Let’s say I’ve piqued your interest in shooting flash photography, or at least using your existing flash and getting it off of your camera to improve your pictures, but where do you start? What do you need at a minimum to start playing and learning with additive lighting?
The photo accessory business is alive and thriving because there seems to be a certain mindset out there that if you have a certain widget you can take better pictures which really doesn’t have to be the case. In fact, some of the best lighting you can have is just in front of a window! But having the ability to put light how and where you want it will certainly allow you to be more creative an allow for images you might not be able to get otherwise. And since this blog is all about shooting with light, let’s jump in to the gear a little bit.
My aim here is certainly not to be an all encompassing guide to all things lighting, but rather to point the photo enthusiast who wishes to dip their toe in the flash photography waters towards some very inexpensive equipment that has worked for me. Again, not a comprehensive list, just the basics to jump start your flash photography fun.
First thing’s first, you’ll need a flash or two. The easiest thing to do is grab some very basic speedlights. They come in many varieties at all sorts of price point, but I’m going to suggest the basics here, purposely throwing TTL (Through The Lens metering – expensive and not needed or desired) out of the equation. Doing that will make life much more simple and give you more bang for your buck. The YN 560III is probably the best flash for this application since it has a wireless trigger as well as an optical trigger built right into the unit. Very cool! And you will be using these off of the camera so that’ll be how you use them. More on the triggers below.
Whether you’re using the YN 560III or some other speedlight you may already have, you’ll need to have the ability to trigger your flashes remotely. Let’s just skip using the sync cable option since wireless it the only way to go, and a lot of cameras today don’t have the option to use a sync cord anyway. You can use the optical slave if your particular flash supports it but you still need to trigger at least one of the other flashes for that to work. I only mention this option since some camera, like a lot of point and shoot models, don’t even offer a hot shoe to put a radio trigger on the camera, so you’ll force the camera’s built in flash to fire and it should set off all of the other flashes. If you have the option go with radio triggers. Trust me, they’re the bee’s knees. I’ve been using the Neewer Wireless/ Radio Flash Triggers for a while and can’t believe how well they’ve worked for a $20 set of triggers. The reason I used them was because I started with a bunch of Nikon SB-28 flashes and they didn’t have the built in triggering system like the YN 560III’s do. So if you do go the Yongnuo route, be sure to the their triggers since the flashes already have the receiver built in. You’ll have to get the proper set for the camera system you’re using. For example, the Nikon model is the Yongnuo RF-603 N3 and the Canon model is the Yongnuo RF-603 C1. As a side note, the Yongnuo RF-603 C1 also works great as a remote shutter release for the Fujifilm cameras with the “mic/remote” socket (see my article, Remote Shutter Release for Fuji X-E2).
One last suggestion I’ll make when it comes to flashes, is getting a set of Ni-MH rechargeable batteries. Your flashes with charge much faster and go longer and the price of the batteries is just a few dollars more than alkaline. Get a set of these Eneloop batteries with a charger when you get your flash. You’ll thank me later.
Light Stands and Swivel Heads
Now that we have that flash of yours off of the camera and being controlled with your flash triggers, we need a place to put them. To get the most flexibility from your flashes when it comes to placement you’ll want to get a light stand and a swivel head for each of your flashes. The stand is basically just a set of telescoping legs, and the swivel head is the interface between the flash and the stand. As the name implies, the swivel head can twist and bend to allow you to place the light exactly where you want it. It also has a little hole with a set screw that allows you to use an umbrella as a light modifier, which I’ll explain in the next section. There are a ton of options here when it comes to light stands, some cheaper than others, but they all work just fine. I’ll suggest two, the Cowboy Studio 7ft Light Stand Set, and the LumoPro Compact Light Stand. I use both, but like the LumoPro stand the best since it folds up so small. It’s also quite a bit more than the Cowboy Studio stands, which work great, but just don’t collapse so small.
As far as the swivel head/umbrella bracket goes, I have a bunch of the CowboystudioUmbrella Mount Bracket with Swivel/Tilt Brackets and they work great and I really like the quick detach flash bracket.
There are literally thousands of options when it comes to light modifiers out there, but you really can do most everything with just a few. My request of you is to only get the few that I outline here and master them before you bother getting anything else. By then you’ll know where you can make some creative lighting setups with some of the more elaborate lighting modifiers available.
If you can only get one lighting modifier, make it an umbrella. Even among umbrellas there are plethora of options, so I’ll suggest getting a Westcott 2001 43-Inch Optical White Satin Collapsible Umbrella. It’s a nice, durable shoot-through umbrella that has an insert in the end that keeps the set screw of the umbrella bracket from crushing it. And the best part, it collapses down to about 12 inches, so it packs light.
Next on the list of required light modifiers is a way to restrict light rather than diffuse it like our umbrella does. To restrict light you can use a snoot, which is just a tube on the end of your flash to constrict the beam of light to a very narrow and specific area. The other device is a grid which does the same thing just through a series of little tubes rather than one big one. When it comes to snoots, just grab some cardboard and tape and get to work wrapping it around the front of the flash and tape it together. That’s it! Grids can be made as well, but are easier to just buy. I got this Opteka Universal Honeycomb Fast Grid for under $10 which just velcros to the flash and works great. Too cheap to worry about making one! The little tubes that the light shoots through are available in different sizes depending on how tight of a beam of light you want. They come in 1/4″, 1/8″, and 1/16″ sizes, so just grab the one that makes the most sense for what you want to do. I use the 1/4″ and it seems just about right for most of the stuff I do.
Almost there. Gels, which are just a little colored piece of plastic, are one of those little things that I resisted bothering with for a long time, and now I rarely shoot without them. It allows you to balance the light color from your flash with the ambient light’s color which sounds complicated, but really isn’t. Search through my Behind The Scenes posts and you’ll see lots of examples of them in action. Besides merely balancing the light you can use them for other creative things like changing the background into any color you like by slapping a gel on your flash, for example. I use a little Rosco sample pack with some velcro on the sides which works fine, but these little gel holder kits are much more convenient to use.
And finally, the last piece of kit you’ll probably want is a flash diffuser that slaps on the front of your flash. It’s super useful, and for under $5, it’s a no brainer. I’ll use it to squeeze a colored gel on to the front of a flash and point it at a white background which gives it a nice colored gradient. It changes the whole look of the picture for a few dollars. There are a million and one uses for it, so add one to your order. If you get the Yongnuo YN 560III, you’ll want a White Flash Diffuser for YONGNUO YN 560.
So that’s the list of what I suggest purchasing to get started in flash photography without breaking the bank. You could probably spend the rest of your life making great photographs with just these items since you can do so much with them. Once you master lighting with this setup you’ll be well on your way to understanding lighting at a much higher level and then perhaps explore what you can do with some of the other light modifiers that are available. I can’t wait to see what you create with your new lights! Post your results or ask any questions about this gear list on our Facebook page and I’ll try to help you get rolling.
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Want to learn more about lighting? See my Behind The Scenes page where I outline how I get every shot and so can you!