Your First Lighting Setup

Two years ago, when I really started to get back into shooting, I purchased a couple of lighting setups. One was a giant, kick-ass $250 ring light made by some guy in Toronto, and the other was an awesome generic three-light kit that I got on Ebay for slightly more than $400, including shipping and taxes.

That awesome kit came complete with:

  • three 250 watt-cycle generic Chinese lamps with Bowen-style mounts
  • three air-cushioned light stands
  • three flash bulbs
  • three 150-W modeling bulbs
  • two speed rings
  • two softboxes with individual carrying cases
  • a silver bounce umbrella
  • two silver reflectors: a 5″ and a 7″
  • a snoot with an attachable 30-degree honeycomb grid
  • barn doors that attach to the 7″ reflector with a slot that holds a grid or gels
  • a 30-degree honeycomb grid for the barn doors
  • four colour gels for the barn doors: red, blue, green and yellow
  • a big black back to carry it all, complete with dividers to pack it up neat

That cheap gear is still the lighting kit I use the most in my studio. The ring light has also served me well in situations where I need a constant source and might only have room for one light.

If you’re just starting out in studio photography, or even just strobe-based indoor photography, I highly recommend not dumping a ton of money into an expensive studio kit. Find a kit like the one I have and go to work. Figure out how to use your kit and stretch it to its limitations. Be inventive. Do your research. Experiment.

For example, the light that comes out of an umbrella is usually pretty flat and even, unlike the hard, directional light of a beauty dish. This is great for lighting backdrops as it helps to eliminate hot spots, but it’s not always the best for faces. However, not having a beauty dish to work with shouldn’t stop you from figuring out how to get that same quality of light.

If you have a silver umbrella, use it without a reflector and push it deep into the umbrella. The lack of reflector will allow the light to move sideways, like a beauty dish, and send it toward your subject in a more directional manner. This photo was taken using the reflective umbrella like a beauty dish.

The tones and details on the subject’s face look fantastic (click on the images to view better quality):

Dwayne Bannister

I’ve also discovered that if I use a 100W equivalent CFL bulb in a softbox with the inner diffuser removed (a must), I can use my strobe kit a constant light kit, similar in concept to spider lights.  This is a self-portrait taken in my kitchen using a single softbox with 100W-equivalent CFL bulb as a constant light source in the strobe’s “modelling” light socket:

Self portrait. Continuous lighting.

Light is light is light, but there’s a huge gap between a good lens and a great lens. If you’re starting out and you want your work to look better faster, spend your money on better lenses rather than expensive, high-end lighting kits and modifiers.

Having said that, and having spent the last two years working with this gear, I’ve gotten to a point where I’m looking to expand my work outside of the studio box. Particularly, I’d like to shoot more outdoors with an off-camera flash, but I don’t want to be restricted to being tethered to an extension cord. So, I’m looking at battery packs. Particularly, I’m look at the Paul C. Buff Vagabond Mini Lithium. It’s tiny, light-weight, and can easily get me through a half-day outdoor shoot with my existing kit.