Lighting 101 - An Ideal Starter Lighting Kit

Abstract: An introduction to the basic lighting gear you'll need — including our current recommendations.

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 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.

A lot of time and thought has gone into the selection of gear in the current Strobist Jumpstarter kit. The components have evolved frequently over the past ten years, guided by the feedback of countless photographers who have taken Lighting 101 before you.

This is a similar kit to what I used for two decades (and over 10,000 assignments) as a photojournalist. Only this stuff is much better. The components have strong build quality, a best-in-class warranty and some unique features that make them stand out amongst their peers.

You can get cheaper gear — especially from some of the companies shipping direct out of China. But a lot of that stuff is crap, with little (if any) warranty and destined to disappoint. A well-chosen lighting kit can last you the rest of your life, and be used with a variety of cameras both present and future.

An Ideal One-Light Kit

The recommended lighting kit 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/or 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.

In the sea of dubious entry-level remote flash triggers on the market today, one stands out. The Phottix Ares ($55) is an ideal choice for beginning lighting photographers. Though inexpensive, they are very reliable. I have taught classes with them for several years and have found them to be solid performers. They are agnostic to camera brand, which is a godsend for photographers who dabble in different camera systems. They ship with all of the accessories you'll need—even including AA 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.

With the Phottix Ares, you are not paying for features you do not need. It's an inexpensive, solid remote. It's what I use. It's all many lighting photographers will ever need.

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 LP605S

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.) This design is made by several manufacturers, but the LumoPro LP605S adds a few nice extra features.

The LP605S is a 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. Lastly, it is drilled for a strap and includes a strap. This is a nice touch to make your assembled one-light kit super portable when needed. Just throw it over your shoulder and go.

At $45, it's an easy choice.

Umbrella Swivel: LumoPro LP679 v2

The umbrella swivel connects the flash to the light stand, allowing it to tilt and/or swivel. It also provides a clamp to hold the umbrella, hence the name.

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 v2, shown above, ($16) for a variety of reasons. First, 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.

Second, 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, the LP679v2 adds a nice, big thumbscrew on the umbrella lock. This was a photographer-suggested feature. It may sounds like a little thing. But once you have used a swivel with a bigger thumbscrew, you'll wonder why you ever put up with the thumb-eating small-screw versions. They are a comparative pain in the ass.

43" Umbrella: LumoPro 3-in-1 Double-Fold

You'll be using an umbrella to soften the light from your flash and give 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 the most useful choice 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.

Also, it is a beefier design than the other double-fold umbrellas. Which is a good thing because due to the nature of umbrellas and breezes when lighting, a lighting umbrella won't last you forever. But the LumoPro 3-in-1 is more robust than most.

For $30, the LumoPro LP735 3-in-1 is a standout choice.

Enough Knowledge to be Dangerous

IMPORTANT NOTE: Jumpstarter kits are available both from Amazon and directly from Midwest Photo, at the same price. The kits on Amazon DO NOT include the video series described below. So if the videos are important to you, order directly from Midwest. If they are not important to you, it may be more convenient/faster to order from Amazon.

Finally, I wanted to include something that would further help beginners to understand their small flashes in a way that printed material could not. So a full video course (over 8 hours) is included with every Jumpstarter kit purchased from Midwest Photo to help you get the absolute most out of your new gear.

Lighting in Layers originally came on 7 DVDs and sold for $159.99. But as the use of optical drives disappeared, they were discontinued after 6 printings on DVD in 2015. All of the remaining copies have been sold out. But a full-resolution version is included on a (useful) SD card in every Jumpstarter kit.

Please note: The gear choices have evolved (for the better) since this video course was created in 2011. But the techniques will be perfectly applicable to the gear in the Jumpstarter kits.


The quality of the individual components, price and lengthy warranties make the current version of the Jumpstarter kit the single best value in beginning lighting gear in the world.

Compared to the price of your camera and lenses, basic lighting gear is refreshingly cheap. Add this kit to a small flash 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.

Midwest thoughtfully includes a case to keep the gear safe. 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 can get it direct from Midwest Photo, 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. In the next lesson, we'll show you exactly how to use it to take your first steps as a lighting photographer.

Oh, and here's the resulting shot from the setup photo shown at top:


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 good quality basic equipment. And most important, not spending more than you needed to.

Your kit will take a few days to get there. But while you wait for it to arrive, a sneak peak into what you'll be able to do with it...

NEXT: First Steps With Your New Lighting Kit


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