Getting Started with Off-Camera Flash Photography for Under $120

We love light. Like, to the point of obsession. We light anything and everything. However, flash is often complicated for new photographers and makes even the most seasoned "natural light" photographers shake in their boots.

If you've spent some time learning exposure for ambient light, flash throws a proverbial wrench into the exposure triangle, and (almost) undoes everything you know about exposure. Fear not, because The Broketographers are here to help!

So you're looking into getting into a little off-camera flash. Maybe you've played around a bit with on-camera hotshoe flashes are are looking to supplement your skills or take your photography to the next level -- Flash can do that for you, and our series of off-camera flash guides and tutorials is here to help you through the process.

Starting out with off-camera flash doesn't have to be expensive. The beauty of photography (and flash photography specifically) is that — light is light. Whether it comes in the form of a flashlight, a cheap speedlight, or a multi-thousand dollar studio strobe, light is light. As such, this guide is centered around making as small an investment as possible to start building your lighting kit. Starting to build your lighting kit around speedlights is the cheapest, easiest, and most versatile way to go.

The biggest advantage with speedlights is portability and scalability. When starting out, you don't want to lug around a big heavy lighting kit that you might not be comfortable with using because it creates a scene and often draws unwanted attention. Speedlights are powerful and versatile enough to provide the light you need in a small, discrete package. Further, they will never be obsolete -- they'll always have a place in your lighting kit -- if you move on to larger studio strobes, they'll still serve well as part of your location kit, or as accent lights to help you light a scene.


Yongnuo has made a name for itself in the strobist space. They manufacture VERY inexpensive and reliable speedlights for photographers that rival the manufacturer specific units at nearly 1/10th the cost. The YN560 IV is an update to the YN560 III's we own. You can still get the YN560 III's, but with the difference in price being < $10, we recommend the newer model. 

The biggest advantage to the YN560 IV over the III is that the IV offers a built-in radio commander. This will allow you to control and trigger other YN560's from the main unit (we'll get into this in the next section).  

Item Cost: $69 (USD)
Running Tally: $69 (USD)


The Trigger

Since your speedlight will not be attached to the top of your camera via the hotshoe -- we need a way to set it off once you've released the shutter.

If your camera has a pop-up flash, and you have to save money somewhere, this is one area you can get by (at least initially) without spending any money. You can use your camera's pop-up flash to trigger your off-camera speedlight by setting up your speedlight to what's known as an optical slave (we'll cover this more in depth in another article).

If you have the room in your budget for wireless triggers, you have a couple different options:

Yongnuo RF-603C II - $29

You don't need fancy expensive flash triggers to start. Pocketwizards, are universal and used in nearly every studio, but to start out, the Yongnuo RF-603C II's will do just fine. Additionally, with the correct cable, you can use these as a remote shutter trigger as well. These are some the most inexpensive wireless flash triggers and don't require you to make a big investment when starting out with a small budget. You can get the previous-generation RF603's for a couple bucks less, too ($27 on Amazon). Do note, that there are Canon and Nikion specific triggers (denoted by 603"C" and 603"N" for Canon and Nikon, respectively), because of each manufacturer's TTL spec.

Yongnuo YN560-TX - $40

The Yongnuo YN560-TX transmitter is another option for triggering your flashes. The advantage with this is with radio triggering and communication, you can control the flash output, second-curtain sync, and zoom settings of your Yongnuo flashes remotely, allowing you to work quicker and more efficiently, especially if the speedlight is in a hard to reach place. It supports up to 6 groups of flashes and 16 channels (effectively controlling up to 16 flashes), so there's plenty of room to grow with your strobist setup.

Another Yongnuo YN560 IV - $69

This is the most exciting option if budget allows. Because the YN560 IV has a built in radio transmitter, you can trigger your off-camera flash with another YN560 IV! This gives you an additional light source (albeit on your camera) to serve double duty as both a trigger AND as a second light to fill in any strong shadows you may want to lighten up.   

Item Cost: $0 if using a pop-up flash to trigger, $30-40 with a wireless trigger set/speedlight controller, or $69 with a second YN560 IV speedlight
Running Tally: $69, $99 - $109 with triggers, or $138  with a second speedlight (USD)


The Modifier

As you learn about flash, you will invariably be exposed to different tools to "modify" your light. What this means is using these tools to "shape" your light in a way that flatters your subject, or otherwise lights your subject it in a way that you want. The quickest and easiest way to get started with modifying your light is softboxes.

Softboxes do exactly as their name suggests — they "soften" the light. Well, they're also usually made out of fabric, too...so they're also soft in construction. So, uh, yeah...there's that.

The classic umbrella. Pictured here is the Neewer 33" shoot-through umbrella ($10), that, as the name implies, you shoot the light straight through, which spreads the light over a larger area creating a softer, more flattering light.
Advantages: Light, inexpensive, and pack down and set up easily.
Disadvantages: Not recommended in even medium-windy conditions, very fragile.

Neewer 32" Octabox ($25) — If you normally shoot photos or portraits of people, the octabox would be a good place to start. In general, the rounder shape of an octabox will look more natural and aesthetically pleasing in your subject's eyes. Newer "strobist" style modifiers open up like an umbrella, making setup quick and easy. No more wrestling with speedrings!)
Advantages: Rounder, more pleasing "catchlight", perfect for portraits.
Disadvantages: Slightly larger and heavier. May draw unwanted attention.

Neewer 28" Softbox ($20) — If you normally shoot products, wider shots of people or perhaps some tighter shots of couples, you may want to consider the regular rectangular softbox. In the case of products, the rectangular shape will offer more coverage for products or tabletop images and have a more natural "window-looking" reflection on the product. For people, the longer profile of the regular softbox will again provide more coverage and spread your light over a wider area. 
Advantages: "Square" catchlight, great for products or still-life images.
Disadvantages: Slightly larger and heavier than an umbrella.

On the whole, the softboxes will be more durable than an umbrella, simply because of their construction and support. Umbrellas are relatively fragile, and cheaper umbrellas will certainly not stand up to a tumble off a light stand. Still, though, umbrellas have a good place in a kit, since they take up very little space and can more often than not get the job done when setup time is at a premium.

Item Cost: $10 - $25 (USD)
Running Tally: $79 - $163 (USD)


The Support

Last but not least, you can't forget the support. you're going to want a stand for your lights, as well as a way to attach your light to the stand. We recommend the following:

Neewer Umbrella Bracket - $10.99
Fotodiox Elite Umbrella Bracket - $12
CowboyStudio 8' Aluminum Light Stand - $20

The CowboyStudio stand has acceptable build quality for the price, and is sturdy enough for a light speedlight/small modifier setup, but we would recommend looking into nicer stands if the budget allows (see "Support" section under the "Bigger Budget" section below).

Item Cost: $9 + $20  (USD)
Running Tally: $117 - $192 (USD)


Have a Bigger Budget?

If you have a bigger budget, you can easily scale each piece of equipment in this kit to some higher quality components. If you have more room in your budget, here's some better quality components for each category:

The Light

In addition to the very popular Yongnuo speedlights, other Chinese and Japanese third-party speedlights exist, with some additional features that may or may not be of use to you. Generally this is an area we would avoid spending too much more money on as the benefit to spending more on a third-party flash does not warrant spending the extra cash, as many of them approach the lower-end models for first-party speedlights in terms of cost. So what we will list below are additional, slightly-more-expensive Yongnuo speedlights, as they are easily the most bang-for-your-buck option available.

Yongnuo YN600EX-RT - $117
Yongnuo YN685 - $105

The most expensive way to go with speedlights is with your camera's manufacturer. Expect to spend between $300-600 for just your speedlight, if you go first-party. Since any of the below options would undoubtedly break your budget and defeat the purpose of this guide, they're listed here simply for reference.

Canon 430EX III-RT - $250
Canon 600EX-RT - $500
Canon 600EX II-RT - $580
Nikon SB-700 AF - $327
Nikon SB-5000 AF - $597
Sony HVL-F60M - $548
Fujifilm EF-X500 - $450

Triggers

Keep in mind that the triggers we listed in the original recommendation were picked specifically for the components in this guide, under the impression that we are building a "strobist" style speedlight kit. But, if you want to make sure your triggers will not need to be replaced when and if you move to studio strobe lighting, consider the following options:

Cactus Wireless Flash Transciever V5 (2-pack) - $60
YONGNUO YN622C-KIT Wireless E-TTL Flash Trigger Kit (Canon) - $74
Cactus Wireless Flash Transceiver V6 - $70 each (will need two)
Cactus Wireless Flash Transceiver V6 II - $95 each (will need two)

Again, we have chosen not to list more expensive options (such as PocketWizard), simply because the cost of those triggers does not fall within the scope of this budget-conscious guide.

Modifiers

If it were up to us, and we had room in the budget to upgrade in only one of the categories, modifiers would be it.

Westcott Rapid Box 26" Octabox - $169
Westcott 43" Apollo Orb - $129
Westcott 28" Recessed Medium Apollo - $100
Westcott Apollo Speedlight Set - $130
Photek Softlighter II, 36" - $70
Photek Softlighter II, 46" - $85

Support (Grip)

Kupo Mini Click Stand (7') - $70
Kupo Midi Click Stand (8') - $77