Guest post: A photographer’s guide to the best budget lighting alternatives

Travel photographer and blogger Liz Pekler gives a general overview to DIY lighting possibilities, as an alternative to expensive studio equipment.

Light bulbs

As a visual art, photography is largely dependent on light. And as we all know, light is responsible for providing ample lighting for your subjects and determines how bright (or dark) an image will be. But that’s not all it does for a photo. Manipulating its direction and power can instantly give it a particular tone, mood, and atmosphere, thus adding depth and mystery to an otherwise mundane picture. The same works for adding textures, achieving vibrant colors, and emphasizing your subjects or specific parts of an image in a variety of ways to achieve a desired composition or style.

However you want to use lighting in your photos, what’s important is that you properly expose your subject or main point of interest. A three-point lighting system involving three main lights, each strategically positioned around a subject, is commonly used to to achieve this while giving your subject a more professional, three-dimensional appearance. There’s the key light, which serves as the main and strongest light that hits a subject directly in front or from above; the fill light, which compensates for the shadowy areas that the key light misses; and the backlight, which hits the subject from behind at any angle to highlight its edges and make it pop from the background.

While it may be difficult to achieve a customized lighting setup with multiple (and expensive) flashes and strobes—more so when shooting on a budget—there are ways that photographers go around monetary or equipment constraints and still achieve well-lit, professional-looking images. It’s just a matter of finding alternative and appropriate light sources that will do the job.

Affordable lighting equipment alternatives

There are plenty of inexpensive studio lighting options you can use to help you get started if you don’t have the budget for high-end equipment—or you can employ some resourcefulness and make use of items you already have at home.

You might be surprised to find out that even the most successful veteran photographers started out with (or may even still be using) alternative light sources and modifiers from their very own homes or offices. Using DIY or makeshift lighting sources that you already have on hand requires some creativity, but the good thing is that it’s free. Below are some of the most commonly used lighting equipment alternatives that can greatly improve your photos without leaving a hole in your pocket.

Household lamps

Household lamps

Trusty household lamps often give a soft yellow or white light, which makes a good substitute for an external flash. An angled desk lamp with an adjustable head or body can also be very helpful in customizing the direction of your light. It’s great for supplying a good amount of continuous light for small items and objects, as long as it is plugged into an outlet or powered up with full batteries. Depending on the color of the bulb, you may just need to set a custom white balance to get more accurate colors or use a diffuser (like a white umbrella or plain white cloth) to spread the light out for a wider coverage.



Flashlights are great for light painting when using long exposures. Due to its much smaller coverage, it makes a perfect tool for handwriting letters or manually outlining subjects in the dark. Other objects like light pens, sparklers, lighter flints, and glow sticks work the same way. However, some shooters use flashlights with a slightly wider coverage as a key light to softly illuminate a human subject for creative low-light portraits.

String lights

String lights

This holiday decoration can add a lot of drama and beauty to your low light photos. Its small bulbs create some of the most beautiful bokeh similar to out-of-focus city lights. Use them to add colorful, softly lit circles in your background, create pretty backlighting, or to give your subjects and other image elements a soft and colorful glow.

Homemade softbox

Studio softboxes can cost a lot and take up a lot of space. Then again, you can always make one for free with just a sizable box where your light source can fit comfortably and a white shirt or cloth that’s large enough to cover the box. You can double the shirt or line your box with aluminum foil to adjust the intensity of your key light source inside it. Direct the entire homemade softbox towards your subject at a preferred angle and enjoy softer light with every shot.

Makeshift diffusers

As every photographer knows, diffusers are a requirement when trying to soften up a strong lighting source. Ideally, a flash would come with a diffuser to soften or lessen the concentration of light that it gives off. Instead of investing in diffusers or on a new flash that has one, you can use any translucent, square tupperware that can be attached to your flash or a clear shower curtain that can be set up between the flash and your subject. You can also use a white laundry hamper as a makeshift lightbox to achieve those perfect product shots with soft lighting all around (and a bonus white background).

If you’re using a continuous light such as a strong lamp, you can also use a t-shirt, pillowcase, bedsheet, or even a paper towel to diffuse the light—just make sure to pick one that’s white.



For moodier, more dramatic images, candles are a great, inexpensive option for illuminating the subject or scene you are trying to capture. Depending on the desired mood and composition, soft, beautifully warm lighting can be achieved with some well-positioned candles.

Using candles as your main subject or key light can also create some of the most interesting shadows and highlights, especially when the flame flickers and dances in the dark.

DIY reflectors

Even professional shooters have become fond of using basic household materials for reflecting light—a white cardboard or styrofoam and an aluminum foil on the other side. Determine which size and shape you need your reflector to be and tape away. Alternatively, you can also use a car reflector for impromptu outdoor shoots.

Plain white cardstock

Some external flashes come with a white card that helps eliminate harsh light from taking over your images. In case your external flash doesn’t, use an improvised card (using plain white cardstock or even a business card) and place it directly on the side of the flash to act as a “wall” that will give off some frontal light when the flash head is directed towards the ceiling. The card technique also works for the camera’s built-in flash. Simply use it to block and bounce the light coming from the built-in flash towards the ceiling to achieve a much softer lighting from above.

These are just some of the many lighting alternatives you can utilize to create your ideal lighting conditions without having to spend on dedicated lighting equipment. All you need to do is take a look around your house and see what you have lying around.

There are plenty of household items or office supplies that can help you create the perfect lighting setup—it just requires creativity, resourcefulness, and ingenuity to make them work to your advantage.

Liz Pekler
I am a travel photographer with several years of experience in the field. Being a freelance blogger enables me to help photography beginners and enthusiasts to tell wonderful stories of their travels as seen through their lenses. It also allows me to share my thoughts about another advocacy of mine: social equality and change.