Light Source: Build Your Own Lighting Kit

From time to time we’ve suggested ways to beat the high cost of lighting equipment by buying or building your own. So let’s pull all those tips together into a survey of guerrilla lighting tools. We’ll cover lights and lighting instruments, reflectors hard and soft, and diffusion screens that are surprisingly easy to make – and to use.

But let’s start with a safety warning, and hey: please don’t skip this part. Just one double work light draws nine amps of 110-volt power – that’s some serious juice. Those lamps get so hot that they’re covered with standoff grids. Wimpy power cords, loose plugs, and gels or diffusion too close to the heat can create hazards that can be lethal, so use care in selecting and using your tools. Now on to the fun parts.

Halogen Work Lights

Ironically, halogen work lights were made possible by the movies: Hollywood needed lamps that burned at a color temperature of 3,200K and didn’t turn yellow as they aged, so halogens were developed. Then civilians noticed that they gave off more light per watt than regular bulbs and adopted them for work and general lighting. Now, you can complete the circle by using halogen work lights for video.

You know what yellow work lights look like: movable twin heads on stands with tripod legs. They cost $20 to $80 – and price doesn’t always reflect quality. Some plusses to look for: a good height of the extended stand. Cord switches are safer and more convenient than controls mounted on the heads. Check out cord length, since you want to avoid extensions whenever practical. Big hockey-goalie grids are safe, but throw unwanted patterns on subjects, so look for better types of heat guard. Most units use 500-watt lamps, but a few cheap ones use only 300.

Three hundred watts are fine for single-head work lights, though 500-watt units are available. You might look for models with clip-on bases. You can mount them on the tops of open doors or sometimes hang them from ceiling grids. Otherwise, you can just clamp them onto light stands. Work lights are available everywhere from big box builders’ stores to small hardware outlets.

This month’s column isn’t about techniques, but we should mention that work lights are difficult to control, so they work best for fill. Try bouncing one head off a white ceiling and the other off a nearby wall (unless it’s painted a strong color).

Halogen Screw-base Lamps

Nowadays you can buy halogen lights for general household use. R and PAR lamps are available in sizes from 20 to 150 watts. (A PAR lamp is a sealed cone of heavy glass with a lens at the front end and a built-in reflector. An R lamp is similar, but much lighter and usable only indoors.)

Like all reflector lamps, halogens are available in a choice of beam widths: narrow spot, spot, flood and wide flood – though you’ll rarely find a full range of choices in any one store. Spots can be used as key lights (keep them fairly far away, to minimize uneven beam patterns). Floods are great for fill lights. If you’re clever enough to improvise a single barn door mounted across the top of the light unit (see below), you can use them for back lighting without spilling a flare into the lens.

To mount reflector lamps, you can buy some old-fashioned tension clamp sockets with big reflectors sold for general utility lighting. Keep the external reflectors on even though the reflector lamps don’t need them. Those aluminum collars help keep fingers away from hot lamps”

You can also buy bulb-shaped halogens to replace the lamps in “practicals” – lights that will be seen on-camera. Even off-camera, these halogens can replace built-in fixtures at the shooting location. Why bother? Because they’re brighter than incandescents, and their 3,200K color temperature matches the indoor white balance camera setting.

Torchiere Floor Lamps

Torchiere floor lamps stand six feet high and aim their light at the ceiling for a pure bounce effect. You can get them for as little as $20 at X-Mart. They’re very stable on their heavy round bases, and if they happen to get in the frame, hey, they look like they belong there.

Most torchiere units use 300-watt halogen lamps and many can be switched to half-power (though the light turns more yellow). Regular incandescent bulb types are available and you can swap the bulbs for screw-base halogens, as long as the units are rated for the extra wattage.

Recently, I discovered a fluorescent torchiere lamp that uses far less power than a halogen model. It also has a high/low switch and it burns very cool, for safety. Because the lamps are designed with warmer color temperatures than cool-white tubes, they mix well with halogen lighting. The ones I use cost $40 at a local builders’ supply store. They put out a surprising amount of light for their wattage. If I needed to kick up the overall light level at, say, a birthday party, a fluorescent torchiere would be my choice.

Fluorescent Lights

Even tube fluorescents can be used as video lights. ‘Sunlight’ bulbs deliver 5,000K color with up to 90% of the quality of natural sunlight, compared to 75% for a cheap shop light tube. (Manufacturers rate their lamps this way, so look for the rating card usually hung up beside the lamps in the store.)

You can replace ordinary tubes with these high-Q models (which cost about $10 instead of $1.98). But don’t use them in shop light fixtures. Their cheap ballasts often won’t operate the better tubes satisfactorily.

You can also build big pan soft lights by mounting pairs of fixtures in shallow plywood boxes and setting them on home-built stands. Be sure you’re a good carpenter, though. These lights are heavy and ungainly, and demand broad-footed rolling stands. Fluorescent pans are not worth your while unless you’re equipping a small studio – in which case they can be great.

Reflectors Hard and Soft

Reflectors come in hard and soft versions – both in their rigidity and their light quality.

For outdoor use, bend wide aluminum cooking foil around a sheet of foam core board: shiny side out for long throws, dull side out for a slightly softer effect. For still more light scatter, ball up the foil, then smooth it out again, leaving hundreds of small crinkles in the surface. Two feet by three feet is a very good all-purpose dimension.

You may want a bigger size when you take off the foil and use only the soft white foam core surface. With its lower intensity, a bigger surface area throws more light.

Fold-up cloth hoop reflectors cost $50-$100 or more, but you can get the same effect with fabric auto sunshades. Some are aluminized: shiny on one side and dull on the other. Others are pure white. Big models designed for pickup trucks are better – and some RV supply stores sell great big models intended for motor home windshields. Your cost? $12-$50 a pair, depending on size.

Diffusion and a Frame to Hold It

There are two ways to control strong sunlight: screens and silks. Black mesh screens reduce the sunlight without altering its character, while silks (more likely polyester) diffuse the direct rays to create a soft glow.

For diffusion, a white umbrella works great for closeups. Held off-camera on the sun side of the subject, they’ll cover head and shoulders nicely. A studio lighting umbrella is perfect, but any old civilian parasol works just fine. They run just $5-20, depending on size.

For sheet screen or silk, you need a supporting frame. To make one, buy enough 1 1/4-inch PVC pipe to make a square about four feet on a side. Add four PVC elbows and you have a frame (don’t cement any joints so you can break the unit down for travel.)

A fabric store should have translucent white polyester cloth in bolts wide enough for your frame. (If not, make it 42 x 48 instead of 48 square.) The garden center at Bigbox Builders will have black mesh by the yard for shading plants. Decide whether you need the lighter or denser type, then buy enough for your screen.

With screen or silk, sew a hem on each side wide enough to take the PVC pipe, leaving all the ends open. Roll the plastic up in the fabric, take it on location, and build it in five minutes.

Good Shooting!


Extension Cords: 4 Power Considerations

  • Select orange or yellow day glow colors.
  • Use heavy-gauge wire. Twelve is safer than 14 and ten is even better, though heavier.
  • Use industrial-grade plugs, securely wired and shielded.
  • Don’t use multiple-plug outlets. One work light is quite enough for a 15-amp circuit.
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