A Beginners Guide to Buying a Photography Lighting Kit

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Many beginning photographers believe that studio - quality lighting kits are only necessary or affordable for professional photographers. Fortunately, with recent developments in production and manufacture, that belief is simply not true. Now, even amateur photographers can buy a basic studio lighting kit for relatively little money, which helps increase the quality of all shots. In addition, portable kits are also available so photographers never have to lose control over a photo’s lighting.

As there are several parts that go into a lighting kit and decisions that need to be made about certain specialized parts, it is important for potential buyers to take the time to research their options before making a decision. When it comes time to buying, users have a number of options, including photography stores, manufacturers, and online sellers.

Basic Lighting Choices

Before deciding on the parts that go into a studio-quality lighting kit, users need to consider the three main types of lights used in kits. Each type of light has its own benefits and drawbacks, all of which need to be weighed before investing in lighting. Most photographers prefer using flashes, while videographers prefer either hot or cool lights.

Hot Lights

As the name implies, hot lights operate at extremely high temperatures. Also known as tungsten lights, these quartz halogen bulbs usually require between 500 and 800 watts of power. These bulbs work best for tasks that require a constant light source, such as video, though they also prove effective when photographing small objects. They are not the best choice for photographing people, as these bright lights can wash out a photo, and their slight orange tint does not mix well with daylight or flashes. In addition, these bulbs can get extremely hot, so it is important to keep flammable materials away from them and use caution when handling them.

Cool Lights

Cool lights provide an alternative to hot lights. In addition to providing a more natural spectrum of light, these fluorescent bulbs are significantly cooler than hot lights, which helps reduce the risk of fire and injury. While they are somewhat more adjustable and comfortable than hot lights, cool lights still have some of the same drawbacks as hot lights. Both types of light require a high ISO setting on the camera and very low shutter speed to provide acceptable shots, as they seem much brighter than they actually are.


By and large, most studio photographers prefer to use flashes, as they are far easier to use than either hot or cool lights and they have far more power than either of them. There are two main types of flashes: shoe flashes and studio flashes. Shoe flashes are designed to be portable, attaching to the body of the camera via the hotshoe, a plate of metal on top of the camera. However, studio flashes come in a number of different varieties and feature several different accessories to focus or diffuse the light from the flash.

Elements of a Photography Lighting Kit

Regardless of whether a photographer chooses a constant or a strobe light kit, there are several basic components that should be part of every user’s studio. Each kit should include one broad source of light with an umbrella or softbox, a fill light, a hair light, and a background light. The first piece that should be purchased is the broad light, while the other pieces can be added in as time and money allows. Apart from these basic lights, some professional photographers utilize up to a dozen lights in their studios, so the possibilities are practically endless.

Types of Lights in a Standard Kit

The main light is the primary source of light for the shot. Using an umbrella or softbox helps diffuse the light over the scene, giving softer shadows and an elegant and flattering "wrap around" effect. The fill light helps to fill in any remaining shadows cast by the main light. It can be utilized with another umbrella or by simply reflecting the light off of a piece of white foam board mounted at a 45-degree angle to the subject.

As the name implies, the hair light helps provide highlights to a subject’s hair or other details. This light requires a focusing mechanism, either a snoot, which is a small cone designed to keep the light contained, or a grid, a waffle-like object that does the same thing. Finally, the background light helps evenly illuminate the background of the shot. Many users like to mount a filter frame to the background light in order to allow experimentation with different colored filters and gels.

Other Elements of a Lighting Kit

In addition to the lights, there are a few other items that are essential to any lighting kit. These include light stands, extension cords, and a background. Gaffers tape is also necessary in order to mark out positions for lights and subjects. Extra bulbs can provide a measure of security in the event of accidents, while filters and colored gels allow photographers added control over a scene’s lighting. If using tungsten hot lights, insulated gloves allow users to safely change and handle bulbs without the risk of burns.

Considerations and Pieces for Specific Shots

Photographers who focus on portraits or headshots have special considerations that those who take video and wider-angle shots do not need to concern themselves with. Portrait photographers often eschew the use of constant lights for remote flashes, while users who focus on headshots have several different ways to set up their lights or flashes in order to get a good shot.

Considerations for Portrait Photography

Many portrait photographers prefer using smaller strobe flashes instead of larger continuous lights. These smaller flashes allow users greater control over detail illumination than constant light sources. Portrait photographers should add a small external flash (known as a monolight) and become familiar with its use before adding more flashes to the kit. After mastering the first monolight, users should add a large umbrella or softbox unit to provide steady light. Another monolight with a grid to use for the hair light and a background light round out the necessary lights for a portrait photographer.

Depending on the type of portraits the user takes, he or she may be able to get away with just the main light and main monolight. Portraits of infants and small children do not need as many lights as adult portraits, and users can remove the hair and background lights when taking portraits of children.

Using external flashes requires synching up all of the flashes so that they fire at the same time. There are several ways to do this. Hard-wiring the lights together with wires is an option, though it is not usually recommended, as there is a high risk of failure due to environmental factors. There are also several wireless options on the market. The least expensive option involves using light sensors on the remote flashes to detect the main camera flash, but this option can be prone to interference from external light sources. Using infrared sensors is also an option, but they are also susceptible to interference from heat sources. The most effective means of linking the flashes involves the use of radio signals and receivers hooked up to the master and slave units.

Considerations for Headshots

Photographers who specialize in headshots require specialized lighting setups in order to provide high-quality, detailed shots. These users do not require different equipment, just a special arrangement of lights or flashes. The two main setups for headshots require three or four lights and a bounce card to emphasize different facial details.

The first method is commonly known as "Rembrandt Cheek-Patch Lighting," as it recalls the portrait style of the Dutch artist. This technique requires placing the subject a few feet from a solid color background and placing the first light 45 degrees to one side of the subject while raising it 45 degrees above the subject. This creates a bright patch on the subject’s cheek, while the photographer uses a bounce card or additional light to tone down the shadows on the other side of the subject’s face. The photographer then places another light out of frame to backlight the subject’s shoulders and hair while also placing a background light to evenly illuminate the backdrop.

The second method creates a flatter look, which is more appropriate for some subjects. Before deciding on a method, the photographer should experiment with both methods to determine which provides the most flattering shot for the intended purpose of the photo. In the second method, the key light is placed above the camera in order to flatly illuminate the subject’s face. A bounce board or secondary light is placed beneath the camera to even the lighting, while the hair and background lights are placed as in the Rembrandt technique.

Buying Lighting Kits and Parts on eBay

As important parts of any professional photographer’s studio, lighting kits and parts are relatively easy to find. While they are not carried in many big box stores, specialty photography stores and flash manufacturers offer these products for sale. It may be easier, however, to find kits and parts online at eBay, as it allows sellers from around the world to offer their wares.

Potential buyers can find thousands of lighting kits and parts in eBay’s Lighting and Studio category of the Cameras and Photos portal. Shoppers can browse the selection by using the Search bar to find a specific item or by using the Categories tabs on the left side of each page to narrow the results by item type, manufacturer, price, and other factors. In the unlikely event that shoppers are unable to find what they are looking for, they can browse eBay Stores or save a search on My eBay.

Finding a Reputable Seller on eBay

After finding an item that works for them, buyers should always take the time to research the item in question, focusing especially on price and quality comparisons. In addition, shoppers should look at each seller’s feedback rating before deciding on a seller. This feature allows eBay buyers to rate their experience with a seller and provide comments on how the seller interacted with them. This affords buyers with insight into how a given seller operates, which often proves key when deciding between sellers.


Professional photographers often reach a point where they realize that their camera’s built-in flash simply can no longer provide quality lighting for the kinds of shots they take. When this happens, users should begin looking into purchasing a studio lighting kit in order to have greater control over their shots. Whether they go with constant lights or strobe flashes, photographers should take the time to research the different lights and setups available to them before making a purchase. When it comes to buying lights and kits, shoppers should consider looking online for the best selection.

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