When you think of assembling a portable lighting kit, you need to consider what you need to complete a job, and also how to get that kit to your location.
The best equipment in the world isn't any good if it's too big or heavy to take with you. It is with this in mind that we are going to learn about a location kit that includes enough equipment to shoot a full blown production but that can separate into component groups that allow you to trek into parts unknown whether by car, bike, plane, boat or even on foot.
Not Your Average Grab Bag
Consider a portable lighting kit that will be transported to you location in your car. It may include several lights with light stands along with all the support equipment that accompanies it such as power cords and splitters so you can plug in more than one light. You may also have a boom with a counter-weight for overhead lighting and maybe a cart to carry it all so you can look professional because you'll get your gear from your car to your location in one easy trip. Throw in a laptop and monitor and you're good to go.
But what happens if your director gets a sudden wave of creative inspiration and without your knowledge arranges an interview with a "sky view" shot from the catwalk above a factory floor and the only way to get there is by way of a series of ladders? The good news is that the director understands that your billing for the job has just increased but the bad news is that all that great gear you brought along is just a bit too big, heavy and cumbersome to carry up the ladders. Perhaps all you brought along is that old metal tripod because you don't like packing your nice carbon tripod on the cart. Or maybe you only packed two 15-pound sandbags and the shot from the catwalk calls for a total of four bags, well... the shoot was pretty conventional and you thought you were more than ready...
This is one of the most frustrating situations you will encounter and as you grow into your career as a videographer you will find that this is quite common. As a professional you are expected to deliver great imagery under all conditions and the better the director, the greater the chances of a situation like this occurring. It's a love-hate relationship. The challenges of a great location can be so rewarding while at the same time drive one to complete hysteria! So let's start with exactly what went wrong with the scenario above.
You came prepared for the location that everybody agreed on but things changed. The operative word here is "changed" and as we all know change is good except when it happens to you. So the first thing one must consider when packing a kit for location is "change." Perhaps the lighting will change, such as the room you are shooting in is on a timer and the lights go out at 6 p.m and you are shooting until 7 p.m. Or maybe the location with those beautiful blue walls you saw in the photograph are now beige. Perhaps the location photos were taken in another season, and the greenery you were counting on is brown and lifeless. Whatever - It doesn't matter! Everything changes and it's your creative interpretation of each situation that will carry you through and keep the clients coming back for more.
When packing a video production lighting kit the first thing to consider is how much can you carry by yourself, without a cart and still be able to light an interview. With this in mind always have two very portable lights as well as an on-camera light available. By very portable, I mean no cords to plug in and preferable a case you can sling over your shoulder. Very portable lights don't weigh much so they require only small light stands and small sand bags or if you're lucky, no sand bags at all. Opting for the battery offering on your portable light will give you versatility here since you eliminate bulky cords and won't be relying on wall sockets or generators. Frequently you are called on to record an interview as the sun sets or the subject has only time for one take which means there is little time to plan a set, find electricity to plug in your lights and set up your camera, all while listening to the director tell you what he or she wants. The obvious advantages of small portable lighting are described above, but there are some drawbacks which include limited power and reach which means you generally need the lights closer to your subject in order to be effective. Smaller lights offer fewer options for modifiers so you must be able to adapt your vision to these limitations.
Manfrotto makes a nifty little light stand (5001B Nano, $62) which would be perfect for the "factory catwalk" situation described earlier because the legs lay flat. This stand, with one battery powered light, such as the Flolight MicroBeam 128 ($299), will allow you to put a back-light on your subject while your on-camera light provides fill. The nice thing about the MicroBeam 128 is how flexible the battery system is. You can use an extra battery from your Sony or Panasonic camera or the standard Li-ion battery. If you have some extra hands at your disposal, have someone hold a reflector and bounce some of the back light onto the subject for some soft fill and you have a good portable solution for a fairly complex situation. If you are the lone worker of the lights, you'll want to set up a stand and arm and attach the reflector with clamps, all the while, reminding your subject to resist the urge to move out of the light.
All the lights mentioned so far provide very little power so they must be relatively close to your subject to be effective; it's best to have several so you can place them around the set to light each element separately. Imagine recording an interview on a country porch with the sun setting in the background. Rather than blasting the whole set with one or two powerful lights why not try setting out several smaller lights and creating individual "splashes of lights" to compliment the shadows you will definitely come across. This is how you adjust your vision to the environment rather than trying to change it. This strategy is good but requires time, setup and experience to perfect.
Let the Environment Speak to You
Perhaps you are frequently rushed and you're just learning about lighting but still want to get a great look each time you work. Once again let the environment tell you what to do. One thing you can always rely on is that there will be at least some light when you shoot and the fastest and most reliable way to harness that light is with reflectors.
Still the favorite tool of both seasoned and beginning videographers, reflectors require no power and are easy to set up. Reflectors are also possibly the most adjustable light you could have - shifting positions as fast as humanly possible. One of my personal favorites is a simple 6x4-foot taffeta fabric which gives a similar effect to soft-box lighting but is faster to set up. Even in a fluorescent-lit office a large fabric scrim - if placed correctly, can add some definition to your lighting. By placing it right next to your subject - but just out of camera view - you get a beautiful soft rim light around a person's face and clothing.
What's really nice about soft fabric as a reflector is that if the wind causes it to move slightly, the effect is not usually noticeable in camera whereas shiny reflectors such as silver or gold become completely obvious when they get even slightly moved by the person holding them or a breeze. But don't let that stop you from using them because the shimmery effect they have on a windy day can be used to add some excitement to your work. The precious shimmer of your reflector might be construed along with a light lens flare or sparkle from a plug-in to become a sign of magic.
Try recording a high-energy interview such as a weather event with the sun behind your subject and use a shiny reflector right next to the camera. Any movement in the reflector will be obvious and can add to the energy of the situation. Shiny reflectors are extremely efficient when compared to soft white reflectors and can be used to create strong specular reflections which soft white cannot possibly achieve, plus they have more "reach" so they don't need as much light to reflect and can be placed further from the subject. It's always good to have both soft and shiny reflectors on any location and since reflectors are lightweight and compact there should be no reason not to have them in your kit.
Suppose you frequently carry only a camcorder and one light. Well, don't let that stop you from thinking outside the box. Instead of mounting the light on top of your camcorder try holding it off the side and slightly above the camera. You will get a more three dimensional look in the lighting instead of the usual "on-camera" flat lighting that you see in so many videos. Or how about directing the light onto a wall and using the wall as a big soft reflector? It works, but the light output is greatly reduced so you will need to have your subject close to the wall. This where something like the Bescor LED-60X on-camera light is useful because it has plenty of power for reflecting off of walls due to its narrow beam and runs on four AA batteries ($100.)
With an understanding of all these lighting strategies you can approach any event or location with confidence and rest assured that you'll be prepared. Collectively, all the lighting equipment mentioned here makes for a complete location kit that includes enough equipment to light a larger production but the real value is how each component of this kit is small enough to be carried by itself and used separately for lighting just about any small setup you may encounter.
Sidebar: DIY Portable
How about "re- purposing" a Coleman Quad LED Lantern to create a cheap lighting kit! Yep, Coleman - yes, the camping company - has a classic lantern style light ($80) that can be split into four separate lights each of which is self contained and battery powered! Each light has its own little handle which provide a quick way to hang them from just about anything you may find on location. Use them side by side for a bit more power or spread them out for more coverage.
Even a simple hand-held LED flashlight can be an effective way to light an interview as long as you understand that they have a limited angle of coverage. Why not have fun with that limited coverage and use it to your advantage. A flashlight will give a lot of falloff on the edges and that can be very effective for creating a spotlight effect. Don't forget the headlights on your car. They are very powerful and can be reflected off a building wall to create a very large light source. Just watch E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial!
Terry O'Rourke specializes in retail advertising photography and videography for clients worldwide.