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How to Build a $1000 Portrait Photography Lighting Kit on a $100 Budget


Cameras, lenses, speedlites, strobes, powerpacks, softboxes, stripbanks, octaboxes, grids, nets, flags, cookies, silks, scrims, gels, reflectors: the list of things we photographers spend money on is just about endless. And a little ridiculous.

You don't need a lot of fancy stuff to make great photos. In this tutorial, you'll learn how to build a portrait lighting kit—for less.

Who Is This For?

This tutorial is for the experimenters!

You don't need expensive gear to make great photos, but if you're doing professional work a big part of what your clients are paying for is peace of mind. They want to know that you'll actually deliver the pictures they're hiring you to take. Photographers love their gear, no doubt, but one of the main reasons working shooters fork out top dollar for kit is because they need to look professional.

Another is dependability. Photo shoots are hard on equipment: your kit gets dropped, rained on (hopefully not too often!), knocked over, covered in dust and sand, carted around, and pretty much relentlessly abused. If you're depending on your gear for a living, it has to last.

If you want to experiment, though, there are many good reasons not to buy gear. Until you really know what you want, I recommend you borrow, rent, and build your own. Give yourself the opportunity to play with lighting styles, tools, and tricks before you invest.

Essentials Items on Set

Before we get into the main kit, here are some super-cheap items everyone should have in their bag.

  • Clothespins and binder clamps.
  • "Pony Clamp" or "A-Clamp": these are useful for anything and everything. There are special clamps that work better for a few specific uses, but this is your go-to "I need to attach this to that" item.
  • Gaffer Tape: All the power of duct tape without the leftover residue.
  • Safety Pins: Ever had a pesky piece of clothing not sit where you want it to? Pin it.
  • Leatherman and Multitool: The leatherman has everything you need for a quick fix-it job, and the multitool has a complete set of allen keys.
  • Reflectors: Anything that reflects light can be a reflector, but keep an eye out for sales. I was able to grab 5-in-1 reflectors in 22" and 42" for $10.
  • Flashlight: If you have one that is power enough to use as a light in a pinch, great! But I keep a flashlight in case you are ever caught on location in the dark.
  • Clip-on Camping Light: Clips on to the lens hood of your lens and allows you to light your subject enough to get focus without affecting your exposure when using flash.
  • Extra Batteries: Have extras for anything you have on set. I have camera batteries, AAs, and 9 volts..

1. Don't Stress, Use the Camera You Have

Photographers make a lot of talk about cameras, but they're not the most important part of your kit. The most important part of your kit is your lenses! Jeffrey Opp was right on the money when he said "a better lens is a better purchase than a better camera, all other things equal."

That said, you probably don't need any new gear to get started making portraits. If you're experimenting, just about any camera kit with a lens that covers the portrait range (anything between 50mm to 105mm) will do. If you're following this tutorial you're going to light the scene, and that negates most of the advantages newer digital cameras have over older ones. The camera you have is good enough. If what you have is an old film camera, use that!

2. Modify a Suitcase for Gear Protection

Camera bags are expensive. Very expensive.

For most of my shoots, I use a variety of flash heads and modifiers. The bag I had my eye on when I was building my system was the ThinkTank Logistics Manager. That bag is a beauty, but it's also out of my price range. Instead, I took a normal suitcase-style rolling bag and modified it to have the same carrying capacity and protection as the Logistics Manager. This saved me hundreds of dollars.

I call this my "Mary Poppins Bag" and I love it. Keep in mind, just about any suitcase with wheels will work for this DIY project. If you have an old suitcase kicking about that you don't use, then your cost for the bag is zero dollars!

Materials needed:

  • Velcro
  • Sewing Thread
  • Headliner fabric
  • 1" high density foam

Since you are customizing this bag, you can make it fit any configuration that works best for you. This is my basic layout:

  • I use two large flash heads, and I put them at the bottom of the bag (they are heaviest)
  • Then two small flash heads
  • At the top of the bag, my reflector dishes (which are a little bit fragile), speedlight brackets, extension cords, and any other medium-sized miscellaneous items

Measure your inside dimensions, as well as any cross sections that you want to protect each individual item. Cut the foam first and test that everything fits. It may be best to cut a little larger than you think, then shave the foam down, instead of cutting it too small and leaving it loose.

Sew the headliner around the foam. The important thing is that it's fabric on one side and foam on the other, so the velcro will stick to the fabric side when you have inserts. I made the outside one continuous piece, with the four side foam pieces, so it has structure and stays together.

Eddie Bauer DIY gear bag filled with kit
Everything sitting nice and cozy in it's new home! This is the configuration that works for me, but the beauty of this is you can set it up to protect whatever gear you have so everything gets optimal protection.

I have now used this bag with this padding for over 2 years, and not once have I ever had a problem with the padding falling out, things butting into other things inside the bag, or anything getting bumped, scratched, or otherwise damaged. I've put this bag through a lot of heavy use in some crazy circumstances, reconfiguration the padding as needed.

3. DIY Softbox

A friend of mine once told me about how when he was starting out he didn't have any gear, so made a softbox out of a case of beer and a white t-shirt.

DIY Softbox supplies

Materials needed:

  • Cardboard Box
  • Tin Foil
  • Napkins
  • Tape

I use several speedlites and a set of Pocket Wizard triggers. However, this could easily be done with a high-output flashlight, or even a lamp without a shade. Basically, whatever light is available to you, put it in the box!

We have a few tutorials on how to make a DIY softbox:

Is it fast? Incredibly. Is it easy? This is a craft project any kid could easily do. It is pretty? Heck no. This ugly thing isn't the height of fashion, but what it lacks in looks it makes up for by being accessible to everyone and highly functional. (Okay, maybe moderately functional. It will take great photos. Just don't expect it to last over the long haul.) Here's an environmental portrait I made with a DIY softbox:

Environmental portrait made with DIY Softbox
No photoshop was done to this photo. Sure, the rig itself looks like an ugly duckling, but when you save all that money and still take photos like this, who's laughing now?

4. Flash Kits

Flash Heads

A nice, big , powerful studio flash head is nice, but you don't really need more than one simple speedlight to make great portraits.

The fundamentals of flash gear hasn't changed in some time. The flash a pretty mature piece of technology! And with the high sensitivity of digital cameras (compared to film), a less-powerful flash is often adequate for basic portraiture. Older units from Canon, Nikon, Vivitar (the 283 and 285), and Metz all make terrific flash heads when put on a stand.

The other thing to think about is the importance of technique over technology. The difference between a good portrait and a missed opportunity is often a very small amount of light. With practice, you can get great results by reading the scene and adding just a little extra light.

Radio Triggers

Radio triggers are great. At their most basic, they let you fire your flash from a distance. More advanced versions let you adjust the flash settings remotely and other fancy, but not essential, things.

Pocket Wizards are the industry standard, but I don't necessarily recommend them to start out. They're great, and were really the only reliable option for many years, but they're overkill for basic shoots. Pro-level competitors, like RadioPopper, have also greatly improved their products, and now give Pocket Wizard a real run for the money.

Anyway, you definitely don't need to break the bank on triggers: Phottix, Yongnuo, Cactus, and Cowboy Studio sell very usable sets for between $30 and $75.

5. Stands

Light stands are one area where I recommend you don't skimp. A good stand is not expensive and will last a lifetime. Stands really do last forever (if handled right), so check your local used-photography store for deals. If you're going to buy new, sturdy stands like the Cowboy Studio 9-foot Pro Stand cost about $25.

6. Light Meter

While a handheld light meter is a lot more reliable, you can definitely get by with a gray card and the spot meter in your camera! Hold the card in place, and meter from the card with your camera for your flash settings.

Happy Experimenting!

And there you have it, all the basic parts of a photography kit that's good enough for some healthy experimentation, for about $100. These parts can all be upgraded, too, and form the basis form expansion to a more professional kit.

Have your own DIY gear bag or softbox? Tips on where to save money on photo kit? Let us know how you did it in the comments.

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