Video lighting has many options from ultra-portable to semi-permanent. Knowing what lighting technology to buy and what light kit is best is key when there's so many that can put you in the dark. The Videomaker Lighting Buyer's Guide sheds some light on the subject, comparing brands, types, application and pricing to help you decide.
Today's videographer faces a multitude of challenges when it comes to deciding on the best light kit to acquire. How do you determine which light kit is best for you? Do you know the difference between quartz lights, LED (light-emitting diode) and incandescent, even fluorescent and what will each type do for you... or not?
What light kit is best based on your needs and budget? What lighting conditions and challenges do you anticipate facing most often? Do your continuous lighting needs call for Fresnel lights, a soft box or other professional lighting kit? What brands offer a professional lighting kit or models using the lighting technology you most wish to utilize? Let's take a look at the host of options available to you. With the lighting technology offered today you'll find something you can use that fits your budget.
A Video Lighting Kit
From major name brands to lesser-known manufacturers, even hobby or do-it-yourself resource centers or your local hardware store; you have options for acquiring or designing video lighting that addresses the lighting conditions you face for any video production. What you put together becomes your video lighting kit.
Maybe you want to be portable - "have camera and video lighting, will travel". Or your production needs are less run-and-gun, and more controllable. You might be using a set, stage or room requiring more diverse, expansive lighting technology. You then might want to use Fresnel lights, a softbox or three other continuous lighting options. Options, options!
What you put together for your production needs, the video lighting tools you acquire and accumulate as budget permits becomes your video lighting kit. The video lighting you use doesn't have to be branded to be considered a professional lighting kit. You're the professional and your collection of tools for establishing mood, brightening corners or enhancing the scene are your kit.
In fact, should you decide to specialize in video lighting for productions and immerse yourself into lighting technology, you could plan to bulk up on a variety of lighting implements and become a gaffer, creating the lighting rigs needed as defined by a production's director of photography. You just built a kit.
If you have added a few on-camera options, assorted filters for changing temperature, softening or dispersing light, or acquired lamps and bulbs for your rig that allow you a variety of on-camera lighting options - you have a kit. If you have a ditty bag with a range of small stands, AC or DC powered units, sandbags or water bottles for weighing down stands - you have a kit.
Over time the average videographer acquires a variety of portable lighting devices that can be used on- or off-camera to accomplish unique lighting needs. The kit grows because even with portable lights no one type serves every purpose.
Boxes, Floods and Spots
Many event productions preclude using your lighting kit. Theater, dance recitals, even seminar presentations often restrict the amount of lighting devices the videographer is allowed. People from event planners to the DJ will not be happy that you've put up stands with soft box units, intense quartz lights or even a few Fresnel lights from your professional lighting kit. These interfere with their mood light or lights-out setups.
Weddings pose a particularly unique set of challenges with no hard rules regarding or requiring the videographer to use auxiliary lighting. Many video professionals prefer a "less is more" approach to adding lighting units at ceremony or reception. But some additional lighting will nearly always be needed for optimum imaging for video.
Used properly and with regard to the subjects lighted, your on-camera video lighting might be the best light kit for you. You still have choices and decisions to make. If this is your only light and you do mostly weddings, something like an NRG (Neutral Grounding) unit with a 50-watt lamp or a brighter lamp with diffusion filter to disperse the beam might see universal use.
Cool-Lux and Bescor, as well as many other brands, offer multiple-lamp units that can increase or decrease the wattage as you fire them up or turn them off. Many manufacturers provide on-camera units with dimmers, some with gradual or no temperature change going from low to high output.
With a dimmer, you can keep your lights lower or add more light with the more powerful settings. Other options include LED lights that burn cooler and sometimes brighter, that can be dimmed and are softer and less focused. These units, however, still have trouble being effective from more than a few feet. Videographers often place such off-camera lights at a head table or even a podium, throwing light on the couple or the speaker when the house lights have been turned down low.
There are exceptions where softbox lights or stage lights (usually a three-light kit with stands, heads, lamps, floods, spots and barndoors) can be used at receptions and other events. Softbox kits, as the name suggests, provide a broad, pleasant, diffused light source and many lighting conditions call for this application. Even so, more direct continuous lighting may be needed as well, calling for focused spotlights, quartz lights or a few Fresnel lights tossed into the mix.
For all but the most permanent installations using light bars, trusses and racks or stands, speed and efficiency are the determining factor along with the basic lighting requirements of the production. For the run-and-gun event video producer a single, on-camera unit may be all that is ever needed.
For studio and location kits, you'll want more diversity and a wide selection so you can pick the light kit that's best for your needs and to also offset surprises. Again, budget and compromise will always play a role in establishing your professional light kit.
Bulbs, Lamps and Heads
The most confusing element of video lighting selection perhaps is the actual element that creates the lighting conditions you want. Those bulbs, lamps and heads that can remain cool to the touch or scorch your reflectors offer a broad range of options based on intended use, safety, efficiency and more.
What is a light source? The easy answer is anything that generates or emits light. The sun, moon, stars or a mirror's reflection. A fireplace, campfire, candle or jar of lightning bugs. All these and more have generated desired lighting conditions in productions. Industrial work lights, flashlights and recently even cellphones and computer screens, even matches, have lit famous production scenes.
Before even considering the choices available in the Lighting Buyer's Guide, there are sources that can be used to augment your professional lighting kit. When natural or other sources can't go it alone there are the many types of bulbs and lamps to consider.
You will find video lighting kits utilizing 1,800-watts or more to provide lighting for large spaces. These are often filament-type bulbs or lamps. There are a variety of bare bulb lamps and devices created to house them offering more or less control over the source. Many manufacturers engineer methods for focusing or controlling the output of bare-bulb lamps. Fresnel lights are designed to offer focus control. Halogen lamps are hot but often provide a less expensive option to lighting large areas. Video lighting with HMI (hydrargyrum medium-arc iodide) lights using an arc lamp rather than a bulb with filament offer great diversity in lighting options but can be quite expensive. Cooler operating fluorescent bulbs reflect lighting technology that has pretty much removed the greenish cast that used to be so problematic with video lighting. These are sometimes utilized in softbox lighting equipment and even in open industrial style ceiling fixtures. LED lights work well as fill when working up close, but often don't have the throw needed for distance or universal lighting. They are wonderful in allowing adjustment from their brightest setting to a very low setting without changing color temperature or throwing off white balance settings. While Litepanels might be considered somewhat of a pioneer in LED lighting, professional lighting kit manufacturer Lowel and many others have similar offerings in a variety of designs.
Any light source, lamp, bulb or arc lamp device can be utilized in a variety of production environments. Many can be altered to provide a different use from their designed purpose, much like applying gel filters over windows with streaming sunlight to change the color temperature but utilize the source. Some lights are designed to provide focused spotlight or floodlight applications, adjustable to the need at hand. Beyond the lamps and elements or the heads that house them, a variety of devices can be utilized to deflect, focus, reflect or bounce any light source.
Which Light Kit is Best for You?
Figuring out the best light kit for you obviously requires some study. Read the accompanying Lighting Buyer's Guide chart and compare information to narrow down your type, style and budget needs. But first, determine the lighting conditions you expect to address based on your current or primary video production focus.
If you're just starting out and want something very portable that you'll attach to your camcorder so you can run-and-gun, compare those units first, then look beyond your immediate needs or desires and build your kit.
If you're into controlled video production projects, conducting interviews, producing documentaries or other close work, take a look at soft box kits or a professional lighting kit that offers basic three-point lighting and perhaps a set of barn doors and one unit head offering a choice of flood-to-spotlight adjustment.
If you're setting up a studio or developing a professional lighting kit that's reasonably portable but capable of providing stage or studio production lighting, go for the multiple-light kits that include stands and a carrying case to protect your video lighting kit and keep it all in one place.
Most in the independent professional video production community want and need portability to a greater or lesser degree. Others focus on developing productions for broadcast, cable or webcast. You may be somewhere in the middle, fixing up a room where you produce special interest videos for commercial purposes.
Video is Light
With rare exception you'll discover that some kind of lighting is required to enhance project production value. Video is light. Make your choices. Learn how to best use your video lighting kit. Your investment in video lighting reflects on your creativity and spotlights your videos.
Smith-Victor, NRG, Kino Flo, Lowel, Litepanels, Cool-Lux, Bescor and others offer a wide range of video lighting options with pricing for virtually every budget and professional standard. Shop around, check out eBay and do a Google search for video lighting kit to experience a world of bargain treasures. A caveat, however. Do be careful purchasing video lighting with unfamiliar brand names or from off-the-wall locations. Check references and inquire on Videomaker forums if anyone has used these units or sources before placing your order. There's a world of dangers in some of these, from blown bulbs to blown circuits, and at any time you may have a client who could be hurt, by an exploding light, as well as your reputation, well, as they say, buyer beware.
Sidebar: Throw Some Light on These Things
Names of things that relate with video production - lighting for example, don't always ring true to everyone's ears. Some of you know barndoors have nothing to do with horses even though mounting might be involved. Umbrellas aren't always used to protect gear from rain, though that's not a bad idea and gels aren't always applied to saddle sores or blisters.
What are all these things? Some of the frequently used terms are defined here. Rest assured, many are used interchangeably and some differ greatly depending on where in the world you are when using the term.
Accessory mounts - Any number of devices allowing for universal or custom mounting of lighting units, heads or accessories. Accessory mounts often include holes or thumb screws for mounting umbrellas and mounts that allow attaching barndoors or scrims, etc.
Barndoors - flaps or panels mounted on a light head that can shift, shape or clip the throw or shape of the light with a hard edge.
Boom - often used along with a light stand or C-stand to extend a lighting head horizontally from the vertical aspect.
Flag - device used to throw shadows or patterns over a set or subject. Often used interchangeably (not always correctly) with scrim or gobo.
Fill light - a secondary light, placed opposite of the key light to soften harsh shadows.
Flood - as opposed to a spotlight, the light thrown is broader and less focused, softening the effects.
Gels - film or tough, flexible material used to cover lenses or windows, etc. to change the color or temperature of lighting, or otherwise alter the light's effect on the scene.
Gobo - Essentially a stencil with a cutout pattern for creating shadows and shapes from light. Also, see flag or scrim as, incorrectly or not, these terms are often used interchangeably.
Hair light - often used to generate a ridge or halo along the subject's hair. Also used to separate the subject from the background.
Key light - primary light on a subject.
Reflector - any white, silver, gold or sometimes other colored device used to bounce, redirect or otherwise generate a softer light from another, brighter light source. Often used to warm the light on a subject as with a gold foil reflector.
Scrim - Material used in front of lighting devices to cut down on the brilliance of the light without generating a pattern. As opposed, to a gobo or flag.
Softbox - a kit that uses material to diffuse the light source, throwing a broad, wide, gentle and unfocused light.
Spot - a light that is intense, reaches farther and is hotter and brighter than a flood light. The spotlight can be focused on a specific element to be lighted.
Stand - though tripods can be used to mount lights in emergencies, light stands are light stands and used as such.
Umbrella - like the one used for rain protection, but in this case attached to the light stand in a manner that allows reflective use of the light, rather than direct light throw. Bounces light, generating a softer light source similar to a reflector.
Click here to download a PDF of Videomaker's Lighting Buyer's Guides
Contributing editor Earl Chessher is a veteran career journalist, independent video producer and author of video marketing and production books.