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Friday, June 21, 2024

Light Your Photos and Videos Properly With This Camera Gear

The best way to build your skills as a photographer or videographer is to learn about the art of off-camera lighting—the use of flashes or continuous lights that are set up on stands around your photographic subject or held in your hand, and not mounted on your camera. 

I've written an entire guide on how to properly light your photos and videos. It's filled with advice from experts who have spent their careers mastering the intricacies of lighting. And it is lifelong process, but with a few basic concepts and a few inexpensive tools, it’s a process that is surprisingly approachable.

Below are product recommendations from myself and the experts. We've assembled good picks for those just starting out, as well as picks for seasoned photographers and videographers looking to upgrade to more professional setups.

Be sure to check out our many other photo buying guides, like the Best Mirrorless Cameras, Best Compact Cameras, Best Camera Bags, and Best Action Cameras

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Start With One Light

Camera lighting doesn’t have to be expensive. Sure, if you want the world’s best Swedish-made lights, they’ll cost you as much as a used car. But if you’re just looking to grow your skills and start experimenting, you can start with an affordable one-light kit.

“With a one-light kit, you can easily create photos that are both more evocative and more three-dimensional,” says photographer and lighting instructor David Hobby. “For that reason, I would suggest to any serious-minded photographer that she get an off-camera lighting kit—and learn how to use it—before even getting her second lens.” Hobby even recommends getting a second light before getting a second lens: “With a second light (even cheaper than the first, because you don’t need a second wireless trigger) comes the ability to control your subject in layers. Or to create a lighting environment in the absence of any good quality ambient light at all.”

Hobby recommends choosing a reputable third-party flash—something made by a manufacturer different than the one that made your camera—because they are often more affordable. Camera companies enjoy large profit margins on their flashes to make up for the slim margins on their camera bodies and lenses. By buying third-party, Hobby explains, you can put together an entire kit that includes a flash, light stand, swivel adapter, lighting umbrella, and a wireless remote trigger for less than the cost of a basic first-party flash.

Another thing to be aware of is that if you buy a high-end light with a proprietary accessory mount around the bulb to affix different light modifiers, not only is the light expensive but the accessories are more expensive too. If you buy gear with a Bowens Mount (the standard mount for the vast majority of third-party accessories), then buying accessories will be less expensive, which will encourage more freedom to experiment with different options.

A Good Entry-Level FlashGodox TT600 ($65)

At just $65, this is the flash David Hobby recommends for an entry-level one-light kit. (This flash is also sold as Flashpoint Zoom R2 with US warranty.) You can mount this directly on your camera, or you can buy a mount to use it on a light stand with modifiers such as an umbrella or softbox. This is the flash included in the complete $229 kit Hobby recommends on his Strobist website.

Get a Remote Trigger TooFlashpoint R2 Pro Remote Trigger ($59) 

With an off-camera flash or strobe, you need a remote trigger to make the flash fire remotely when you press the shutter button. This remote trigger must be compatible with both your flash and your specific brand of camera. If you use Godox or Flashpoint, this one is easy to read your adjustments on thanks to the large backlit screen. If you use a smaller mirrorless camera such as a Fuji, the smaller version is what Hobby recommends. It's the same price.

A Flash Upgrade OptionFlashpoint eVOLV 200 Pro ($309) 

This hybrid flash is also sold as the Godox AD200 Pro, but the Flashpoint version has a US warranty. This 250-watt strobe comes with both a flash head and a bare bulb head, the latter offering a better light spread for use with a softbox or umbrella. (See our recommendations for these add-ons below, and learn more about them in our comprehensive guide to lighting.)

Affordable and highly portable, this light is far more powerful than a typical flash without adding much more bulk to your kit. If you’re choosing between this and a regular flash, bear in mind that this will not mount on your camera like a flash will. It includes a swivel mount for a light stand, but the $25 Glow S2 mount bracket (or Godox S2) will allow you to mount this (or any flash) onto a light stand. The S2 also has the added benefit of having a mount for an umbrella and a mount for softboxes.

Continuous Lights for VideoAputure Amaran COB 60x ($199) 

This new 65-watt continuous LED video light from Amaran comes ready to plug in, or it can run without a power cable if you use Sony L-Series (or compatible aftermarket) rechargeable batteries. When shooting video plugged into AC power, the locking connector will ensure you don’t accidentally pull it out while you’re in the middle of a shot. Using a companion mobile app, you can control up to 100 Aputure and Amaran branded lights with your phone or tablet, dialing in your entire multi-light setup all on your mobile device.

The 60d and 60x were both just released. The 60d is less expensive by $30 and offers more brightness at full power. But the 60d’s color is daylight-balanced whereas the 60x is bi-color, which means it can be adjusted to emit light ranging from the bright white of daylight to yellowish light more akin to candlelight. I appreciated that versatility in practice more than the added brightness of the 60x. Both versions have a standard Bowens Mount, so they should work with a vast array of affordable third-party light modifiers such as softboxes.

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Profoto B10x ($1,995) 

Combining a 250-watt strobe for single blasts of intense light for photography with a 3,250-Lumen continuous light for video, Profoto’s new B10x is perfect for a hybrid shooter with a healthy budget. Profoto products are made in Sweden, and in terms of quality and design, the brand is an industry benchmark used by the best pro photographers. Using the B10x is a joy, the solid way the dials turn and buttons audibly click, and the vivid digital power display on the back with power output, battery level, and a pop-up control menu, all scream meticulous quality and thoughtful design.

 I tested it with the svelte Profoto matte-black remote trigger ($300) mounted on the camera hot shoe, and because it is so compact, I barely noticed it on my camera while shooting. The B10x is also Bluetooth-enabled, so you can control it with your smartphone, and you can sync it with your smartphone’s camera, dial in color and intensity with intuitive sliders in Profoto’s mobile app, and create professional images and video with nothing but this light and your phone.

Godox Light Stick ($151)

A versatile handheld light source for photos and videos when you just want to add a little “sparkle” to a scene. Photographer and documentary filmmaker David Raccuglia, who has taken portraits of figures ranging from Jack Nicholson to the Dalai Lama, prefers subtle lighting that doesn’t look like he’s lit the scene at all. “Just drop your subject in and sparkle them a little bit,” says Raccuglia, who uses a handheld light wand like this one to add light to a subject’s face so it looks like it may have come from an ambient light. This light also has two color temperatures, one to match tungsten, which is the color temperature of standard light bulbs, and the other to match daylight.

Modifiers and AccessoriesPhotek Softlighter (Medium) ($107)

Umbrellas sit over your light (usually a flash or strobe) and bounce the light around the scene to soften things up and decrease the harshness of your shadows. The Los Angeles-based photographer Art Streiber says if he had to walk out the door to do one portrait with only one strobe source, the one modifier he would choose would be this umbrella in the medium size. It’s extremely versatile because it can be adjusted in so many different ways. “I can shoot it soft with the baffle on the umbrella, I could split the difference and shoot the umbrella without the baffle, and I could put the umbrella anywhere I wanted to. You can also collapse the umbrella, so the light is more focused. I’ve taken care of quality, I’ve taken care of direction, and I’ve taken care of intensity, because I can dial power up and down,” Streiber says.

EZ-LOCK Softboxes ($40 and up) 

Softboxes are cloth hoods that fit over your light source. They come in many shapes and sizes, and one big advantage they offer over umbrellas is that they have a more contained and controllable light spread. But just like with an umbrella, the soft light they produce eliminates hard shadows in any type of photography and creates a more flattering light for portraits that spreads out over the subject’s face. A round softbox creates a round “catch light” reflection in the eyes of the subject, which is more desirable than a rectangular reflection in the eyes when shooting portraits. A large rectangular softbox is a great all-rounder because it’s similar to the diffused light coming from a window on a cloudy day.

The UK-based photographer and photography educator Karl Taylor advises that you buy the biggest softbox you can afford, because you can always make it smaller by masking part of it, but you can’t make a small softbox larger. Filmmaker Austen Paul uses these Glow EZ-LOCK softboxes because they can be set up and broken down quickly, whereas many softboxes have to be entirely assembled and then taken apart again to travel with them, like tiny frustrating dome camping tents. And these use a Bowens Mount compatible with a broad range of accessories.

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Manfrotto Nano Plus Light Stand ($93)

You can hold your flash in an outstretched hand, but to gain more control over the exact position of your lighting, you’ll want a dedicated light stand. It’s easy to get lost in the sheer variety of light stands, but if you’re just starting out, the Manfrotto Nano Plus is a nimble, sturdy, and well-designed option that will give you the freedom to experiment with the position of your light and to carry it to a location with ease.

Manfrotto is known for its quality tripods, and the Nano Plus is made with the same attention to detail. Weighing just 3 pounds, it can support up to 8.8 pounds and extend to a height of 6.5 feet—enough to handle a small video light, strobe, or a mounted flash and an umbrella or softbox. It’s a little more expensive than the entry-level kit stands, but well worth it for the superior quality.

Reflector Kit ($29) 

Reflectors are used to bounce light into the shadow side of an image. Karl Taylor calls them “the most underrated accessory for beginners.” This 5-in-1 reflector kit offers five different reflective surfaces for extra versatility, but even just a large piece of white cardboard will often suffice. In one of his classes, Taylor photographed a model beside a window with a reflector on the opposite side and the subject’s face looked like it was lit in a studio. “They are an amazing tool to transform your pictures,” Taylor says.

Flash Color Gels ($15) 

These universal color gels, with 20 different color options, fit over the bulb of any flash to change the color of the projected light. “You can open up yet another world for your photography by adding a small pack of color gels,” says David Hobby. “This allows you to add the nuance that often makes your lighting feel more real and evocative.”

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