How to Create Your Own Portrait Light without Breaking the Budget


The cameras in phones keep getting better and better, while the image quality in reduced-format cameras has shown superior quality in natural light. And they all have flashes, right? Then one day it hits you—usually after buying a DSLR and a flash—“I want more light,” and “I want it when I need it, not just on nice days, but maybe in the dark and rain.” Basically, you want to create light to more accurately express your perception of the subject or for cataloging or ecommerce, for example. Of the five kits below, four of them can be used by photographers and videographers. They all were chosen with budget in mind, and maximum effect with minimum gear to realize your signature look.


Once an unusual light source, LEDs are literally everywhere, so much so that we barely register them. Manufacturers, however, have voraciously seized upon them—as relatively low cost and people friendly—thanks to the negligible heat the fixtures generate.

Designed for still or video work, the Raya Portable Studio Kit is an ideal all-inclusive setup that can get you up and running in minutes. Two daylight-balanced LED lamps are included, which due to the way these fixtures are measured, each outputs the equivalent of a 250W flood light. Each light is supported by a 6' stand and comes with a 33" translucent umbrella. The umbrellas will help you create a ratio (maybe one on the side of your subject and one straight on) to give your subject depth or “modeling.” The umbrellas’ translucent material allows you to bounce light off them in the traditional way, or shoot through them for higher contrast. Finally, Raya provides a background support that can handle 53-inch-wide seamless paper or muslin up to 10' wide. Two A-clamps to secure the background, and a carrying case, are included.

Raya Portable Studio Kit

Also employing LEDs, the Dracast DRBR-F-400B BoltRay LED Bi-Color 2-Light Kit doesn’t include light stands, background stands, or umbrellas, but it makes up for that with useful features. Each of the two lamp heads has color temperature that’s variable from 3200 to 5600K while maintaining a high CRI of 96, indicating an accurate rendering of color. This gives you a color range of deep, warm amber to cool blue, either to match your surrounds or for creative effect. The lights also dim from 0-100% without having to move the fixture. The included four-way barndoors offer additional control of the output. The DRBR-F-400B is ready for worldwide use, thanks to its multi-voltage power supply. The kit comes with a soft carrying case.

Dracast DRBR-F-400B BoltRay LED Bi-Color 2-Light Kit


An umbrella term that encompasses incandescent and halogen lamps and the fixtures that use them, tungsten fixtures are now called “legacy” lights or “hot lights,” due to the heat they generate. The kit below allows you to swap out its socket and use fluorescent lamps instead.

The Lowel Rifa-Lite eX 44 One-Light Kit has a special feature that allows the 16 x 16" “Rifa” to open and close in seconds like an umbrella. The light comes with a 250W tungsten-balanced (3200K) halogen bulb, but this fixture allows you to exchange sockets to use fluorescent or incandescent bulbs instead. The Rifa’s light quality is soft and natural, with a flattering wraparound look. As an added benefit, the light can run on batteries when AC power is unavailable. The kit comes with an air-cushioned light stand and a padded case.

Lowel Rifa-Lite eX 44 One-Light Kit, Impact Case


Though not as cool-running as LEDs, photographic fluorescents generate little heat, are inexpensive and, thanks to refinements over the years, render colors faithfully. Although most fixtures use long, tube-shaped bulbs, many have turned to the spiral bulb that fits better in modifiers like softboxes.

This Impact Octa Soft and Natural Creator Kit offers software, as well as soft lighting. It’s built around two 24" Octa softboxes, each with four Edison sockets for 26W daylight-balanced lamps. The quality of light is very soft and flattering with a wrap-around look that is emblematic of the modifiers’ shape. Another bonus is the natural-looking catchlights reflected in the subject’s eyes. An air-cushioned 8' stand is included to support each fixture. Another fun feature is the included Savage Photo Creator Kit, which contains a 5 x 7' green screen, chroma-key software, and 720 digital backgrounds that you can drop into your photo via your computer.

Impact Octa Soft and Natural Creator Kit


For photographers only—Flash, Strobe, Speedlite, or Speedlight all emit an almost instantaneous but powerful burst of light to illuminate and capture the image. It’s hands-down the best way to freeze a moving subject, down to the subtlest gesture. This type of studio strobe works connected to a power pack or self-contained as a monolight.

This Impact EX-100A 2-Monolight Kit is built around two 100Ws EX-100A monolights. The light intensity of each head can be varied from full to 1/8 power and each has a 60W modeling light that can be set to “proportionate” to pre-visualize how the flash’s light will fall on the subject in the final image. The EX-100As recycle to full power in three seconds and much faster at partial power. An ideal portrait or product setup, the kit includes two 24 x 24" softboxes for a soft, low-contrast look, as well as two 8' air-cushioned light stands and grid reflectors.

Impact EX-100A 2-Monolight Kit with Softboxes and Stands

What are your favorite off-camera light sources for illuminating family portraits? Tell us about them in the Comments section, below.