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3 Lighting Hacks for Photographers on a Tight Budget

Natural light is a great place to start your photography education. There are enough intricacies in understanding how light hits a subject naturally to keep most photographers busy for a lifetime.

Some of us, however, want a little more and find ways to manipulate light artificially — inspired by commercial shooters like Art Streiber, Annie Leibovitz, or Mark Seliger. At first, our dreams are dashed when we see the kinds of budgets these heroes get to work with. Then, the experienced photographer realizes that creativity and problem solving ability go much further than budget when creating memorable images. Here are some tips for making your lighting work on a tight budget.

photo of a couple taken with one speed light and an umbrella

Taken with one speed light and an umbrella. No more than $250 invested in lighting.

1. Do the best with what you’ve got.

Of all the tips here, this might be the only one you really need. I spend a lot of time comparing specs on lighting kits, looking at the differences between modifiers, and weighing pros and cons for every little thing. Sometimes I wonder how much better I’d be at my craft if I was just using the equipment I already own a little bit more instead of researching the next best thing.

This past week, I did a shoot for a client that told me, “No need to bring lighting gear—we will be working in a studio on-site.” I didn’t want to insult the client’s gear, so I agreed, and found myself in a situation with just two tungsten video lights, one softbox, and the choice between a beige wall and a green wall as a backdrop. At first I wished I had brought some of my really awesome and expensive gear. Then, I took the opportunity to challenge myself to create something compelling and do the best with what I had.

photo of a couple on a porch taken by merging two photos together

Only have one light? No problem! I used a tripod and merged two images together, removing the light stand in the first frame.

2. A full top-of-the-line studio setup is not going to make you a better photographer.

This is all about knowledge. Understanding how a professional setup works and why it’s useful will make you a better photographer. One of the best things you can do to foster this understanding is to create workarounds for the gear you don’t have. On the shoot I described above, I wanted soft light but had just one small softbox. Rather than changing the look based on the gear, I positioned the subject near a wall so that I could bounce light off the wall—effectively mimicking soft window light.

Spend time watching videos and reading up on how the pros do things. This will give you knowledge that is much more valuable (and affordable!) than any gear you could buy. Once you have a solid base of knowledge concerning lighting, you will start to see creative ways of doing things on a budget. Can’t afford that $500 softbox? Maybe a thin white sheet or a shower curtain is enough material to diffuse a hard light. Only have one light? Maybe a sheet of white foamcore or aluminum foil is reflective enough to act as a fill light. Need a beauty dish? Build one out of cardboard or foam. There are plenty of DIY ideas on the internet from people much more creative than I am.

photo of a couple at a bar taken using two lights

Two lights and no more than $500 invested.

3. Making a professional setup on a budget

If you would like a professional setup, one that looks legit and acts legit and is incredibly versatile, you can spend as little as $300-500. Start with two speedlites—this will give you a ton of options. Yongnuo speedlites can be had for about $75 each, are pretty powerful, but also have a reputation for not lasting very long. Lumopro LP180s have a better reputation for quality and run about $200 each. This still saves you several hundred dollars over buying equivalent Canons or Nikons.

Next, get yourself two light stands ($30), two or three radio triggers (Yongnuo shines in this department-$35), two umbrella elbow mounts ($30), and two white shoot through umbrellas ($30). This equipment will be a great start and keep you busy for many years, if used creatively. Don’t let your budget get you down! Just keep shooting.

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