You don't need me to tell you how critical off-camera lighting is to studio and location photography. There are experts of lighting who have immense skills and experience, and I am not one of them. But what I am good at is buying things. So, this shopping list for how to get yourself a starter setup for a powerful and flexible yet affordable three-light off-camera lighting rig.

my speedlites

High end professional studio gear provides precision, power, and reliability. But it's also expensive, large, and confusing. My goal is for an affordable, portable, store-able setup which I can use to teach myself lighting but not have it dominate my house and budget. It has taken me much refinement to perfect the gear list, but I've finally done so, and now I can share it with the world.

This is the exact rig I use to create the images for this website's blog posts.

I'm not going to link to products and I don't have affiliates. Just search for these things on your favorite camera store or Amazon or eBay, you will find them.

And now, with no further rambling, I give you...

The List!

  • Yongnuo 560IV Speedlite – $70
    I recommend getting three of these. These are the core of this setup, and with three indepenent lights, you will cover over 99% of your lighting needs. Yongnuo is an unabashed knock-off brand, but they're nicely-built, well-engineered knock-offs. Plus they're about ten times cheaper than the Canon or Nikon equivalents, and have all the features we need. If you're reading this article after a newer version has been released, the feature to check for is compatibility with the next item.

  • Yongnuo YN560-TX Wireless Flash Controller – $40
    This is the gizmo that you'll put on your camera's hot shoe, bridging your camera to your flashes. In addition to triggering your remote flashes, it can also remotely set the settings on them too!

  • Bulk box of AA batteries – $20
    The speedlites alone take four AA batteries each, and while a single charge can last a while, as the batteries run down the speedlite will take longer to cycle. So if you're using this setup, I recommend having spare AA batteries on hand at all times.

  • Flash Gel Holder with Velcro – $1
    I bought mine on eBay for $1 each, including shipping. There's a few types available, I recommend the type that velcros on to the flash with a plastic sleeve that you slide the gel into. Don't worry about putting the velcro stickers on your speedlites, they were cheap.

  • Sample Gel Swatchbook – $2.50
    You can spend a lot of money on exact, color-controlled gels. Or you can search a camera store for a "Gel Swatchbook" and for a couple bucks, rip the thing open and use that. I took three swatchbooks apart, threw away all the swatches that didn't matter to me, and sorted the remaining samples by color. Those samples are now my flash gels. I don't care about color precision, or the little hole where the plastic stud held the book together. And now I have fancy colored lights for a few pennies.

  • Flash Stand Tripods – $18
    Buy them on eBay, or the Amazon Basics brand has a two-pack for cheap. You don't need fancy stands, you just need something that will hold your flashes in place. Get one per flash.

  • Portable Softbox and Bracket – $40
    I recommend getting at least two of these. 24inch or 60cm square is a good size for table-top or head-and-shoulders size subjects, but there are infinite possibilities. Make sure that they come with the bracket. The bracket is important, it's what attaches to the flash stand to the softbox itself, and holds the flash in place. Portability is also important, since it means the softbox is designed to collapse down easily for storage.

  • Foldable Snoot – $10
    Kind of the opposite of a softbox, a 'snoot' is something that narrows the light down into a guided beam. There are fancy snoots out there, but we're not fancy people, so instead get a cheap, foldable one off eBay. Mine uses elastic to say in place and works great.

  • Light Stand Bracket – $15
    The speedlites you have attached to your softboxes will be mounted to those softbox brackets. But if, like me, one of your flashes will be mounted to the bare tripod with a snoot, you'll still need a bracket to do so. A lot of times these are sold as 'umbrella' brackets, since they'll have the mount to put a flash umbrella through them. I do have some flash umbrellas, but I don't use them, they're relics from before you could buy knock-off softboxes for a song. But the brackets remain useful, holding the flash in place, and making it easy to aim.

  • Shooting Table – $65
    Like many items on this list, some brands of shooting table cost more than ten times a basic version. I recommend a basic version, it's what I have, and I have no complaints. Depending on what you're taking photos of, though, you might not even need one at all. And as always, make sure the one you get folds down easily.
all the gear from the above list in one photo

So that's the list. All said and done you've hopefully spent no more than $500 for what works out to be an extremely powerful teaching studio.

Read the manuals for the Yongnuo flashes – the goal is to get them into different groupings, in Receive mode, and with the auto-shutoff disabled. But everything else is self-explanatory. As far as light placement, there's a bazillion lighting guides out there written by people with way more expertise than I have. But why bother – just put your flashes in different places and watch what happens! It's the best way to learn.