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Lighting for low budget filmmaking

14 July 2016

  • Learn to work with natural light before you buy lighting
  • If you need a serious lighting kit, hire rather than buy
  • Five in one reflector-diffusers help you make the most of natural light
  • LED lights are safer than tungsten and can run off battery power
  • Worklamps from hardware stores make effective, inexpensive lights

Film lighting can be expensive and awkward to use, and it takes practice to get good results. I suggest you learn to get the best out of natural light first, maybe with simple reflectors and diffusers. If you need a full lighting kit it may be better to hire it. But it can be useful to own a basic portable light; maybe not to use as a main lighting source, but as a ‘fill’.

Traditionally films used three-point lighting, but you may not need three lights: many documentary makers just use one, plus a reflector.

Reflector/diffusers

To enhance natural light, get an inexpensive folding 5 in 1 reflector, which includes a diffuser (to reduce and soften light); gold, white and silver reflectors (to ‘fill’ or lighten shadows); and a black side to use as a ‘flag’ (to block out light and make shadows deeper).  I have two – a small and large one.

Tungsten lights

Good tungsten lights are powerful but expensive, hot, and need mains power. So they’re best in studios. They’re still the preferred choice of many professionals. I wouldn’t buy cheap ones. Arri and Ianiro are the main high quality makers. I’d suggest looking for used sets in good condition rather than buying new.

LED panels

LED lights are safer than bulbs as they don’t get nearly as hot, though you shouldn’t look at them without a diffuser fitted (bare LEDs can cause eye damage). Most of them can run off mains or batteries: many use Sony NPF-pattern batteries.

You need to match the light to the overall light in the scene, so you can buy daylight or tungsten balanced LEDs. You can also get bi-colour lights which include both, and you can get coloured diffusers to adapt daylight panels to tungsten. If you’re making a black and white film, you don’t need to worry about lighting colour so you can use cheap LED worklamps.

Bigger panels give softer lights. To get natural skin tones, you need lights with a CRI of 90-95 or better. The Aputure Amaran 672 are relatively affordable with a high CRI: you can buy them individually or in sets, and they’re available as a focused spot, a more even flood, and a bi-colour version.

I have an F&V R-300 ring light for education projects. It’s adjustable, reasonably priced, tough, and can be mounted on a camera or a lighting stand. But the colour isn’t that great as the CRI is only around 85.

Lighting stands

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If you’re working with a friend you could get them to hold LED lights for you. Otherwise you’ll definitely need a lighting stand. Get one that’s strong enough – some of the cheaper ones aren’t stable and don’t last long. You can use sandbags to weight the legs of lighter stands. Lumo Pro LP605 is compact and lightweight.

Budget lighting options

You can use inexpensive clamp lamps, builders’ work lights or high powered torches instead of pro lights. Roberto Rodriguez used these for his low-budget debut El Mariachi. If you’re using tungsten bulbs rather than CFLs, be careful as they’ll get hot and can shatter dangerously. Never move hot tungsten lights: wait for them to cool down first.

Chinese balls

Alternatively, put high powered CFL (energy-saving compact fluorescent) bulbs into standard light fittings or Chinese balls. They’re fragile. For good colour rendition you need CFLs with a CRI of 90 or more (though you don’t need to worry about this if you’re making a black and white film).

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