Even the pros have to work under a budget. Try these simple but cost-effective DIY techniques for lighting any photo shoot.

Improper lighting is one of the most common reasons for photo rejection. Even if everything else in the picture is perfect—the composition, the colors, the focus, the theme—a badly lit photo just won’t sell. On the other hand, a dynamic lighting setup can transform a good photo into a ​highly marketable​ one.

The right equipment is a studio photographer’s best friend, but you don’t need to shell out thousands of dollars to create the perfect moment. Truthfully, sometimes the simplest techniques can produce the most successful images.

We asked thirteen photographers from around the world about their behind-the-scenes lighting secrets. Below, they share their best tricks for creating inexpensive lighting that looks like a million bucks.

1. “If I work indoors, I use—wait for it—a makeup artist’s lamp.”

Vagengeim Elena

Cheap Tricks for Lighting - Makeup Girl

Image by ​Vagengeim Elena​. Gear: ​Canon EOS 5D Mark III​ camera, ​Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM​ lens.

Vagengeim Elena​:​

If I work indoors, I use—wait for it—a makeup artist’s lamp. Yes, that common ring lamp that makeup artists use when applying makeup. The lamp has a bright light, but it’s not blinding. The color temperature of the LED light intensity can be conveniently adjusted, and the lamp is light and mobile. I can create the lighting I need just by moving, lifting, or tilting it.

2. “I use monolight flash lights and LED continuous light, depending on what kind of shoot I’m planning.”

Stokkete

13 Photographers on Lighting Techniques for Small-Budget Shoots — Monolight Flash Lights

Image by ​Stokkete​. Gear: ​Hasselblad H5D-40​ camera, ​80mm f 2.8​ lens. Settings: Exposure 1/800 sec; f6.3; ISO 320.

Stokkete​:

​I use monolight flash lights and LED continuous light, depending on what kind of shoot I’m planning. It’s easy to find inexpensive kits with two monolights and a reflective panel. You can create many different light setups with these simple pieces of equipment, and it’s great for beginners.

3. “Having two hard lights on hand can give you a ton of options.”

Maren Caruso​

13 Photographers on Lighting Techniques for Small-Budget Shoots — Hard Lights

Image by Maren Caruso

Maren Caruso​:

Having two hard lights on hand can give you a ton of options. Bouncing or hitting your subject directly with the source can give you completely different looks. If you want to mimic natural window light, for example, a single hard light bouncing off of a white card can accomplish this with a very simple setup.

4. “When I’m on a tight budget, I like to bring along a small mirror…and a small LED panel.”

Laura Jarriel​

13 Photographers on Lighting Techniques for Small-Budget Shoots — Small Mirrors

Image by Laura Jarriel​

Laura Jarriel​:​

When I’m on a tight budget, I like to bring along a small mirror (about the size of a piece of paper) and a small LED panel. The mirror and LED panel will let you fill in shadows or highlight certain spots. They are also not expensive at all! The LED panel I have is 3″ by 5″ and has a dimmer switch to allow for better control over the amount of light it gives.

5. “For portraits, I use natural light from a window and a fill flash when needed.”

John Andrus​

13 Photographers on Lighting Techniques for Small-Budget Shoots — Natural Light

Image by ​John Andrus​. Gear: ​Nikon D5100​ camera, ​40mm macro f2.8​ lens. Settings: Exposure 1/50 sec; f22; ISO 100.

John Andrus​:​

I have a wood and fabric lightbox. I use it with small lamps indoors, or I take outdoors on a sunny day to shoot products. Simply make a wood frame and cover it with thin white nylon or cloth.

For portraits, I use natural light from a window and a fill flash when needed. If you don’t have a fill flash, make or buy a cheap reflector. For more aggressive lighting, I use a backdrop and two cheap white umbrella reflectors with my flash unit pointed into the umbrella and the umbrella set at 45 degrees or so to reflect light back at my subject.

Pictured: [1] John Andrus​ [2] John Andrus​

I have two flash units—one that is thirty-five years old and one that is ten years old. They are set up to operate in manual mode, and I use a flash trigger (light detector) for the remote flash and a cable from the camera to the primary flash unit.

6. “Different lights have different temperatures, and it’s not always wise to mix them.”

Simon Mayer​

13 Photographers on Lighting Techniques for Small-Budget Shoots — Light Temperature

Image by ​Simon Mayer. Gear: ​Canon 7D​ camera, ​Canon EF 28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM​ lens. Settings: Focal length 28mm; exposure 1/40 sec; f6.3; ISO 100.

Simon Mayer​:

If you are indoors, stay close to the windows. 5-in-1 reflectors are cheap, and they’ll help you fix those unwanted shadows. If you do not have a reflector, any white surface will help you reflect soft light, while you can use any metal surface to reflect more intense or harsh light.

Different lights have different temperatures, and it’s not always wise to mix them. If you use natural light, for example, try not to have an artificial light source (halogen lights, LEDs, etc.) unless you are sure that the resulting tones are right for the look you want.

7. “I try to use what’s available.”

Arnud Fasnacht​

13 Photographers on Lighting Techniques for Small-Budget Shoots — Use What's Available

Image by Arnud Fasnacht​

Arnaud Fasnacht​:​

​I try to use what’s available. Recently, I did a portrait shoot for my company and built a light diffuser with a big piece of paper placed on an office lamp. The result was good, and it cost me nothing.

8. “I usually start with one light source or window, then bounce or block that light and add additional light as needed.”

Isabel Subtil​

13 Photographers on Lighting Techniques for Small-Budget Shoots — Start with One Light Source

Image by Isabel Subtil​

Isabel Subtil​:

​Diffusing light is key for my photography, and I find that the most cost-effective route is often a DIY technique. I have used PVC piping to build scrims, with flag fabric as the diffusing cloth. I spend lots of time at Menards and Home Depot, and I watch online ​tutorials​ as well. I usually start with one light source or window, then bounce or block that light and add additional light as needed.

9. “Everything is beautiful in backlight.”

James Baigrie​

13 Photographers on Lighting Techniques for Small-Budget Shoots — Use Backlight

Image by James Baigrie​

James Baigrie​:

Everything is beautiful in backlight. Generally, a strobe fired through a silk or softbox is the best and most cost-efficient technique. But I can’t say more than this without giving away all my secrets!

10. “There is so much you can do with just one light off camera.”

Lisa Tichané​

13 Photographers on Lighting Techniques for Small-Budget Shoots — Off-Camera Flash

Image by ​Lisa Tichané​. Gear: ​Canon 5D Mark IV​ camera, ​Canon 24-70mm 2.8L​ lens. Settings: Focal length 55mm; exposure 1/160 sec; f3.5; ISO 250.

Lisa Tichané​:

Whenever natural light isn’t enough to make the shoot work, the easiest and most inexpensive lighting tool is a simple speedlight that you can bounce off of a wall to create the illusion of window light.

Pictured: [1] Lisa Tichané​ [2] Lisa Tichané​ [3] Lisa Tichané​

If you can afford a light stand and an umbrella as well, you can even use your speedlight as an off-camera flash, which offers more flexibility. Simply place your light stand where you wish you had a window, and re-create the light! There is so much you can do with just one light off camera.

11. “Personally, I use a lot of strobes with natural light. By blending the two, I feel that it offers a lighter look.”

Rob Larson​

13 Photographers on Lighting Techniques for Small-Budget Shoots — Blending Light

Image by Rob Larson​

Rob Larson​:

Figure out the type, style, or quality of light you want, and build your kit from there. You can build a lot of light from small and inexpensive rigs, as long as you know what you want your end result to look like. Personally, I use a lot of strobes with natural light. By blending the two, I feel that it offers a lighter look.

If I don’t have that option, I just build that look from the ground up with all kit lighting. In the end, you can do a lot with a bounce card, some nice daylight, or even some simple speedlight rigs. As long as you are comfortable shaping light, you can achieve a ton on small budgets.

12. “I prefer to shoot in the morning to capitalize on that soft light.”

Nicolette Kapp​

13 Photographers on Lighting Techniques for Small-Budget Shoots — Soft Light

Image by ​Nicolette Kapp​. Gear: ​Canon 5D Mark II​ camera, ​Canon 50mm 1.8​ lens. Settings: Exposure 1/125 sec; f2.2; ISO 320.

Nicolette Kapp​:

​I actually do not own a lighting setup. All my “in-studio” images are made next to a massive sliding door. I have two walls, each painted a different color: one dark and one light. I prefer to shoot in the morning to capitalize on that soft light. How much did I spend on this entire setup? The price of a bucket of paint.

13. “The best lighting tip I can give is to learn how to use natural light.”

Darren Baker​

Cheap Tricks for Photoshoots - Girl at Wall

Image by ​Darren Baker​. Gear: ​Canon EOS 5D Mark II​ camera, ​Sigma 70-200mm f2.8 OS HSM​ lens.

Darren Baker​:​

The best lighting tip I can give is to learn how to use natural light. The vast majority of my shots use sunlight and light modifiers, including various types of reflectors and diffusers. These are relatively cheap, lightweight, and easy to transport. You can do all sorts of tricks with them, so practice different techniques. Nature provided you with the best lighting system ever. It’s up there in the sky and completely free.


Top Image by Nicolette Kapp

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