- 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 light plus a reflector for fill. You can get the three-point effect by adding a second rim light to this.
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.
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 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.
Litepanels make a range of powerful, high CRI LED panels.
The tiny Aputure AL-M9 fits in your pocket and comes with a diffuser, a couple of gels and a detachable cold shoe mount. Power output is controllable in steps, and colour rendition is good. I own one: it’s affordable and surprisingly powerful for its size. You could use it as an emergency key light in very low light situations, to highlight things or fill awkward shadows, or as an eye light.
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.
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).
For a really cheap studio setup, you could use a set of soft box lights based on compact fluorescent bulbs. I’ve used this setup for recording presentations to camera: one pair of lights illuminates the presenter, and another pair lights the green chromakey background.
I teach all kinds of people to make films. I provide training for businesses, arts organisations, nonprofits and education. I’ve worked on film education projects with Apple Education, the British Film Institute, Film Education, Film: 21st Century Literacy and many more. My publications include Making Movies Make Sense and Editshots.