The Best Choices for On-Camera and Off-Camera Lighting

For those who want to dabble in lighting without spending a fortune.

Camera with flash lighting

If you are like me, you would like add some light to your photos on occasion.  Not all the time – and I’m certainly not looking to become a portrait photographer or anything – but perhaps you would like to have some lighting handy for certain occasions.  Just to dabble in lighting a little bit.  However, when you have taken a look at what it costs, you might have quickly thought otherwise.  Canon and Nikon speedlights cost up to $600!  And battery powered strobes cost even more.  The Profoto B1, for example, costs $2,000 and that doesn’t include any modifiers (or a stand).  So the answer for most of us is often “forget it.”  We go right back to being a natural light photographer 100% of the time.

There are much cheaper options available though.  You can add speedlights for very little money, and even a strobe doesn’t cost as much as you might think.  You may read that and think to yourself that, while that might be the case, you get what you pay for so anything you buy for less money is likely to be junk.  But that isn’t the case – these are great products for way less money.  Further, I’ve come to learn lately that a lot of pros are using these lights.  So let’s take a look at how we can make lighting a lot more affordable for you.

Lighting with Speedlights

The first thing that most people think of when they think of lighting for their camera is a flash unit that attaches to the top of the camera.  You should definitely get one of these. The little pop up flash is totally inadequate, and in any event it isn’t even present on most high-end cameras (that ought to tell you something about them).  You probably already know this but, as mentioned above, the problem is the price, with Canon and Nikon speedlights cost $600!  That’s insane.  Don’t do it.

Rather, check out the Yongnuo flashes.  I have been using these flashes for a few years now and they work great.  Once you start looking at them, you will see several different models.

  • YN560 (now on version IV) – this is the manual-only speedlight.  I own a few of these and they work great.  They only cost $70.
  • YN600 (now on version II) – the difference here is that this one offers TTL capability.  The cost is only $110.
  • YN685 – with this one you get a wireless TTL flash with a controller that mounts to the top of your camera.  It costs only $140.

In the world of photography, these prices are ridiculously low.  There is almost no reason not to have a speedlight now.

Yongnuo YN 560 IV speedlight

Is there any reason to spend the additional money on the Canon or Nikon flashes?  I really don’t think so.  I’m certainly no expert on lighting and flash, but I have come to learn that these flashes are also used by a lot of pros as well.  These things work very well.

In any case, your decision probably comes down to three variables: (1) how well it does the job, (2) how durable it is, (3) and price.  In terms of how well these flash units work, keep in mind that all this unit is doing is blasting out a defined around of light, so it is not like one does a particularly better job at that than another.  In terms of durability, you won’t notice a difference.  Even if you did, the price difference is so vast that it trumps everything:  you could buy 4 of these for the cost of one Canon or Nikon flash.

My recommendation is to pick up a YN600 if you are just starting out.  That will allow you to shoot with manual flash or using TTL.  The total price is only $110.  That won’t give you a radio trigger, but if you decide you want that later, you can add one cheaply.

Battery Powered Strobe Lighting

Nowadays you can haul around large battery powered lights.  These are much more powerful than your standard speedlight.  You can add softboxes, beauty dishes, and other modifiers to them as well.  You probably think this is out of reach for you.  I did, because I was looking at the lights from Profoto.  They cost a fortune.  The B1 from Profoto, which is the state of the art in this area, costs $2000.

I have come to learn that there is a much cheaper option.  It is called the Flashpoint Xplor 600 and it is awesome.  You can get the light, the radio trigger, all in a handy case, for $750.  Further, the modifiers and the periferals all cost significantly less than what you would pay with Profoto lights.  I recently bought the Xplor 600, a stand, a softbox, and a beauty dish for $900 total.

Flashpoint Xplor 600

But does it work well?  I say yes, but I have had mine only a short time.  To reinforce that, I would first mention that I have been interacting more lately with a group of professional photographers, and almost without exception I see them using the Xplor 600.  They all love it.  In addition, however, you can just check out the reviews of this product.  In particular, here are a few comparisions of the Xplor 600 to the Profoto B1:

Read both articles and I think you’ll be very surprised at how well the Xplor 600 stacks up against the much more expensive model.  Both articles have weasley conclusions that don’t match the substance of the articles, but I suspect they were going out of their way to offend a potential advertiser.  I have no such qualms, so I say without hesitation that you should get the Xplor 600 if you are considering a battery powered strobe.

Of course, that leads to another issue, and that is my motivation for advocating these products.  In this age of advertising disguised as news, affiliate marketing, and the like, you might question whether I have some arrangement with someone or if I’m getting anything from recommending these products.  The short answer is Nope.  I have no arrangement with anyone, and I will receive nothing from this article.  Further, I have not even linked to these products so there is no question as to whether the links are affiliate links (I’m not saying all affiliate links are bad, I’m just pointing out that I’m not using them).  If you choose to buy them, just run a search and buy them from the retailer of your choice.  This is just information for information’s sake.