Nothing can match a professional lighting outfit, and one to three thousand dollars is a fair price for a matched set of lights, stands, cables, and accessories, all in a sturdy, fitted case or two. If you don’t need a full kit, don’t use lights all of the time or just don’t have the money to spare, you may be better off doing it yourself.
From time to time, we’ve shown how to work with home-built equipment and hardware store components. Now we’ll round up these scattered suggestions and present them in one place. You probably know some of these tips already, but if you come away with just a couple of new ideas, it’ll be time well spent.
We're sure you are familiar with the halogen work lights sold in hardware and builder's supply stores for $20 to $70.
I like to have one pair of 500-watt heads on a floor stand, plus two single units on sturdy alligator clamps, for use on ceiling grids, moldings and door tops. When shopping, look for these useful features:
- Switches on cords rather than on the lamp heads, which are hot and often hard to reach.
- Extra tall stands. Some only extend to five feet or so, but that may be enough.
- Sturdy construction. Avoid cheap brackets and undersized lock knobs.
- Removable face grids. Although the cages provide a measure of safety, they throw inconvenient shadow patterns.
You can also exploit the more fashionable halogen lamps sold for household use. For example, a couple of clamp-on work lights (just a clamp, a socket, and a flared aluminum shade) and an assortment of screw-base halogen spotlights. These very lightweight units are great for clipped-up backlights.
I also use six-foot halogen torchre floor lamps to bounce light off low, light-colored ceilings. This is excellent for brightening a dark room without overtly changing its light quality. You can find them for around $40 at X-Marts everywhere. Even though the halogen varieties suck up a lot of electricity, the white light is better than the more efficient incandescent variety.
For studio and location use, four- and six-tube fluorescent light banks are wonderful. They deliver very soft light, they’re cool enough to cover with white cloth for ultra, diffusion and they can be separately switched for controlling light output.
The best fluorescent tubes mimic sunlight with 90% accuracy, so they mix well with daylight and are thus ideal for lighting interiors with large windows.
You might want to keep a stock of daylight tubes on hand for replacing the lamps in overhead fluorescent grids when shooting in institutional settings, such as schools or office buildings. Mixed with light from side windows, their soft, sunny fill can really look beautiful.
Home-brew reflectors are easy to construct. I like to start with one-inch white foamcore board and a roll of oven-width aluminum foil. Actually, you might not even need the foil. Since I use the white board alone for soft reflecting, I spray-mount the aluminum flat to the backside of the board, shiny side out. (Spray glue and paint will dissolve Styrofoam.) Note that you can also buy foamcore already tinted silver or a warm and flattering gold.
Most professional reflectors are aluminized cloth stretched on wire hoops that can be collapsed to one-third their expanded diameter. You can obtain the same thing for 75% less by buying silver auto windshield sunscreens. These screens are also available in white, for a softer look.
Blue plastic utility tarps have been around for years, but now you can find them with one side of silver Mylar. Hung up by their brass grommets, these make huge, soft reflectors that work best for fill lighting opposite studio spotlights. Outdoors, stretch them as canopies, silver side down. The tarps block the direct sun, but re-bounce reflected light all over for directionless lighting.
If you can sew material as heavy as plastic tarp, you can also hem this material for mounting on frames to make portable reflectors. Pipe frames are more often used for silks and scrims, however. Placed between the subject and the sun, silks diffuse light for an almost shadowless effect. Screens reduce the light intensity without dramatically changing its directional character.
To make a portable frame, cut four, four-foot lengths of plastic pipe. One-and-one-fourth inch schedule 40 PVC works okay, but experiment with different diameters and pipe types to get the proper rigidity you want. Add four 90-degree elbows to your frame kit and you are done. Don’t cement the elbows so you can easily dismantle your creation for transport and storage.
Old bed sheets make good diffusion cloth or buy a length of thin white polyester. For screens, pick up a length of the plastic screening sold in nurseries and large garden departments for partially shading plants. You can get it in a variety of densities. Hem your materials on all four sides, leaving the corners open, thread the pipes through the hems and fit them all into the elbows.
Movie lights (even our workshop lights) use serious wattage, so before getting to cables and such, we should insert a big CAUTION sign. There’s nothing illegal about do-it-yourself wiring, but unless you know what you are doing, you should stick to ready-made accessories.
The first of which are extension cables. They should be:
- No more than 25 feet long.
- Single-plug only, no three-ways.
- 12-gauge wire. (Even most outdoor-grade extensions are 14 gauge, which
- Day-glow safety colors.
I like to install an in-line switch about one-fourth of the way from the female end. That way, I can switch high-mounted lights without bringing them down and ruining their aim and focus. If you work in a school, check fire codes. In some areas, they prohibit all electrical extensions from classrooms.
Water weights are essential for securing light stands and reflectors. You can buy collapsible plastic water jugs for a few dollars in any camping supplies department. The two-gallon size is usually big (and heavy) enough. Because they are already fitted with hang-up grommets or even chains, they’re easy to affix to the bottoms of stands. Of course milk and water jugs work fine as well.
Finally, don’t forget the small stuff. Good leather gloves are essential for handling hot lights. Duct tape is not gaffer tape, but it’s fine for mounting diffusion, securing cables and a hundred other chores. I keep an assortment of clamps on hand, from wooden clothespins to plastic alligator clamps in graduated sizes.
Contributing Editor Jim Stinson is the author of the book Video Communication and Production.
[Sidebar: Why Work Lights Have Perfect White Balance]
A long time ago in a Hollywood far, far away, equipment makers adopted a new kind of movie light that was smaller, lighter and longer lasting than regular tungsten lamps. These lamps were also better because they didn’t blacken with time, reducing light output and lowering color temperature.
Instead, their color maintained an absolutely reliable white balance of 3200 Kelvin. Why 3200K? Through no coincidence whatever, Eastman color negative movie film was balanced for precisely that color temperature.
Some people called them “quartz lights” because their extra-hot filaments was enclosed in envelopes of quartz rather than glass. Others called them “halogen lights,” for the gas that filled the lamp.
Many years later, others noticed the virtues of halogen lights and began adapting them, first for industrial uses and then household. Though there was no need for utility lights to have any particular color temperature, the lamps they used were lifted directly from the movie industry, which enabled them to come full circle and provide 3200K lighting for low-budget video.