Woman using yellow shop lights

With the image-capturing power of today’s cameras, available light that comes from that bright ball in the sky, or an interior office lamp to help separate your subject from the background should be enough, right?

Truth be told, you don’t need to light every occasion. Today’s cameras are indeed more powerful than ever. They can capture better images with less light and these cameras continue to improve. However, when you’re working for that all-important client or if you’re putting everything you have into telling that thought-provoking story, put your best foot forward and shed some light on the subject. In this article we will cover why lighting is so aesthetically important, which types of fluorescent lighting you can pick up without breaking the bank, and how to make those discount lighting solutions work in various situations.


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When to Light and Why

Common sense usually dictates when to light and when not to light. Capturing footage of your kid’s baseball game or birthday party are situations, which don’t typically lend themselves to a bulky lighting setup. In fact, lighting a situation like one of those would probably be far more trouble than it’s worth. However, if you’re working to create a mood or attempting to give a scene the professional touch, you can’t ignore the value that good lighting brings. Sometimes, it might seem like more trouble than making do with natural light, but it’s much nicer than down-grading family memories. Good lighting not only has the power to create a mood, it can also work to focus the viewer’s attention, or simply give the scene you’re shooting extra depth and dimension. In short, a good lighting set-up should be considered as another character in the scene. If done well, it is one that helps propel the scene forward without drawing attention away from the central character.

Image of a mans face in the dark with lighting that only shows bottom half of face.
The best lighting will create and focus viewer’s attention to details that you want seen, and can hide details you might not want to reveal just yet.

Fast, Easy, and Cheap

Click through any number of film and video equipment supplier websites, and you will quickly realize that this is an expensive business. Lighting for professional film and video applications can range anywhere from just a couple hundred dollars, to well into the thousands for a single fixture, not to mention the bulb itself (also known as a “lamp”.) Depending on your situation, though, you can find just the right lighting rig to give your video that professional look, without relying on one of those expensive options. Remember… cheap light is still light.

Check out your local hardware store and you’ll discover a wide variety of bulbs and fixtures that you can use to light your way through almost any situation. Plus, with the wide range of compact fluorescent lights (CFL) now on the shelf, you’re not just limited to the old Edison 100-watt tungsten bulb you grew up with, or the long tube fluorescents found in a typical school or office building. Plus, CFLs draw significantly less power than standard filament bulbs. This makes it easier for you to change the light or match the light in a variety of locations using energy efficient materials found in your local hardware store.

Choosing a Light That Will Work for You

When choosing a bulb, a major consideration is color temperature. If you do a lot of shooting inside office buildings you want to make sure to have lights that complement standard office fluorescents which typically have a midline Kelvin temperature of around 4800 degrees. If your camera is balanced for daylight or for tungsten, 4800 degrees Kelvin will give off a greenish cast. So, look for bulbs that hover close to this fluorescent temperature and then rely on your auto white balance setting in your camera to find a happy medium.

When purchasing a consumer-grade bulb also check the packaging to find the light’s Kelvin rating and its color accuracy or its Color Rendering Index (CRI). The CRI, on a scale of 1 to 100, tells you how close the bulb will match the degrees in Kelvin stated on the packaging. Make sure you stick with lights rated at 80 or higher and your bulb should be able to closely match whatever lighting situation you walk into. These are important considerations if you’re looking at discount lighting since the fluorescents typically found in the retail stores aren’t designed to work with the spectral sensitivity of digital video.

Illustration of the different CRI on a photo
The Color Rendering Index (CRI) is a measure of how accurately a light will maintain its color temperature.

Another thing to consider when purchasing fluorescent lighting fixtures and bulbs from retailers rather than specialty suppliers or making your own fixtures is that fluorescents don’t dim like Edison bulbs. Therefore, controlling the throw of your light when using fluorescents is tricky unless you have the right ballast made specifically for this function. If you want to affect the intensity of your light, simply try moving it closer or further away from your subject or incorporating diffusion such as a piece of silk or maybe a cotton bed sheet between the source and the subject. Trying this simple workaround will give you a good deal of latitude.

What to Buy?

So you’ve done the homework on your bulbs but you still need to make them glow. You could build an elaborate DIY solution, or you could easily find some ready-made lighting options at the local hardware store. One example is a parabolic clamp light. You’ve seen them hanging around in art studios, garages and all places in between. Most are around 8-12″ in diameter and they project a nice amount of reflective light. You can typically use up to a 150-watt bulb and plug into any wall outlet, all for around $25. Due to their sheer intensity, these lamps aren’t a good choice for directional lighting. However, if you want to bounce one directly into the ceiling of a room to bring up the overall brightness, this type of reflector is an excellent tool to have in your kit and at a price that is easy to manage.

A parabolic shop light with a CFL bulb
A parabolic selector with a CFL should be easy to obtain and give you a good fill light.

There are a variety of other ready-made options on the market, from halogen work lamps that usually come with their own stand to folding, LED portable lights that, in some cases, last a lifetime. No matter what you use, just make sure that if you’re going to employ certain video lighting techniques using discount lighting, have your bases covered. Know your desired color temperature and how the lights you use will work within your given environment. Be open to using CFLs that draw low amounts of power and allow you to expand your range, and just as important, be creative with the tools in your box. Now let there be light – for less!

Sidebar: Building Your Own Fluorescent System

If you’re looking for a bit of a challenge and want to build your own fluorescent system, it’s a lot easier than you might think. In fact the manufacturer of the fixture has done most of the hard work for you. Just go to any hardware retailer and pick up a two or four light fluorescent fixtures along with the appropriate bulbs. Next, you will want to consult with someone in the electrical department on how to install an electrical cord so you can plug your fixture into the wall. Since fluorescents use a ballast, they have a lot of electricity running through them when powered. Therefore, if not wired correctly, you could seriously injure yourself, so please, ask a professional.

Another thing to consider is that most consumer-grade low frequency ballasts can and will cause a light to flicker. This isn’t normally visible to the naked eye, but it can be an issue with high shutter speeds. Incorporating a high frequency ballast in your design of a fluorescent lighting system will help to eliminate this problem.

To continue, take the box that the fixture came in or any other appropriately sized cardboard and cut it into barn doors and attach them to the fixture using gaffer’s tape. Spray paint the inside of the barn doors and the fixture silver to help reflect light and use heavy-gauge wire taped at the top and bottom of the barn doors to give them stability and flexibility. You can also attach a 3/4-inch T-joint to the back of the fixture using heavy-gauge wire which will allow you to use a traditional light stand or something you make at home.

Michael Fitzer is an Emmy award-winning commercial and documentary writer/producer


  1. Thanks for a succinct, sensible, and realistic account of video lighting for a keen amateur like me (and not a rich one, either!)

  2. I’ve been wondering how long ago this article was written. It makes no mention of LEDs which are, as far as I can tell, the cheapest and brightest lights you can get for video. Perhaps it’s time for an update?

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