Light Your Film On Any Budget
The process of creating a film requires a lot of different tools. You need a camera, sound equipment, sets, costumes, makeup etc. But arguably one of the most important tools for any filmmaker is lighting.
Good lighting is key to making a film look good and be pleasing to the eye. Bad lighting instantly pulls the viewer out of the film and sends them right back to reality. To create that great sense of suspension of disbelief you really do have to have great lighting.
The hard thing about lighting for film is the cost associated with lighting equipment. To buy great film lights like Arri brand lights, you have to have quite a bit of dough to spend. Renting is always an option, but even then, that can be pricey for independent filmmakers working on a micro-budget, or no budget film.
So this is where a lot of people make excuses. I’ve even been guilty of it, saying “oh I can’t do this project right now because I just can’t get the proper lighting for it.” Well, that’s a load of crap. There are always options. Change the script to use the lighting you have. Or go the low budget lighting route like I have.
Low Budget Light Options
First there are a lot of options for low budget film lights that you can buy. Whether you are shooting no budget films or low budget projects, having affordable lights always serves a purpose.
Even if you are on a shoot that is using the highest end lights on the market, things can go wrong. Somebody might break a light (and be kicked off set for being an idiot). Well, then all of a sudden your “outside of the box” lighting saves the day with low budget light fixtures!
The prices can range from very little to still kind of pricey, but there are plenty of options for people of all budgets! They include:
You can find sets of fluorescent lights that come with stands, bulbs, and softboxes for around $200. These are great for shoots in controlled environments for projects like corporate videos, interviews, or any type of film that simply needs soft light to fill the room.
I purchased a set of these and they have been a fantastic set of lights for a lot of different uses.
Fluorescent lighting kits are great, but they aren’t that bright. If you need really bright lighting for projects outdoors, or where you are working in a darker/larger space that needs a lot of light, these may not be the best choice. You can find light fixtures for $50 or less that are 500watts per light.
Another benefit to these lights is that they run generally cool. I say generally because after they have been on for a while the bulbs do get somewhat hot but only take a minute or two to cool down.
This is great when you are working in a small space as they won’t heat up the entire room. They also consume very little power so the odds of blowing a fuse with these is very slim.
Generic LED Lights
These lights are great for so many reasons. First of all, you can get smaller on camera LED lights off of Amazon for around $30-35 each, or there are kits of two lights with mini stands that run about $70. These lights have served as great lights for on camera lighting or small portable fill lights.
They have a quarter twenty hole in the bottom so you can mount them on light stands with threaded tops, cheap tripods, or my favorite use, on monopods. By putting them on a monopod you can have someone hold the light on moving subjects from just about any angle.
This is especially great because you can then avoid the “on camera news interview” look by having the light held up, slightly to the side, and pointed down at the subject.
These lights can be powered by AA batteries, Canon batteries, or the always popular Sony F550 and F950 batteries. Although name brands of these batteries are not cheap, the generic versions available on Amazon are affordable and work very well.
These lights are small so don’t expect them to light an entire dark room. They work well for adding additional light into a scene or lighting a subject in a darker place where the subject being lit matters more than the surroundings.
Halogen Work Lights
I bought single lights that are 500watts each for $13 per light that can be found here [http://www.lowes.com/pd_458096-49296-FU2202_1z0vgb1__?productId=50056891&pl=1].
These are absolutely fantastic for shooting outdoors or indoors and even have a centered hole in the bottom of the stand that works great for mounting onto a lightstand with a threaded mount on the top.
This only requires that a wing nut be used to hold the light head onto the stand. You can also get the version that comes with a stand for $25 each like this one [http://www.lowes.com/pd_458095-49296-FU2402_1z0vgb1__?productId=50056889&Ns=p_product_price|0&pl=1].
I will say, as nice as it is that these come with stands, buying low cost actual lighting stands are not expensive and are worth having for other purposes other than just holding lights.
The one thing to keep in mind with these lights is that they are hot lights. Unlike film lights, these also do not generally have a fan built in so they get hotter faster and stay hot. Cooling them off after you turn them off is not a fast process either.
This means that you have to expect that any room you are filming in will get very hot and when you are ready to take them down you have to plan for cooling time.
Clamp On Work Lights
Now for my favorite low budget lighting option, clamp on can lights! They are work lights that come in different sizes with different maximum watts. I went with the 300watt lights as you can then put in lower watt bulbs if needed but can go up to 300watts.
They cost about $12 per fixture and bulbs have to be purchased separately. My only issue with these is that mounting them can be a bit of a pain.
First of all, the clamps don’t hold on to certain materials very well and need a lot of grip. Second, they are rotatable but the small “ball” head that allows them to rotate doesn’t grip very well so they don’t always stay pointed where you want them right out of the box.
I found to fix this that a small piece of grip tape wrapped around that “ball” head made the grip much better. In a tutorial that will be coming soon, I will show a simple and affordable design for making better light mounts for these lights.
Tips For Utilizing Unconventional Lighting
Many of the unconventional lights work well in the sense of flooding a scene with light, but that’s about all they will do. Having control over the light using only the fixtures is difficult as they don’t have barn doors and adding barn doors would require actually designing and making them custom.
So what are some great and affordable ways to control the light? There are actually a lot of options from actual production accessories to unconventional products.
You can utilize:
Foils & Matte Board
These are essential tools for blocking and shaping your light. You can utilize black cinefoil which is quite affordable and is an essential accessory in even the highest level grip’s tool bag. This works great for unconventional light fixtures because it can take any shape.
You can use it to then funnel your light and create more of a spotlight effect rather than flooding. If you don’t have the money or are in too much of a rush to order cinefoil, you can always substitute it with standard tinfoil.
The bonus (or downfall depending on how you use it) to tin foil is that it is also reflective. This means that if you are using it to funnel light it will shape the light really well. If on the other hand you are using it to block light then not so much.
If you need to block light, a great option is black matte board. It’s relatively cheap for large pieces at art supply stores and is very good for blocking light due to its density and general rigidity. You can clamp it to C-stands or light stands and block your light from spilling through the whole room.
Reflectors, Walls, & Foamcore
Whether a project is low budget or big, bounced light is used very often. Bounced light becomes especially helpful when you are working with unconventional light fixtures that are basically just flood lights.
By bouncing the light off of another surface it becomes softer and more diffused and creates a more aesthetically pleasing light.
For bouncing light we can’t all afford to run out and get those huge panels you see utilized by big budget movies. So for us low budget folks, there are plenty of options. First is to get photography reflectors.
You can get low cost reflectors off of Amazon for about $20 apiece and buy a few. These are fantastic as they have white, gold, and silver. The white creates nice and soft light, silver makes bright and cool but slightly harsher light, and the gold warmer.
The next option is to use the walls of the scene. You can just point the light into the wall and let it reflect back into the scene. This generally works best when the light is pointed upward from a lower mount bouncing the light in a way that it will cast down onto the actors.
You can also build your own solid reflectors using low cost particle board and paint. The reason that these reflectors are great is that you can make them as big or small as you want and the particle board is very affordable.
Finally, an essential low budget tool is white foamcore. It’s cheap, rigid, and makes for a great bounce card. You can get them in a bunch of different sizes and clamp them onto just about anything and get light bouncing onto your scene. Bounced light is also effective if you don’t have any light fixtures and are shooting out in daylight.
Shower Curtains & Other Diffusion
Diffusion is essential. It makes light pretty. Really it does! There are tons of options for standard diffusion that aren’t that expensive, but it can depend on the size that you need. If you want some larger options, that’s where the price can go up quickly.
If you want a large diffuser that can have multiple fixtures behind it you can always use a frosted shower curtain. You can hang it on a backdrop stand and be up and running in no time.
The best part is that you can get them for less than ten dollars in plastic or fabric depending on how much diffusion you want. Another option is to use cheap white bed sheets. You can pick them up online or at your local Walmart for around $10-15.
These work well for diffusion or soft bounced light as well and can be set up using cheap backdrop stands with some clamps.
Remember those low priced reflectors that we talked about earlier? Well here’s another reason to buy them. You can remove the reflector and inside is a great scrim. You can clamp these onto stands or use them handheld and create beautiful soft lighting.
Finally there is always diffusion panels for fluorescent light fixtures. You can get these for relatively cheap prices at hardware stores and they work well because they are plastic and mostly rigid. This makes them easy to clamp onto stands, or you can always build cheap frames for them as well.
What I like most about the fluorescent light diffusers is the patterning. This really helps to break up the light and give it an even spread. Also these are good if you don’t necessarily want to make the light too soft, just spread it out more and cut down the harshness.
Great Lighting Doesn’t Have To Be Expensive
Creating good looking lighting takes skill but it doesn’t have to require a huge budget. By using some of these low price options for lighting you can create great lighting for basically any type of video.
Just remember though, showing up to a paying gig for a client with unconventional lighting may not always go over that well with the client depending on the type of video you will be making.
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Alan Meyer is an experienced cinematographer, but is no stranger to writing.