Ryan E. Walters, Cinematographer

Cinematic Excellence at 24 Frames a Second

Three Crucial Tips For Buying A Lighting Kit

(Lighting Setup For Green Screen Work)
I often get asked the question "I have $X to spend on a lighting kit... What should I buy?" Whenever this question comes up, I always feel perplexed about how to answer. Making a recommendation on a lighting kit is like making a recommendation on what wine to drink based only on price. Not only are there numerous variables that go into the choice of purchasing a lighting kit, but personal taste and lighting style plays a huge part in the decision-making process. So, while I can't tell you what specific purchases to make, I can share with you three crucial tips, and share with you what I have in my own personal arsenal.

Tip 01: Rent, Rent, Rent...
The first and most important piece of advice I can give you is to rent as much as possible. Rental shops are a great way to affordably use a wide range of gear. The worst thing you can do is to spend your money on equipment that you find frustrating to use, or that you end up not liking for one reason or another. Every time that I have made a purchase without renting first, I have been disappointed. And those mistakes end up costing me more than if I would have just rented it, and then bought what I liked and needed.

Over the years I have rented everything from small 200w tungsten units like Dedo Lights, to Kino Flos, and 2.5k HMI's. By using a wide range of gear, not only do I get the experience using it in an actual production, but I also get to evaluate the quality of light it produces to see if it fits with my style of lighting. Often times the tech specs can't tell me how useful a light may be in reality. So, rent first, then buy what you like.

As you experiment with different lighting units, here are some questions I recommend asking yourself: Does this unit produce the quality of light that I prefer? How much power does it draw? How easy or difficult is it to set up? How does it render colors, especially skin tones? How much punch does it have? (Can it throw light far into a scene, or does it fall off rapidly?) How hot does it get? Is it uncomfortable to sit in front of? What kind of modifiers are there for it? (Barn doors, scrims, diffusion, etc.) Do I like those modifiers, or will I need to use something else? How expensive is the unit to buy? How expensive are the replacement parts?

(You might also like: How To Create A Lighting Diagram)

In very broad generalities, here is what you need to be aware of with various types of lights:

  • Tungsten:
    • Great color rendition, looks nice on skin. (High CRI values)
    • Lots of punch, can be hard or soft
    • Very affordable to buy & repair
    • Consumes LOTS of power
    • Puts out LOTS of heat
    • Needs to be filtered to match daylight, which requires ~ 2x more light output. (E.g. 1,000w unit with Full CTB = ~500w output. A 2,000w unit with Full CTB = ~1,000w output)
  • HMI:
    • Good color rendition, looks nice on skin. [Although I like tungsten better] (High CRI values)
    • Lots of punch, can be hard or soft
    • Very expensive to buy and repair
    • Consumes some power, but is very efficient (More light output per watt than tungsten)
    • Puts out some heat
    • Needs to be filtered to match tungsten, which requires ~25% more light output. (E.g. 800w unit with FULL CTO = ~600w output. A 1,200w unit with Full CTO = ~900w output)
  • Florescent:
    • Can have decent color rendition. Depends on the bulbs. (Can have ugly green spikes)
    • Soft-ish, with some punch.
    • More expensive to buy and repair.
    • Consumes minimal power
    • Puts out minimal heat
    • Bulbs can be easily swapped to daylight or tungsten providing no light loss due to filtration.
  • LED:
    • Can have decent color rendition. Depends on the unit. (Can have ugly green spikes)
    • Softer than a fresnel, harder than a florescent, rapid fall off
    • Expensive to buy (For High CRI units). Units last 10,000+ hours
    • Consumes very minimal power
    • Puts out very minimal heat
    • Units come in daylight, tungsten, or bi-colored
  • Plasma:
    • Newer to the market; I haven't played with these enough to have any solid feelings.
    • Can have decent color rendition
    • Softer than a fresnel, harder than a florescent, more punch then LEDs
    • Expensive to buy; not sure on repair costs
    • Consumes very minimal power
    • Puts out very minimal heat
    • Units come in daylight or tungsten

© Ryan E. Walters - Stock Footage

Tip 02: The Pareto Principle (80/20 Rule)
In case you haven't heard it before, the Pareto principle is: 80% of your outcomes are derived from 20% of your input. So spending 80 percent of your time on that last 20 percent to achieve 100% perfection results in a poor return on your investment of resources. In addition to applying to life, this should apply to ANY equipment purchase you make- camera, grip, computer, or lighting.

If you want to maximize your dollar, then only buy the 20% of gear that you will be using 80% of the time.

There is a TON of speciality gear that you can use to get you out of tough situations, and would be nice to have on hand. But if you only use it 1-3 times a year, then it is better left as a rental item. Unless, of course, it is so affordable that it will not really affect your budget. (For me that is gear that falls under the $50 range). So unless I find myself consistently using something, I do not bother buying it, and instead rent it when I need it.

Before buying anything, honestly answer the following questions: What lighting situations do I find myself in most of the time? What gear will best suit those situations? What is my preferred style of lighting?

Tip 03: Do It Yourself (DIY)
By making a trip down to your local hardware store, you can find a wealth of affordable lighting tools from China Lanterns, to CFL's, and even high quality Kino Flo like florescent tubes, or even LEDs. By following online tutorials like my 4x4 quick frame, you can save a lot of cash by making lighting & grip gear yourself. Over the years, I've built everything from Kino Flos, 4x4 frames, 2' x 3' flags, ring lights, to covered wagon lights. The only limitations are your ingenuity.

And here is a little lighting secret: Light is light. As soon as it is recorded by your camera, you cannot tell if it came from a unit costing thousands of dollars or only pennies.

Roger Deakins ASC, BSC, DIY Ring light on Revolutionary Road

I recently shot a feature where the running joke in the lighting department was that fridays became known as "Clip Light Friday ." Even though we had professional lighting gear, it seemed that for one reason or another on this particular film, on fridays we would be shooting scenes where clips lights were the best tool for the job. And if you think that these kind of cheap tricks are only limited to low-budget productions, then you are mistaken. Roger Deakins ASC, BSC, (one of my favorite cinematographers of all time) often employs home built lighting rigs in his work, when appropriate.

As great as DIY is on the budget, it can come back to bite you. Depending on your skill level, you may not be able to build gear that works reliably. And affordable gear is not affordable if you have to constantly replace it, or it fails at a crucial moment causing you to lose a shot, or worse, it falls on someone's head. Also in general, DIY lights are not as controllable as professional lights. So you can lose shooting time on set as you spend that time shaping and controlling it.

The lights you buy from the hardware store do not usually conform to the higher standards of film lights. (At least with CFL's, Fluorescents, and LED's). What this means is that they will have CRI ratings of well below 90. (You should aim for lights that are 90+ CRI for good color rendition). It is these low CRI ratings that cause odd color shifts in light, yielding sickly looking skin tones and other odd colors. And, lastly, if your entire kit is sloppily made DIY gear, you will not be projecting a professional image to your client. Knowing your client, and providing the right experience on set is just as important as what ends up on screen.

So how do you know what you should DIY* and what you should buy? By renting first. Rent the tool, see if you like it, then consult online DIY tutorials to see if you can reliably build it. If everything lines up, and the resulting piece of gear doesn't lose you work, then there is no shame in having it in your kit. After all DIY exists at all levels of production. :)

*Disclaimer: I do not recommend DIY projects that require a professional level of specialty knowledge and safety requirements that you are not trained/certified for (e.g. work you would need an electrician for). I take no responsibility for safety hazards created by your DIY projects (if you maim, kill, or otherwise dismember or injure someone).  :) 

What Is In My Kit?
These days I have been working on productions that have been wanting to shoot smaller, lighter, and faster. Additionally, 90% of my work is all location based. So that means that I am having to compete with daylight, and I am having to use the house power. I have also come to realize that I like to light with big soft sources with accents of hard light. This realization has come through renting and playing with a lot of lights over the years.

By applying the 80/20 rule, I need to buy lights that are daylight balanced, have a low power draw, and work in 80 percent of the situations I find myself in. Until recently, those choices have been HMI's and Fluorescents. (Both of which I have owned at various stages of my career). In the last 5-7 years, LED's have come onto the market in a big way, giving me a new light source to use. When they first came onto the market, I was less than impressed. Even the high end LitePanels were a disappointment, as they still had a green spike in them. (Grimm, which shoots locally and uses a lot of LitePanels, will typically have minus green taped to the light).

However, LED's continue to get better. They are a source that is in-between a hard light and a soft light. When they are bare, they are more punchy than a florescent, and they can be nice and soft when flown behind diffusion frames. But they do not have the same throw that a hard light does. Because of their low power draw I do not have to worry about blowing a fuse at a location, nor do I have to worry about cooking the talent, like I do when using hot lights. In the last year, companies like Fill-Lite and MacTech have started to produce real high quality LEDs that have high CRI's.

So before buying, I borrowed a 4' MacTech tube from my friend Shawn Nelson to play with it for myself. As I tested it, I found that it did have the same stair step shadow pattern that is common on all LEDs. (A look I am NOT a fan of at all). But they did have a lot of punch to them. By putting it behind a frame of diffusion, which is what I typically do with Kino Flo lights, I get a very soft light without that typical ugly LED shadow pattern. And thanks to their daylight color balance, and CRI of 93, it means I am getting a high quality light at an affordable price. (About $250 for a 4' bulb after buying the bulb, harness, and holder).
Setup for a recent shoot. Thanks to Rob for being my stand-in. :)

The MacTech tubes come in 1', 2' and 4' lengths, and they are the standard T12 size which means they will fit inside any T12 housing. MacTech will sell the tube and wiring harnesses separately from their lighting units. So applying a bit of pseudo "DIY" skills, I bought daylight bulbs with harnesses from them, Kino Flo tube holders from Modern Studio, and matching Kino Fixtures from Barn Door Lighting. With this setup, I can have a similar fixture as a 4' kino, without the added cost of the ballast, or the expense of replacement bulbs. (These LEDs are extremely tough, and long-lasting). And I get the same control as the 4' kino give me.

2' Bulb Flown From a C-Stand

Tubes spaced out wider than what the kino fixture will allow for

If I want to go real small, I can take the bulbs out of the kino case and mount them individually on stands with the tube holder. And they are even light enough that I can velcro them to just about any surface. Or I can space the bulbs more evenly so that they more evenly fill the frame, creating a bigger, softer source. (Another cheaper DIY way to go with these lights would be to buy 4' fixture and bypass the ballast in the fixture. But I like the added control that the Kino fixture gives me).

Tubes attached to tube holder attached to grip heads on a C-Stand arm.

Now by placing these bulbs behind a frame of diffusion, I can work, smaller, lighter, faster. And if I need to change the color temperature, or dim the lights, I can add these Lee Filters. Granted, this setup will not cover every situation I come across, but that is where I'll rent what I need when I need it. For a complete listing of the gear I am using check out my equipment page.

And if you are interested in the photo-metrics of this setup, here is a chart I put together to reference on my iPhone:

Do you have any additional tips for buying lighting gear? What are you currently using?

Until Next Time - Get Out There And Shoot!

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