Getting into strobe photography on the cheap

It is #TuesdayTips time again, and this week we are going to talk about a subject I get asked a lot – what do I need to buy to get into strobe photography? I will talk about my current gear, my past gear and most importantly what I have learned buying stuff that I thought I needed but didn’t. Full disclosure, I am not being paid by any company to promote or review gear, the products discussed in this article  have all been purchased by me.

When people see my Landscapes of the Body Project, I invariably hear that I must have really great gear to make such cool photos. Truth be told, my project evolved over the course of six years and I have taken the images with three different camera bodies and a variety of strobes. I currently shoot with a full frame Canon 5d mark IV, but some of my favorite images in the collection were shot with a crop sensor Canon 7d. For the last few years, I have shot almost exclusively with Profoto D2 strobes, but before that I used lower cost Photoflex Starflash strobes. I even have some shots in the collection taken using a Godox AD200 super-portable strobe. The common factor throughout the creation of the project has been my vision (or in my case lack of vision) for the project, and consistency in the way I use the gear. Regardless of the price of the gear, I use the same technique to sculpt the body with light, and the same blurry vision composition techniques.

Strobe technology continues to evolve at light speed (yeah – go ahead groan, I did when I wrote it.) and the gear today is nothing short of amazing, and in most cases reliable and affordable. The biggest improvements in today’s current lineup for strobes is not only in ETTL (Through the Lens metering), but in reliability of use. My first wireless trigger was a cheap radiopopper that would miss about 25% of the shots I took, I bought it for the cheap price, and because I figured all the triggers were the same. Boy was I wrong. My frustration level was through the roof when I would hit the shutter and the strobe would not fire, it drove me insane. I got tired of dealing with the lack of reliability so I purchased the Ferrari-level triggers from Pocketwizard. The upside was I never had another misfire, the downside was the price. If I had to do that part of it all over, I would have gone the more expensive route in the first place. Fast forward to today’s offerings, and you can buy some shockingly reliable entry-level gear from Godox (also sold under the Flashpoint brand), the biggest problem is that the market is saturated with lower cost offerings and it can be confusing figuring out what to buy.

As I said earlier, I shoot primarily with Profoto strobes, but decided to challenge myself to put together a super cost-effective location shooting kit that would produce good results, work reliably and not break the bank. I went into the challenge knowing full well that nothing I could put together in a low-cost kit could equal the experience of shooting with my beloved Profoto gear, but I figured I would give it a shot. I set out to read every review I could from every perspective possible about low-cost strobes. The simple solution seemed to be speedlights, but when I considered that the speedlights were under 100 watt seconds each, having to buy more than one and link them together to get enough power for most applications, (and dealing with AA batteries) seemed like too much trouble. I wanted a more all-in-one solution, and it needed to be battery powered.

The Setup

A quick YouTube search will yield a million and one reviews about the Godox/Flashpoint AD200 strobe (yes, I have one up there too.) I chose the Flashpoint version of the strobe for no particular reason – the Godox and Flashpoint models are essentially identical ($299.00 USD). I also got the Godox XPro-C trigger for $69.00 USD. I needed a light stand, so I got a trusty Manfrotto 5001B 74-Inch Nano Stand for $57.00 USD. To round out the kit I bought a LA Softbox 8 X 36 softbox (because a strip bank works for my project better) for $49.99 USD. Total cost with tax was less than $500.00 USD – less than a single flagship speedlight. I won’t go through all the specifications of the strobe, as that information is widely available. The important thing to realize, is that the strobe has 200 watts of power and will give you 500 full power shots on a single charge. The strobe comes with the Fresnel head, (like the head of a speedlight but doesn’t zoom) but for my work, I primarily use the bare bulb head in a softbox or the 24 inch octa made for the AD200.

The experience

I have used this lightweight setup as the primary light source for a few shoots now, and I have to say I am a bit surprised how well the kit handles. The reliability of the Godox XPro trigger is top notch, and works as well as triggers costing many times more. I have had very few non-fires during a shoot and adjusting the power of the strobe had no lag. In terms of battery life is where the AD200 really shines. Godox claims the battery life to be 500 full power shots with a full charge, I have found this to be true. I ran the strobe at half power, shot over 1000 frames and still had battery left. The light stand was stable, and the only real complaint I have is that the front diffusion material on the LA Softbox has some colorizer in it and tends to pull the color a bit blue.  This was easily resolved by using the temperature slider in Lightroom to warm the image a touch, which I would do for most portraits anyway. This small inconvenience was overcome by the fact that the softbox comes with two layers of diffusion and a 20 degree grid.

Conclusion

In a confusing landscape of low-cost strobes available on the market today, this little kit really shines. When shooting on location, it didn’t feel underpowered (unless you were outside trying to overpower the sun) and the battery life met the claims of Godox. The trigger was responsive and had a good backlight, and its all controlled with ETTL. You can set the strobe up, put the trigger on, start shooting and get decent results right out of the box. If you are looking for a cost-effective solution to getting into portrait photography, this will give you the tools you need to get learning without the frustration.

Here are links to the items discussed in this article, and a couple sample images from a recent shoot with the setup.

Godox AD200: https://amzn.to/2QS4SXt

Flashpoint eVOLV 200 (same as Godox ad200): https://amzn.to/2MVFU6u

XPro-C Trigger for Canon: https://amzn.to/2zniuDp

XPro-N Trigger for Nikon: https://amzn.to/2QQfarl

Manfrotto 5001B 74-Inch Nano Stand: https://amzn.to/2MOuP7j

LA Softbox 8 X 36 inch strip box: https://amzn.to/2xx68ax