Build a Studio Lighting Setup on a Budget

home photo studio

As your photography skills start to improve, you realize more and more how difficult it can be to rely on natural light for your shots. Indoor shots can be difficult due to a lack of “good” light. Outdoors, the weather is unpredictable and constantly changing. If you sit around and wait for the perfect lighting, you’re going to miss a lot of great shots.

For a lot of photographers, flash and lighting is an intimidating subject. For most of us, the first time we use a flash is with the one that’s built-in on our cameras. These small, low power built-in flashes can often lead to frustrating results. On-camera flashes usually don’t make for the most flattering light, especially for portraits. So how do you get started and what kind of lighting should you want to invest in?

By the end of this article, you should have all the information you need to start building your own home lighting studio. There is only one way to get comfortable with flash and lighting, and that is with lots and lots of practice. What better way to get started than with your own studio.

An Overview


You don’t have to be a professional photographer to set up lighting in your home. Building a home lighting studio is much easier and budget friendly than you might have thought. If possible, set aside an area to keep all of your equipment. This will help you to keep everything organized and easy to find.

What you’ll need to get started (we will go over each of these in more detail below):
  • One or more light sources
  • A way for the camera to communicate with the lighting
  • Light stands
  • Light modifier (softbox or umbrella)
  • Umbrella bracket
  • A backdrop and support

Choosing a light source


When it comes to lighting for your studio, there are several options to consider. Lighting comes in two categories: continuous and strobe lighting.

Strobe lighting is a quick burst of light that fires with the camera’s shutter and includes flashes, speedlights, and studio strobes. Studio strobes are great, but they are bigger than speedlights and can cost quite a bit more.

Continuous lighting includes tungsten (hot), LED, and compact fluorescent lights (cool). The nice thing about continuous lighting is that is’s easy to visualize the shot since the lighting stays on while you’re composing and setting up. The downside is that it’s not very portable. Continuous lighting requires a nearby outlet and a lot of power and can get very hot. Tungsten lights get very hot and can melt your gels and diffusion materials quickly if you’re not paying attention.

For someone just getting started in flash photography or studio lighting, I would definitely recommend that you start out with several good speedlights. They are small, light and ultra portable. Despite the small size, they also pack quite a bit of power.

Nikon and Canon both make exceptional speedlights for their camera systems, but they can be a bit expensive. There is a third-party company called Yongnuo that makes incredible speedlights. They only cost a fraction of what you’ll pay for the Nikon and Canon equivalents. I highly recommend you check them out. There is a link below.

If you want to go with a Nikon flash, I would recommend starting out with the SB-700. It is a full featured flash and works great with the Nikon Creative Lighting System. The SB-700 costs around $325.

Nikon SB-700

Nikon SB-700

For Canon, I would recommend starting out with the 600EX-RT or the slightly cheaper 430EX II. The 600EX-RT has a little bit more power and has a wireless receiver built-in, but if you’re looking to spend less money, the 430EX II is a great flash.

My personal favorite pick for a speedlight is the Yongnuo YN 560 III. It’s tough, powerful, reliable, and extremely affordable. I have three and I use them more than any other flash that I own. It also has a built-in wireless receiver, which can be extremely useful. The YN-560 III is compatible with all Nikon, Canon, Pentax and Olympus DSLRs.

For more specific recommendations and an in-depth look at all of the speedlight options available, check out this article.

Communication System


Whether you’re using speedlights or another type of strobe lighting, the camera needs to be able to communicate with the flash and tell it when to fire. There are several ways of doing this:

Slave mode/Commander unit

Most speedlights have a slave mode that enables them to be triggered by the built-in flash on your camera or another flash. All of the speedlights I recommended above have this capability. This is the cheapest and probably the most simple setup.

Not all cameras are capable of controlling external flashes. Most Nikon DSLRs have this built-in, but a few of the entry models do not. If you don’t have this capability or you’re shooting with a Canon camera, both companies make a commander unit that you can purchase separately. The Nikon unit is the SU-800 and Canon is the ST-E2.

Wireless Trigger System

Wireless trigger systems use radio frequencies to connect the camera to your speedlights. You need a set of two to control one speedlight, but you can always buy additional units to control more lights. The first unit attaches to your camera and the second and any additional units attach to your flashes. This is the option that I use.

The most popular brand of radio triggers are made by PocketWizard. You can buy a pair of their radio triggers for $2-300 depending on which model you choose.

A much more budget friendly option is the Yongnuo RF-603 radio triggers. A pair of these will only cost you between $25-30. They aren’t quite as heavy duty as the PocketWizards, but as long as you take care of them, they will last a long time. There is a separate model for Canon and Nikon cameras so make sure you purchase the appropriate option.
RF-603C3 for Canon
RF-603 N3 for Nikon

Left: PocketWizard Plus III Right: Yongnuo RF-603

Left: PocketWizard Plus III
Right: Yongnuo RF-603

Light Stands, Modifiers & Adapters


Speedlights are small and light, so we don’t need anything fancy or heavy duty to mount them on. There are tons of options to choose from, but the one company that comes to mind is Impact. They make quality lighting equipment at reasonable prices. You can get the Impact 6′ Light Stand for around $24 each.

Next, we need a light modifier to soften and spread out the light. You probably want to look for a large umbrella. Especially for portraits, you want the light to be as soft and spread out as possible. Most umbrellas come with a convertible black top that can be removed. If you leave the black part on, you can use the umbrella to bounce light and if you take it off you can shoot through the umbrella.

The Impact 45″ convertible umbrella is a great choice at around $18 a piece.

The last thing we need to set up the lighting is an adapter to mount the umbrella and the flash on the top of the light stand. The Impact Umbrella Bracket has both. It attaches to the light stand holds the flash and umbrella. It also has a locking tilt adjustment.

Impact 6' light stand, umbrella bracket and 43" umbrella

Impact 6′ light stand, umbrella bracket and 43″ umbrella

Background & Support


Buying a background is totally optional. If you’re using your lighting setup outside, you won’t need it and there are ways around spending additional money on a traditional backdrop. If you do decide that you want a background, there are plenty of options.

Professional muslin backdrops can be really expensive, but there are a lot of other cheaper options out there if you look. Something as simple as a white bed sheet or some fabric from the local craft store can work out great. If you decide to look for material, try and find something that’s thick so light won’t shine through. Vinyl, muslin, and canvas are all good choices. Some fabric stores don’t sell material that is wide enough, so you may have to look online for somewhere that does. For children and babies, wrapping paper is another fun idea.

While shopping for a backdrop, you’ll find two types: muslin fabric and paper backdrops. Paper backdrops are nice because you can just tear off the end when it gets dirty and roll out more. They also don’t wrinkle like muslin backdrops, but the long rolls take up a lot more storage room. There are generally two different widths, 53″ and 107″. If you plan on photographing groups, definitely get the 107″ backdrop.

Savage 107″ White Background Paper
Savage 53″ White Background Paper
Impact 10’x12′ Muslin Backdrop

You’ll also need to get a support system to hold up the backdrop that you choose. I use the Impact Background Support System. It extends up to 10′ high and 12′ wide, so it’s plenty large enough for whatever backdrop system you end up using. It also folds down small for storage and comes with its own storage and transport bag.

Impact backdrop support

Impact backdrop support

If you do a search online, there are lots of tutorials on how to make a backdrop support yourself if you have the necessary skills.

The last thing you’ll need is a set of cheap muslin clamps to help hold everything in place.

Conclusion


I hope that this gives you a good idea of everything needed to build your own lighting studio. It’s really not all that hard once you get started. You can never go wrong investing in a few good speedlights and light stands. Even if you end up upgrading to a more advanced setup down the road, you’ll always be able to use them.

There are a lot more expensive and advanced equipment setups out there, but spending more money won’t make your images look any better or make you a better photographer. Most advanced lighting setups can be done with as few as 2 or 3 speedlights and a couple umbrellas.