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For Photographers: What’s In Our Lighting Bag?

Happy Thursday everyone!  Today we’re gearing up for a big trip that we’re kicking off tomorrow that over the next 10 days is going to take us through 4 states, 1 styled shoot, 1 tour of the White House in DC, 1 photography conference, 1 amazing wedding (shout out to Lana+Ashton!) and 6 engagement sessions…and as we were working on packing our bags this morning I realized that I’d promised to share all of our lighting equipment with you this week – and today seems like the perfect time as we prep our gear for the trip.

Let’s talk lighting for a couple of minutes.  For some of you, using a flash (or any kind of lighting equipment) might be a little scary.  And let me tell you – we’ve totally been there!  How the heck do you choose your settings, what gear do you need, why in the world would you choose to use flash over natural light, how do you set everything up for a wedding reception?…all of those questions still feel familiar.  We used to be afraid to ask questions about lighting for fear that we would sound like we didn’t know what we were doing or talking about.  In the beginning we called ourselves “natural light photographers” because the truth was we had no idea how to use lighting equipment, and we became even more discouraged when our first few times trying it out with speedlights it looked horrible!  And then we found ourselves faced with a wedding on a short winter day in Seattle and a few days before the wedding we realized that it was going to be dark during the portraits that evening – and we knew that if we were going to call ourselves wedding photographers we simply had to learn to master lighting.  We collected advice from friends, watched some CreativeLive, and the morning of that wedding (please don’t follow in our example here – please practice first!) we picked up some lighting gear, wireless triggers, and a light meter and we jumped in with both feet – and that was the day that we fell in love with off camera lighting.

Photography is all about light – and the tricky thing with weddings is that you often literally have zero control over the lighting conditions.  We used to say that if we could schedule all of our portraits and ceremonies and receptions to take place during golden hour in a beautiful field we absolutely would – but obviously that’s not feasible when it comes to weddings – and these days we honestly enjoy dealing with more difficult lighting situations on wedding days…we love the challenge and we find that when we’re pushed technically we usually end up creating something really unique and creative.  And we used to be terrified of shadows, but we’ve learned that shadows can be just as effective as light at bringing a photo to life and giving it dimension.

My “lightbulb” moment with off camera lighting is actually a little embarrassing, because it’s so simple.  Have you ever had to take getting-ready photos in a room with no windows and awful lighting?  Yes, me too!  And at some point I took a look at one of our large soft boxes and came to the realization that it could do the exact same thing that a window with beautiful natural light streaming through could do.  I realized that it’s the same shape and size as many windows that I’d used in the past, and that because I had 100% control over the settings I could literally make my own beautiful window light when there were no windows to be found.  And ever since I came to that realization, as simple and basic as it might sound, the world of lighting has opened up to me.  When we’re working indoors, I now think of our lighting as my own portable beautiful window light that I can carry around with me – and envisioning it in those simple terms has always made it much less intimidating for me and easier to understand.  Anyway, I could write about our love affair with lighting all day long, but I’ll save some things for future blog posts and get to today’s specific topic…

What’s in our lighting bag?

Let’s start with the basics:

-Canon Speedlight 580EX II.  We have 3 of these puppies and they work great for us.  While we also love to use cheaper flashes for our off-camera work that don’t have all of the bells and whistles that these Canon speedlights have, they are essential to us on wedding days because they have an Auto Focus Assist Beam that allows us to focus in pitch black conditions if needed when we put them on our cameras.  For that reason, one of these stays on our camera during wedding receptions so that even if all of the lights are turned off without warning during a first dance we’re still able to focus on our subjects (we normally don’t use the actual flash for light on camera, just the focus beam).  The focus assist beam is pretty much the only reason that we feel we need these more expensive speedlights, especially because it’s extremely rare for us to use the ETTL function because we prefer to set our flash power manually.

-Old used flashes.  Because, as I described above, we prefer to set our flash power manually – we love when we can score a great deal on old used flashes.  We actually have a couple of old film camera flashes that seem to work better than any of our newer models and have become our workhorses.  During wedding receptions we often set up a flash or two in the back of the room, and although we take measures to ensure that they are safe and secure, it’s reassuring to know that if one of them gets knocked over and broken we’re only out $20 instead of $600.

Manfrotto Master Stands.  We have 3 or 4 of these stands and they are super sturdy, handle wear and tear like champs, and in our opinion their best feature is that when you fold them up they are made to stack neatly – which is perfect for when we travel because we hate trying to wrestle odd shaped light stands.  These fit neatly in our bag and although they are big enough to handle any job they don’t take up much room because of how they fold.

Profoto FRi 2×3′ Softbox.  We set this softbox up with one of our manual flashes and we use it for SO MUCH.  All of the ceremony/reception details, all of the dances/toast photos, and even for some of the portraits if we need a quick, easy and super portable solution.

Elinchrom Ranger Quadra RX Strobe.  This is the light that we use when we want a better quality of light than a speedlight can give us, and we love its portability (it runs on a battery pack so we can take it anywhere), its durability, and that the battery literally lasts forever – to the point that we rarely need to charge this beast.  We use this light often for family formals and for more dramatic couple’s or bridal party portraits.

Elinchrom 39″ Rotalux Octabox.  This is our favorite modifier for our Ranger Quadra, and it seriously gives us the softest and most beautiful light – we love it so much!  One of the photos that we get asked about the most is the one below – and yep, it was shot with only our one light and this octabox as the modifier – it’s definitely our go-to setup!

sodo park wedding

PocketWizard PlusX Transceivers.  This PocketWizard version is an older one, and it’s super basic, but we have some newer versions with TTL capability and found them to be less consistent, so we keep coming back to these trusty triggers.  We keep 4 or 5 of these with us on wedding days and they work great!  These wireless triggers allow us to fire all of our off camera lights when we take a photo.

Manfrotto MBAG80PM Padded Tripod Bag.  We recently purchased this bag because we needed an easy way to carry all of our stands when we travel, and so far we love it.  It is very rugged, it holds all of our stands and large items, and we’ve even had luck carrying it onto our flights and stashing it in the closet at the front of the plane.  We used to try to strap stands to our bags or carry them by hand, and this bag has been a lifesaver recently.

Lowepro Vertex 200 AW Backpack.  We’ve had this bag for almost 4 years now, and it just started to show signs of fraying on one of the straps…and we’ve put it through the ringer and taken it all around the world.  It holds nearly ALL of our gear if needed, although it gets super heavy when it’s full, and we (and by “we” I mean “Rick”) carry our backup gear, all of our flashes and triggers, our strobe battery and cables, and other miscellaneous items in this bag while we’re out shooting.  While we’ve been looking at newer rolling bags, we love this bag because we’re often out on rugged terrain while we’re shooting and it’s comfortable to wear for extended periods.

The key for us, especially as wedding and on-location photographers, is portability.  We have to be 100% portable, whether we’re shooting a formal ballroom reception or hiking to the top of a mountain for engagement photos, and all of our gear was selected with that in mind.  While you definitely don’t need to buy so much expensive gear if you’re just getting started, we’ve found that this lineup allows us to handle any situation that we might encounter by brining our own beautiful light along with us throughout the day!  We hope this was helpful!  If you’d like weekly tips and tricks delivered straight to your inbox, be sure to sign up for our photographer’s newsletter here:  Questions?  Please leave them in the comments below or shoot us an email!

Love, A


  • April 2, 2015 - 4:49 pm

    Melanie Benson Floral - love it, thanks for the great photosReplyCancel

    • April 2, 2015 - 10:38 am

      Rick - Thanks for the gorgeous blooms Melanie! This photo wouldn’t be the same without them!ReplyCancel

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