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3 Fantastic Lighting Setups for Photographers on a Budget

Unfortunately, every photographer has some budget they have to work within. And, it’s usually never enough. We always want something bigger, better, brighter, faster, lighter or more consistent. If you know what your budget is and are looking into buying your first (or second… or third) lighting kit, I will offer up some recommendations on good quality kits at different price points so that you too can take photos with high-quality lighting on a budget.

photo of a woman taken with a cheap 3-light setup

A cheap 3-light setup still looks great with the right modifiers and positioning.

$500

You can go pretty far in your lighting adventure and make a very cost-effective lighting setup with about $500.

My recommendations:

  • Two off-brand speedlights or strobes ($150-400 for a pair) 
  • Radio triggers ($35 for a pair)
  • Two light stands ($30)
  • Two elbow umbrella mounts ($30)
  • Two white shoot through umbrellas ($30)

This setup will allow you to use a main light/fill light combination, a main light/backlight combo, or double the power of a solo main light or a two sided rim light for a silhouette shot. It allows you to both have hard light or soft light (with the umbrellas) and place the light at varied heights and distances from your subject.

The radio triggers ensure that the flashes fire, even at distance. I recommend Yongnuo’s speedlites as your cheap option, although their longevity is hit or miss. I recommend Lumopro LP180s as a more expensive (but still budget) option. You can also find off-brand strobes at B&H or Adorama that will get the job done. Yongnuo makes great and inexpensive radio triggers. I have had nine of them and only one failed, after a few years of use. The stands, mounts and umbrellas do not need to be expensive if you take care of them.

$1,500

portait photo being taken with Paul C. Buff setup of a beauty dish, large soft box, backlight and speedlite hair light.

An affordable Paul C. Buff setup. Beauty dish, large soft box, backlight and (speedlite) hair light.

Paul C. Buff makes lighting equipment at an incredible value. I think that this setup offers the most bang for your buck. 

My recommendations:

  • 3 Alien Bees B800s ($540)
  • Large octobox ($170)
  • Large softbox ($130)
  • Beauty dish ($80)
  • Set of grids ($60)
  • 3 light stands ($50)
  • Radio triggers/CyberSyncs ($35-$270)
  • Vagabond lithium battery ($240)

Yes, it’s almost three times more expensive than the previous speedlight setup. However, these lights are about four or five times more powerful and the modifiers have infinite possibilities. You certainly do not need all of these items, but you sure can do a lot with them for the money. Three lights allow you to do a traditional main/fill/backlight setup as well as a ton of other combinations. With their power, you can do more with them from a distance and in sunny situations.

The combination of modifiers allows you to try different looks, but for the same price you could skip the octobox and get two rectangular softboxes, or just save some money and buy one at a time. The grids will help you control your light spill. You could buy the Yongnuo radio triggers listed above to save some money or buy the Paul C. Buff triggers (CyberSyncs) for the added convenience of a warranty and great customer service. The Vagabond is not necessary, but it allows you to run your lights off of battery power. When you are nowhere near an electrical outlet, this is well worth the added cost.

$5,000

photo of couple taken with one Profoto B1 and a small umbrella

On location with just one Profoto B1 and a small umbrella.

If you have $5,000 to spend you are probably a working photographer or just really like having some expensive toys to play with. Either way, here is a kit that gives the working photographer a lot of flexibility and gives the big spending hobbyist something fun.

My recommendations:

  • Profoto B1 kit – 2 battery-powered strobes ($4,150)
  • Profoto Air Remote ($400)
  • 2 Paul C. Buff octoboxes or softboxes with Profoto Speedring adapters ($360)
  • Light stands ($50)

True, you get one less light for a lot more money than the last kit. But you get a few other valuable features. First, you are no longer tethered by any wires. The lights are controlled wirelessly and fully powered by batteries—no power cables. Second, the lights are capable of high-speed sync, further expanding their usefulness in full sunlight. Third, they pack a little more punch at 500 Watt-seconds vs. 320 Watt-seconds of the Alien Bees. And lastly, the flash duration is shorter, so freezing motion is that much easier.

I recommend the Paul C. Buff modifiers in this case to keep us under budget and still maintain a good quality of light. Of course, your lighting kit only takes you so far. Photographers at any budget can make great images. Start small and build up from there!

What lighting gear have you found to be most worth the money?

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One Comment

Will

Hi there! So for the second setup you have 3 alienbee’s for $540. They must have gone up in price, because three of those go for around $850 now :(. You have any link recommendations for the other items you recommended? Thanks!

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