Top 10 Cheap Lighting Tools for 2009

The Prince of Cheap here!

I’ve been at it again and I gotta say, we got TONS of questions, comments and info from other photographers like you about the first 10 or more things cheap list from last year and this year. Here we go again! This time I looked for lowest price & most useful in my cheap things. I try to avoid listing cameras because that inherently ties one to a particular system of lenses flashes (and I’d love to live in a world where all lens and flashes were universal).

Anyway, here are the top ten things that continue to fuel my (and soon your) photography fire!

#10 – The Shepard Polaris Light Meter

This baby can be had for only $142! This little light wizard makes getting the correct or near perfect exposure easy in both flash or ambient light! Its also the cheapest light meter available that does both flash and ambient light readings. Its how I get from point A-Z in less time. Yes, I think you should have a meter. Sometimes things get unpredictable and you need some logic to bring you to your lighting goal. I know people will say, “I’m digital, why would I need a light meter?” Put it this way, if you don’t really wanna exceed your camera’s dynamic range (shades of dark’s and lights your camera can see before going pitch black or stark white) you can really benefit from one of these puppies. Its simple, makes getting a good starting point ultra quick, and makes adjusting a single flash easy. Lets not talk about how great this is outdoors in natures ever quickly changing light.

Shepard Polaris Light Meter

Purchase a Shepard Polaris Light Meter


#9 Innovatronix Tronix Explorer XT /AlienBees Vagabond II

How do two products both end up in the same spot on the cheap list top ten fighting for the number nine position? THEY’RE BOTH BEASTS! You gotta go outside with your flash to understand! These units both allow you to take your strobes outdoors to power your flashes on location. The prices are nearly the same give or take $79. The quality of them both is stellar. You cant really go wrong with either. My experience with them tells me that at the +-$300.00 for either means that these tools are going to become the NEXT HOT THING in photography soon since the guys at Paul C. Buff Inc. have place a heavy emphasis on the ability to take the new AlienBees Max flashes outdoors. These tools give a hint at the fact that more and more photographers want to go outside everyday with there lights. That’s why they’re here, and that’s why they’re here to stay. Hey, we’ve got a review on the Tronix Explorer XT here!


#8 60″ Convertible Umbrella

This is what you reach for when you’re in a hurry and need soft, predictably beautiful light. Simply pop this tool open, slide it down the umbrella slot of your flash, take off the black jacket, and viola… instant SUPER SURREAL soft light! Its just that easy and just that simple! At weddings, I can’t wait to pop this tool out so I can get the posed images without even having to do much real work! Its also great for volunteer assistants that can’t put together puzzles. Lets not talk about how beautiful this tool is when shooting family portraits on location. It is so convenient it tempts me to leave the assistant at home. I find that most name brands are great, Photoflex, Photogenic, Westcott even the B&H Brand all do well.

60 Inch Convertible Umbrella


#7 50mm Prime Lens

They’re now the new cute shooter! The old prime that your dad had has now become one of the coolest cheap tools you can get your little fingers on. It’s fast! It’s light! It’s usually the fastest focusing lens on your camera. Its also DIRT CHEAP since people from the old film world started to disregard them. I found my 50mm F1.7 Minolta AF lens at Samys camera used department for $49.00. Who would’ve known that about 7 years later I would have to shoot an entire wedding with it when my other lens stopped focusing because I dropped it hard. Funny fact is that due to APS-C digital camera chips, this lens sees the same field of view as a 75mm (Nikon and Sony) or 90mm (Canon) lens! Since these lens are primes and small they usually have apertures of F1.4, 1.7, and 1.8. That’s right: 75mm F1.4! Think of the low light potential, creamy backgrounds, fast focusing. Man, let me grab my camera right now!

50 mm Prime Lens


#6 The Amazing SL-300 Studio Flash from eBay

Yep! I went there, I bought one, and it works. Its works great! Its a Bowens “S” Mount flash, so finding light modifiers will NOT be a problem. Softboxes – no problem, octoboxes – no problem, umbrellas – no problem, beauty dishes – no problem. Plus it has decent recycle times, a metal housing, costs under $200, and ships fast in the US.

Sl300 Studio Flash


#5 AlienBees Cybersync Wireless Radio Trigger

It’s time to retire the Gadget Infinity radio triggers. Why? Something has hit the scene for $59.00 for the transmitter and $69.00 for the receiver. Here’s the most significant part: it’s very,very reliable – almost (dare I say it) Pocket Wizard-like in reliability. I know there are other systems out there, but the Cybersync is pound for pound the best choice. Reliable, easy to find AA batteries and watch batteries, built in repeater mode to extend the distance, high sync speed (sync at up to 1/4000th on a Nikon D40, and just plain simple! Get em and forget about your triggering problems!


#4 The 5n1 Reflector Disc from eBay

Here is one of my most used tools. And why wouldn’t it be? Its like having a non-electric flash always present in the studio! On location it can block light with its black side and turn ordinarily boring flat light into a directional light source. Its gold reflective side is a boon to beach sessions and beauty sessions where you need filling beautiful skin! Its silver side offers a nice snap to the light it reflects! How could you not like this tool! It even folds into a small circular disc about 1/3 its original size that makes your client say “WOW!!!” If nothing else, that wow makes the whole $50 ebay purchase from my favorite ebay seller 2DreamMaker! My personal favorite is the 40×60 inch one because the translucent side serves as a hi-key background at 12 O’Clock sun. See how its done here!

5n1 Reflector Disc


#3 The D.I.Y. Light Panel

This home built beauty has earned top honors before for its absolute cheapness, its ease of use, and ease of development. It’s the champ of studio equipment if you ask me. If you gave me just a camera, with a 50mm lens and a light panel I could simply go outside and make quality images! This kind of simplicity makes this a very dangerous tool to those with knowledge! Simply buy a few dollars worth of PVC pipe and make a square or rectangular frame with 2 “T” shaped legs and boom! Instant softbox! Instant Diffuser! Instant Background! Instant Reflector! THE LIGHT PANEL IS STILL THE PHOTOGRAPHIC TOOL ALL STAR! Wanna know how to make one? Go here!

DIY Light Panel


And the Tie for runner up is…

#2 The 12 O’Clock Sun

The sun is just the wildest pick anyone could come up with! Why on planet earth would Devil Light get picked you ask? If you understand subtractive lighting such as explained in the article here, you will understand that this is the absolute “Hot light of your dreams!” I know we’ve been taught to avoid the noon sun and in a way, rightfully so. But I use that time to go hi-key crazy and impress clients till they just cant believe it wasn’t done in a studio! Also, if you think about it correctly, you can modify devil light to give you nearly any type of light you want.

#2 LumoPro LP120

What weighs in at just ounces, only needs 4 AA batteries, recharges in 5-6 seconds, can work in a softbox, umbrella, octabox, through a panel, with gels, bounced in a room, through a cereal box and nearly any other way you can think of? The LumoPro LP120 Flash of course! This flash costs a nominal $129.95 and is a direct replacement to the Vivitar 285HV. I have one, and I really cant say enough about it. Check out my review of the unit.

LumoPro LP120 Flash & Batteries


And the #1 Cheap Solution for 2009 is…

DRUM ROLL PLEASE….

#1 OPEN SHADE!

How can you beat it? So cheap its frickin’ FREE!!! It powers my garage G-Studio when I need natural light! It doesn’t need to recharge after each shot! You can set your drive mode to continuous when you work in it and pop-pop-pop-off 20 frames per second if your camera can keep up! You can find it virtually everywhere! You can make a substantial living with it if you can understand it. Its pretty predictable! Its modifiable. Its what all flashes wish they could output without killing everyone. It can be worked with without paying for it like studio rental time. It’s flawed yet perfect all at the same time! THAT’S WHY IT DESERVES TO BE CHAMPION!!!


There you have it: the list of the cheapest things that I found to enhance your photographic world! Now you know what to consider to purchase. No excuses! Now get ta shootin!

David Griffin

About David Griffin

The Prince of Cheap I am a "Jesus Freak" and a DIY photography junkie! I'm also the *second* cheapest man alive... but only 'cause my Dad is the first!

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