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DIY lighting – it’s easier (and cheaper) to light your film than you might think

Paper Lantern a.k.a. The China Ball
John DeMaio on March 1, 2011 - 10:03 am in Featured, Lighting and Grip

I have been in this business for a while and I have heard people say a lot of wrong things about lighting. Most of the time, the seasoned pros do not like the idea of using anything other than name brands. DIY lighting and homemade instruments make them cringe. Don’t fall for this nonsense! Just because something is homemade doesn’t make it any less viable in your project. Lighting is lighting – so make the best with what you have at your disposal.

Professional Kits

Let’s start out with the professional kits. There’s a reason that most people sink a lot of money into their lighting kits – they’re durable and reliable. So let’s talk a little about these two points.

  1. Durability. Most tungsten lights (like Arri, Mole Richardson or DiSisti) are extremely durable. You can probably drop them off the roof of a house and the only thing that will break is the bulb. They’re designed this way – probably because clumsy PAs usually drop them.
  2. Reliability. I know that when I get off of a plane and pick up my Arri kit from baggage claim I can start shooting right away. There’s a lot of research and development dollars spent to make sure that they do so. I like to know that when I’m on a job, my gear will work. There’s nothing worse than unreliable equipment – especially lighting – when the client is paying for your time.

Arri Fresnel - Tungsten Light

Above, I was talking about tungsten lighting but the same thing holds true for LED lighting and Fluorescent lighting. Professional LED and Fluorescent lights have the same reliability and durability but they are much cooler. Put two Litepanels 1x1s in a small room and you won’t have to worry about the talent sweating – I can’t say the same for two fresnel lights.

Litepanels LED Light -- Kino Flo Fluorescent Light

If you have a few thousand dollars to drop on a light kit there are plenty of kits out there that will provide years of service to you. I’m guessing that if you’re reading this article – you’re not ready to buy a $2000 light kit. I’m here to say that’s totally fine. There’s really no need, especially if you’re just starting out in this business or if this is a hobby to you. Here are a few things that you can do to get great images without spending tons of money.

DIY lighting

Remember when I said that lighting is lighting? It’s absolutely true. I have seen plenty of great images captured using the clamp-on work lights from Home Depot, or using tungsten lights that were found around the house. You will have to pay close attention to color temperature though.

Professionals spend a great deal of money on expensive light kits for the consistancy of the light. They know that when they put two of the same instruments together they will have the same color temperature. Homemade kits will probably vary greatly in color temperature – so make sure that you keep this in mind when shooting.

If you’re freelancing for a living, homemade fixtures may not be for you.  I mean, do you want to show up to a high-paying gig with a Home Depot work light? Probably not.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t use your homemade stuff – just make sure that you don’t charge a client for a specific light kit and then roll up with a lamp from your house. Some clients don’t have a clue, but others are pretty savvy. However, if you’re putting together a short film with only enough money to feed the crew – you’ll probably want to read further.

The China Ball

Paper Lantern a.k.a. The China Ball

Here’s a simple solution to a lighting problem – the China Ball. This is a simple paper lantern, usually shaped like a ball or sphere, that you can find in any Asian market.  Don’t have an Asian market in your town? Try the web. You can find places online, like Film Tools, that sell these paper lanterns in many sizes, shapes and colors – although you’ll probably want to stick with the white ones unless you have something specifically creative in mind. Best of all they’re extremely cheap!

The paper provides a nice diffusion for the light and the sphere creates an omni pattern – something that will provide light in all directions. These are perfect to place between two actors that are talking to each other, or they just create a nice soft wrapping light source for your main talent.


The Frugal Filmmaker has a great tutorial on modifying and using worklights in a scene. As he points out, they’re not great to dim because they change color temperature and they’re too harsh to use as a key or fill – but they’re perfect for bounce lighting. Think of them as open-face lighting and you’ll have a great light source for around $30.

Make sure that you watch the second video where he adds a screen to the front of the worklight. These lights get very hot so make sure that you’re careful. Treat it like any other open face light on the market and you’ll be fine.

Homemade lights

The Covered Wagon by Jay Holben, courtesy DV.com

I love this post from Jay Holben over at DV magazine. Jay shows us how to make a homemade Covered Wagon. Covered Wagons or Batten Strips are simply light sockets mounted to a strip of wood. These are great for lighting entire rooms on a budget. You can mount them high enough that they’re out of the scene and this eliminates the need for lights on stands – perfect for master shots or wide shots where you need light to fill in, but you don’t want to catch any stands. You can also mount them to light stands or just place them on the floor for some up-lighting.

Get creative

Don’t just stop here. There are plenty of everyday light sources that can enhance your film or project. Just remember, lighting is lighting. So think of anything that gives off light and test it out. If you come up with something cool, let me know and I’ll post it here. I’m always looking for new ideas….

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