What Lights Should I Buy?

April 30, 2008

So, now on to the second most common question I get asked!

Ok, so here, once and for all is my definitive answer… at least until some new gizmo comes along.

First off, flash!  Let me say right up front… I LOVE MY ALIEN BEES!  They’re everything I need in a studio or location flash unit… convenient, powerful, portable, reliable, and most important, cute!  I bought them originally for some location shooting… and now I hardly ever power up my old Balcar systems.

At the bottom of this post I’ve compiled a chart with my specific recommendations, and here is my reasoning for the choices:

As a start-up kit, you could probably get by with just 2 AB800 heads, but the addition of a third AB1600 gives you more flexibility of power, and more options in terms of lighting set-ups.

Buying the AB speedrings will allow you to use softboxes from Amvona, which are a great deal and very well built.  The AB collapsible softboxes are great, and very convenient, but are a fair bit more expensive than the Amvona ones.  The “Honeycomb” grids are great for narrowing the beam from the heads, creating a soft spotlight effect.

Now, you’ll need stands to hold up these flash heads, and I’ve been very impressed with all the gear I’ve bought from Amvona!  Their stands (and softboxes) are very well constructed, and sell for ridiculously low prices.  BTW, if you want to save even more $$$, you can bid on their products on their ebay store.  I’ve suggested an assortment of stands, because, let’s face it, you can never have too many stands!  Their reflector and holder system is also great, as it can also do double duty as a gobo to block a back light from hitting the camera (causing flare!).  I’ve also selected a range of softboxes, from huge to smallish, so you can vary the softness of your light to match your subject and the mood of the shot.  I tend to prefer softboxes over umbrellas because they’re easier to control and they don’t spray light everywhere.

Note that I’ve also selected their “Three Point Lighting System”, which is a complete system of three softboxes, stands, a carrying case, and tungsten heads.  It’s a great bargain on their ebay site, where it seems to sell for around $400… hard to beat, and you get the added bonus of tungsten lights if you want to shoot with them (great for still life/ product shooting!).

Finally, the Gadget Infinity slaves, to wirelessly trigger the flashes.  Much more convenient than synch cords, and a necessity for cameras that don’t have a synch cord plug.  You can go ahead and spend $500 on the “Cadillac” Pocket Wizards, but for my money I prefer to get 2 (or more) of the cheaper ones… they do the trick for me!

So, there you go!  For around $1300 to $1800 (including shipping) you can be totally kitted out to light just about any subject, anywhere.  Not bad, considering that one ProPhoto power pack alone sells for over $6000!

Rob’s Recommended Lighting Set-up


Quantity Item Link Cost


  Alien Bees  


Alien Bees 1600 http://www.alienbees.com/b1600.html $ 360


Alien Bees 800 http://www.alienbees.com/b800.html $ 560


Alien Bees Speedrings http://www.alienbees.com/softboxes.html $ 60


Set of 4 Grid Spots http://www.alienbees.com/hg4x.html $ 100






Three Point Lighting Kit http://www.amvona.com/?page=shop/flypage&view=1&product_id=2445 $400 (on ebay)




54×69 softbox http://www.amvona.com/?page=shop/flypage&view=1&product_id=3297 $ 112


16×22 softbox http://www.amvona.com/?page=shop/flypage&product_id=1914 $ 33.


36×48 softbox http://www.amvona.com/?page=shop/flypage&product_id=1912 $ 76


Large stands http://www.amvona.com/?page=shop/flypage&view=1&product_id=3438 $ 50


Small stand http://www.amvona.com/?page=shop/flypage&view=1&product_id=1629 $ 12


Medium stands http://www.amvona.com/?page=shop/flypage&view=1&product_id=3365 $ 30


5 in 1 reflectors http://www.amvona.com/?page=shop/flypage&view=1&product_id=1619 $ 45


Disc holder & stand http://www.amvona.com/?page=shop/flypage&view=1&product_id=1545 $ 54


Rolling Case http://www.amvona.com/?page=shop/flypage&view=1&product_id=2338 $ 117




  Gadget Infinity  


Radio Slaves http://www.gadgetinfinity.com/product.php?productid=16656&cat=274&page=1 $ 50





  1. You left off the Alien Bee Ring Light flash. I use in in combo with the speedlights and get the most raves of any portrait work I do because if it’s softening of the shadows. Works great as a fill light or a main light depending on the set up . . . . and thanks to Rob for putting me on to Alien bees, I am a committed “Bee”!! or . . .
    Shouldn’t I be spending thousands on Profoto or Elinchrome gear if I want to go places??
    Does that not take me up a notch?? heh heh!

  2. The ring flash is definitely a very cool light, more of a specialty item than a basic kit requirement. I’m glad you’re enjoying your AB’s so much!
    Yes, Profoto, Elinchrome… or better yet Broncolor are the best choice if you want to go places… they will rack up huge air miles points on your credit card!

  3. And if money is no issue (which it unfortunately usually is) check out this setup: http://www.joemcnally.com/blog/2008/05/07/basic-dubai-shooting-kit-hi-speed-sync-a-hoodman-loupe/

    • Someone was telling me that the Alien Bee units are not CSA approved, is that true?

      • I’m not sure if they are or not, and if not whether that makes any difference if you’re not reselling them.

  4. What if the units cause a fire and either the studio burns down or worse yet the clients office?

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