Getting Started Lighting Gear
Listener Chris Truhe asked in our Facebook Group:
“Could someone provide me with a list of gear one needs to begin off camera flash, in addition to a speed lite, a stand, and an umbrella? Appreciate your time.”
I am going to walk through the lighting gear that I am using. It is gear that is relatively inexpensive, making it ideal for those who are starting out. There are two important aspects about this gear I am going to recommend for photographers just getting started with flash photography.
- Inexpensive, Not Cheap: I think there is a distinction between the two. To me something that is cheap is both inexpensive and not built to last. You buy it with the expectation that you will be replacing it very soon. The recommendations I will be providing are not cheap. Everything I am going to recommend should last for a year or two or three at least.
- Works and Simple To Use: If the gear has trouble or doesn’t work consistently, that really impedes your ability to learn how to use it. You don’t know how to really incorporate the gear into your photography and you don’t really have a chance if you are having to troubleshoot why something isn’t working. Same problem there if the things is reliable but is really hard to understand how to operate the gear.
Godox TT600 ($65). Amazing value for the price. Yes, these are manual flashes but those just getting into flash photography should trust me when I tell you that it will be easier for you to learn how to incorporate flash into your work by NOT having TTL (TTL is like auto mode for your flash where based on information the camera provides the flash decides what power level the flash should use – I hate it). Incredibly, this very inexpensive flash supports High Speed Sync (with the right controller, see below)!
You can get started really well with one of these flashes. Two is better so that you can really play around with main and fill lighting. Three gives you so much flexibility!
Should you buy three flashes if that is all you can afford or get some of the other pieces on this list? The minimum to get moving on learning how to use flash is one and use it on-camera of course. But say you have a budget of $200 then I recommend you buy two flashes and the controller then see if you can be creative on how to get those flashes positioned where you need them.
Godox AD200 ($300). Beginners to flash photographer SHOULD NOT START HERE!!!! Seriously, you don’t need this and your money is much better invested in all the rest of the gear on this list than going straight for these flashes. Grow into these. Add these to your kit one at a time and hopefully your skills in incorporating artificial light into your photography will grow as you do so that you can truly take full advantage of the enhanced capabilities of these lights.
Advantages over TT600 include:
- More power (roughly 3x the output)
- Super fast recycle times and longer battery life (uses a big rechargeable battery instead of AA)
- Fresnel and bulb heads (fresnel is the name of that rectangular kind of head on the flash you all have seen and know well), so you can go to a bulb head when using a softbox. The bulb head does a better job of filling the softbox more evenly, less hot spots.
- TTL (I hate it and NEVER use this, so is it really an advantage?)
Godox Xpro ($70). Trust me here again, you really want one of these as you are getting started. This device mounts in the hotshoe of your camera so that when you press the shutter button a signal goes through the hotshoe to the controller and then wirelessly relayed to the flashes telling them to pop.
This works pretty reliably, though I do have to say there is a rare shot here and there where it can break down a bit and one of the flashes doesn’t pop. By rare I mean maybe once in a two or three hour session, if even that. Something that you should expect with any wireless solution and I have had many sessions where it has never failed. If it does fail to make all of the flashes fire, you just go again and it all works.
I am calling this device a controller and not a trigger on purpose here. The Xpro does far more than trigger the flashes to fire. It also allows you to change the settings of the flash right there on the device, something that I find invaluable! It may not sound like it is a big deal to walk over to a flash and change the settings, but being able to do that from where you are standing as you are shooting is a game changer. Worth every penny spent on this controller.
You want to get the controller made for your camera brand to increase the reliability of the flashes responding and have the High Speed Sync feature function:
There is a newer version of the controller from Godox that is actually slightly less expensive at about $60 called the X2t. This controller has some features that aren’t in the Xpro controller (bluetooth) but the biggest difference is the X2t has a hotshoe on the top of it so that you can still add other hotshoe peripherals.
I think they are a little harder to use, so I recommend photographers starting out in flash stick with the Xpro. If that hotshoe is important to you or you want to use your flashes with your phone (through the bluetooth functionality) then you can use the camera specific links below to get the X2t:
Neewer 2 pack of 9’ ($43). I almost didn’t put these on my list. They are not the sturdiest of light stands. I decided to keep them on my list for those photographers on very limited budgets who want to get into flash. I own 2 of these stands, bought them when I was first getting started because the better stand I recommend below was too much. These stands will work pretty well indoors, but if you are going outdoors you are likely to understand the definition of cheap.
Impact Air-Cushioned Heavy Duty 9’6” ($55). Yes, this stand is 2x more expensive but they are at least 2x more sturdy. If you can’t afford to get one of these for each of the flashes, then go with the Neewer and get shooting then upgrade to these stands as you can.
A quick note on the air-cushioning. This is not a feature I would be willing to pay for. If I could buy the same stand without the air-cushioning and save $10 or something on each stand I would do that. They don’t offer that, so let me explain what this does. With a stand that has air-cushioning when you loosen the bracket that keeps the stand expanded or fully telescoped out to lower the light it doesn’t come crashing down. Instead, there is a cushion of air that means even with a heavy modifier and flash on top the stand slowly descends.
Air-cushioning saves your hand and potentially your gear. There have been many times as I have worked with light stands where I don’t think about holding the light stand with two hands and it suddenly falls onto my hand that loosens the bracket. It hurts. It also puts your flash gear on top of the stand at risk as it can come off the light stand or knock the stand over and could be the death of your gear. Still not a feature I would specifically pay for, but this one has it so enjoy.
Neewer 2×33” Reflective Umbrella ($17). Best way to light a large group (like more than about 8). You point your flash into the umbrella and then face the silver side of the umbrella towards your models. Seems a little strange because this means your flash is pointed in the opposite direction of your models. However, that silver lining is going to reflect nearly all of the light coming out of the flash back to the models and significantly enlarges the light source making it softer and more pleasing.
Don’t spend a lot of money on these. This is where you actually want cheap. I have spent more money on silver umbrellas and they get carried by the wind and destroyed just as easily as the cheap ones. Plan to replace these as needed.
Shoot Through Umbrella
Neewer 60” Soft White Diffuser Umbrella ($30). If you can’t quite afford the better light modifiers below, this will get you going with a pretty decent way to significantly expand the size of your light and make it much softer. The biggest downside is you really can’t control where the light is going very well. It kind of spills out everywhere. Still, very inexpensive way to turn the light coming from these small sources with the flashes into something far more useful.
You also need a way to mount the umbrella to your light stand. For that I recommend the 2pack Anwenk Camera Flash Speedlight Mount Swivel ($16).
First Light Modifier(s)
I wrestled a little with this MagMod gear being on my list for photographers just starting into flash. The second of my two important criteria is not an issue, these modifiers just plain work. I am a huge fan of MagMod because of how much simpler it is to use these products over nearly anything else I have tried. It is so nice to focus on being creative and to have the ability to try lots of different things almost without thinking about it because these modifiers are so easy to use.
The reason I struggled on deciding if these should make the list here was the cost. These are more on the expensive side of things. They are super high quality and will last for a very long time, so that really helps to justify the cost. Plus they aren’t break the bank expensive. Just expensive enough it made me think about it for a bit. In the end, the quality and ease of use made me decide to not only put them on the list but recommend them before some of the other modifiers I really like.
MagMod MagGrip ($25). This is a plastic/rubber thing you stretch over the top of your flash head that has two strong magnets that can be used to attach the modifiers to your flash. Super slick way to do this that is the key to making things so simple. If you decide to get into the MagMod system of lighting modifiers (you should really consider it) then you are going to need a MagGrip for every flash.
MagMod MagSphere ($50). MagSphere diffuses the light and softens it. Like a super easy, super portable softbox. You won’t believe how incredibly easy it is to apply this to your flash and the difference it makes in the softness of the light. Amazingly useful piece of lighting gear.
MagMod MagGrid ($35). As mentioned above, one of the downsides of the shoot through umbrella is light just spills out everywhere. The MagGrid looks a little like a honeycomb that does an incredible job of directing the light so that you can control where it goes. It seems a little counter-intuitive to combine the MagGrid with the MagSphere since the two modifiers seem to work against each other, but I love to put the MagGrid on my flash first so that the light is being controlled forward and you limit the spill, then stack the MagSphere on top of it to enlarge the light source.
MagMod MagGel ($30) + MagMod Standard Gel Set ($30). There are so many creative options when you think about adding colored light to your photos. Really fun and something that makes your photos more unique as so many photographers never do this.
Gelling flashes is usually a bit of a pain. Most gels are cheap pieces of thin plastic that break down really easily and you replace them every shoot. You also tape those cheap gels to the flash, something that is time consuming. This is why a lot of photographers don’t do it because it takes some time to get setup and unless it was planned from the beginning they don’t go to this while their model/client is waiting.
These MagMod gels make it super simple. The MagGel is a holder that attaches to that MagGrip via magnets in less than a second. The gel sets are high quality plastic pieces that won’t break and will last for years. Makes gels an option with every shoot.
Fotodiox F60 Quick-Collapse Flash Softbox – 60cm (24in) Hexagon ($65). Loved this as my first easy to use, easy to setup softbox that dramatically improved my portrait work. You don’t need anything else to mount the flash to the softbox or how to attach the softbox to a light stand.
The F60 has a coldshoe mount built into it making it really easy to mount a hotshoe flash to the modifier. There is not a way to mount a flash that doesn’t have a hotshoe to this softbox. That means you can ONLY use the TT600 flash in this, not the AD200!
The F60 has a handle at the bottom of the modifier so that you can use it hand-held if you have an assistant with you. My wife and I have used it this way a lot on many shoots. The handle also has a whole in the bottom and a screw there so that you can put the handle over the top of a light stand and then use the screw to fasten it. Works great. Though I do have to tell you that I am on my second of these now because I broken the handle. Overtightened it when attaching it to the light stand a couple of times and split the handle.
Something different with the F60 from a lot of other softboxes is the way it is setup. Many softboxes are fairly painful to setup, which isn’t a big deal if you do it once and then keep it setup in a studio, but most photographers getting into flash photography don’t have that. The “Quick-Collapse” part of the softbox name means that the setup of the softbox is a little like an umbrella. There are rods that provide the tension you engage when you want the softbox to be fully setup and used and then you release it like you do an umbrella to collapse those rods back down when you are done.
The light is modified in a way that is very similar to the MagGrid + MagSphere combination I mentioned above (which means you also need the MagGrip on the flash). The MagMod solution costs $110 which is why the cost of this modifier at $65 is a really good deal. In fact, this modifier produces slightly better light than the MagGrid+MagSphere with the light being enlarged more and the black sides of the F60 doing a better job controlling spill. The F60 just isn’t close to as easy to use MagMod.
Better, Bigger Softboxes
If you have a little more budget to spend on modifiers and want to get the best quality of light then these are my recommendation. They are both larger than the F60 yet are still very portable and are just as easy to setup with a very similar Quick-Collapse.
The build quality is better than the F60, you can expect these to last for quite a while. I love these modifiers and they are what I go to most often in my shoots.
These softboxes do not come with a way to mount the flash to them or to attach them to a light stand so you will need a Godox S-Type Bracket Bowens Mount Holder ($20) to do that. The Bowens mount is very standard among a lot of light modifiers so this S-Type bracket can be re-used with a lot of other brands of modifiers as well. A clamp on the S-Type bracket also means you can use both the TT600 and the AD200.
I love these modifiers. I use them in pretty much every shoot I am doing, including a shoot I just did in the mountains here in Utah. They are big when they setup but they are still very portable.
A background is very optional for a photographer getting started with flash photography, which is why it is last on the list. You can do so much with the gear that I have already covered, except for one use case – composites. You can try to use a white wall to do some composite work but it really isn’t a good substitute for having a real background.
I won’t go into the color of the background to use here, I’ll tell you what I think a photographer getting into flash should do there in an upcoming Photo Taco episode (will provide a link when it is published). For now let’s just list the options I recommend.
Impact Background Support System 12’ ($105). I have used this background support for about 4 years now. There are others that are less expensive, and I suspect they are cheap, but this one has held up well. I highly recommend a 12 foot width, this one is somewhat adjustable because those 12 feet are made up of four different bars you clasp together through a very effective and easy to use interlocking system (press together and twist). You can make the width shorter by using only two or three of the rods.
This background support is quick to setup and holds great. I do need to mention that there are tips at the top of the two stands that are part of the system that are screwed on and they came unthreaded fairly quickly. I super glued them onto the stand and that worked great, but something to note.
Impact Chroma Sheet Background 10×12’ ($60). As you can tell I am a big fan of all Impact lighting gear. If I can find the gear I want from the Impact brand I am going to choose it over other options because I have seen consistent quality at a reasonable price. This green screen is not exception, very functional at a reasonable price.
Neewer 2 pieces 10x12ft Muslin Black and White ($50). This is two muslines for $50, one black and one white. I don’t actually own these, I got my black and white muslins at a garage sale, but if I was buying one today, this is what I would pick.
Neewer 10×12 Grey Muslin ($27). I don’t own a gray muslin today, so this is on my wish list right now just so that I can have the option. Grey is a good multi-use solution because it is pretty easy to make it gray, black, or white.
Forgoing the doodad of the week this week because the episode was filled with them!
- Facebook group is Master Photography Podcast
- Instagram account for the show is @masterphotographypodcast
- Find Jeff’s work at https://www.jsharmonphotos.com. Check out his Photo Taco podcast over at https://phototacopodcast.com where you can search all kinds of topics and find shows discussing the details. He is on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/harmon.jeff, Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/harmonjeff/ (@harmonjeff), and Twitter: https://twitter.com/harmon_jeff (@harmon_jeff)