(Continued) Gear Talk: What to buy when you’re just starting out with off-camera-lighting


This is what is known as a “Continuous Lighting” setup or a “Hot Light“. Essentially, it’s a light-bulb on a stand with an umbrella that can be used as a “shoot through” or a “bounce back”, depending on your needs.

Shoot through means that you defuse the light through the inside of the umbrella onto your subject. A bounce-back (or reflective) umbrella is one where you bounce the light off the inside of the umbrella back towards your subject. Some umbrellas have a reflective cover that you can install to make bouncing back more efficient (less light lost). I will touch on these terms in more detail in a later post.

You can buy the whole kit for $34 at Midwest Photo, but there are any number of vendors where such an item can be had (I have no releationship with Midwest Photo or any other vendor except as a customer, so this is free advertising for them).

With this basic setup and a little imagination, this cheapo starter kit can produce some pretty amazing photos. If you only ever shoot indoors there’s no reason why you couldn’t run a professional studio with just a few of these kits. In addition to being very affordable, the beauty of continuous light is it’s “what-you-see-is-what-you-get”. With a setup like this there is no guess work trying to figure out where to position your lights and at what intensity they should be set, but there are also many draw backs, including:

  • Sitting under a Hot Light can get uncomfortably warm, because they’re… you know, HOT.
  •  You can only go as far as your extension cord will let you.
  • They don’t generate enough light to overpower the sun, making them less useful for use outdoors.
  • You have to keep replacing the bulbs, they don’t last as long as normal, household bulbs.


For just a little more money than the hot lights, you can buy a modest flash and radio trigger. Just this morning, I stumbled over the following promotion:

Napa Wedding Photography

This kit can also be found at Midwest Photo Exchange, it’s currently on sale for $135.

Throw in an modestly priced radio trigger/receiver kit like the Cactus V4 Radio Slave Set ($45) and a modifier of some sort like this inexpensive, shoot-through umbrella ($19) and you have a complete and very capable lighting setup for only $199.


  • Inexpensive but with reasonable reliability
  • Well known, trusted manufacturer
  • Enough power to get the job done
  • Simple to use
  • Advertised Sync Speed of up to 1/1000 (nice!)


  • Range is only about 30 feet
  • Occasional misfires
  • No E/TTL
  • Not backward compatible with previous Cactus versions, probably not forward compatible with next version either (pure speculation on my part).
  • Uses hard to find button batteries


High End

On the more expensive side of the spectrum are what are considered to be the “Gold Standard” for radio triggers, Pocket Wizards. You can buy different types of Pocket Wizards but they mostly fall  into two categories, Dumb Trigger and ETTL Trigger.

Dumb Trigger - This means that all the trigger does is fire the flash. With a dumb trigger, you have to adjust the power on your flashes manually, the trigger doesn’t try to guess at the proper exposure, it just fires the flash at whatever power you’ve set it to. Most PW triggers are “Dumb Triggers” including the PW Classic, the PW II+, the PW III, etc.


  • High reliability
  • Great customer service
  • Fantastic range
  • Forward and backward compatible w/other PW versions
  • Uses regular AA batteries
  • Holds their value well (used ones not that much cheaper than new)
  • You can use inexpensive, off-brand flashes (like the Lumopro 120 that I mentioned earlier in the post) and still take advantage of all the features.


  • Expensive compared to other triggers (Approx $175)
  • No ETTL
  • No High Speed Sync (limiting you to 1/200 or 1/250 max shutter speed)

ETTL Trigger - The only ETTL Pocket Wizard currently on the market is the Flex TT5 (and it’s cousin the Mini TT5). ETTL is the Canon scheme of automatic exposure. It stands for Enhanced Through The Lens. On the Nikon side they have pretty much the same thing, they call theirs “TTL”. With E/TTL, the camera will decide how powerful the flash should be by evaluating the scene through the lens, it sends this information to the trigger which sends it to the flash via a Flex TT5 Transceiver.


  • They have all the features of non ETTL Pocket Wizards so all the “pros” from above apply here as well.
  • Because they are ETTL, you can “run and gun” with them without having to stop and manually adjust your flash power all the time, great for weddings and other fast moving events!
  • If you group your flashes together you can adjust them all at once from the camera, rather than having to walk over and adjust each one individually, this sounds like a small thing but it’s the reason why I spent the extra $$.
  • These can do High Speed Sync!

I have standardized on the TT5′s for all of my off camera triggering, but I don’t suggest that everyone buy these as there are $ignificant drawbacks.


  • These are expensive! I paid about $230 for mine, they are sometimes lower but not often.
  • You have to use the expensive Brand-Name flashes to use the ETTL features. If you’re buying Canon 580EX flashes to use with these, for example, each flash/trigger combo is going to set you back about $700. For that kind of money, you can buy much bigger lights (but you won’t have the same ETTL functionality).
  • I was unhappy with the Mini TT5, exchanging mine for the FlexTT5′s. The Mini’s are transmitters only and have (in my opinion) less range, plus they use hard to find button batteries. I suggest sticking with the slightly more expensive Flex’s.
  • Because they mount to your flash’s hot shoe, your flash will be slightly taller on your umbrella stand (meaning your flash will no longer line up with the middle of your umbrella, but instead will hit the upper portion only).
  • ETTL is sometimes a voodoo technology, you’re sometimes going to get exposure problems. It’s just the nature of the beast – although there are strategies for minimizing this problem.


If I had to do it all over again, I may have gone with the lower cost options, I am not sure I am getting the biggest bang for the buck. There are a lot of upsides to the PW Flex system, but man, they are expensive. If I was buying today, I would probably go with the lower cost Pocket Wizard II’s. That way, I wouldn’t need to spend a fortune each time I needed to add another light because I wouldn’t be locked into buying the name-brand, fancy, expensive flashes.

If I wasn’t shooting professionally, I might even go with the even lower cost Cactus triggers, they are pretty close in functionality to the PW II’s but much much cheaper.

So use caution, don’t get locked into the more expensive equipment unless you really need it (wedding photographers come to mind).

Small Disclaimer: In this post I offered three price point options but this should not be considered a comprehensive list. For example, Radio Poppers are also a good option (so I hear) but I don’t know enough about them to really do a good job of talking about them. So please do your own research.

Until next time,

The Napa Photographer

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