*** 2017 Update: Everything below is still fairly true, however I did want to make a note about the newer line of flashes, strobes and triggers from Godox. These are also available rebranded as Flashpoint from Adorama, but the Godox system is really a uniquely flexible system. Their Wireless X trigger system can control their studio strobes and speedlights in any combination, up to 4 groups and 32 channels. This is a big deal – and the new strobes like the AD600BM have a battery pack and the wireless receiver built into them…which means there’s a lot fewer pieces of gear you have to lug around on your shoot. They also have the AD200 speedlight with multiple heads, and it also has a battery pack and receiver built in. Check out Flashgear.net for ordering and more information.
I have not yet tested any of these items myself, but have heard many great things from other active professional photographers. As soon as I get my hands on them I will update this with more information, reviews and images. And with that…here’s the original post:
There are just so many options when it comes to photography lighting that if you’re new to the world of photography or just venturing into the realm of flash photography it can be totally overwhelming to decide what to get. As with so many things, when it comes to lighting and lighting equipment, until you are experienced enough to know exactly what you need, it’s best to keep it simple…and understand that you do get what you pay for.
There are a myriad of cheap light kits available on auction and resale sites. While these may be fine to start learning the basics, you will likely quickly outgrow them, or end up destroying the modifiers or lights themselves because they are simply not built to withstand much abuse. Professional lighting equipment, although more expensive, will end up saving you money in the long run because you won’t need to replace it nearly as often. You’ll also have fewer frustrations because of lack of power output or off-color light.
That said there are some excellent options available that bridge the gap between beginner and professional gear, and don’t cost a year’s salary. Here’s my list of items I’d look for just starting out with lighting, as well as a few options for upgrading:
- Yongnuo YN560 IV Flash – This is a surprisingly solid little flash for the money. It has a built in transceiver that lets you control other remote flash units with a compatible receiver (see below). A flash of this type is also commonly called a speedlight.
- Yongnuo YN560 III – This is the receiver only compatible flash unit to pair with the one listed above, or the transmitter below.
- Yongnuo YN560-TX – As another option, this is the transmitter controller that mounts to the top of your camera in lieu of a flash unit like the YN560 IV. This is generally my preferred method because I honestly don’t care much for flash that is mounted on-camera. A number of reasons for this, but really I prefer the look that you get from an off-camera flash aimed strategically to highlight the contours of a subject’s face.
- Godox S-type flash bracket – You’ll need something to mount your flash onto a light stand and attach modifiers. This is a good choice because the S-type mount (also called Bowens) is one of a few widely available standards for attaching softboxes, beauty dishes and other light modifiers.
- Fotodiox EZ-Pro 32×48 Softbox – Softboxes are a great standard light modifier. They create a big, soft light source and control light spill relatively well (light spill in basically extra light bouncing around that doesn’t directly light up your subject.) The included grid with this one helps control spill even further. The main drawback to softboxes is assembly – it can be a real challenge to get the support rods inserted into the speedring mount and you’ll probably be afraid you’re breaking them the first time you try it.
- Neewer 37″ Octagon Softbox with Grid – This is an octagonal version of a softbox (also called an Octobox). Largely, the differences between an Octobox and rectangular softbox come down to personal preference. The Octo will wrap the light around your subject a little more evenly and produce more natural looking highlights in their eyes.
- PCB 13′ heavy duty light stand – I have destroyed more light stands than I care to mention. There are so many out there that are cheaply made and just can’t take the repeated set-up and tear down of a mobile photographer. These stands from Paul C. Buff are really well made and sturdy, and the extra height they offer can really be useful. That said, any stand will break if you over tighten the clamps one them. Also consider the air cushioned version. That prevents the extended tubes from slamming down accidentally which can not only damage your lights but possible injure your hands (yes, I’ve had that happen…) If you don’t want to spend quite as much they do have a few lighter duty options that would work well with speedlights.
- PCB Einstein – If you’re really wanting to go beyond the power of a speedlight, the Einstein units from Paul C. Buff are outstanding. Keep in mind – they use a different speedring mount for attaching modifiers so you’ll either need to look for versions with Alien Bees speedrings or get an adapter. These will also require a different trigger if you want to use them wireless. They can operate as slaves – which means that they will fire when they sense another flash firing. Keep in mind that studio strobes like this are usually daylight balanced, so they will have a warmer light than the speedlights above. If you mix them look for gels for the speedlights such as the Rosco Strobist collection. You use a 1/4 CTO gel to match a speedlight to daylight white balance (Also useful for using flash to fill in shadows when shooting outdoors).
- Phottix Odin II, Indra & Mitros – If you’re just wanting to go all in and get some top-notch gear that will be expandable and serve you in almost any photographic lighting need, consider going with something like the Phottix system. Their range of triggers, flashes and strobes is all integrated, and their strobes are capable of high-speed sync, which is an advanced flash system that allows shutter speeds up to 1/8000th of a second and still get good flash results (typically, most flash systems won’t work well beyond 1/200th second or so depending on your camera). They have also adapted the S-mount style speedring so the options for modifiers I listed above work with them without need for an adapter.
Those are just the basics. Again, if you’re just starting out, keep it simple and learn how to use what you can afford to get before going all out on more expensive gear. I’ll be posting more about how to set up and use different light modifiers and light arrangements in the coming weeks.
Note – I know many professionals will strongly recommend getting the name brand flashes that match your camera gear. In general I do agree, but for about a third of the cost, these Yongnuo units are hard to beat. You can look for additional features such as TTL functionality but I prefer to stress learning to control the light output manually rather than relying on the electronics to adjust settings for you. I personally have 3 Canon 430 EX II speedlights that have served me well for many years, but I also have two of the Yongnuo units and use them quite frequently. The Canon flashes are definitely well made, but the Yongnuo’s are definitely worth every penny.