Assembling A Small Location Lighting Kit

A lightweight approach to light

Let's put together a complete location/studio lighting kit that will fit in a carry-on bag

I hate to schlep heavy lighting gear to off-site shoots and in my quest to find the smallest, lightest, and most versatile three light system for on-location portraits or weddings (and I'm not alone—commercial shooter Ab Sesay feels the same way in this AdoramaTV interview), I came up with the kit that is featured this week. It’s based on a concept Plume’s ( Gary Regester came with twenty-five years ago called “Lighting kit in a shoebox” and while my update produces a kit bigger than a shoebox, it also contains more stuff yet is small enough to meet airline carry-on guidelines!

In the past, I’ve assembled similar kinds of systems but no monolight or power pack and head system is as small as a shoe-mount flash and today’s sophisticated speedlights from Canon, Nikon, Olympus, and others make it easy to control multiple lights from camera position. Because portraits are not just about the quantity of light but also about quality, I wanted to be able to use the lights with umbrellas and still keep the package as tiny as possible producing something so the would enable the traveling photographer to, in fact, travel light.


The key ingredient is the lights themselves and my client for this particular kit was my wife Mary, an Olympus shooter, so the decision was easy: The wireless FL-50R flash has multiple adjustment modes including TTL Auto and manual, high-speed synchronization up to 1/4000th sec and a fast recycle time of less than 1.3 seconds when using Olympus (optional) SHV-1 Flash High-Voltage Set. The FL-50R has a guide number of 28 at 12mm (24mm equivalent; ISO 100) and 50 at a 42mm (84mm equivalent; ISO 100). Oly includes a Sto-Fen-like bounce adapter that works quite well but doesn’t seem as sturdy as the real thing. If you happen to crack the somewhat thin Olympus diffuser, which is easy to do, the Sto-Fen replacement is model OM-C.

The flash will sync with either the Olympus E-3 or E-30’s pop-up flash or another FL-50R in the hot shoe and control is possible directly from the camera without requiring cables or connection to an AC source, making it ideal for outdoor use. The Olympus wireless system is so dependable that I used the camera’s pop-up flash along with two FL-50Rs to photograph a model outdoors on Plaza del Quinto Centenario in Old San Juan and they always fired.

Little things mean a lot

For my wife Mary’s kit, I’m using Olympus FL-50R wireless flash but the kit works just as well with any shoe-mount flash, such as Canon’s 580EX II or Nikon’s SB-900. By using flashes that have built-in wireless control you eliminate the needs for accessories to trip the lights, but that’s not to say that you couldn’t build this kit using any shoe-mount light and trip the lights using a Pocket Wizard.

The next part of the kit is something to support those lights: I’m talking about a lightstand or three. Lightstands are those humble photographic accessories that just stand around but serve an important purpose; they support the lights. Tip: Avoid the impulse to buy cheap lightstands. Don’t forget they are holding an expensive light and a well-made stand will last a lot longer than a cheap one. Purchase the best lightstand you can afford but in this case, I recommend the specific model that fits my portable lighting kit concept: The Manfrotto Nano aka the 001B lightstand.
The Nano is a rugged five-section black aluminum lightstand that extends to 74.8 inches or down to a minimum height of 19.29 inches. The current version features retractable legs and, unlike previous models, has a 5/8-inch stud on top. Its closed length (important to the “shoebox” concept) is 18.90 inches producing a footprint with a maximum diameter of 39.37 inches. The Nano’s stated load capacity is 3.31 pounds and the whole lightstand weighs 2.05 pounds, also important to the kit’s appeal.

The right grip gear or, how you gonna attach that thing to a stand?

The answer is the Adorama Universal Swivel Holder aka LTUSH. There are several similar adapters available, some at the same price, some that cost more but the LTUSH stands out for several reasons: Not only is the entire housing a precision metal casting but the shoe is metal as well. Similar adapters use a (no kidding) plastic shoe. The shoe is removable but for our purposes we’ll leave it alone but will be sure to use its small knob to lock the shoe-mount flash securely in place.

The Adorama Universal Swivel Holder will mount on 1/4 or 3/8-inch threaded lightstands or studs up to 5/8-inches. (The current Manfrotto Nano stands that are recommended in part 2 have a threaded top, while previous versions do not.) If you prefer you can remove this stud from the adapter and slip the LTUSH over the top of the lightstand and, in my case, since I have the older model Nano stands, I removed the stud.

There is a slot underneath the flash-mounting shoe to insert an umbrella and a sturdy knob lets you lock it firmly in place. Depending on your flash you might have to slightly reposition the shoe to have it aim directly into the umbrella. A big knob on the top of the LTUSH lets you loosen, move the shoe, and then lock it into place. The LTUSH tilts 180 degrees horizontally and swivels a complete 360 degrees left and right allowing you to aim the umbrella at your subject and position it where you want in order to achieve the desired lighting effect. A sturdy lever allows you to lock the LTUSH into place and reposition it easily if you like as well.

The Adorama Universal Swivel Holder is more than a device to hold a light and an umbrella; the LTUSH is the glue that holds this portable lighting kit together. And, hey it costs less than fifteen bucks so three of them won’t break the piggy bank.

Collapsible umbrellas

Because you need to control the quality of the light, not just its quantity, let’s add some photographic umbrellas to the location lighting kit but not just any umbrellas. To save space, you’re going to need collapsible umbrellas.

Everybody is familiar with collapsible umbrellas for keeping the rain off your head, well, the photographic equivalent is based on the same need to save space. The collapsible umbrellas I chose for this kit are from Westcott, who offers thee different models:

The Westcott 43-inch (when fully opened) Soft Silver Collapsible Umbrella provides soft yet snappy light and is the one I use for the main (sometimes called “key”) light in either a two or three light set-up. All Westcott collapsible umbrellas have a rated capacity up to 1000 Watts, which is a lot more power than any shoe mount flash will throw at them.

Westcott’s 43-inch Optical White Satin Collapsible Umbrella can be used as a bounce light source or positioned close to the subject and used as a shoot-through diffuser emulating the effect of a lightbank but in a highly portable form. This is the umbrella I typically use for my fill light.

An alternative is the Westcott Compact 43-inch Collapsible White Satin Umbrella with Removable Black Cover lets you remove the black cover so it can be positioned close to the subject as a shoot-through diffuser. You can keep the black cover in place to create a soft silver interior for bounce with more light being directed at the subject and without out losing any light through the umbrella’s back.

All of Westcott’s 43-inch collapsible umbrellas open to 43-inches giving them a size that’s appropriate for the shoe mount flashes in the kit yet collapse to just 14.5-inches. Each umbrella weighs one pound, another important ingredient in creating a portable lighting kit. Since I am building a three light kit, one of each umbrella belongs in it to give the photographer maximum versatility. All that’s left to finish the kit is a case.

Now, let’s find a case

You know the punchline to the old joke: “What do you buy the photographer who has everything?” A case to put it all in.

Any case I use for the Location Lighting Kit must be rugged, lightweight (itself), and most importantly conform to airline requirements for carry on luggage. For all of those reasons I chose Lightware’s Multi Format Closed Cell Foam Equipment Case with Dividers (MF-2012.)

The MF2012 case will hold a bunch of medium format, digital, or in our case, a lighting kit in a versatile case that’s specifically sized to fit through the 9 x 14 x 22-inch template at the airport terminal’s security check-in point. It’s made with the same high quality interior superstructure as all Lightware Multi Format cases, so your equipment will be well protected even in all else fails and you decide to check it as luggage. It comes with a set of dividers that you must cut to match the equipment you need including the layout illustrated for the Location Lighting Kit.
The Location Lighting Kit concept is, if anything, flexible. Mary Farace’s kit uses Olympus FL-50R flashes, but a similar kit put together for my friend Paul, a Nikon shooter, holds three SB-800 flashes and somewhat different accessories than used for Mary’s kit. ©2008 Farace/Peregrine

The MF2012 case has an exterior slash pocket to attach other Lightware accessories, such as the Multi Z Pocket, as well as an exterior zippered pocket to securely store flat items. The inside lid has two nifty mesh stash pockets for small accessory items and that’s where Mary stores flash manuals and a folded sheet of Rosco Matte Black Cinefoil. This matte black aluminum material soaks up light and can be quickly molded to make barndoors, flags or snoots. Lightweight, yet durable, Cinefoil is easily kept in place with gaffer’s tape.

I selected the Lightware MF2012 because it fit’s Mary’s requirements but you can choose something you may have laying around or a case with a different configuration. The choice is ultimately up to you and your budget. The same is true of all of the components used in my Location Lighting Kit and you can any or all use my suggestions this week to assemble a similar kit that fits your specific application.

Joe Farace is the author of a new book called “Digital Monochrome Special Effects” published by Lark Books and is available at Barnes & Noble and


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