Building a Battery Powered Portable Lighting Kit

Bringing a studio kit on tour is one of the best ways to diversify the images you deliver on tour, make yourself more valuable to your artist, and expand your portfolio. Putting together a kit you can set up every day on the road can be had inexpensively or you can drop a shitload for a state of the art setup.
Building a battery-powered lighting kit to take on tour | Billie Eilish by Matty Vogel

Some of the most important images of my career have been taken in broom closets. A portable flash kit can turn any space available into a makeshift studio. A few years ago, a viable battery powered flash was wishful thinking — those days are over.​

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Comparing the Profoto B10 Plus, Godox AD400 Pro, and Neewer Vision4

An on-location flash kit should be powerful, easy to travel with, and reliable. This post highlights 3 battery-powered lighting kits at different price points.

Why I value a great portable flash kit

I’m a music photographer, and for me, bringing a studio kit on tour is one of the best ways to diversify the images you deliver on tour, make yourself more valuable to your client, and expand your portfolio. Putting together a kit you can set up every day on the road can be inexpensive — or you can drop a shitload for a state of the art setup and sleep like a baby.

Shooting studio work can be intimidating if it’s a world you don’t have much experience in, and it’s got a much higher barrier of entry than capturing a concert does; additional equipment, space, and dedicated subjects to shoot.

When touring with an artist, being able to shoot portraits can be immensely valuable. Every client is different, but sometimes the most important images of my day are my non-concert photos. Social media is sure as hell not the sole indicator of how to shoot, but my studio shots have consistently performed better on social media than even the best live photos.

Having a studio setup on hand can be huge for shooting photos of the band stage-ready every night, portraits of your artist for press, magazine features, merch photos, and even shooting outfit photos every day.

What’s in a portable studio lighting kit?

  • 1+ battery-powered strobe light

  • Lighting modifiers

  • Wireless trigger

  • Seamless backdrop

  • Lighting and backdrop stands

If you’re really trying to put something together on a low budget, you can achieve a lot with just a strobe and trigger. The kit that I usually take on tour is one – sometimes two strobes – modifiers for each, a trigger, seamless backdrop, and stands for the setup.

$800 Portable Studio Kit
Flash Head
Modifier
Wireless Trigger
Stand
$300 Portable Studio Kit
Flash Head
Modifier
Wireless Trigger
Stand

What makes a good battery-powered strobe?​

When piecing together a kit to travel with, there are a lot of factors to think about that make assessing the pieces of your kit much different than if you were buying for regular studio use. A location kit that you fly regularly with, throw on a tour bus, carry into a venue every day, etc. means that the physical size and weight of your kit having a small footprint is absolutely vital. Durability, reliability and ease of breakdown and setup are also huge factors.

For a location kit like this, I don’t think it’s even worth considering a strobe that requires wired power or an external battery to shoot with. That’s only going to make your kit bloated and add items that eat up valuable bag space… plus having to rely on available power is really going to bite you in the ass. Seriously, skip the pain and go for battery-powered strobes that you can take anywhere in the world, and leave the extension cables at home. Oh, and obviously we also want to consider the regular performance criteria you’d think about when picking out a flash — output power, recycle time, battery life, modeling light performance, and reliability.

Why not speedlights?

Speedlights are an amazing tool and a popular choice for many photographers who are putting together a portable studio kit, but even the best performing speedlights like the Profoto A1X don’t have the same power as a dedicated strobe, and when shot at full power their recycle times are too slow for practical use.The bigger and heavier the strobe, the more power it likely has, and ideally you’d want a strobe that has at least 500w/s, which gives you enough power to light most indoor and outdoor situations.

Modifiers? Modifiers.

In a perfect world you could take a whole arsenal of softboxes, octaboxes, and 20 foot parabolic umbrellas with you while traveling, but when space is at such a premium, it makes sense to bring one solid and flexible modifier for your light. I love taking octaboxes with me because they can be a beautiful, large, soft source of light and they break down small.

Small note/hot tip, but I prefer octaboxes over square or rectangular softboxes whenever possible. The catchlight created from a circular light source like an octa is much more aesthetically pleasing and natural feeling than a rectangle.

Battery Powered Strobe Kit - Octabox Catchlights - Matty Vogel
Note the circular-shaped catchlight in the eye from the octabox

As far as size of the octabox, I like a 3 foot octa, which works well for half-body portraits and closer, but can be stretched to work on full-body shots. But importantly, it fits in rooms with low ceilings (like most arenas and venues) and allows you to raise the light source higher up than a 4’ or larger octabox would.

Octaboxes aren’t typically the easiest and fastest light source to set up and consistent of a set of 8 rods, hooked into a center mount. With some octa’s it can take an annoying amount of strength to lock in the rods and setup can take a few minutes the first time you put it together. I think it’s important for your modifier to be easy to put together quickly but for me the extra few minutes of setup are worth it instead of settling for rectangular-shaped softboxes.

$3,000 Portable Lighting Kit

Profoto B10 Plus

Flash Head

Profoto 3' Octabox

MODIFIER

Profoto Air Remote TTL

Wireless Trigger

Impact 9.5' Heavy Duty Air-Cushioned Light Stand

Stand

You want to invest in the best portable kit? Here’s your move. The Profoto B10 Plus is a 4.2 lb light, 10x more powerful than a speedlite at 500w/s, and roughly the size of a 70-200mm lens… absurd. This makes it far lighter, smaller, and more powerful than any of the alternative kits.

Profoto kicked off the era of battery-powered strobes with the Profoto B1 in 2015, and since then the industry has followed suit — however Profoto remains way ahead of the pack with their battery-powered lights. Their wireless system, build quality, ease of use, and superiority all around should make you feel supremely confident investing in the Profoto system.

With the Profoto Air Remote you have perfect control over all of your flash settings and the system feels wonderfully silky smooth.

Profoto B10 Plus Kit: Specs
Flash Power
500 w/s
Physical Dimensions
9.3" x 3.9"
Weight
4.2 lbs

Pros

Small size and weight

  • 2500 lumens continuous modeling lamp which has adjustable temp and power

  • 200 full-power flashes per battery charge

  • Beautiful, easy to operate display

  • Rugged build quality and incredibly reliable

  • Investing in a future-safe system you can grow into

Cons

  • Expensive… not only the strobe itself but all accessories, modifiers, and peripherals are a serious investment. You’re paying premium prices for premium products.

Expanding This Kit

If you want to build out your kit and add an additional light to your kit as a fill, the lil brother to the B10 Plus is the Profoto B10, which is a 250w/s light with even smaller dimensions which is sorta ridiculous. You can have an entire 3 light kit in your bag that take up the same amount of room as a couple of lenses.

$800 Portable Lighting Kit

Godox AD400Pro

Flash Head

Godox 37" Octabox

MODIFIER

Godox XPro

Wireless Trigger

Impact 9.5' Heavy Duty Air-Cushioned Light Stand

Stand

If you wanna stay around $800, the Godox AD400 Pro kit is the best battery powered strobe kit is the furthest your money can take you. At 400w/s he AD400 isn’t as powerful as the Profoto B10 Plus at 400w/s, and weighs almost half a pound more. The Godox system is simple and clean to use and with the Godox XPro trigger you can control your flash power from the trigger itself without having to touch your strobe.

The AD400 is a solid, rugged design, though not as sleek as the Profoto B10’s. The handle on the back is great for adjusting the tilt of the light, but can get annoying when attempting to pack the head into a tight space in your bag.

The Godox 37” octa is a decent choice for a soft modifier around 3 feet. The build quality is solid but to be honest with repetitive setup, teardown, and travel over a year or so the diffusion panels start to rip at the seams.

“What about the Godox AD600 Pro?” While there is a more powerful version in the Godox line, the more expensive AD600 Pro clocking in at 600w/s; it weighs in at 6.6 pounds and is a substantially larger size making it more annoying to travel with.

Godox AD400Pro: Specs
Flash Power
400 w/s
Physical Dimensions
8.7" x 4"
Weight
4.63 lbs

Pros

  • Small dimensions

  • Great battery performance at 390 full-power flashes per charge

  • Simple to operate with bright and straightforward LED display

Cons

  • Borderline too low power at 400w/s for some situations

  • Over time and with a heavy modifier, the adjusting handle controlling the tilt of the head can lose its strength.

  • There’s not much else as far as Godox strobe offerings at the moment, and nothing more higher-end than the AD400/600Pro series. So you’re investing in a system that doesn’t allow for much advancement or growth as you build up your kit, and you’ll be stuck with all the accessories.

$300 Portable Lighting Kit

Neewer Vision 4

Flash Head

Godox 37" Octabox

MODIFIER

Impact 9.5' Heavy Duty Air-Cushioned Light Stand

Stand

There’s no shame in having a small budget, but your kit isn’t going to compare to the options that take a bit more investment. The Neewer Vision 4 is a battery-powered strobe that’s a few years old, and because of that can be had for under $200.

You get what you pay for, and this strobe sadly looks and feels a bit budget. It’s got a metal casing but the design looks a bit dated. It fortunately comes with a hotshoe trigger, but the wireless system is feature-lacking and one-dimensional.

One of the biggest bummers about the Vision4 is the lack of TTL support. TTL (Through-The-Lens) is a metering system built into most strobes which gauges the amount of light the flash should output… essentially auto mode for your flash. This is a pretty important feature and a manual flash like the Vision 4 will leave you wanting more.

Putting together a battery-powered light kit for under $500 is tough shit but you’ve gotta make the best of what you’ve got. If you can stretch your budget, the jump to the Godox AD400 Pro at the $1000 kit is a massive one and will get you a lot of features, flash power, and just overall a much better setup.

Neewer Vision 4: Specs
Flash Power
300 w/s
Physical Dimensions
8.6" x 4.9"
Weight
3.7 lbs

Pros

  • Inexpensive

  • 700 full power flashes per battery charge

  • Decently sturdy metal casing for how inexpensive it is

Cons

  • Low power output

  • No TTL support

  • Slow recycle time — 0.4-2.5 seconds

  • You can only adjust power on the strobe, the trigger (which is kindly included) doesn’t support wireless control of strobe settings

  • Feels and looks a bit cheap

Impact Pro Backdrop Support

Backdrop Stands

Savage 86" Super White Seamless

Backdrop Paper

Steel Spring Clamps

Backdrop Clips

Savage 86" Black Seamless

Backdrop Paper

Gaffer Tape

Tape
BACKDROP SUPPORT KIT

Impact Pro Backdrop Kit – 12.9’ width

Cheaper option: General Brand Backdrop Stand Support Kit

You can always shoot your studio kit with whatever locations you have available to you, but using a backdrop can make your images in generally gross backstages of clubs and arenas feel 100% more polished. I always bring a set of backdrop stands and a couple of seamless paper backdrops and do my best to transform referee’s locker rooms in arenas ‘round the world into photo studios.

I’ve had a few sets of backdrop poles over the years, and I’ve been the happiest with my Impact Pro kit. These stands get banged up a lot while traveling as it’s only really feasible to store them in the carrying case they come with, and this set of poles have survived heavy use the last 2 years.

A lot of photographers are adamant about using c-stands as backdrop holders, and I do love them, but I have a tough time justifying taking their insane weight and size when on the road. I’ve found it much more efficient to bring a set of tripod-style stands. The Impact set weighs in at 15 lbs which is pretty reasonable.

Another reason to justify this $200+ is the telescoping crossbar. If you’ve ever set up a backdrop stand set with a multi-piece crossbar you’ll know why.

Seamless Paper

Savage Seamless Paper – #1 Super White (86” x 36’)

Savage Seamless Paper – #20 Black (86” x 18’)

I love taking 86” rolls on tour. They’re perfect sized to shoot a single person full-body or small group horizontally. 53” rolls can work for one person, but it’s tough to shoot full-body horizontals. 107” rolls are wonderful but can be a tight fit in a lot of backstage spaces, plus are extra difficult to transport. Fun fact; a 107” roll just barely fits across two facing bus bays diagonally on top of all the bags, while an 86” is much easier to store horizontally across.

Accessories

2” x 30’ Gaffers Tape

Gaff tape is a necessity to tape your seamless roll to the floor and will be useful in about 6,000 other situations throughout your life.

Bessey Backdrop Spring Clamps

Once you’ve rolled out your paper, you’ll want clips to clip the seamless roll at the top to ensure it stays where it’s at and doesn’t all unroll into a big heap.

In Review

Surprise, surprise, the most expensive light is by far the best. If you’re looking to put together your first studio kit on a budget, you’re gonna be really happy with the $800 Godox kit. If money is really tight, the $300 Neewer kit will ungracefully get the job done.

Building a portable studio kit is a big investment and honestly a pain in the ass to travel around with, but I’ve found it to be entirely worth it. It really makes you more valuable to your clients. Seriously – if you can take great photos backstage in a venue that can be used as promos, for magazines, etc. you clients will be stoked they don’t have to travel to a photo studio and pay $500+ in studio rental fees and transportation for just a few minutes in front of the lens.

Not to mention it gives me a lot of my favorite images every tour and makes me feel way more fulfilled as a photographer. That’s what it’s all about!