What lighting gear to buy?



Recently a reader from the UK emailed me about what lighting gear to buy to get the kinds of images I post on the blog.  After recovering from the shock (you mean, people actually READ this blog?!?!?), I started writing my reply and thought it might be a good subject for a blog post as well.  Here's my response:

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Thank you for the compliment.  To be honest, I'm still learning a lot of these things myself - I'm not even close to being able to do any workshops of my own yet.

The Canon 5D mk II is an excellent camera to work with, and I've heard good things about the 50mm 1.2L as well (that's probably the next lens I'll buy the next time I visit Tokyo).

It's difficult to answer your question about what to get for lighting equipment because each photo session I do is different.  Sometimes I'll use just natural light.  Sometimes I'll use a reflector. Sometimes it's one strobe and an umbrella.  
Sometimes I get crazy and try 6 strobes with Octodomes, softboxes, gels, fans, etc.  

I seriously need to have my head examined. ;-)

My best advice for you is something I learned from one of my instructors when I was first starting out:

DON'T go out and buy a whole bunch of lights and accessories at first.

Start small.  Start with just one light.  Just one.  Only one.  ONE LIGHT.

I started out with a single Canon 550EX on a light stand and an ST-E2 transmitter so that I could fire the flash off-camera.
  
Use that light every chance you get. Learn what you can and cannot do with that one light in different situations.  

Two good resources to study when learning how to use lights are: http://zackarias.com/blog/ and http://www.strobist.blogspot.com/.
Zack Arias has a whole workshop devoted to using just one light. You would be surprised at what you can actually do with just one light.  

Once you are comfortable with and know everything about that one light, and if you feel like you want to get a modifier for it, then get one modifier.  Just one.  Only one.  The first thing I bought was a single white shoot thru umbrella.

Just get one modifier, then do the same thing - learn everything you can do with that one flash and one light modifier.  For a lot of people, that may be enough. Also, remember that when you are using that light outdoors, you actually have 2 lights at your disposal.  The sun is a light source, and you can use it as a main light, fill light, hair light, whatever, depending on how you use it in conjunction with your strobe.

If you choose to go ahead and buy more gear in the future, it doesn't matter if it's a new light or light modifier or lens or camera body or whatever, always follow the same rule - get just 1 thing at a time, use the heck out of it and get comfortable using it. 
Truly understand everything you can do with that one piece of gear before you even THINK of purchasing the next thing.

Having a lot of lighting gear is nice but the more you have, the more there is to lug around to location, and the more tired you will be from setting it all up.  Lately I've been trying to reduce the amount of stuff I have to lug around.

For example, when I travel to Japan and want to do a model shoot, I'll take just 2 speedlights, 2 lightstands, 2 shoot thru umbrellas, and radio triggers for the speedlights.  That will usually get me through about 80-90% of what I want to shoot.

Sure it's nice to look at other people's work and say  "I wish I could do that, but I don't have all that lighting gear", but my advice to you is to find your own style, your own "look".  Learn what you can do with what you already have, or what is around you.  You may find that you don't need a lot of gear to achieve "Your Look".

There are many photographers that can do a lot without having to rely on a whole bunch of gear.  Some of the best ones don't even use any strobes at all, they just utilize the natural light around them.

Hope that this helps in some small way. Whenever I blog about a photoshoot, I always try to post what setup we used for lighting, but sometimes I forget to do that.  

If you ever want to know how we did a particular shot, please don't hesitate to use the comment section on the blog to ask questions.  I may not be able to respond right away, but I will always try to answer when I can.

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To all of you that take the time to read this blog, thank you very very VERY much.  I'm flattered that you would do so.  I don't pretend to be an expert in photography or lighting by any means - I make a lot of mistakes and I'll freely admit that I still have a LOT to learn and continue to try to improve at this craft every day.  

I do remember what it was like when I first started out - once in a while I would come across an image that I really liked and when I contacted the photographer to ask questions, I got some real snotty replies. it was like a big secret - "go figure it out yourself".  I realize that many photographers are busy, but come on.  We should all help each other out because we can all learn from each other.

Thankfully, not all photographers are like that.  I've learned a lot from and have been inspired a lot by the masters like Rolando Gomez, David Hobby, Zack Arias, Chase Jarvis, Joe McNally and many more. When I started this blog I decided that though I may never be as successful or as skillful as they are, I am more than happy to share what little I do know. Hopefully something I post might inspire you or you can learn from my mistakes ( I make a lot of those).

As always if anyone ever has questions, please feel free to leave a comment or shoot me an email.  Let me know what subjects you'd like me to cover in the blog.

Mahalo!
Todd