Posted by: David Vernon | January 30, 2009

Lighting on a Budget

Zimmatic RedeuxWe love to answer questions on the Central Illinois Photoblog. We also love to reprint the questions so everyone can share in them. We love to put those questions in blockquotes – which is tough to do at the top of the post because of the picture that always goes up there. So I often have to dance around that by putting a bunch of text here to push the question down. Like that. Whew.

Also, there’s one more link at the bottom of this post for another fantastic photography studio that loves to light. Just whetting your whistle.

Now, I received a question yesterday from a viewer. It went something like this:

“I was looking into getting some type of kit and there are so many to choose from.  I was wondering as a beginner would you choose strobes or continuous?  Soft boxes or umbrellas?  Or a mix?  How many lights would you recommend…such as hair, main, fill, background, etc.  I would like to keep my budget somewhere around $200-$400 obviously the cheaper the better.”

Okay – well first of all – is that budget even doable? Can you do something – let alone with multiple lights – for that price range?

Of course you can. You just have to make choices. And you probably have to accept some limitations. Find out after the jump…

Before we go anywhere though, our reader is already going down the right path when mentioning getting “some type of kit”. Typical resellers will do a better job then you ever can of moving an inexpensive lighting kit with everything you want to get started. It’s probably the only way to stay within the budget suggested above, and get some options. For example, B&H sells this kit. I don’t know anything about it but I like the options I get. Two lights with enough power to do portraiture, along with a softbox and an umbrella. I can do something with that. The limitation: just three stops of control – from full to 1/8th power. That’s not a lot of options – especially if you want to shoot wide open. But still – you can do something with this. It’s complete and it’s within budget.

But then you have to watch the catches in a situation like this. You need to make sure you can sync. The kit comes with a PC cable but then you need to make sure you have a PC connector on your camera or you need to spend $ to get a hot-shoe adapter. Or you need to spend money to buy some cheap wireless connectors. Just make sure you know what your kit doesn’t have and what it will take to get some use out of it.

Let’s answer the first question – strobes or continuous? First it can be problematic but not impossible to shoot with both. Just watch your mixture of color temperature. Just remember to correct color temperature with inexpensive gels. You can go pretty bare bones on continuous and still get decent light. It is what it is however. If you want to dim it, you’re going to have to move it or diffuse it. You have a choice between fluorescent (cold) or tungsten (hot) when it comes to continuous – fluorescent is safer and probably less expensive overall – and gaining in popularity. But you’ll never get the intensity you can get with tungsten and you’ll have to work somewhat closer – but it’s still a valid source. Strobes aren’t necessarily pricier, but they are a little more complicated. You can raise and lower intensity easily, but you have to tweak things to get your exposure where you want it. Consider this however. If you’ve got a flash – you’re already going down the strobe road – why not keep going? Most strobes and flashes are very close in color temperature so you can use them in support of each other and pick up an extra light source in your flash (as soon as you buy a stand, adapter, and figure out a way to sync).

Another consideration is how you will power these light sources. Shooting outside? Away from power? Uh-oh. Buying an external battery packto power your strobes or continuous lights, while not exorbitant, is still pricey. While batteries can add up, flashes alone allow you to go anywhere with a complete lighting set-up. Consider what your “studio” experience has to anticipate for.

The easy part of the question to me is the debate between softboxes and umbrellas. On a budget, umbrellas are far and away your best bet. A budget umbrella or a good umbrella… you’re still probably not out more then $25 for a medium-sized shoot-thru. Do you know what you call a cheap softbox? An umbrella. Definitely graduate up to the soft box. Besides to get a bigger jump over an umbrella, you’re going to want a soft box with some size and with an interior baffle – and you’re already running out of budget for that. Also – a soft box is usually a commitment to one platform over another. A speed ring specific to a strobe or a mount specific to a flash. There are ways around that – but they require a few more clamps here and there. Stay with the umbrella on a budget.

How many lights? Well – as many as you can get! But you can work a lot of miracles with two lights and a bounce card/reflector. Two lights gives you a key/kicker or key/background combo. The kicker can be hair or rim. A decent source of ambient can always be a third light – especially outside. If you add a third light, you get your key/kicker/background combo – and on your budget you can’t do much better then that.

So while I can’t tell you to do THIS or do THAT – you at least have some things to think about now. Any way you go, you’re going to do it better with some lights – even budget lights… and a background… and wireless… and…

Hey – remember WAY back near the beginning I said we’d have one more website with the love of all things flash? You do? Awesome. Well, hubbie and wife, Matt Adcock and Sol Tamargo, are wedding shooters who do a lot with lights and in particular flashes. A lot of lovely images on their site, called FlashFlavor.

And have a great weekend.



  1. […] I’m going to steer back to a few more lighting things. A few posts back – we talked about getting yourself into an introductary lighting gear kit. We specifically mentioned […]

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