Lighting Your Video: Back to the Hardware Store?

Lighting accessories can be as easy to make as a trip to the local hardware store, but why would you want to go through the hassle?

In the December 2004 issue, we inventoried the lighting equipment you could buy in whole or assemble from pieces picked up at your favorite hardware store (check the column out at Videomaker.com). This time around, let’s back up a step and start with a question that most people overlook: since our mail order/Internet pages are filled with good folks eager to sell you professional gear, why make do with substitutes?

Because (duh) they’re cheaper.

True, but guerilla lighting has its down side too. The instruments are much less versatile, efficient, portable, and controllable; the accessories take time (and money) to build from scratch; and the resulting outfit can look amateurish to clients who were under the impression that they were paying a professional. On the other hand, you may not have or want any clients; and if you’re working in a school, church, or community organization, you’re probably skilled at improvisation, make-do, and scrounging. For you, "they’re cheaper" may be the only answer that counts. But if you do have at least some budget, you can pick the best of both worlds — pro and guerilla — by sorting out your production needs and then buying to fill them.

Sizing Things

To decide how you feel about improvised lighting gear, you need the answers to several questions:

  • Do you want to work professionally?
  • Do your prefer hard- or soft-style lighting designs?
  • Is your work on-location or in-studio?
  • Is your lighting usually warm or cool?

This isn’t an if/then decision tree, but when you’ve worked through these questions, you should know whether to spring for pro gear or hit the hardware store.

Do you want to work professionally? If you do, then your lighting instruments, at least, should be pro gear. Remember: most clients don’t know anything about making videos, so the only clue they have to your competence is the look of your equipment. Spotlights and barn doors and C-stands are professional, and they look it. Also, in pro work time is money (or even money squared) and pro gear just works faster. It’s east to set up and tear down, its controls save time in re-positioning, diffusing, and masking crude lights. So if you’re pro or want to go there, gulp hard and spend the dough, at least for the lights and stands.

Do your prefer hard- or soft-style lighting designs? If hard, you must have spotlights with the lenses, barn doors, diffusion frames, and focusable lamps needed to work in this style. But suppose you shoot mainly talking head interviews, or maybe documentary work where you have to move around as you shoot. In that case, soft lighting is easier, and guerilla lights can work fine. For bounce light, two-headed halogen work lights can be aimed at wall and ceiling simultaneously. Fluorescent pans (fixtures with two or more tubes) make great soft lights. Or you could build a screw-based fluorescent softlight pan with a 3 x 3 matrix of porcelain sockets.

Is your work location or studio? Pro units are designed to pack and go, many of them in fitted cases and some of them that turn into their own cases when collapsed. And they are light! The aluminum stand for a mini spotlight weighs, maybe one-fourth as much as the stand for a pair of work lights. But if you work in a home, school, church, or organizational studio, who cares about size and weight? Home-built fluorescent softlight pans on big wood stands will roll around just fine on casters and they never have to fold up.

Is your lighting usually warm or cool? This refers to ambient light. Are most of your shoots in classes, offices, public rooms? Do you have to cope with window light? That means cool color temperatures, which means fluorescents. On the other hand, if you work in incandescent-lit interiors (or light exclusively with the movie lights brought with you) You’ll need halogens. And, as a rough rule, fluorescent sources are easier to control in home-built fixtures. Small-size halogen lamps need barn doors and flags to wrangle ’em.

When Cheaper is Just as Good

At the risk of offending pro equipment suppliers, I have to insist that some things — accessories mainly — are every bit as good at Ace or True Value, and usually cheaper.

Look at fluorescent screw-base bulbs. A 3200K fluorescent lamp outputs 26-watt units, which is the equivalent of 125 watts of household incandescent light.

Want a pan bank? It would be easy to build a light pan with a 3 x 3 matrix of porcelain sockets. Nine of these lamps would use 234 watts (even a 4 x 4 unit would use about 300 watts) and deliver the equivalent of 1,100 watts of light. Admittedly, these special units don’t come cheap, but like all fluorescents, they last a looooong time.

Reflectors too: foamcore board is inexpensive at art and craft supply houses. (Another TIP: Or look at metal-sided insulation panels in the hardware department. They have a good size and look more professional than Reynolds wrap draped over a board and the matte aluminum finish bounces a harder light than the very soft white side on the back).


A Hybrid Lighting Outfit

Here’s the bottom line, I think: if you’re not for profit and you’re mainly in a studio, save money everywhere possible by building everything you can and buying cheap what you can’t.
If you’re working at serious professional production, I would spend the money for professional lights, stands, cases, and light accessories (not to mention several C-stands). As for cables, water weights, and similar accessories, consider buying outside the pro shops.

And if you’re a serious amateur who wants more control over your lighting, get one professional spotlight and stand (with a lens, please), two, two-headed halogen work lights for bounce fill, and a couple of clip-up work lights holding halogen PAR (Parabolic Aluminized Reflector) lamps for chores like rim lighting and splashing backgrounds.

(Yet another TIP already: keep both spot- and flood-type PAR lamps around, so you can choose your light beam spread.) That one spot alone will give you a degree of flexibility and control you’ve almost certainly never had before.

Good lighting!

Contributing Editor Jim Stinson’s book Video: Digital Communication and Production is out in a 2nd revised edition.

[Sidebar: Electrical DIY]

Make sure you take extension cords, one for each light. You want twelve-gage wire, heavy-duty three-prong plugs, and safety colors. (TIP: I use orange, lemon, and lime colored cables to quickly tell which line goes to which light.) Install an in-line switch maybe ten feet back from the female plug.

A. Check the amp rating on the switch- it needs to be the same amperage as your cord.

B. Remove a section of the outer casing on the cord, just shy of the length of the switch, being careful not to cut the three inner wires. Cut the hot wire, usually black, and attach it to the contacts. Loop the neutral, usually white, and the ground, usually green or bare, under the switch (uncut).

C. Reattach the protective case.

If you’re good at electrical wiring (and that includes safe!) you can make in-line dimmer boxes and other accessories that are indistinguishable from Hollywood’s finest. Why? Because pro juicers often make this stuff themselves, just the way you do.

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