Digital Lighting--The Kit

David Hobby is inspirational in many ways, not the least of which is his approach to lighting. I did his online course, and you should too! I do not subscribe to the approach of replacing natural light for strobes, but for me, the value was in getting back to thinking about light in general. But we'll get more into that later. 

Photographic lighting has a reputation for being intimidating. It's always shown as giant umbrellas, power bricks, backdrops, light stands, and massive empty space to move the runway models around in. And there's always math. Lots of math. Unless you're lucky enough to have a light meter. A Polaroid-back would be nice. Even then, there's still math. 

A lot of that was true back in the days of film. Back when it wasn't possible to know the exposure until the film got souped, it was vital to measure the light and get it right, which made lighting a venture for those with the attention and patience to develop an expertise beyond understanding angles and bounces.

In the digital age, though, most of the technical problems are pretty much eliminated. With any modern digital camera, you can simply hit the "play" button after you make a shot and check the exposure. Problems: solved.

What this means is that you can do some pretty decent lighting for a very low price because the cost of shooting a frame and then making adjustments is merely the cost of that much battery power and the time it takes to do it. Once you spend a few minutes learning a thing or two about your gear, a whole world of strobe lighting is yours for the taking.*

First things first, though. We are not talking about adding a strobe to your camera. On-camera strobe looks awful. Sometimes it can be used as a fill light, but as a general rule, direct light from the perspective of the camera is both unnatural and harsh and makes your pictures look, at best, amateurish. 

Instead, what we want to do is take the strobe off the camera so that we can position it in more interesting and flattering ways. The goal here is to imitate the pleasing angles of natural light.

What do you actually need? Very, very little. An extremely versatile kit can consist of:
  • two manual strobes
  • three radio triggers
  • a set of gels
  • two umbrellas
  • two light stands
  • some rechargeable batteries 
You can spend years playing around with that handful of kit and still find new things you can do. Let's break it down.
Strobes: Unless you are doing commercial shoots where big money is on the line and failure is not an option, you can opt for powerful and cheap strobes from our good friends at Yongnuo. I have a pair of the YN-560 II Speedlights. They're $60 each. (They now make the YN-560 III for a little bit more. I don't have it, but it looks like it has more buttons and a bit more power. I wouldn't upgrade because we are going to use these strobes on manual, and the bells and whistles don't do much for us because we are never going to use them on the camera.) There are a wide variety of other strobes, including ones from the big name makers. So long as it has manual functions, it will work. But there's no sense spending money unnecessarily, so something like a Yongnuo works great.

The 560 provides all that we need: 

  • manual settings in 1/3 stop increments
  • a fully adjustable head
  • a PC socket
  • the ability to operate as an optical slave
  • a fast recycle time
  • a price point where we don't care if we drop and break it

Radio triggers: To trigger the strobes to flash when the picture is taken, we could use a cord. But radio triggers add a lot of versatility and don't pose the risk of getting tangled or tripped over. Plus, they work around barriers. That may not seem like an issue until you're shooting in a small space where you need to shoot from one room into another, and your strobe is in the other room. Again, you can run the price range, but I opt for cheap.
Radio triggers.

Set of Gels: Gels are really cool and can enable you to do all kinds of things with strobes. I'll have a separate post about them. Rosco makes a set for $15 which is amazingly versatile. 

Umbrellas: The goal is to make light which is pleasing. That's never going to come straight out of a strobe. Instead, the light needs to be modified and dispersed to soften it. A photographic umbrella does the trick 9 out of 10 times, and is a cheap investment to get great light. I have this Westcott one, but again--any will do. More posts on umbrellas later. 

Light stands: These are just tripods for lights. You want to keep your strobe mounted somewhere steady and have a way to hold your umbrella. That's what a light stand does. Again, cheap works. The strobes we're using are very light, and a beefy stand is not required. I've been happy with a couple of LumoPros, but there are a lot of options out there. You'll also need a bracket to attach the strobe to the light stand. Yet again, these are cheap. Whatever you pick won't be wrong, and even if it is it cost less than a Starbuck's coffee, so you aren't out much. 

Batteries: A strobe eats up batteries. Go rechargeable, and buy twice what you think you'll need. I opted for high capacity eneloop because I don't like to run out of juice.

That's it. Anytime you see me write about strobe lighting, it will be done with this kit, which cost me less than $250. Every bit of it (other than the batteries) is a long-term purchase, and it's a relatively small investment which will open many avenues.

* None of this applies to wedding photographers. Wedding and event photographers need to use on-camera strobes, and they've got a set of problems the rest of us (thankfully) don't have to solve.