Did you ever think to yourself after watching a well-produced video, "I could do lighting like that if I had the budget they have"? Well, fortunately you do not have to have a big budget and thousands of dollars of expensive lighting equipment to create professional lighting. All it takes is a trip to your local hardware store, art supply dealer and perhaps even your attic, garage or closet. In this article, we’ll look at alternatives to expensive lighting equipment and accessories. So buckle up, put the window down and enjoy that fall air as we take a ride to the neighborhood hardware store.
Every time you walk into a hardware store, you can find something new to enhance your lighting gear. But you must remember one very strict rule: there are no rules. As long as you get light on your subject the right type of light at the correct color temperature, of course who cares what the light looks like? So, let’s start with the lights themselves.
Your best bet is a couple of quartz shop lights. The higher the wattage, the better. These lights come with a mechanism for attaching to walls or ceilings. Some models come already set up to attach to light stands. If not, find a clamp that you can use to secure one to a light stand, table or other surface. If you plan on attaching one to a table, glue some rubber to the teeth so you don’t scratch the table surface. Jar-opener pads provide excellent sources of rubber for this. They are nonskid and you can easily cut them to fit your clamps.
If you can’t find any quartz lights, the next best option is a standard incandescent shop light with a clamp built into it. These lightweight, durable lights have large reflectors that spread light. Their clamps makes it easy to place them anywhere you need light. Again, the more wattage you can get, the better.
Another lighting option is a fluorescent shop light. These short tubes are usually DC-powered and will stick almost anywhere there is a flat surface. The only real problem with these lights is that you have to color-correct them to match incandescent or quartz lights. The best use of these lights is in a situation where they are the only light sources in the shot and you can white balance your camera to them.
Once you have your lights picked out, you need to think about how you are going to hang or support them. Included clamps or lighting tripods that some shop lights offer are obvious first choices, but what are some of the other options? Hardware stores carry a variety of clamps. These clamps are very sturdy and with a little ingenuity, some duct tape and a length of 1/2-inch PVC pipe, you can make a light support that will get your light anywhere you need it. Tape or screw an 18-inch long piece of PVC pipe to the clamp, add a T-joint to the end of the pipe and you now have a surface to clamp onto and a hole to slide your accessories, such as a gel frame or flag. By clamping the light stand to the edge of a door, table, chair or other surface, you can get your light anywhere you need it.
To control your light’s beam, you need to visit other areas of the hardware store. Cheesecloth makes a great diffusion gel as long as it is far enough from the lights so that it doesn’t burn. Use flat black window screening as a scrim to reduce the intensity of your light. You can also use black landscaping cloth as a flag. Attach all of these to a PVC pipe frame using spring-clamp clothespins or tape. If you build your frame with screw ends at the corners, you can take the frame apart for storage.
You may want to stop by the paint area while walking around the hardware store and get a can of flat black paint to use on your PVC pipe (or just use black PVC where available).
While in the hardware store, don’t forget to buy a long extension cord with three outlets. There is nothing worse than getting to a shoot and not being able to get power to your lights.
Once you’ve collected everything you need at the hardware store, hit your local art supply store. Here, you want to pick up some posterboard with a black side and a white side. This two-sided posterboard is very versatile because you can use it as both a reflector and a flag. It is also flexible, so you can curve it to intensify and direct the light to your talent.
In the art supplies, you may also find some translucent plastic sheeting you can cut to use as a diffusion gel. You may also find various colors of clear plastic sheeting you can use to change the color of the light in the background to add a dramatic touch to your lighting scheme. Be careful; because these plastic sheets are typically not made of professional gel material that is heat resistant, keep them away from the lights.
After your trip to the hardware store and art supply house, it’s time to go home. However, you’re not done yet. Reach under the seat of your car and pull out that windshield sunscreen. One of the most convenient reflectors is a sunscreen that folds into a one-foot loop. One side of the screen has a diffused silver surface and you can spray-paint the other side gold. It will act as an inexpensive diffused reflector that will make your talent look great.
When you finally get home, go to your linen closet and pull out the white sheets you were ready to throw out because they were getting thin. They make great diffusers and reflectors. You can also use a white towel as a soft reflector.
In your kitchen, pull out the aluminum foil. With a little effort and some carefully taping of the foil to a piece of foamcore you can make yourself a hard reflector. By crumpling up the foil and then taping it down, you create a diffused reflector.
You can also use white trash bags as diffusion material or flexible reflectors. Black trash bags make great flexible flags. Again, make sure you keep them away from the heat of your lights.
In your closet, you may find a variety of lighting accessories. An old hula hoop makes a great diffusion, reflector or flag frame. Carefully tape or sew one of your really thin white bed sheets to the hoop to create a reflector or large diffusion gel. Place this in front of your light to spread out the beam and create a soft shadowless light. If you are shooting outdoors, you can place this diffuser between the sun and your talent and create a beautiful soft light for a closeup shot.
Now you have the tools, how do you use them? In a standard three-point lighting setup, you have a key, back and fill light. You can create the same look with hardware store tools . If you are using quartz work lights, set one of them up for the key and one for the back and use a sheet of foamcore to bounce the key light into the talent’s face for a fill. To soften the key light, position some cheesecloth in front of the light to spread the beam. You will probably have to move the light closer to your talent to make up for the loss in intensity. Using a chair, table, the edge of a door or a light stand, you should be able to get your light where you need it. Add a bit of drama to the lighting by placing a blue gel in front of a work light that is focused on the background. Make sure the light from the key light is flagged off the background so that the blue light is not diluted with white. Place a set of miniblinds in front of the blue light to create a window effect.
Lighting does not have to be expensive. It just takes a little ingenuity; some imagination and a little scavenging around for those little treasures that will make your lighting come to life.
[Sidebar: Foamcore – A Versatile Lighting Tool]
Foamcore can be a handy item in your lighting bag-of-tricks. For a sturdy reflector, pick up a 3- by 4-foot sheet of foamcore. This material has a great reflective surface and is stiff enough to stand erect. Take a can of silver or gold glossy spray paint and you can make a couple of different-colored reflectors. Paint a piece of foamcore gold on one side and silver on the other to create a fine, inexpensive reflector. Paint another piece of foamcore silver on both sides and carefully dimple one of the sides to create a smooth, diffused reflector.