The best way building your skills as a photographer or videographer means learning about the art of off-camera lighting – using flash or continuous lights that are mounted on a stand around your photographic subject or hand-held rather than mounted on your camera.
I wrote a whole guide on how to properly light your photos and videos. It’s packed with advice from experts who have spent their careers mastering the intricacies of lighting. And it’s a lifelong process, but with a few basic concepts and a few inexpensive tools, it’s a process that’s surprisingly accessible.
Below are product recommendations from myself and the experts. We’ve put together good picks for those just starting out, as well as picks for experienced photographers and videographers looking to upgrade to more professional setups.
Be sure to check out our many other photo buying guides, such as the best mirrorless cameras, the best compact cameras, the best camera bags, and the best action cameras.
If you make a purchase using the links in our stories, we may earn a commission. This helps support our journalism. Learn more.
Start with one light
Camera lighting doesn’t have to be expensive. Of course, if you want the best Swedish-made lights, they will cost you as much as a used car. But if you just want to brush up on your skills and start experimenting, you can start with an affordable single light kit.
“With a single light kit, you can easily create photos that are more evocative and more three-dimensional,” says photographer and lighting instructor David Hobby. “For this reason, I would recommend that any serious photographer get an off-camera lighting kit – and learn how to use it – before even getting their second lens.” Hobby even recommends getting a another light before getting a second lens: “With a second light (even cheaper than the first, because you don’t need a second wireless trigger) comes the ability to control the subject in layers. Or create a lighting environment in the absence of any good quality ambient light.”
Hobby recommends choosing a reputable third-party flash – something made by a different manufacturer than your camera – as they are often more affordable. Camera companies enjoy high profit margins on their flashes to offset the low margins on their camera bodies and lenses. By buying third-party, Hobby explains, you can put together an entire kit that includes a flash, light stand, swivel adapter, lighting umbrella, and wireless remote shutter release for less than the price of a basic first-party flash.
Another thing to keep in mind is that if you buy a high-end light with a proprietary accessory bracket around the bulb to attach different light modifiers, not only is the light expensive, but the accessories are also more expensive. If you buy equipment with a Bowens mount (the standard mount for the vast majority of third-party accessories), it will be cheaper to buy accessories, which will encourage more freedom to experiment with different options.
A good flash for beginners
At just $65, this is the flash that David Hobby recommends for a single-light entry kit. (This flash is also sold as the Flashpoint Zoom R2 with a US warranty.) You can mount it directly on the camera, or you can buy a bracket to use on a light stand with modifiers such as an umbrella or softbox. This is the flash included in the $229 complete kit that Hobby recommends on its Strobist site.
Also get a remote trigger
With a flash or off-camera flash, you need a remote trigger to fire the flash remotely when you press the shutter button. This remote shutter release must be compatible with both your flash and your specific brand of camera. If you’re using a Godox or Flashpoint, this one makes it easy to read your settings thanks to the large backlit screen. If you’re using a smaller mirrorless camera like the Fuji, Hobby recommends the smaller version. It’s the same price.
Flash upgrade option
This hybrid flash is also sold as the Godox AD200 Pro, but the Flashpoint version has a US warranty. This 250 watt strobe comes with a flash head and a bare bulb head, the latter offering better light dispersion for use with a softbox or umbrella. (See our recommendations for these accessories below, and learn more about them in our comprehensive lighting guide.)
Affordable and highly portable, this light is far more powerful than a typical flash without adding much bulk to your kit. If you’re choosing between this and a regular flash, keep in mind that it won’t mount on your camera as a flash. It includes a light stand swivel mount, but the $25 Glow S2 mounting bracket (or Godox S2) will allow you to mount this (or any flash) to a light stand. The S2 also has the added benefit of having an umbrella mount and softbox mount.
Continuous lights for video
This new 65-watt continuous LED video light from Amaran comes ready to plug in, or can operate without a power cord if you use Sony L-series rechargeable batteries (or compatible aftermarket batteries). When recording video plugged into AC power, the locking connector will ensure you don’t accidentally pull it out while you’re in the middle of recording. Using the accompanying mobile app, you can control up to 100 Aputure and Amaran brand lights with your phone or tablet, choosing your entire multiple lights on your mobile device.
The 60d and 60x have just been released. The 60d is $30 cheaper and offers more brightness at full power. But the 60d is daylight-balanced, while the 60x is bi-color, meaning it can be set to emit light ranging from bright white daylight to a yellowish light more akin to candlelight. I appreciated that versatility more in practice than the extra brightness of the 60x. Both versions have a standard Bowens mount, so should work with a wide range of affordable third-party light modifiers such as softboxes.