I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; photography is all about the light.  If you’re going to even think about calling yourself a professional photographer, you need to be able to do two things: 1.) bring light with you and 2.) know how to use it.  The first is obviously the easier of the two to master.  Here’s a look into my gear bag…

I use the Strobist system of lighting.  For anyone who’s been living under a rock for the past two years and doesn’t know what Strobist is, check out the link and prepare to learn a ton.  Strobist is the brainchild of former photojournalist David Hobby, who started blogging about the wonders of using off-camera flash.  His system is centered around hotshoe-style Speedlight strobes (by any manufacturer), used off-camera in manual mode.

The perks of this system are huge.  Speedlight strobes are smaller, cheaper, far more mobile, and easier to use on location or in the studio.  Consider this: when I was working as the assistant university photographer in Binghamton, going on-location with the studio gear involved taking two suitcase-sized bags for the lights alone, plus another for light stands and accessories – we used a folding luggage cart to carry it all.

My kit is much easier to manage.  All four of my strobes fit into an old Army shoulder bag, plus my radio slaves, gel pack, roll of tape, and spare batteries.  An old tripod bag holds two light stands, two umbrella adapters, and two umbrellas.  If I need the third light stand and adapter, I use ball-bungies to attach it to the bag holding the others.  That’s all there is to it.

Lighting Kit in Bags

Granted, if I am taking the entire studio setup with me, it gets a bit more complicated, as I then have another bag for the backdrop stand, the roll of seamless, and the beauty dish & softbox.  But more often than not, I try to work with what I have on hand – in my university days, that was easy.  If I was shooting in the gym, I put three strobes on stands in a large triangle around my subjects and bounced off the ceiling.

Karate Class

Shooting in the pool was the same idea, except I lined all 3 strobes up along the side of the pool and bounced again.  At f.4 and ISO 800 I had enough light to shoot at 1/60th or better, depending on which dark cave I was in.

This is why you need to take the Strobist system seriously.  If you’re never, ever going to leave your studio then perhaps AlienBees or White Lightings are the way to go.  But if you’re going to be working on location, especially by yourself, you need mobility.  I can take my kit anywhere, indoors or out, and light anything.  If I can’t bounce off a wall or ceiling, I can place the stands and throw on umbrellas.  I don’t need outlets; I have a dozen sets of rechargeable AA batteries that I cycle through.  And if I were ever to burn through all of those, I carry some regular AAs along just in case.

And now the part that should really get your attention – cost.  A single studio strobe (never mind light stand or anything else) runs $200+.  In my kit, not a single strobe cost over $100; the average is closer to $70.  That’s because I buy older model Nikon Speedlights off eBay.  (These used to cost about $25 each on eBay, until Strobist hit the scene and drove the prices back up).  Instead of the obscenely expensive PocketWizards, I use Cactus 16-channel studio slaves (also an eBay unit, from Gadget Infinity).  And I finish it off with light-duty light stands and umbrella adapters; I’m only putting a Speedlight on there, after all.

The Cactus radio slaves (sometimes known as “Poverty Wizards”) are a mixed bag.  Their V2 models are built for Speedlights , but don’t usually work well (in my experience).  The 16-channel ones work much better, but are made for studio strobes and come with studio jacks.  What do I do?  I cut the studio jacks off and use some simple crimp tubes to splice on PC adapters, which plug into all my flashes.  Finish it off with some shrink-wrap tubing or electrical tape, and the receivers are good to go.

Modified Cactus 16-Channel Radio Slaves, Rx & Tx unit

Modified Cactus 16-Channel Radio Slaves, Rx unit

Likewise with the Cactus transmitter units – out of the box they have really bad range and tend to mis-fire or not fire at all.  But order $5 worth of parts from an electronics store and open the transmitter up (which involves removing a single screw), and you’ll see that there’s a spot on the circuit board for an antenna.  So you drill a hole in the top of the case (very easy), solder a single wire from the marked spot on the circuit board to the antenna you bought (easy), put it all back together, and you suddenly have great range and a dependable transmitter (very, very cool).

Modified Cactus 16-Channel Radio Slaves, Tx unit

Total cost: $30 for a Tx & Rx set, plus $20 for each additional Rx, plus $15 for all the extra parts.  My ENTIRE radio slave kit cost me HALF the price of a SINGLE PocketWizard unit.  And I’m no electronics genius; I had never soldered anything before in my life.  But it was easy – really, really easy – to perform all the mods.  Consider the price and how well the whole kit works, and it’s a no-brainer.


For all the details, take a look at the following links:


Strobist – again, if you want to learn to light, check this guy out.  Start with the Lighting 101 tutorials and work your way up to the current posts.

Rants of a Well-Meaning Madman – this is where I got the directions for the Tx antenna mod.  I ordered the parts from the shop he suggested and followed the steps.  It took about an hour and was easy.  Only the soldering worried me, but my uncle lent me his soldering iron and gave me a 5-minute crash course, and I did just fine.

Another Tx mod – this guy takes the prize for simplicity!  Apparently he simply soldered a longer, firmer length of wire to the circuit board and ran it directly through a small hole in the case, and viola – instant antenna.

Gadget Infinity – the eBay store that sells Poverty Wizards.  They’re based out of Hong Kong, so shipping can take a few days longer, but the stuff still comes quick.  Don’t expect the units to work great out of the box – the mods listed above are required to get great results.  I use the “16 channels wireless studio flash triggers” – NOT the “16 channels wireless studio flash triggers 220V” model.

Brent Pennington is a freelance photographer and the driving force behind The Roving Photographer. When he\’s not working with portraiture or promotional clients, he’s usually in the field, hiking, or kayaking in pursuit of nature and wildlife shots.

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