Monday, January 14, 2013

Updated guide to off-camera flash gear

A few years back I made up a bit of a guide for what you need if you're wanting to start shooting with off-camera flash. Since then new products have came out and prices have changed etc. Recently I was writing up an email to a friend who was facing the same situation, getting started with off-camera flash, and as the email started reaching into novella territory I decided I'd also share the info via a blog post.

I'm not going to go into the specifics of what all of the products do, refer back to my older article here if you want that info.

The main things you'll need are Speedlights (aka the external flashes that mount on your camera), a method of triggering them, stands to hold them, umbrellas or some other light modifier to make the light softer, an umbrella swivel to attach the light modifier to a light stand.

All of this can be purchased for under $250

A quick note about where most of these links go to, a site called DX.com formerly dealextreme.com
I'm in no way affiliated with this company and don't receive any kickbacks or anything for promoting them. Though in hindsight I damn well should lol, I buy way too much from them and have turned dozens of people on to their site :) A quick note about ordering from them, they offer free shipping but it takes awhile. In Canada I'd say bank on 1 month between ordering and receiving your package give or take a week, sometimes items are back-ordered and can take longer.

Flash/Speedlights
The first flash I bought was the Canon 580EXII and paid around $600 for it, in hindsight this was one of the biggest wastes of money I've ever made in my photography career. All of the automated ETTL bells and whistles that adjust the flash power automatically are only needed if you're shooting on the fly like a journalist or paparazzi. For posed photography all you need is manual control, which can be had for much much less.

Yong Nuo 460 Mark II $45each (I recommend buying 2)
Best bang for your buck EVER! Decent amount of flash power, built in optical slave, manual control. I have 6 of these :) Also they have plenty of room inside if you want to mod it and add a 1/8th jack.

Yong Nuo 565EX 2.0 $150
If you think you'll really need the automated stuff (ie Canon's ETTL) check out the YN565 (note this is a Canon only model) as a budget alternative to the real Canon 580EXII. I haven't used this myself but the reviews are favourable. I'm pretty sure they make versions for each of the major camera manufacturers like Canon/Nikon/Sony.

Wireless Triggers:
There are now a wide range of budget triggers on the market, I'll recommend 3 different ones and for different reasons. Pocket Wizards are still the "gold standard" in the industry but I simply could never justify the purchase when I could buy multiple sets of budget triggers for the price of 1 PW transceiver and have never had any reliability issues with the budget ones.

PT-04 (~$20 for 1tx 1rx)
These were the first triggers I bought, at ~$20 for a transmitter/receiver pair I wound up buying 4 sets eventually just for redundancy. I also modded them to accept a 1/8th stereo jack to go along with my modded Yong Nuo 460 flashes above. These are sold under a whole host of different names like Jiansi, Fotga, and recently Blazzeo. The only con is that the transmitter takes a more obscure CR2 battery, but these can be found on the dealextreme website for ~$5 for a 5 pack. Here is a link to the triggers on DX but check ebay too, the ones I got were from ebay and had a PC sync socket on the side which is a nice addition. Another con with these triggers is that the receiver is situated vertically so if installed in a hotshoe and a flash is placed on top it is very unbalanced (which is why I modded mine to accept 1/8 jacks).

Yong Nuo RF-602 triggers
I have not used these but have heard about them on various forums etc, I think they could possibly be the same circuit or design at least as the PT-04's but with the advantage of fitting horizontally when installed on a light stand. For these I recommend checking ebay for a set that has 1 transmitter and at least 2 receivers (at time of writing a bundle like this is ~$42). DX does sell them but only in pairs with 1 transmitter and 1 receiver. Like the PT-04's you'll need these CR2 batteries for the transmitter.

Cactus V5's
For a little more money you can get a bit of a more reputable name with the Cactus V5 triggers sold at gadget infinity. Each of these have the ability to function as a transmitter or receiver, extra cables can be purchased to fit a whole host of cameras (Canon/Nikon/Sony/Olympus/Panasonic) so that they can be used as remote shutter releases. Note that these cables are not required if simply using them as flash triggers.

Light Stands ~$75 for 2
Again its ebay to the rescue, because of this I don't really want to link to a listing that will be outdated right away. These range in price and quality, on average though I found sets of 2 on ebay that were listed for a total of $75 with shipping included (often the item was less than the shipping price but that's a common ebay trick anyway). Check your local camera shop just to be safe anyway, here however you're looking at $75 each and up so its better to shop online. You may also find bundled kits which include the stands, umbrellas or softboxes, and umbrella swivels.

Light Modifiers
Shoot-thru umbrellas $6.62
Hands down the cheapest I've seen are these on DX.com, I'm pretty sure they are the same ones I bought way back when and mine are still holding up. All umbrellas are somewhat fragile even the pro ones so as long as you take care of them they'll last. Shoot-thru umbrellas are often preferred to reflective umbrellas because you can get them much closer to the subject (without jabbing them in the eye with the umbrella shaft of a reflective umbrella). As strobist.com has taught us the closer you get the light source to the subject the larger that apparent light source becomes and the softer the light will be.

Umbrella Softboxes ~$35 with shipping
I wrote a post about the ones I bought from Steve Kaeser's store a few years back, I still use these often and they're great. The have more spill than a softbox with a recessed light panel but less than a shoot-thru umbrella would. I looked at the Steve Kaeser store and could no longer find them, I did however find ebay listings and that's where I got the price from.

Westcott Apollo 28" Softbox $129.99
This doesn't really fall into the budget category but I'd recommend using some of your early photography profits to buy one. I've used mine on countless shoots and its basically my go-to modifier. Zach Arias showcases it a little in his Onelight DVD seminar which I highly recommend checking out as well.

Umbrella Swivels
Once you have umbrellas, lightstands, and flashes, you'll need some way of attaching them all together. There are tons of different swivels but here are some from Dealextreme that I either own or are similar enough to ones I own. 

Cheap yet sturdy umbrella swivel $8.07
This will do the trick provided you have actual light stands and are not using tripods.

Slightly less cheap but more versatile swivel $11.40
This swivel includes a 1/4" insert allowing you to use it both with a standard light stand post or with a tripod.

Assuming you buy the following items, it comes to ~$242.18 CDN
YongNuo Flash x2 ($90)
Wireless Triggers - RF602 ($~42)
Spare Batteries for above triggers ($5.80)
Light Stands x2 ($75)
Shoot-Thru Umbrella x2 ($13.24)
Umbrella Swivel x2 (the cheaper ones $16.14) 

Optional extras you might find useful
These are used to give your editing software a reference for white balance, shoot one photo with the subject holding it and then when editing say in Adobe Lightroom you can just click on it with the dropper tool and it'll adjust the white balance automatically. You need to use it every time you change lighting conditions (moving from open sunlit area to say shaded tree etc).

Bounce Reflector $13.97
Great for outdoor available light work but also handy when using lighting.

Once you start using flashes you'll need to have batteries on hand for them, I found these cases are great for carrying them.

Lenspen $2.89
If you don't already have one of these you absolutely need one, the name brand ones run about $12.
Quickstrap $16.60
Its basically a Black Rapid clone, but a clone that is about 20% the price! Once you use this style of strap you won't ever use a standard strap again. At first glance the way that the camera mounts to the strap doesn't appear as elegant as the Black Rapid method, however in real-world use I find its better because the camera can be mounted to a tripod still without having to remove the strap. It also comes in a double version if you have two cameras.

Recommended tutorials/DVD workshops:
Onelight by Zach Arias
Great on location shoots with walkthroughs. The strobist dvds below are amazing as well but I found Zach's style of shooting and the location type work that he did resonated with me more than David Hobby's stuff. If you can afford only one I'd recommend this one, especially if you're just starting out and only have "one" light :)
This is basically the main resource I used to teach myself off-camera lighting, all the info is free you just have to do a lot of reading :) Go through the Lighting 101 series first.
All of the info the blog's "Lighting 101" series has to offer but presented visually. Some of the concepts are much easier to see than to read so this might be a good option.
The follow up to the first DVD listed

Hope this helps some of you and ideally saves you from wasting money on stuff you don't really need so you can put it to better use like buying Prime Lenses.

1 comment:

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