Tutorial: Assemble Your Own Low-Budget Light Kit, Part One

added 28 January 2004

Assemble Your Own Low-Budget Light Kit,
Part One by Scott Spears

“I’m a big believer in get the right tools for the job, but sometimes you just can’t afford the right tools. Here’s where ingenuity comes into play.”

In my many hours surfing movie making sites on the web, I’ve seen the question, “I’m poor and need to know how to light my movie” so many times I’ve lost count. Being a director of photography who’s shot a number of no/low/modest budgeted movies I thought it was about time I just wrote an article on how to light on the cheap. So you’ve squandered almost all your money on a cool DV camera, decent microphone, tripod and some tasty food for your crew (don’t skimp on food because a crew travels on its stomach), but now your actors are standing around in the dark because you don’t have any lights. What do you do? First, you get in a time machine and go back a few days so you can start gathering your jiffy, on-a-tight-budget lighting kit.

I’m a big believer in get the right tools for the job, but sometimes you just can’t afford the right tools. Here’s where ingenuity comes into play. First, where do you find cheap, or if you prefer, inexpensive, lights? Hardware stores, auto parts, store, Salvation Army stores, Goodwill, garage sales. Camera shops that carry used stuff, local production houses and rental houses. You have to keep your eyes peeled and be open to possibilities.

Work Lights

A good key light for cheap is a 500 watt tungsten work light which can be found at hardware and car parts stores. They come with their own stands, but I do find the stands a little short.

There’s some power here, but it’s hard to control, so I recommend that you don’t aim them directly at your actors. Bounce them off a wall or ceiling to create a nice soft light. If you want, you can put them outside windows and blast them through the openings. These lights can get hot, so be careful moving them around. I’ve found them as cheap as $10 and can run up to $30. I saw an ad in a local auto parts store here in L.A. that had them at $10. They can be found with two heads; that makes 1000 watts of lights.

Shower Curtain as Diffusion

One thing you can do is get a frosted shower curtain and hang it from a stand and then place the shower curtain in front of one of these babies to create a wall of soft light. Again, don’t get too close, otherwise your melt a hole in your pretty shower curtain (credit for this idea goes to Bruce L.).

Chinese Lanterns

China Lanterns are great. I’ve seen them on the sets of movies costing many millions of dollars. They are paper material which can be expanded into a ball (and now different shapes like squares, rectangles and ovals). They come with a wire support for the bulb. You need to get a socket and cable and they are usually sold in the same place you find the lanterns. I put a regular 200 watt bulb inside and they make a great softlight for close-ups. If the lantern’s big enough, I’ll put two 200 watt bulbs in and I can light a small room with them. Be careful with them because they’re made of paper and can burst into flames. They run between $3 – $7 depending on size. You can find them at Target, Ikea and Pier One Imports, to name a few.

If you’re handy, you can pick up a socket and some zip cord, otherwise known as household extension cord, and make your own cord for the china lantern.

Sealed-Beam Halogen

Then you have small sealed beam halogen lamps which cost around $4-$10. You put these in a socket and then clamp them onto a stand, then aim away. It makes a great kicker/backlight and are great for light special items in the background. They come in different beam patterns, from narrow to wide. I tend to go for the medium and narrow. The wide is, well, too wide of a beam.


The old reliable aluminum “scoop” light which comes with a handy clamp is a great option. Pop a 200 watt bulb or a photo flood in it to light your set. According to legend, this is what Robert Rodriguez used to light El Mariachi.

Deals on Professional Lighting Gear

How about putting a light kit together of real, pro lights. That’s how I did it when I started out. I’d find a deal on a 1K (1000watt) open face light for $30 and snatch it up. Camera stores that carry used gear are great for deals. A while back, I picked up two 1K fresnels (these are lights with a glass lens that focus the light) and a 2K fresnel (with a roller stand) for $50 a piece. The stand alone was worth $50. Now they didn’t have barn doors (metal leaves that allow you to control the light which attaches to the light), so I had to scrounge some up. I found one set $10. So for $160 dollars I had 4000 watts of light.

Sources for used stuff are:
Local camera stores.
Goodwill & Salvation Army – it’s rare, but sometimes deals can be found.
Ebay – get on-line and start searching under movie and video equipment.
Local production companies – sometimes they clear out older gear.
Local Rental Houses – occasionally they sell off older gear.
www.visualproducts.com – they sell used camera gear, but have lights.
www.woodennickel.com – hollywood rental house that sells used gear.

There are plenty of other sites. Get on Google and see what you can find.


When you’re without power you can always use some reflectors to get light on your subject. On a pro set, a shiny board is the tool, but they cost many hundreds of dollars. He’s a cheap substitute, Tyvek. Tyvek you ask? It’s household insulating foam board, but the cool thing is it’s coated with a shiny foil outside which can reflect a ton of light. If you need to fill in some actor or pound some light through window onto your set, Tyvek or some other insulation will do the trick. A cool portable reflector is those fold up windshield covers that are coated in silver material. A pro flex fill runs $50 and the windshield covers can run under $10. Finally, if you’re in a pinch, just coat a hunk of foam core with aluminum foil, remember to crinkle it up some so it’s not too sharp with its’ reflected light, and you have a great fill light.

Lighting & Reflector Support

So you’ve found some lights and reflectors, but how the heck do you support them. I recommend that all filmmakers get at least one decent light stand. You can clamp things to them, like the shower curtain mentioned previously, place lights on them or hang props off of them. Again these can be found used. I’d plan on spending $20-50 on a good one or even two.

If you have some extra money laying around (yeah, like indie filmmakers have any spare cash) get yourself a C-stand. This is the staple of any pro movie set. It’s a collapsible, three legged stand which comes with a attachable arm that can be used for an infinite number of tasks, like light stand and holding up any number of items. Used, they run as cheap as $75 and up. Brand new they’re $170.

Get yourself a $20 to $40 mafer clamp. It’s a device which clamps to about anything and has a spud for lights. You can use it clamps lights to set walls, doors, tables or attached to a light stand so you can have two lights on one stand. Lowel makes a light weight clamp called a tota clamp ($15) which does much of the same things, but is smaller and less expensive.

Scott Spears is an Emmy Award-winning Director of Photography with 14 features under his belt. He’s also written several feature screenplays, some of which have been made into movies. You can check out his site at www.scottspears.net and his filmmaker listing on the Internet Movie Database.

Move on to Part Two of Scott’s article.

Written by Scott Spears.
Thrown together by Chris Hurd.

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