A Lighting Gear Buying Guide for Photographers

Buiying Guide Lighting System

From snoots to honeycombs and softboxes to umbrellas, there is no end to what kind of lighting equipment you can buy for photography. There are various types of lighting equipments available in the market and it can be overwhelming for photographers to decide what to buy.

In this post, we present a comprehensive guide to buying a photography lighting system. Photographers using lighting systems will know that buying a lighting kit can quickly get very confusing, so for simplicity’s sake, this post presents suggestions for photographers who want to buy their first lighting kit on a limited budget.

Any lighting kit has two main components – source of light and a light modifier. The key is to choose both the source and the modifier such that it suits your needs. Let’s look at both of these one by one and learn what are some available options.

First, Choose Type of Equipment

In a previous post, we talked about different type of lighting equipments. The type of equipment is often the first decision that you will need to make. Do you want a softbox or an umbrella?

There are many kits available that include a pair of lighting equipment. See this kit for example. That umbrella kit comes with few extras and is relatively cheap. Then there are kits with more lights than two, like this 3-light kit, which is great for food photography.

If you are not sure about what equipment to buy, don’t buy the entire kit. First, buy a single equipment, an umbrella or a softbox and see how you like it. Then make a decision whether to buy same second equipment or a different one. If you buy only one softbox or an umbrella, keep in mind that you will almost always need a reflector/bouncer to reduce shadows (unless you want shadows for directional lighting).

Then, Decide What Type of Light Source You Want

The next decision that you should take early in the process is what type of light source do you want? Light source can be very broadly classified into three main types – 1) Continuous light, 2) Strobe light and 3) Flash. Lets talk about each of them.

1. Continuous Light

Continuous lights are fairly inexpensive option for lighting. Continuous lights are easy to use and new photographers can quickly learn to light with them. Due to the fact that light is continuously emitted, it is easy to modify and control light, before clicking the camera.

There are many different types of lights that are available. Halogens, lamp bulbs are two types that are mostly used. Here’s a continuous light kit that’s very inexpensive. Continuous lights, specially halogens, can get very hot and therefore should be used from a distance.

2. Strobe Light

Strobes produce high-intensity light for short duration. Most professional photographers use strobes with an umbrella or soft box. Here’s an example of strobe lights.

For new photographers, using strobes can be challenging and a little hard to control as the light is emitted for a very short duration. Unlike, continuous lights, understanding strobes and modifying light using them takes considerable practice and time.

3. Flash

Technically, flash is a strobe. However, when talking about strobe many people don’t consider flash as a strobe. For them strobe is bigger and bulkier than the flash units.

If you plan to buy only flash, you should consider buying a flash diffuser. Direct flash almost always will destroy your photo by making it flat. Flash works best when it is bounced off a surface or used with a on-flash diffusers.

Triggers/Receivers for Strobes and Flash

One thing to remember is that since strobes and flash are off-camera, they do need some kind of trigger. These trigger mechanisms can be wireless or can be wired. If you would like flexibility and movement, wireless triggers are most appropriate and are fairly inexpensive. Here are some wireless triggers. Do you see how inexpensive they are? Now compare the cost with wired triggers.

Now, Find Out These Details

Once you have decided the type of light source and type of equipment, then you can should start asking following things questions:

How Many Watts Does it Have

Wattage of lighting system is probably the most important number of all. As you would know, the higher the wattage, the brighter the light. For food photography usually 500 Watt – 750 Watt is good enough when combined with reflectors and bouncers.

One thing to consider is that as the wattage increases, the heat dissipated also goes up and for photographing food, specially cold dishes, this implies that you have lesser time to take that perfect photograph.

What is the Temperature of Light Source

Temperature of light source can be simply translated as white balance. The temperature of light source is therefore important to get right colors in your food photos. I am sure you have heard Matt Wright say that natural light is best for photography, so then the goal should be to get a lighting source that emits light similar to natural light.

Natural light has a temperature of 5500 Kelvin. When you are ready to buy lighting kit, check the temperature of light source. Of course, you can do all kinds of adjustments in post processing, but the goal should be to get things right outside of the camera.

In my opinion, temperature is by far the most important thing to consider. If you do go with continuous light, I recommend that you don’t buy a “hot” light. Buy a light source with temperature of 5500K as it simulates the light that sun emits.

Can the Light Intensity Be Changed

Some lighting equipment have a control that helps you change the intensity of light. This is done by something as simple as adding a diffuser or could be a control that helps you adjust the power.

Strobes generally have a switch which lets you control the power. Some softboxes and umbrellas have multiple layers of diffuser.

What is the Recharging/Recycling Time

An important thing to keep in mind when buying a strobe based lighting system is recharging time. Recycling time or recharging time, in very simple terms, is time required for a strobe to recharge itself and get back up and running for taking next photograph, after a photo it taken.

In other words, recycling time is the downtime of the strobe when it cannot be used because it is charging itself. The goal should be to have recharging time as low as possible so that no time is wasted between two shots.

For food photography, you don’t want to wait too long for the strobe to charge and to find out that the icecream has already melted. The lower the recycling time, the better it is. However this also increases the cost of equipment considerably. 

A recycling time of 5-7 seconds is considered slow and 1-3 seconds is considerably fast. As you would have guessed, strobes with recycling times of 1-3 seconds are expensive.

4 Finer Aspects to Consider for Advanced Buyers

For someone who is just getting started with artificial lighting, the criteria mentioned above should lead you to a decent lighting equipment. If you already have the basic lighting equipment and are wanting to jump towards more advanced equipment, there are some things that you should consider.

In addition to the things mentioned above, below are some more aspects that should be kept in mind if you are thinking to buy a strobe based lighting system.

  1. Shot-to-Shot Power Stability
  2. Color Temperature Stability
  3. Slave Capability
  4. Flash Duration


These finer details that we mentinoed above are not always available in all online listings. If you are buying your first lighting equipment and is fairly inexpensive, you can ignore them, but for advanced buyers, make sure you ask at least these four questions.

In an later post, we’ll go into more details and talk about these and some more finer aspects of buying advanced lighting equipment.

Some Other Considerations

Besides these technical things, few other things should be kept in mind. Following are few things that you may want to consider:

  1. Parts availability – Consider how easily the strobes, clamps or other parts are available and whether you can buy replacement strobes, lights etc and use it with your lighting equipment.
  2. Ease of Use – Think about how easy it is to use the equipment. Is it easy to make changes? For example, can you change the power intensity easily? Or every time you have to change it, you have to do a whole lot of adjustments?
  3. Compatibility with other gear – Will you get good results with your camera? Does your camera work with this type of equipment? Do wireless triggers/transmitters work with this lighting equipment?
  4. Future expansion – If you think of expanding your lighting gear in future, are there options available? Or will you buy an entirely new lighting kit?

Available Lighting Kits

Confused yet? Well buying lighting equipment can be complicated and sometimes frustrating. Below are some options that are available online that seem decent. Look at them and read the details and make a decision.

  1. Complete Lighting Kit with Umbrella, Softboxes, Strobes and wireless trigger is available at Amazon for a nice price.
  2. Lowel Ego Tabletop lights – Hmmm, these have been talked about a lot. I personally think that tabletop lights in general are small. These lights are convenient to handle though and are popular among some product and food photographers.
  3. Most Inexpensive Way to Make a Decent Lighting Kit – This resource teaches how to create your own lighting kit for the DIYers amongst us. This resource pays for itself as soon as you make your home studio.

What Do You Look For?

Have you bought a lighting equipment? What did you look for when buying lights? Share us how you selected your photography equipment.

Photo by Yellow Snow Photography

  • Thanks a bunch for this wonderful post. Just recently I got the Lowel Ego lights, a pair of them. I do not have much space where I take my food photographs. I haven’t used it much, and try to take photographs in the natural light. even with these little lights, I feel one should gradually learn to position them to prevent hard exposures and overdoing it.

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  • I also use the “Lowel EGO Lights” but I actually made them myself. For anybody looking for a really inexpensive but great lighting solution for food photography try out my Do-It-Yourself tutorial here:


    Once you get used to how they light everything and properly adjusting your white balance you can get some great shots even when there is absolutely no natural lighting.

    BS’ In The Kitchen

  • You can avoid the harsh shadows of the artifical light by bouncing it off a large white surface. A wall, foam core board, really anything solid. The bigger the better. If you experiment you can find something similar to daylight.

  • Emma Pérez

    Hi! I´m thinking buy two flashes with 400 watts each one of them for food photography. Do you think it´s ok? Excuse my english, i’m spanish, Thanks!

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  • Valeria

    Hi Neel, Thank you for the great insights! One question: when you talk Watts (500-750), do you mean each light must be at least 500W, or, say, 3 lights combined can reach 500W an that’s good enough?

    Many thanks!