Lighting 101 - A Beginner's Lighting Kit

Getting started with a basic Strobist kit is surprisingly inexpensive. Even better, the gear is also small, light and very portable.

You can see it in use above. Just this much gear (and a little know-how, which you are in the process of learning) will allow you to do some very neat things as a photographer. How cool is that?

So here are the basics, i.e., just what you'll absolutely need:

1. A Light Stand

Budget about $45. This folds or extends, and holds your flash in the position where you want it. The main choice is compact or full-size. I recommend compact, as they will go from seven feet (extended) to about 19 inches (folded). These models will also hold your flash at about 21 inches off the ground, which is cool for low shots.

Full size stands typically go to eight feet, but only fold to about three feet so they don't travel as well. Plus, they cannot get your flash very low to the ground if needed. The vast majority of people go with compact.

2. An Umbrella Swivel

Budget about $15. This is a small bracket that attaches to the top of the light stand and holds your flash (and an umbrella, usually) and will tilt to any angle. They are small, cheap and rugged. With one of these you can also mount a flash to any type of a standard, 5/8" post (like a photo clamp) if you are not using a stand.

For this and the light stand above, I also recommend LumoPro models as they are inexpensive, well-made and guaranteed for five years. LP has built a great reputation as an off-camera lighting supplier, and for good reason.

3. An Optical White, Shoot-Through Umbrella

Just like in the photo up top. Budget about $30. It will be your very first light modifier. And even after 25+ years of shooting professionally, it's still a go-to choice for me. The most versatile umbrellas are those that open up in the 40" range.

I can recommend the Westcott White Double-Fold with removable black backing or a normal-fold white shoot-through version. This double-fold umbrella goes from 43" to just 15 inches when folded. Which, of course, makes it travel very well alongside the compact version of the stand listed above.

Or you may well prefer the single-fold (standard) umbrella which is, I think, a little stronger and more durable but does not pack quite as small. If you haven't guessed yet, we are building a small, light kit that will sling over your shoulder (on in a small bag or pack) and let you take your new "studio" with you anywhere.

It's really kind of a pick 'em. Both work fine.

The only thing with lighting umbrellas is that they are just as fragile as normal umbrellas. If you use care they will last you quite awhile. But you can't be rough with it and expect to hand it down to your kids.

4. A Trigger or Cord

Budget ~$40 for a cord, a little more for a trigger. Either will marry your off-camera flash to your camera and sync it to your shutter. The cord kit consists of two Universal Translators (seen on previous page, one for the flash and one for the camera) with a 16-foot sync cord (fitted with a ⅛-inch plug at each end.)

You can go with wireless, and eventually you probably will. But shooting wired is an easy way to start. It also becomes your backup (important) should you move to wireless later.

And that's pretty much it. If you have been keeping up with the math in your head, you'll see the cost is way less than your DSLR — or even a lens, for that matter. But dollar for dollar, lighting — and knowing how to use it — will improve your photography more than just about anything else can. Which is pretty cool. It'll take your flash photography from "meh" to gorgeous, studio-style lighting. And you can easily take that light anywhere you want it to go.

By the way, here's the actual 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.

While we wait for the new toys to arrive, let's start learning about them—and how to use them...

NEXT: L101: Get to Know Your Light Stand


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