Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Off-camera flash on a budget

I am constantly getting asked about how to put together a speedlight (small flash) based light setup on a budget. You can get a solid two light set up for under $240 (single light for near $150). It may lack some of the bells and whistles, but it will be a reliable setup.

Before we get to my recommendations, here are a few caveats:

1. All of the items I mention are buying new. You can find some good deals on used gear on ebay or craigslist.

2. In an effort to save time, and simplify the purchasing process, all products come from two places: the Meking eBay store, and B & H Photo.

3. These are not necessarily products I use, but they are products I am familiar with. I have, over time, added to, and sold off various components of my small flash setup. For example, I started off with Cactus wireless triggers, then I found a deal on PocketWizard Plus II transceivers, and more recently settled on the JrX Studio from Radiopopper. I will probably switch again.

4. I don't use my small flash set up for every shoot I do.





1 Yongnuo YN465 ($66 shipped)

1 Yongnuo YN460 II ($48 shipped)

You could save $18 and buy two YN460 II. Don't. It is nice to have a flash that supports TTL (Through The Lens metering). If you are Canon or Nikon it will mount to your camera, and work with the auto settings on your camera.

Make sure when buying the YN465 you buy a flash specific to your brand of camera (Nikon or Canon).

All the other items listed are camera neutral.

Consider adding a third light: YN460 II. Three lights will allow you do do most lighting configurations you see. Don't have to be in a rush to buy three lights. You can add a third strobe later.

Also, think about buying a Canon (430EX II) or Nikon flash (Nikon SB-700) and your main light.

You can sometimes find some deals on craigslist or at the thrift. But you have to be a regular searcher. I found a few SunPak flashes with adjustable output at the thrift for $12, and $4 but those represented A LOT of hours walking through thrift stores.

3 Nikon SB-800.

I picked them up on craigslist.

The Nikon SB-600, SB-700, SB-800, and SB-900 have built in wireless control from certain cameras.


Yongnuo RF-602 (1 trigger, 1 receiver) ($28 shipped)

You “need” just one receiver with this particular two light set up (remember we are on a budget). The receiver will be for the YN465.

How do we trigger the other flash? The YN460 II has a built in optical slave which means that it will “see” the pulse of light from the other flash, and then trigger.

I generally like having a wireless receiver for all my flashes, even if they have an optical slave. Consider getting a receiver for each flash (if you are only going to use three flashes).

There is a reason that the RF-602 is $28 and the PocketWizard Mini Flex Transceiver is $229. PocketWizard is the gold standard, and offers a lot of features beyond the Yongnuo product.

But, if you just want to trigger a flash remotely they both do the job.

Radiopopper JrX Studio with RP Cube

The Radiopoppers allow me to manually adjust the flash from the trigger, so I don't have to walk over to each flash to adjust the output.

My JrX units are also compatible with my Alienbees which was another factor in my decision to go with Radiopoppers.

Some day I am probably going to drop some coin on the new PocketWizard set up when it finally ships for Nikon for a variety of reasons.


Lightstand (x2) ($20 each + shipping)

2 Umbrella brackets (x2) ($17 each + shipping)

Really, if space and weight isn't an issue, just about any light stand will do.

The more compact and lighter you go, the more expensive stands become.

If photographing in breezy conditions you are also going to need to think about a weight for your light stand. Once an umbrella is on there, they tend to take off even in a gentle breeze.

Umbrella brackets are one of the things I choose not to splurge on. Just make sure your bracket comes with the components to mount your flash.

I have just generic light stands I have acquired over time.

I need to spend some $$ and buy some lighter more compact ones, but I am usually spending my money on other stuff. If I had to hike around with my gear, I would have made the investment in nicer stands already. But think about it, how far from your car are you really going to be?


Westcott 43inch collapsible umbrella ($22 + shipping)

I like having two umbrellas. Having two offers some options that are nice to have.

If you add a third light, probably don't get a third umbrella.

You could go with a cheaper umbrella that doesn't collapse, but it sure is nice to have them fold up small.

I have 2 Westcott collapsible umbrellas. I really only use one most of the time.

I have some softboxes, and other stuff, but I really use my umbrella a majority of the time.


Grids, gels (colored plastic to cover your flashes), etc.

You can make your own grids, or buy some online.

Gels for small flashes are pretty important in the medium to long term. Get some.

Snoots, bounce cards, lightoshperes (overrated), softboxes, ringlights, etc. will come in time if you need them (which you probably will).

I bought some grids at SaxonPC online. They are pretty junkie.

I went to a studio lighting store one afternoon, and they let me have some Rosco or Lee sample packs for free.


$238 for a two light setup.

$153 for a single light setup.

This gets you two lights, trigger, umbrella (plus brackets), and stands.

Really, you aren't going to get into off camera flash for much less than this.

You might be able to save a few dollars on the stands, and umbrellas, but you get what you pay for. Also, for the sake of convenience I used the prices from two stores only: B & H Photo, and Meking ebay store. You might be able to find some deals on Amazon, but be careful because sometimes you have to pay for shipping on multiple items because they come from different stores affiliated with Amazon.

For me, this is the cheapest setup that offers “enough” reliability that would allow me to work not being worried about gear failure.

Think about how you want to contain all of your gear.

I have all my gear (except lightstands) in a plastic container bungied to a luggage cart thingy I bought at the thrift.

If I had the nicer lightstands, I could contain it all in my backpack.

Batteries. Buy rechargeable. It will be cheaper in the long run. I like the Sanyo Eneloops that I picked up at Costco. But we could do a whole chart on batteries, and their chargers.

Lights and trigger:

Light stands:




  1. What about budget 3 light setup for a Canon 7d? From what I can tell the Yongnuo YN46x models do not work with it.

  2. If you are doing off-camera flash it really shouldn't matter. If you have a trigger on the 7d and a receiver on the flash, you could fire a cheap flash found in a thrift store. The flash wont be mounted to the camera.

    However, if you want to have ETTL capability while the flash is mounted to the 7d, yes, do your homework. I don't own a 7d to test it out.