I recently was on the phone with a fellow photographer, one who works mainly outdoors using, for the most part, ambient light. For anonymity sakes we will call him Joe Photographer. Joe rarely brings anything more to a shoot than his DSLR and a few lenses of various lengths. I too used to shoot purely ambient, that was until I got the monkey on my back. The world of off camera lighting took my work to another level and it, my work, has done nothing but improve ever since. I explained this to Joe Photographer and he did admit that he was curious about off camera flash but was not confident that he could afford such luxuries. I further explained that, first of all, the cost would become an investment. Second, that, it is not as expensive as one may think. Sure you can shoot for the moon in terms of pricing, depending on brand choice, but on a regular Joe's (couldn't resist) budget, the equipment is not far out of reach.
So, today I decided to give a little breakdown of how much it cost to shoot a shoot with multiple strobes. Focused, will be specifically shooting cyc photography but this pricing would be pretty close if you were to be shooting on location as well.
Without further ado...
All photographers, at some point or another, will eventually become enamored with the idea off off camera lighting. Don't believe me? Ask any pro, ambient or strobe shooter. If they haven't entered the strobe world yet, they want to or are at least very very curious. If they already shoot with strobes, they will probably add that most of their current work is done in that fashion. Why? Why is shooting off camera flash so damn intriguing? Well, it just kicks ass! I don't have a more eloquent way to put it. Seriously though, the end result, if you know what you are doing, is typically much better than the same photograph shot in an ambient setting. It is not to say that ambient lit photos suck, quite the contrary. I have some awesome photos that required nothing more than the available sunlight. The reason that I prefer using strobes is that I can control the situation, rather than have the situation control me. To further explain, shooting with ambient, the photographer, is at the mercy of what is available. That shooter can use reflectors to assist with the hand they were dealt but that's about it. On the other hand, if one is shooting a combination of strobes and ambient, that person has much more creative control over any given situation. Rather than let the ambient control them, they control the ambient. Follow? There is something that tends to scare some photographers when entering the world of off camera flash. Math. Yes, some mathematical skills are required to dial in proper light settings. Intimidating, can be things like the inverse square law or flash to subject distance. f stops can also seem like aliens to some people. Fear not, once you understand these concepts, you will be on your way to making spectacular photographs. Ones that your clients would be proud to display. Hopefully. Which brings us to the main topic, HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?!
I already said that you can go for the gold in terms of price but that is not necessary, most of the time. I say most because I believe that there are some things that you should just not skimp on. We will get to that. On the other hand, some things are just so outrageously priced that you may feel like you need that brand over a less expensive brand. Don't fall into that trap. The uberly high priced equipment is rarely purchased by the typical pro. That gear is usually bought by large organizations or rented for a few days, from a local pro shop. Let's get on with the breakdown.
A Familiar Photo
I'd also like to give a brief description of why I bought each item. Basically, I want you to know that each and every item that was purchased has a specific purpose. There is not one item used for the shoot that went to waste.
I am going to assume that those reading already have the bare minimum to get this ball rolling. And when I say bare minimum, I'm thinking that you already have a DSLR, medium format or any other camera that is capable of full manual controls, along with a camera's very important feature, the hot shoe. So, if you don't have the bare minimum, a DSLR, simply add in anywhere from one to fifty grand into the final total, depending on your camera budget.
Pocketwizard ~ $800
Of course I was going to start with my pride and joys. The Pocketwizards are what make this whole thing possible. They are the industry's standard in trigging strobes via radio frequency. The ones I use are the Pocketwizard Plus ii Transceivers. The operate with the option of four different frequencies so that you can trigger different banks of light. I love that they are transceivers rather than the transmitter/receiver package that many other companies offer. The transceiver allows more versatility. The same unit that triggers the flash from the camera can also be used on the flash to be triggered. Some companies offer infrared triggers. These are limited in their abilities due to the line of sight requirement, meaning that if the trigger cannot see the strobe, they will fail. The Pocketwizard radio transceiver does not need line of sight and can be triggered from ridiculous distances, even behind a enormous concrete pillar (I did this, it works, trust me. check it out [here]). Bottom line is that they will not fail. I have never had a unit misfire even once. Those babies are the bomb! Yeah, I said bomb. Now, you can go on the cheap and order some Hong Kong cheapos for 30 clams a pair but I promise that you will be disappointed. You would be better off buying about 30 feet of sync cord for under five bucks. You must be thinking that 30 and 800 are very different prices. When speaking of $800, I speaking of what I used in studio for these particular shoots. Each transceiver costs about $200. I was using a three light setup which requires three transceivers and a fourth mounted to the camera's hot shoe acting as the master trigger. If you have the dough, they will be your best investment ever.
Cold Shoes ~ $60
Most of the non-electrical equipment that I purchase comes from a place called Calumet. They are a large photographic company that caters to the pros. Think you can walk into a Ritz Camera and ask for a PC adapter? Think again. They do not cater to the pro, trust me. I walked the streets of Philly one day desperately seeking a PC adapter, since mine unexpectedly broke. I arrived at Ritz and asked for this piece and they looked at me as if I had two heads. Ok, I digress. Back to the cold shoe adapter.
The cold shoe adapter is an adapter that connects your flash to the light stand. Pretty basic. A decent one will have different adjustment knobs to angle or lock your flash into place. They also have a slot that allows for certain light modifiers to be attached. Again, I purchased these for about 20 bucks a pop at Calumet. The link is [here].
Modifiers ~ $60
For this particular shoot I used two 45 inch Calumet brollies (brolly is lingo for umbrella). I own a few of these babies since they are so reasonably priced. Brollies come in different varieties and sizes. I like to go large with most of my modifiers. Better to have too much than not enough. If I want to shrink down the apparent light source, I could always choke up on the shaft. You can see in the photo that one brolly is black and the other white. In actuality, both come with the removable black cover. This allows you to either shoot through or into the umbrella, depending on your lighting needs. For this shoot I needed one of each. These are about 30 bucks each and you can find them [here].
The umbrella doesn't yield the same style of light as would an octa or a large softbox but for the price, these are extremely impressive.
Light Stands ~ $150
I know it is sounding like I get paid to promote Calumet but that is far from the truth, although it would be nice. Actually, the reason I buy so much from that company is that it is the closest place to where I live. Many times I purchase equipment online but sometimes it is nice to go into an actual store to pick out what I need. They have a location in South Philly on Delaware Ave. (Columbus Blvd.) which is just a short drive from my place.
I really dig their light stand package. You can buy a ten foot stand for 50 bucks or so. Or, you can buy the three stand package that comes with an awesome carrying case for $150. It was a no brainer since, at the time of purchase, I needed exactly three light stands. Their construction quality is top notch and I have not had a problem with them, ever. I didn't splurge for the air cushioned stands. Those are about 30 bucks more, a piece. They simply allow for the stand to glide slowly down when closing them. For the weaklings who can't control the weight atop the stand. I don't find any difficulty in lowering my stands with any amount of gear strapped to the top. If you feel safer going with air cushioned, be my guest. I'd rather use those extra dollars somewhere else. [Here's] where you can buy these stands or others.
Background Support ~ $150
This was another package deal from, you guessed it, Calumet. Rather than buy each piece individually, which you can do, they sell the whole shabang for a buck fifty. This package also comes with an extra rugged carrying case. I'll tell ya, love the carrying cases. They keep my gear in a very organized fashion that is easily stored away.
The construction of this support system is top notch. The two end stands, which can probably be used as light stands as well, extend to a massive 12 feet in height. The crossbar comes in sections. It can be used to hang 53 inch seamless or extend to hang 107 inch seamless. The tops of the end stands are brass which tells me that they didn't skimp in the manufacturing department. A very solid unit that I would highly recommend.
If you don't have the extra cash to buy a setup like this one, you can always improvise with DIY ingredients that you could buy on the cheap from places like Home Depot or Lowes. Just have to get a bit creative is all. If interested in the setup I used, check out the product info [here].
White Seamless ~ $30
I'm not sure how much detail I can write about this but here goes nothin'. Ok, it's a 53 inch roll of seamless "Arctic" white paper. By the way, 53 inches is the width, not the length. The length is, well, long, I'm not sure of the exact dimensions but when I post the link, you can see for yourself. The nice thing about it being so long is that when the lower sections get filthy, as the mine is, you can simply tear off the dirty part and start new. Much like a roll of toilet paper.
Other than that, it is what it says it is, seamless white paper. It is about the stock of, I'd say, construction paper. When you finally tear a section, that old section acts as an awesome toy for the dog. My dog was entertained for at least an hour until he finally tore it into an oblivion.
A good rule of thumb is to never ever store rolls of seamless lying down. You must store vertically or the paper will wrinkle. That will basically make that 30 dollar roll of TP just that, a 30 dollar roll of extra large TP. I keep all of my seamless rolls in their box stored vertically in a corner. Oh, there's another reminder. If in a photography store and they have rolls of seamless displayed, they are usually still wrapped out of box and stored vertically. My trick is to ask them for a roll from the back that is still in the box. That box is a great storage device. I bought the paper [here].
If you are struggling to save your lunch money and cannot afford the seamless, steal your spouse's good linen. A large white sheet does the trick just fine. Be sure to find the stuff with a real high thread count too. I'm sure any husband/wife would be glad to see the good stuff nailed to a wall.
Lights ~ $550
These, along with the Pocketwizards are the bread and butter of what makes the ordinary extraordinary. If you are looking at the price tag of $550 and scratching your head then read on. You don't need to break the bank in order to produce some awesome lighting scenarios.
The price here is based on the exact three lights I used for the photographs herein. If you take a close look to the first photograph, you may be able to discern that it is one Vivitar 285HV. Those monstrosities of light are a mere C-note, if that. Yes, they are an old school design, revisited. These babies were released decades ago and shortly thereafter fell off the radar. With the Strobist movement that began a couple years ago, the Vivitar 285 made a huge comeback. Quite like Travolta's return to fame with "Pulp Fiction."
With that being said, I typically use two Vivitars for my cyc shoots. Again, they are old school but they do the trick. No fancy TTL settings on those workhorses, just manual settings. If you want to learn TTL, you are in the wrong place my friend. I shoot full manual, nothing automatic in any of my work. TTL is the autoexposure of flash. I don't let my camera think for me in terms of exposure settings so why would I let my strobes be any different. I the controller. Period.
My third strobe was/is a Canon 430 EX ii. That is a fully high tech, TTL, bells and whistles type of strobe. Along with those bells and whistles comes the $350 price tag. This price has dropped a bit since I bought it a couple years ago. This was the first external flash that I purchased, once getting that urge to get away from purely ambient lit photography. I thought for the price and its features that the 430 EX ii was the right choice. Now think about that. I bought the Canon super high tech strobe first and then the less expensive Vivtar strobes second. I went from high tech to low tech. Why? Like I said, I don't shoot TTL. How many times have I had the Canon in TTL mode? Zip, zero, zilch, nada. Once discovering that I wanted full manual control of my light, I decided I didn't need bells and whistles, just raw power and power control. That is why I "downgraded" to less expensive technology.
If you are interested in the Vivitar, you can check out the specs [here]. And if you leaning towards wanting to the Joe McNally route, you can find the Canon TTL capable strobe [here].
Gels ~ $10
A keen eye can see that on the strobe to the right, the one shooting through the brolly, can see that it is gelled with 1/4 CTO. Those are manufactured by Rosco. They make an array of gels varying in sizes. I prefer the Strobist gel packs they sell. These are awesome since they are cut to fit the size of most of your speedlite head sizes. The Vivitar overpowers them in the size department but it isn't usually noticeable in the end photograph.
For portrait work, I now always keep at least a 1/4 CTO on a key or fill light. It gives life and warmth to skin tones without such a sterile look. Very natural. The Rosco gels are also cool since they give you about three of each gel so you don't have to worry about ruining a couple. There are always plenty of backups. You can get the gels for under ten bucks [here].
Etc. ~ $100
I was going to break each of these items down individually but let's just face it, I wrote so f'ing much already. I'm ready to wrap this thing up and I still have more to say. Jeez, I just need to shut the hell up sometimes. Anyway, enough of my crazy talk, back to business.
There are always some odds and ends that are required for all shoots. Some of them will be staples that you never leave home without. Others are things you need to replace from time to time. A few of the things that are necessary are the sync cables. These attach the Pocketwizard to the strobe. A specialized wire if you will. These are about 15 bucks a pop. And, depending on which type of flash you are using, you may need a PC adapter. The 430 EX ii does not have a PC jack so with this setup I had to snatch up a couple adapters. They are about 20 bucks a pop. Always buy more than one just in case one breaks of fails you. Better safe than sorry.
A final purchase that is necessary is power. None of these strobes or PW's would work without power, which is why I have about 20 rechargeable AA batteries. I also keep the same number of regular double A's in my bag just in case the rechargeable batteries crap out on me. As little as it may seem, could you imagine how big a problem it would be if you had no power to your strobes on the day of a shoot? Let's just say that would be your last time ever working with that client.
Grand Total ~ $1810
More importantly, you aren't buying these things for every shoot. It is not costing an extra two G's every time you take out your camera. Most of this stuff, as long as you get a decent brand, will last many years. A small amount of it will have to be replaced from time to time but that is completely normal.
The photo at left is pure example of how, once you have the goods, mixed with creativity and knowhow, that well, off camera light rocks. I'm not sure how else to put it. Had this photograph been taken in outdoor ambient light, it would not look anything like this, I promise.
Special thanks to the two lovely models that posed for the photos you are seeing. One needs no introduction as she has suffered many times in front of my lens, wife/VAL/business manager/Stefanie. The other, quite restless and impatient subject, in the first shot, is my mother. Thanks mom!