Round Up: The "Starving Student" Off-Camera Light Kit

Update: The prices - especially on the flashes - have risen, and I am working on alternatives and re-sourcing to bring things back to a more reasonable price. There is progress being made, so stay tuned.

The SSO-CLK (for lack of a more poetic term) is designed to give you the most bang for your buck - with a nod toward extreme portability. It will work well with any camera that can be controlled manually and has a PC synch jack. Most SLR's, digital or film, fit this bill. The flash is a vintage Nikon model, but it will work off-camera with anything that has a PC jack.

If you have been reading through the Lighting 101 course, you know the gear already. But I wanted the info all together in one place now for linking convenience and for the newer readers.

The total damage comes in at about $180, which is a little more than half the (street) cost of a Nikon SB-800.

Starting at the ground we have a Bogen 3373 collapsible light stand, which is described in detail here.

For maximum portability, you'll want to drill and strap it. Details for how to do this are on the same link as the stand. Cost: About $57.

Next, an umbrella adapter, which you need to mount your flash to the stand. At about $20, the shoe-mount adapter is included. Details on taping to prevent flash damage (important) are here.

The wonderfull 43" double fold umbrella ($19.95, here) carries well on the small, collapsed light stand. It's a full-sized umbrella in a pint-sized package (and price.)

This umbrella is a wonderful bargain when it comes to making your little strobe act like a much more expensive light. I wish you could get this kind of result for $20 more often in this field.

UPDATE: Since this article was originally written, I have come to find that I use the "shoot through" umbrellas far more than the reflective ones. More info here.

Up top, you'll want to find a used Nikon SB-24, which can easily be had by the patient scrounger for $75. If you have a few extra bucks to spare, you can be flexible on the flash and try to find an SB-25, -26, -28, etc.

And if you are going for your second light, make it an SB-26 for the built-in slave as seen in the link.

For light control, make a quick, cheap snoot to fit your flash. To save money, you can use duct tape instead of gaffer's tape if you must. But get yourself a roll of the real stuff ASAP. It's too useful not to have.

You slide the folded-up umbrella into the snoot tube for neat and easy transport. You never know when that little tube is going to come in handy - I use it more than I use an umbrella by far - so always have it with you.

To connect to your camera, build the synch cord detailed here. It's reliable and cheap at ~$24.00, but you'll eventually start lusting after a set of Pocket Wizards. Trust me on that.

Hold it all together with a pair of 8" ball bungees (more info here) which double as light clamps in a pinch. Cost; Less than $1 for two. (A four-pack is $1.93 at WalMart)

With this spartan outfit, you could do most of the photos that you have seen on Strobist. Heck, with the exception of Pocket Wizards, that's pretty much what I did them with.

Adding a second (or third) light vastly expands your possibilities, as does the wireless trigger. But this kit - and the brains to use it - will allow you to do some amazing stuff on a very tight budget. Learn to use it well and you'll quickly start knocking down the assignments that will fund the other light sources. (It's a ready-made headshot setup, where there's always money to be made.)

Moving on to other gear, I have had many, many "what kind of camera/lenses/etc should I buy" e-mails. And I am working on some sample starter camera outfits that give you a similar bang-for-buck ratio. It hinges on what photo career path you expect to take, and just how much you have to spend when starting out.

But the SSO-CLK is the cornerstone for making a big leap in picture quality for a small price, so we are starting with light.


Brand new to Strobist? Start here | Or jump right to Lighting 101
Connect w/Strobist readers via: Words | Photos

Comments are closed. Question? Hit me on Twitter: @Strobist


Blogger Matt Swann said...

How do the white and silver umbrellas differ? I noted that you linked to the white one, but mentioned that either one would work in your earlier post.

I've heard that the silver umbrella reflects more light but makes it harsher, with a tighter spread... anyone care to give a quick rundown of how they affect the light?

-- Matt Swann

May 18, 2006 11:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your site has been so useful to me I cannot begin to describe how much help it has been.

I've recently ordered nearly 90% of the SSO-CLK to complement my existing gear. All from Adorama, I'll be sure to let you know how it works out.


May 19, 2006 12:46 AM  
Blogger David said...


Personal preference. The white satin will give you a little softer, creamier light. But the silver will give you a little efficient return on the light.

Given the low power of the flashes we use, I would tend to opt for silver. But you could go either way. And there's not that much difference.

May 19, 2006 7:19 AM  
Anonymous Jim Mucklin said...

njtDavid, I'm starving. I would love to see an article on extending cords like the sc-17 or any other way we can hook up SB's to a Nikon D70s and if there are any othe options to the pocket wizards. Like how the Su-4 was to film. Your methods on ambient light nailed it, I was able to get the shot and the result I wanted it.

May 19, 2006 9:17 AM  
Blogger EssPea Photography said...

Since when can a starving student afford two bodies? ;)

May 19, 2006 10:19 AM  
Anonymous quis said...

Forget Pocket Wizards, get on eBay, search photography for "radio flash" and you can get a transmitter and receiver for about £15 from Hong Kong. You'll also need to add a hotshoe adapter (£10) and wire them together by hand. You can also get extra receivers for multi-flash goodness. Total cost: ~$45. Have a look at my site for some of the photos I've done with this setup.

May 20, 2006 5:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

David: Any suggestions on how to expand the setup to a second SB unit without optical slave or wireless trigger (i.e. can the cords be daisy-chained)?

Jim: For the home-built PC sync cord, you can replace one of the PC-to-household ends with a hot-shoe-to-household end from Paramount, letting you hook it up to your D70s. It's $18.50 at Adorama:

May 20, 2006 7:41 AM  
Blogger The Dentonista said...

Nikon reccomends against daisy chaining any of their cords. The SU-4 function still works with the latest SB800's, so it should be functional all the way back to whatever you're using. If you want to catch the most advanced use of the Nikon Creative Lighting System (NCLS), grab the Joe McNally DVD. It's short but pretty darn cool. I've been wireless for months and it's great! The "starving student OCLK" is a perfect start for a lot of my students and proves to all what can be done with some ingenuity. shannon drawe
(not affiliated with nikon in any way)

May 20, 2006 9:24 AM  
Blogger Phil Pereira said...

Got my first sb-24 today. I got it from ebay for $25 (It was actually just $11.50, and the rest was shipping). Now I just need to buy the rest of this stuff (particularly a way to connect it to my rebel) to start taking some well lit photos.

May 20, 2006 1:26 PM  
Anonymous Daemon said...

There's also a flash kit made by Opus that sells for about $140-$150 CDN (around $100 US). Seems to be sold all over the place.

No idea what the kit is called, but the light was the M40.

Don't have one, so I can't say anything about the quality either way.

May 23, 2006 3:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

not sure if you've mentioned it but one thing i've run into with some older shoe flashes is a yellowing of the tube(?)/cover. some of my flashes require a 1/8 to 1/4 CTB to get them neutral(or at least close). not a big deal if it's the only light source and you're using a custom WB to that source but noticeably off if using a preset WB or mixing it with ambient/other flashes.
ust a thought. mark/

May 28, 2006 3:20 PM  
Blogger kegsofduff said...

Thanks for the article, it has a lot of great info, the whole site actually.

I just wanted to throw in that I picked up 50 of the ball bungees on ebay for $6 including shipping

May 30, 2006 7:39 PM  
Anonymous Jim Clagett said...

Your recommendations seem to be having a big impact. Adorama is currently out of the 3373 lightstand, the swivel holder (umbrella adapter), and the white collapsible umbrella!

Thanks for the great site!

June 19, 2006 11:26 AM  
Anonymous Tom S said...

One recommendation for the umbrella adapter: Put a drop of removable strength thread lock (Loctite #242) on the threads of the brass adapter and the small holding screw for the hot shoe. Wait a few minutes, then run the screw in and out a few times until you can comfortably turn it. Leave the brass adapter screwed in unless you need to use it for something else.

You can find thread lock at any auto parts store. Just make sure you get the REMOVABLE kind!

July 07, 2006 7:27 AM  
Anonymous conrad erb said...

remember that if you don't trust the imported radio slaves (I haven't tried them myself), but you don't want to spend $350 on a new set of pocket wizards, you can often pick up a set of quantum radio slaves on eBay for $150-$200 (or sometimes $100 if they have bad cosmetics).

July 09, 2006 10:23 PM  
Blogger midwestphotoexchange said...

I wanted to make a few comments on some of the possibilities mentioned.
Radio Slaves:
1.I highly recommend getting a radio slave unit in general, for a couple reasons. The obvious is that you don't have cords running everywhere for you or others to trip over. The more important reason is if you are using a different manufacturer of your light than your camera. Many strobes have different voltage than the cameras, and there is a good chance if you are plugging the sync directly into the PC outlet on your camera, you could fry/short the circuit board. The other option is to use a 'Safe Sync' such as one made by Wein, but at $54, you might as well spend the extra on a radio set, and be wireless.

2.Pocket Wizards are really the standard, and what I prefer. The Quantum units are too expensive and not as reliable, won't necessarily fire every time. The 4 channel plus kits work great, and are about half the price of their multi-max system, which as 32 channels and other useless stuff. The one nice advantage of the multi-max system is that all units can be used as a receiver or transmitter. The Pocket Wizard Plus system is either/or.
The Pocket Wizard Plus units are no longer being produced, but we are still able to stock them. $315 for the set. They are being replaced by the Plus II system, which is a step above the Plus, and a step below the Multi-Max. Each Plus II unit is 4-channel, but EACH unit can be used as transmitter or receiver. Now, even though the Plus is being replaced, ALL units will work together! The Plus, Plus II and the Multimax are all interchangeable. I do recommend buying the Plus kits while they are available, as the Plus II units are going to be more expensive. Anyone confused yet?

3.There is a Chinese Radio unit I have had a lot of luck with. My beginning lighting and student photographers have been very happy with them. It's a brand called Opus. The units are 4 channel and cost $99. So far I have not run into reliability issues. I have found a couple bad units, which I was able to return for full credit, but none that were shipped to clients. I check them all myself when they come in. They offer a 1 year warranty on the units and really stand behind thier product. Definitely a good affordable way to get started.

Umbrellas and accessories:
1.I love the recommendation of the compact collapsible Westcott, unfortunately because of groups like this, they are becoming harder to come by and are extremely backordered. Lucky for us, we have around 40 left in-stock! Price is $19each. The other option is the DynaLite Collapsible, but they are much more expensive, and don't seem to be that much better.
2.Not sure if this was mentioned, but Bogen makes a 3353 stand that collapses to 16inches, but is $60, or a set of 3 for $168. For my Dynalite kit, I used 2 of these stands and the Dynalite collapsible umbrellas. We have all in stock. We also will be getting a fresh shipment of the umbrella swivel holders on Monday or Tuesday.

Thanks for publishing this article, great info! I'm definitely be sending clients here to gain ideas.

Any questions or comments feel free to email or call!

Moishe Appelbaum
Midwest Photo Exchange

August 12, 2006 2:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does anyone know if it is safe to use a Sunpak 355AF Flash on the D200?

September 18, 2006 2:54 AM  
Blogger fdgboy said...

Does anyone have experience with the Nikon SU-800? I believe it was primarily designed for the Nikon macro flash system but with its infrared signal it will also trigger an SB-800 and or SB-600. I'm curious if it would make a nice substitute for a set of the pocket wizards (less money). I'm aware of the difference in range, 66 feet vs. 1000 feet, would it be as robust as the PW's? Would the SB-flash units always have to have a direct line of sight to the SU-800 to work?



December 02, 2006 7:42 PM  
Anonymous Tracey said...

I use painters tape instead of gaffers tape. I kind of fell into that because I can't get gaffers tape where I am and it's expensive and painters tape has 4 different types of "tackiness" and doesn't leave a residue and holds pretty good and tears away easily.

December 05, 2006 2:43 PM  
Anonymous Duncan said...

I'm putting together my poor mans kit, and like everyone else am having a hard time finding the specific pieces probably in large part to this blog's popularity. I was looking at this 8' savage tripod which supposedly folds down to an impressive 16.7". Anyone have any experience with this brand or care to shed some light as to whether these specs are correct. Looking at the pic it doesn't seem like it could possible get that small.


December 08, 2006 7:51 PM  
Blogger pixelrouge said...

I am new to the blog...
And like others am glad to find such useful information on use of flash...
Thank a lot man for ur wonderful blog...

Regarding my query. I have a Canon 350D.
Does ur recommendation of Nikon SB-24 & Nikon SB-26 as master-slave hold true to canons as well.... Or should there be other choices.

January 08, 2007 10:57 PM  
Anonymous Jeffrey Engel said...

Hmm... this setup sounds cool, but I wonder if it would work with a Graflex Speed Graphic large format camera... ;)

February 15, 2007 2:15 PM  
Blogger Nathan said...

I gotta say that the starving student lighting kit is where it's at. It's totally transformed my wedding photography, and right now I'm working with the coolest reception lighting ever. I love it. I have 2 SSLKs that I take almost everywhere with me, and I'm getting really rad multi-directional light that my clients love. Just the other day I lit an entire magazine cover shot with two of these kits, and the image turned out fantastic. So thanks a lot, strobist! You've made my day. Well, more like you've made my job. :)

Dreamtime Images

May 23, 2007 7:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am having a hard time finding those ball bungees, where can you get them?

March 19, 2008 6:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't seem to find those ball bungee's. where have people gotten them???

March 20, 2008 7:12 AM  
Anonymous LV said...

Google for ball bungees.
How many do you need?

March 29, 2008 6:51 PM  
Anonymous Affiliate said...

Googling it will definitely get you where you wanna go. Great article!

May 10, 2008 12:03 AM  
Anonymous mercedes auto parts said...

matt swan's comment asks what the difference between the white umbrella and the silver? and i would like to ask the same beccause at your Strobist DVD Excerpt seminar you used a white one but the one you have linked is silver, what to do? =)

August 26, 2008 8:45 PM  
Blogger David said...


I have updated the article with the latest info. Thanks for the heads-up!


August 26, 2008 9:00 PM  
Anonymous Wilbur said...

C'mon - if yo uadd all of that up, you are around $300.
You can get a REAL studio strobe, with a stand and umbrella for that much.

December 15, 2008 1:46 PM  
Blogger Gino said...

I love this kit. I saw the recommendation on the strobist DVD, and now its my portable portrait lighting kit. Thanks

Gino Siller Photography

November 16, 2009 6:44 PM  
Blogger yaekophotography said...

Thanks for sharing the article. I like doing headshots and that's a great and inexpansive way to try it out. I like testing different what I need to do now is get some of the ball bungees and get the ball rollin...
Yaeko Photography

April 11, 2010 8:57 AM  
Blogger Viisshnu said...

Thanks for sharing the post. Very inspirational. Cheers.

April 15, 2013 3:39 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home