Choosing artificial studio lights can be daunting.
High speed sync.
When you start looking for a flash, these are some of the terms you will come across. And if you’re anything like me when I started looking, they are confusing.
This isn’t going to be a review of a bunch of beginner lights, you can do a simple Google search for that. Nor will it be an in-depth explanation of lighting terms. Again, Google. I’m just going to give my advice and recommendations when buying your first light.
1. BUY CHINESE OR BUY SECOND HAND.
The days of “cheap Chinese made crap” are over. Sony, Canon and Nikon, Apple. They are all made in China. If they can make another company’s top notch electronics, why can’t they make their own? Granted there are going to some differences between a $100 Chinese speed light and a $600 Canon 600RT, but even a professional photographer won’t tell a difference when the photo is printed.
That being said, if you find a great deal on a second hand brand name light (Canon, Nikon, Sony, etc.), it’s what I would recommend. Build quality on a brand name light is going to be better. Service options are better. And reliability is generally going to be better. If it’s cheap and has good reviews, go Chinese. If it’s something you want to have for a long time and is a costly investment, buy something better. My recommendation here is really only for speed lights. If you are investing more in a full on mono block, I would look for better brands.
2. GET A REFLECTOR FOR A CHEAP “TWO LIGHT WITH ONE FLASH SETUP”.
Actually get a reflector first. You have money for one right now. For $10-$30 you will find plenty of 5-in-1 reflectors on Ebay or AliExpress, with the price depending on the size. There are circles, triangles, rectangles, ones with handles and ones without. Your choice is entirely up to you. My only advice is don’t get bigger than you need, get two. I have a 60cm and 180cm. I use them both on a regular basis and I paid about $30 for both. They are not that big, but it is a lot easier to throw the 60cm one in my bag if I’m just doing some simple portraits. If I need the 180cm I’ll bring it, but it mostly stays in my studio.
A reflector is something that every photographer should own. Even without a strobe, a reflector can add light, fill in shadows, and make your photos appear sharper. You will begin learning how light works and soon be ready to add another light.
3. DON’T SKIMP ON THE BASICS.
You won’t want to get just the speed light. In some cases, you can use the light attached to your camera, but in most cases you will want to move the light around. Accessories can be had very cheaply. I bought a small stand (you don’t need a strong one, I just put my backpack on the bottom to weigh it down), a shoot-thru umbrella, and reflective umbrella for about $30.
Getting that flattering soft light is all about the size of the light. A bare flash is very rarely flattering. You can bounce light off walls, which is useful for mounting the strobe on the camera if you are moving around a lot, but it can get boring really quick. If you are serious about flash, get at least a stand and one umbrella.
4. GET A SPEED LIGHT BEFORE A STROBE.
This can go back to point number 1. Speed lights can be cheap. They are small and portable, have more power than you think, and sometimes have a lot of functions that studio lights won’t have (mostly High Speed Sync). The same laws of light apply no matter what light you are using, and speed lights are a great, cheap way to begin learning. I’ll even go out on a limb and say that learning flash can bring you more business and clients, which will allow you to save up for a larger light. I own two speed lights and three Bowens lights. The Bowens never leave my studio. They are large, heavy, and need to be plugged in somewhere. The modifiers are a lot larger too. With the speed lights, everything fits in my backpack.
5. GO WIRELESS.
Chances are, if you have a newer camera you might not have a PC port to put a cable between your flash and camera. Radio transmitters can be had from $10-hundreds of dollars. Mine is a $40 unit from Yongnuo and I have never had a single problem with it. I can adjust everything right from my camera, which saves me from lowering my light on the stand, making adjustments, then testing the light again. Wires are also a recipe for disaster. I use them for my film cameras because I have no choice, and I am constantly paranoid about tripping over one and watching my camera fall to the ground.
SO IN CASE YOU WANT TO KNOW WHAT MY SETUP IS:
- Yongnuo YN600EX-RT II – $110
- YN-622C-TX E-TTL Wireless Flash Controller – $40
- Light Stand – $20
- 36″ Shoot Thru Umbrella – $7
- 36″ Reflective Umbrella – $9
- Mount for the light and umbrella – $14
This total comes to exactly $200 (from B&H).
If you want to save $40, look for a light with optical slave, meaning the strobe can be triggered with your on camera popup flash.