This post was updated on October 18, 2017 with my latest recommendations.

Most photographers are interested in learning flash photography, but often shy away when they see how much a name-brand speedlight flash costs. Up to $500 for just one flash is a lot! Fortunately, I’ve been on a mission for the last few years to find the best quality flash photography gear for photographers on a budget. I have extensively used the gear for over a year now, and I’m confident that these are the very best products for the very cheapest price.

I have spent several THOUSANDS of dollars purchasing and testing different flash photography products to come up with this list, so I hope it saves you from buying junk.

I promise that if you are just willing to TRY flash photography, it will dramatically improve the quality of your photos. I’ve always said that knowing how to work with light is what makes you a photographer–anyone can use a camera.

Have questions about flash photography in general? Check out Jim’s super handy guide to flash photography.

I have been using and recommending the YN-560 flash for many years.  It's only $70 and compatible with almost all camera systems (including Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Fuji, and most Sony cameras).  It's dead simple to use, triggers reliably, and is very durable. I know that sounds like I'm advertising for them, but I'm not.  They don't sponsor, endorse, or pay to advertise on Improve Photography and I don't even know anyone at the company.  They just make great gear at a cheap price so I recommend them.

I've probably owned two dozen YN560s over the last few years and haven't been disappointed yet.  Get one!

Beginner Flash Photography Kit – About $140 including the flash

YN-560 IV flash – This is the flash that I have recommended for years.  It's reliable and one QUARTER the price of comparable Canon and Nikon flashes.  It can be used by simply putting it on top of the hotshoe of your camera, or you can take it off camera and trigger it wirelessly with the trigger below. Buy it on Amazon.

YN-560 TX trigger – This trigger is cool.  You can get a Yongnuo trigger for a little less than this, but this one allows you to control the brightness of the flash even when the flash is not connected to the camera.  That's handy when you're out shooting.  Simply put this trigger on the camera, take the flash and put it on a light stand wherever you want, and the flash will fire right as you click the shutter.  Beautiful! Buy it on Amazon.

White umbrella – I recommend a white shoot-through umbrella as your first flash modifier.  The purpose of it is to soften the light of the flash to create more beautiful lighting on the person you're photographing.  You may be tempted to get a softbox instead, but I think that's a mistake for your first modifier.  An umbrella is easier to use because it spreads the light more, and is therefore more forgiving of having the flash in slightly the wrong spot. Buy it on Amazon.

Flash Bracket – The flash bracket simply fits on top of the light stand and allows you to connect your YN560.  It also has a hole in the center so you can put your umbrella on it as well. Buy it on Amazon.

Light Stand – The light stand is simply a tripod for your flash.  I like the little Cowboy Studio light stands because they are lightweight and easy to move around.  Buy it on Amazon.

NOTE: Once you have all your gear, you'll have a LOT to learn.  Don't be intimidated!  Learning to control the lighting in your photos is THE BEST way to improve your photography after you've already learned the basics of photography.  I have two resources to help you learn.  First is my blog post series on the basics of flash photography.  If you're more of a visual learner, you should really take a look at my “Jim Harmer's Lighting in a Flash” video tutorial.  It's really reasonably priced, and it's the very highest quality video tutorial I've produced.  I think you'd love it, and I use EXACTLY this same gear in the tutorial.

Pro Flash Photography Kit – About $575 including three flashes

Three YN-560 IV flash Units – Now that you're getting a bit more serious about your flash photography, I highly recommend bumping it up to three speedlights.  You'll find a lot of situations where you can create gorgeous and creative lighting by using more than one flash. Buy it on Amazon.

YN-560 TX trigger – Same trigger as in the beginner kit.  This thing works like a charm! Buy it on Amazon.

Glow ParaPop 38″ Softbox – This softbox is AWESOME!  I've been messing with the cheap $50 softboxes on Amazon for years and I finally decided to bite the bullet and get a good one after Nick recommended it to me.  It's awesome.  Buy it.  Check the current price of the Glow Parapop on Amazon.

White umbrella – I like having two umbrellas because if I'm doing a three-point lighting setup, I most often use umbrellas on the back lights. Buy it on Amazon.

Two Flash Brackets – Since we're bumping up the budget on this kit, I'd prefer to see you get a more beefy flash bracket with more control and which is stronger.  This is the bracket I use on all of my shoots. Buy it on Amazon.

Three Light Stands – The light stand is simply a tripod for your flash.  You can buy really nice Impact light stands for more money that are much more solid, but honestly I prefer the little cheap Cowboy Studio light stands because they are lightweight and easy to move around.  Buy it on Amazon.

5-in-1 Reflector – Some photographers use reflectors more than others, but all photographers use them.  They are handy for bouncing light, blocking the light of the sun during a mid-day shoot, flagging off lights, etc.  This one is great because it's gigantic and is an oval shape which works better for full-body portraits.  But it on Amazon.

Rogue Flashbender – I like the flashbender for on-camera flash photography.  I would never recommend it for softening an off-camera flash, but when I'm photographing a wedding reception or just need some simple light for an on-camera flash, then I use the flashbender.  Buy it on Amazon.

Rogue Flash Gels – Gels are thin pieces of transluscent plastic that go on top of the flash head and allow you to color the light.  I use them on about half of the flash photography shoots I do.  Buy a kit on Amazon.

 

 

Studio Photography Kit – $3,999

Okay, fine. I’m not a money launderer, but since photography is my full-time career… I like to have the best possible tools to work with. I still use YN-560 flashes and simple speedlight setups for ALL of my shoots, some photographers prefer to work with studio strobes if you're in a studio.  I no longer use studio strobes, but this is the kit that I've used and recommend.

There are other brands of lights that offer affiliate programs to bloggers so I’d get a portion of the sale if you buy them, but the brand I recommend here doesn’t have a program like that. I recommend the Paul C. Buff gear anyway because it is better quality and a better price than comparable brands like the Elinchrom 500 BXRI.


Einstein e640
$1,996 ($499 x4)
BUY HERE

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ – Improve's Review:
The main competitor is the Elinchrom BXRI 500, which is another good option. However, the Einsteins are less expensive, more durable, have a faster flash duration, and allow you to use MUCH less expensive softboxes. The Einstein lights come from Paul C. Buff, the maker of famous Alien Bees flash gear.


Cyber Commander
$180
BUY HERE

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ – Improve's Review:
this is what is put on top of your hot shoe to trigger the flashes. It allows you to control the power of each individual flash from it, so you don’t have to walk over to each light every time you want to adjust the power. Pocket Wizard also has a product that can be used with Einsteins.


Impact Light Stand
$120 ($30 x4)
BUY HERE

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ – Improve's Review:
Plug it into the Einstein and you have your flash receiver that works with the Cyber Commander. Simple.


Vagabond Battery Pack
$720 ($240 x3)
BUY HERE

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ – Improve's Review:
TThese battery packs allow you to take your Einstein studio strobes on location. Since these lights need to be plugged in, you’ll need these to shoot in locations where you don’t have access to power. It’s basically a mini car battery that you can carry around with you and plug your lights into.


Foldable Softboxes
$240 ($120 x2)
BUY HERE

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ – Improve's Review:
These softboxes come in a nice size for location flash photography. Very portable and still provides a very soft light. I use this size softbox more than any other.


60″ Octabox
$110
BUY HERE

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ – Improve's Review:
The octabox has become one of the most popular lighting modifiers around today. It is a HUGE light source for creating seamless soft lighting, and it leaves a cool-shaped catch-light in the model’s eyes.


22″ Beauty Dish
$80
BUY HERE

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ – Improve's Review:
The beauty dish creates an edgy-yet-soft light quality that is very popular in photography right now. The sock slips over the beauty dish to soften the light a bit more.


Avenger Boom Stand
$376
BUY HERE

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ – Improve's Review:
I said this list was for money launderers, right? This stand is insanely expensive, but it’s important that your boom stand is rock solid since it will carry a lot of weight at a strange angle, and you don’t want it tipping over and falling on the model! This one is a bit of a splurge.


Impact Light Stand
$147 ($49 x3)
BUY HERE

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ – Improve's Review:
These stands are much more stable than the ones in the beginner kit. I use these with some HUGE 5 foot tall (1.5 meter) lighting modifiers and it can withstand any flash. This is very comparable to the Westcott brand, but cheaper.


Sandbag
$30 ($7.50 x4)
BUY HERE

♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ – Improve's Review:
Put the sandbag on the leg of your lightstand so that it won’t blow over in the wind. It’s a pain to carry heavy sandbags, but I guarantee if you skip out on the sandbag, you’ll be buying a new flash and umbrella. These are great for heavy and unbalanced modifiers too.

My (Free!) Flash Tutorial

Comments

    1. Hi! I saw you said that you had ordered the Muslin backdrop. Is it still on the recommended gear page? I don’t see it, but perhaps you can tell me about the one you got. Like it? Hate it? I want one that is light, stuffable, and portable. 🙂

  1. Hi Jim,

    Love your podcast and decided to pull the trigger and buy a flash set up to play with. For the “hobbit” flash kit, the light stands are currently unavailable from amazon. Could you point me in the direction of another place I could buy this from?

    Thanks for all you do!

  2. I want to buy the RF-603 but I can’t find out if it will work with the new Canon 70D, do you know the answer please?
    Thanks for all the invaluable advise you give, very much appreciated.

    Sarah

  3. The RF-603 works great as a remote shutter release for the Nikon D90 camera but I can not get it to work with my Nikon SB-400 flash.

  4. Jim, Many thanks for everything you share with the community. Love your site and podcast. You’re approach is always practical and conservative.

    Maybe I have missed it, but have you talked about monitor calibration and have you recommended a particular system? I like your Sears’ approach of good, better, best! What would you recommend?

    Thanks,
    Chuck Origer
    Austin,TX

  5. Great write up, One quick concern…

    What about the M4/3 Panasonic / Olympus users out there. Where is the compatible wireless hot shoe triggers for us?

  6. I noticed that all of your home kits use speedlights instead of monolights. What are your thoughts on the advantage/disadvantages of using something like the Cowboystudio 400W studio monolight instead of the recommended Yongnuo flash units?

    Thanks for doing such a great job helping out folks like me in the amateur photography community…love your podcast!

  7. Perhaps a better comparison cost-wise would be their 180W unit ($69.99 on Amazon). It’s a little cheaper even than the Yongnuo.

    I know the monolight needs to be plugged in, but we are talking about a home studio, so no big deal, right?

    Thanks again!

  8. I am confused. Whether I will Purchage Nikon SB 910 or Yongnuo YN 565 EX for wedding purpose, to work with Nikon D610 body. Please help.

  9. I have a question rather than a comment. I hope that is ok. My question is will the Yomgnuo Flash Gun and the Yongnuo Rf 630 work in conjunction with my Nikon SB 900 Flash Gun?
    Thanks Peter

  10. Hi,
    I have a YN560-ll Speed lite and was wondering if the RF-603 will be compatible with a Canon 6D
    Thank You 🙂

  11. Hi Jim, you might need to update the info on rf-603. I just bought them without researching more myself (all the names are confusing and I couldn’t find other ones that are the same), and found out later a better version was released end of last year – rf-603 II, with a locking wheel for the same price. It’s not a big improvement but still irking to know that I could have gotten the newer version with the same price.

  12. Hi I’m just amateur photographer/videographer looking to improve and expand I’m wondering if this stuff will work with my Nikon d3100 that’s from australia

  13. This, as well as the rest of your site, is simply a godsend. I have learned so much in the past few days reading through your tutorials and recommendations. I just purchased a good chunk of the hobbyist package you recommended after days of research. I’m happy to say the prices dropped and I purchased for about 150$ less than you mentioned above. Go me! haha Thanks again for all the great research you provided. Helped me a lot!!

  14. I believe you meant rf603 as rf630, as far i knew rf603 is a manual trigger(not 100% sure) means it can trigger the flash but SB900 can work both manual and iTTL(nikon version of TTL), so in future if you need to use off camera TTL flash rf603 will not help. if a person has a mix of TTL and manual flash i would recommed a trigger that supports TTL and manual. you can checkout yongnuo rf622N.

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