Budget 3 Constant Light Kit Taught Me A Lot.

Artificial light is the last frontier for me. Having been taught about the exposure triangle (ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed) as a child by my father natural light has long been my friend. TTL is ok, but I never warmed to it. It was only used when there was not enough natural light. My preference. More aperture! Problem? Fine for artsy fartsy sliver thin depth of field shots, but I ultimately wanted more. A graduation shoot I did earlier this year confirmed that it was time. It went well, but I knew with a grasp on lighting and the proper tools it would have been better. To the youtube! Watched video after video. Yeah, still not getting it. To the internets! Better, but still not fully getting it. Improve photography was where I landed and their tutorial was great. I highly recommend it. They even provided an excellent on ramp shopping list, but I need to do to learn. I could have started with their recommended $140 kit, but…

  1. Wanted to start with three lights.
  2. Too cheap frugal to spend much on something I was not even sure I would like.
  3. Wanted to start with constant lights as I thought that would make more sense to me starting out

How? Why? Not sure. Gut maybe? Answer? I settled on getting a $59 low budget LimoStudio kit from Amazon.


Had my doubts, but with a 4 1/2 star rating I was willing to gamble. Received it and I was immediately impressed by the presentation. Carrying bags you say. Nice touch. And they worked as billed. Not a whole lot of light, but it was better than nothing by a long shot.

It helped that I had motivation. We were honoring 5 women at my family reunion that included my Grandmother. In my mind an occasion like this had Hasselblad written all over it. The thing is that, given my experience with the Hasselblad so far, I knew this would require additional light to get the shot I had in my head. I knew the banquet would be held in a hotel ballroom, which experience taught me were 1) typically lighting black holes and 2) typically had oatmeal color schemes. With 400 being the ISO of my sensor (film) and f/2.8 being my top end aperture (the good old 80mm) I knew I would need as much help as possible to elevate my shutter speed under such conditions.

Tried out the lights at home to get my comfort level up. At first it was slow going, but then I used a light meter to take incidence readings of the subject (family member, empty chair, huge stuffed turtle) to set the proper shutter speed and that made all of the difference. It took the guesswork out and I started to get enough good results to go out in to the wild for the first time. Or so I thought. The further I move along in this process the more I realize that a great deal of the photography process has to do with psychology. Having passed the first hurdle, buying lights, in order to use the lights I had to muscle up the nerve to:

  1. Bring them out of my house.
  2. Bring them in to the space where I intended to use them.
  3. Set them up.
    • This was actually the hardest step because I had an entire family reunion behind me when I stood this budget lamp kit up.
    • Would I be called out for my bargain basement set up? Nope. Turns out people unfamiliar with photography assumed they cost much more than they did.
    • Would even the presence of lights and a Hasseblad elevate expectations beyond what I could deliver? Expecations were elevated, but more on the results later.
  4. Gather yourself enough to get the initial light meter readings now that you were no longer in the bonus room anymore.
    • Thank goodness I tried this at home with varying the light in the room.
    • Even a base understanding of how to use a Sekonic helps immensely. Practice, trial and error were key.

Then it happened. I asked one of my daughters to sit in the chair after metering the back of the chair for the Hasselblad (400 ISO and f/2.8 netted me a shutter speed of 1/30s. Not as fast as I would have liked, but much better than I would have had in this cave without lights and the subjects would be seated and I was using a bridge girder of a Bogen tripod.), dialed the same settings in to my DSLR (Pentax K-1 with Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8) and boom.

Shot 1. No Lightroom modification at all. Relief does not begin to describe how I felt at that moment. I hugged my child tightly, thanked her, and sent her on her way back to mingling with family. Thoughts on the test shot?

  • I loved the way the lighting turned out and it was just as I had planned, which was quite a shock if I am honest.
  • Dead on was not working for me so posing would need to change so I turned the front of the chair 45 degrees right and decided I would have the subjects/honorees turn their heads to look in to the camera. Mobility was a concern for some and I wanted to make the whole affair as comfortable as possible for the honorees, hence the chair.
  • Thank goodness I brought the old school bridge girder Bogen tripod because 1/30s was not as fast as I had hoped.
  • When I saw the relatively slow shutter speed I immediately knew proper strobes would be in my future.

Now with confidence I started shooting the honorees. This is film we are talking about however. Even with my newly found confidence I took at least 2 shots and sometimes 3 of the honorees as added insurance. This proved instrumental since for some I had only one usable shot when I got the film back.

Here is the thing. It did not stop there. A small number of family members saw the goings on and asked if I could take their photos.  I was honored and said of course. I had brought extra rolls of 120 along as insurance so I ran though a second roll. Then when I went to reach for a third roll is when the shift took place. I could not find the third roll (found it the next week), but I wanted to take a shot of my folks since they were only a week away from their 50th wedding anniversary. Solution? Use the Pentax K-1 I took the test shot with.

That is went things went crazy in a good way. When I looked up after taking my parents shots a line had formed. The rest of my family had been observing and they wanted family portraits as well. My main motivation for taking shots is following in my father’s footsteps whose photos document my own childhood. Now I had an opportunity to do the same for my family not only by the candid shots throughout the reunion but also by providing formal family photos during this banquet. Life is good.

To close I provide a link to a flickr gallery of the formal portraits and some takeaways from my experience:

  • Lighting is simple, but not easy. What closes the gap is practice.
  • Get a light meter. Practice and learn incidence metering. Trust the light meter.
    • I know beans about light meters, but do not break the bank. The one I have, a Sekonic L something or another, is fairly basic I understand and fell in my lap when I bought my Hasselblad. But after seeing the results I now swear by them. No in body light meter I have seen yet holds a candle (I am a lifelong perennial accidental bad pun machine) to it.
    • I got cocky during the shoot with my K-1 and fell back to my comfort zone, Av or aperture priority. 3 shots later with results all over the place due to the lights just out of frame impacting exposure settings I ran back to the light meter settings.
  • Learn the way of the ‘M’. My path was getting an all manual icon almost gifted to me, but simply turn your existing camera to ‘M’. It will help you in your every day shooting when you do use the priority modes.
    • Consistency is your friend. I metered exactly once, since the room lighting stayed the same, and except for the Av episode above shot at the 400 ISO, f/2.8, and 1/30s shutter speed the rest of the night. As a result all of the shots had the same ‘look’ and needed no fiddling later to make them look consistent.
    • Guess what? If you have ever done like me in Av and set a desired aperture, then fiddled with the ISO to get the desired shutter speed you are already 90% of the way to M. Just take the wheel and set all three yourself instead of trying to get the camera to do your bidding the round about way.
  • Plan to get strobes. The constant lights were nice and included light stands and umbrellas that could be reused with strobes, but with the very affordable Yongnuo set up outlined above there are distinct advantages.
    • Easily adapt the existing stands with 3 $5 flash/umbrella brackets to replace the light bulb brackets.
    • No power chords. This forced me to the corner of the room with outlets and still required a power strip extension chord. I also had to mask out the wall outlet in a few shots. About the only adjustment made to the shots.
    • Take your show on the road. I quickly saw how additional light would be helpful outside as well. Not an option when tied to the wall outlet.
    • More power. With strobes I could have easily cranked up the power a couple of notches and gotten the shutter speed up to more favorable speeds. 1/100s at least would have been my preference.
    • Many would do the trick, but the Yongnuo trigger/flash system is hard to beat. They are not TTL, but I cannot make sense of why anyone would want to use off camera TTL. I picked up a trigger and 3 flashes and after initial testing I am sold. There are reviews aplenty online so I will leave you to the Google.
  • The only way to figure out what you need is to start with something.
    • No lights taught me I needed lights. Budget lights taught me that I needed more light, etc.
  • You are much closer to the next step than you think you are.
  • Get over yourself and be bold in learning your craft. I could only improve so much in the bonus room of my house.
  • Watch videos on posing people. They helped immensely. Someone needs to know where people need to stand and that may need to be you. I spent much more time moving people around than I expected.
  • A successful photo has to do with confidence. My approach was fake it until you make it and I had people asking me if I was sure I was not a professional photographer.
  • Don’t break the bank. Starting out need not cost you a fortune.
  • Related, but not crucial to the task at hand is that providing a vehicle to easily deliver photos proved quite popular. My normal every day flow includes editing RAW at night and by simply adding the step of uploading these photos to the reunion page I had already created over the course of the weekend family members were already familiar with my work by the time the portraits were being taken.
  • Have fun. Keep on learning. One of the things I love most about photography is that it is a pursuit where you will never stop learning if you are doing it right.


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