The best way To expand your skills as a photographer or videographer, learn the art of off-camera lighting—using flashes or steady lights placed on stands around your subject, or held in your hand rather than attached to your camera.
I’ve written a whole 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’s a lifelong process, but with a few basic concepts and a few inexpensive tools, it’s a process that’s surprisingly accessible.
Below you will find product recommendations from me and the experts. We’ve put together good tips for those just starting out, as well as tips for experienced photographers and videographers looking to upgrade to more professional setups.
Be sure to check out our many other photography buyers guides like best mirrorless cameras, best compact cameras, best camera bags and best action cameras.
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Start with a light
Camera lighting doesn’t have to be expensive. Sure, if you want the world’s best Swedish lamps, they’ll cost you as much as a used car. But if you just want to expand your skillset and start experimenting, you can start with an affordable one-light kit.
“A one-light kit is an easy way to create photos that are both more impactful and three-dimensional,” says photographer and lighting instructor David Hobby. “For that reason, I would recommend that any serious photographer get an in-camera lighting kit — and learn how to use it — before they even get their second lens.” In fact, Hobby recommends getting one second light before getting a second lens: “Having a second light (even cheaper than the first because you don’t need a second wireless trigger) gives you the ability to layer control over your subject. Or to create a lighting environment where there is no high-quality ambient light at all.”
Hobby recommends choosing a reputable third-party flash — something from a different manufacturer than who made your camera — because they’re often cheaper. Camera manufacturers enjoy large profit margins on their flash units to offset the low margins on their camera bodies and lenses. By purchasing third-party, Hobby explains, you can put together a complete kit that includes a flash, light stand, swivel adapter, lighting umbrella, and wireless remote trigger for less than the cost of a basic first-party flash.
Another thing to keep in mind is that if you buy a high-end light fixture with a proprietary accessory mount around the bulb to attach various light shapers, not only is the light fixture expensive, but the accessories are more expensive as well. If you’re buying gear with a Bowens mount (the standard mount for the vast majority of third-party accessories), then it’s cheaper to buy accessories, which encourages more freedom to experiment with different options.
A good entry-level flash
At just $65, this is the flash David Hobby recommends for an entry-level single light kit. (This flash is also sold as the Flashpoint Zoom R2 with a US warranty.) You can mount it directly to your camera or buy a mount to use on a light stand with modifiers like an umbrella or softbox. This is the flash included in the $229 complete kit that Hobby recommends on its Strobist website.
Get a remote shutter release too
With an external flash or strobe, you need a remote trigger to trigger the flash remotely when you press the trigger. This remote trigger must be compatible with both your flash and your camera brand. If you’re using Godox or Flashpoint, you can easily read your settings thanks to the large backlit screen. If you’re using a smaller mirrorless camera like a Fuji, Hobby recommends the smaller version. It’s the same price.
A flash upgrade option
This hybrid flash is also sold as the Godox AD200 Pro, but the Flashpoint version comes with a US warranty. This 250 watt flash comes with both a flash head and a bare lamp head, the latter offering better light spread for use with a softbox or umbrella. (See our recommendations for these add-ons below, and learn more in our comprehensive lighting guide.)
Affordable and highly portable, this light is far more powerful than a typical strobe without adding much bulk to your gear. If you are deciding between this and a regular flash, keep in mind that this cannot be mounted on your camera like a flash. It includes a pivoting mount for a light stand, but the $25 Glow S2 (or Godox S2) mount allows you to mount this (or any flash) on a light stand. The S2 also has the added benefit of having an umbrella holder and softbox holder.
Steady light for video
This new 65 watt continuous LED video light from Amaran comes plug and play or can be used without a power cord when using Sony L-series rechargeable batteries (or compatible aftermarket batteries). If you’re recording video while plugged in, the locking plug ensures you don’t accidentally pull it out while in the middle of a recording. With an accompanying mobile app, you can control up to 100 Aputure and Amaran branded lights with your phone or tablet and dial in your entire multi-light setup on your mobile device.
The 60d and 60x were both just released. The 60d is $30 cheaper and offers more brightness with full power. But the 60d’s color is daylight-balanced, while the 60x is two-tone, meaning it can be set to emit light ranging from the bright white of daylight to a yellowish light more akin to candlelight. I appreciated this versatility in practice more than the extra brightness of the 60x. Both versions feature a standard Bowens mount, so they should work with a variety of affordable third-party light modifiers like softboxes.