the bottom of the page.
Remote Trigger: Phottix Ares
A remote trigger simply synchronizes your flash to your camera, even when they are not physically connected. This will marry your off-camera flash to your camera and sync it to your shutter, even when they are not physically connected.
Over the last few years, technology as advanced to the point where you can a great quality remote for under $100. (For a long time, this was not the case.) I currently recommend the Phottix Ares, which sell for $55 for the set. I have taught classes with them for several years and have found them to be very reliable and easy to use. They ship with all of the accessories you'll need — even including batteries and a nice case. They are well-built and come with a one-year factory warranty — but if you register them Phottix doubles it to two years.
PLEASE NOTE: If you shoot with Sony cameras, this and other standard remotes (or flashes, for that matter) may not fit your camera's nonstandard hot shoe. Sigh. Thanks Sony. Call or email the photo store help staff to find out how to work around this issue.
Light Stand: LumoPro LP605
Because your flash is not going to magically float in the air. So you'll need something to hold it up.
For a first light stand, I recommend a compact, five-section model. (Compact stands extend to 7 1/2 feet but fold down very small for easy transport.) These are made by a few manufacturers, but the LumoPro LP605 adds a few nice extra features.
The LP605 is a bit heavier build quality than its competitors, is reasonably priced and has a five-year warranty. It also has foldable ground spikes—unique to its class—that make it more stable when used outside.
At $40, it's an easy choice.
Umbrella Swivel: LumoPro LP679
Umbrella swivels typically go for under $20. Since the swivel will be supporting your flash, it is good not to scrimp here. There are also several different designs available.
I like the LP679, shown at left, ($16) for a variety of reasons. First, the adjustment knobs and clamps are large enough to be easy to tighten, but small enough not to interfere with the flash mounted above. (The latter can be a frustrating problem in some other models.)
Second, it has a friction elbow, as opposed to toothed. This gives you better — and faster — control when adjusting your light. And I feel that it is more secure, because the teeth (on the other kind of swivel) can grab when not fully tightened — and then come loose when jostled.
Third, it has a removable cold shoe (the thing that mounts to your flash) up top. This gives you a lot more flexibility than the models with a fixed cold shoe mount.
Finally, it has a standard knob (and not a lever) to tighten the elbow. This saves space in your bag and works just as well.
The LP679 swivel balances both usability and flexibility with small size. Interesting note: This kit represents a collection of what I feel to be the very best choices for a beginning lighting photographer. I had to fight for two years for the inclusion of this particular swivel in this kit.
It was worth it.
43" Umbrella: LumoPro 3-in-1 Double-Fold
An umbrella softens the light from your flash and gives it a beautiful, wrapping window light quality. There are three kinds of umbrellas: white translucent shoot-through, black-backed white reflective and black-backed silver reflective. Each of the three types can most useful in different situations.
Most people do not know which type they will use the most until they have been using off-camera light for a while. The LumoPro 3-in-1 double-fold umbrella solves this problem because it is convertible to any of the above three kinds.
For $30, the LumoPro LP735 3-in-1 is a standout choice.
That's Pretty Much It!
Compared to the price of your camera and lenses, basic lighting gear is refreshingly cheap. Take your small flash, add this kit, and you now have a portable, wireless studio. Dollar for dollar, lighting—and knowing how to use it—will improve your photography more than just about anything else can.
The kit savings (if you purchase the kit at once) is sufficient to cover the cost of a nice bag, seen above. This is a good thing, because your lighting gear is shaped differently than your camera gear and almost certainly will not fit in your normal bag. The included sling bag is well-made, and big enough to handle a second light kit if you expand later. It can even handle full-size modifiers, such as a 60" umbrella.
The flash (should you choose the kit that includes it) and the Ares remotes also include their own padded cases to further protect them within the bigger bag. The flash and remote also come with a nice selection of accessories: The flash includes gels, a stand and cord and the remote comes with cords, adapters, straps and batteries.
This is the exact small-light kit that I use and recommend for beginning lighting photographers. You ca get it here:
Lighting Kit WITHOUT Flash ($142.99)
Lighting Kit WITH LumoPro LP180 Flash ($271.99)
And that's all you'll need to get your foot firmly in the door of studio-style lighting. While you're waiting for your gear to arrive, we'll go over the pieces a little more and then get into the lighting itself.
It'll all be "in theory" for now, but not to worry. About half-way through Lighting 101 we then assume your kit has arrived and we'll walk you through your first time out with it. But while we wait for that, let's learn some more.
Oh, and here's the resulting shot from the setup photo shown at top:
So that was a lot of gear talk to throw at you. Sorry. But we just wanted to get you started off on the right foot, with the basic equipment. And most important, not spending more than you needed to.
NEXT: L101: Get to Know Your Light Stand
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