After spending a ton of time researching what camera to buy, you finally made your move and plunked down the cash for that brand new Sony, Canon, Panasonic, JVC, Ikegami, Fisher Price PXL-2000. So now the question is, how do I get the most out of my camera? How do I make good looking movies?
The answer is… light. When you take a picture or shoot a movie, you’re making a record of the light that is reflected off your subject. So ultimately making great pictures is really about how you place, control, shape, and color your light.
Figuring out the artistic merits of lighting is something that will take many years of practice (there are many articles on the site that cover this subject). The purpose of this article is not to explain theory or lighting concepts, but to look at some of the tools used in creating that light.
And to do that, I’m going to open up my light and grip kit to show you some of the toys I’ve collected over the past 7 years in my business as a video producer. My kit is not nearly as extensive as gaffer’s with a 5 ton truck – but it has served me well through corporate industrials, live performances, music videos, training pieces, and several short narrative films. And because I’ve gotten so much practical use out of it for my projects, I feel comfortable using it as a guide to give you a glimpse of what’s out there.
You don’t need all these items to get started in the world of filmmaking and my collection is by no means complete. Each situation will have its own individual lighting solution – experience will tell you what tools you’ll need.
The Big Boy
Starting off with my biggest light – this is my Bardwell & McCallister 2K Fresnel Lighting Fixture. For the rest of this article you will see me refer to the wattage of the bulb when describing a light – the higher the wattage, generally the more light it puts out. This 2K has a 2,000 watt tungsten bulb (hence the “2k”). The Fresnel lens on the front of the fixture means I can focus the light (using a knob on the side) from a wide flood to a more tightly focused spot. Also pictured is the barn doors attachment (which allows me to be better shape the light) and a home made gel holder with a CTB (for correcting tungsten lights to daylight color).
The 2k as a set piece in the background
I’ve probably used this light more as set decoration and to “wow” clients then as an actually working fixture. But for throwing a bunch of light across a room or for “simulating” sunlight through an open window – this is the light I turn to. As far as I know, this is most powerful tungsten fixture that has Edison plugs (household plug) and drawing 2,000 watts at the U.S. standard 120 volts – this fixture draws about 16 amps which is very close to maxing out the 20 amp standard in most circuits. You wouldn’t want to go much higher in terms of wattage.
I purchased this Bardwell & McCallister 2k fixture through an eBay auction from some guys in Hollywood that had a hobby of restoring these fresnel fixtures. Because of that I got it in excellent cosmetic and operating condition for a little over $300. Mole Richardson makes a similar version.
For bigger lighting needs, you’ll need to look at HMI fixtures which utilize a different process to generate light. Those fixtures (also rated for brightness using “equivalent wattage”) draw a lot less power but require an additional ballast to operate. The downside is their expensive and it’s something I’ve always felt that if I need that much light, I could always rent one.
The Cool Boy
Moving on to what is probably my most versatile light – something that I use on virtually every shoot: the KinoFlo Diva Lite 4 bank. The KinoFlo Diva is a dimmable fluorescent fixture that holds 4 flourescent daylight or tungsten balanced bulbs.
I love the KinoFlo for two reasons. The first is the quality of light. Being a fairly large bank, the KinoFlo gives me a pretty wide flood of soft even lighting. Because I can switch out between daylight and tungsten bulbs, I don’t have to worry about color correcting the light when I’m in a mixed lighting situation – that’s great because the the Diva Lite doesn’t exactly put out that much light. The second reason I love this fixture is the fact that KinoFlo doesn’t get hot. Well, not scorching hot.. it still gets warm. Because it doesn’t put out much heat, I always use this as either my key or fill when I’m shooting a talking head. Clients are always surprised at how comfortable it is to sit under this fixture even if they have to be there for hours.
The Fine Brush Kit
If film lighting is painting with photons, the rest of my kit would be considered the brushes for the fine detail work. My package of fixtures range from 250w up to 1000w. When I started doing video production professional, I worked with the Local Cable Advertising production house so a lot of my gear and brand preferences came from there. You’ll see a lot of Lowel Lighting in my kit. They aren’t the fanciest lights out there but they are workhorses and get the job done.
These Lowel Tota lights can take a 1000w bulb though I think I have 500w bulbs in them. These are good for blasting a substantial amount of light all over the place (but not as much as the 2k). I’ll often use these as fill lights with an umbrella or use this to hit a white wall to reflect light. There’s not much you can do in controlling these lights as far as barndoors go, they’ll just light everything in sight. I ALWAYS keep the scrim (the wire mesh) on the lights at all times for safety – they cut down the light slightly, but these bulbs get EXTREMELY hot and are known to shatter when they die, the last thing you want is to have flying shards of molten glass…
I also like them because they look like the traps that the Ghostbusters use to ensnare their prey.
This is the open faced Lowel Omni Light. These fixtures can take a 500w bulb and they’re pictured here with the barndoor attachments. They’re similar in their use to the Lowel Totas only the Omnis are much more directional – I use these as a powerful fill when I need a good amount of light over a large space. The main difference is the availability of barndoors to control the light and the PAR-like reflector on the back gives you some focusing control – you can either get a softer beam or a really hot one.
These Lowel Pro-Lights are rated up to 250w and are the only lensed Lowel fixtures I own. With the lens, these are much more focusable then the Lowel Omni Light and their small compact size lets me put them just about anywhere. These lights are especially useful for backlights or as accent lights. I’ve even used then as key lights in situations where I don’t need to add that much light to a subject. These are shown with the 6-Leaf Barndoor attachment.
I purchased this Dedolight for the purpose of being able to cast a sharp pattern against a wall but the Dedolight has quickly grown to be my favorite small light. The Dedolight (Pictured on the right with the projector attachment on the left) is a small lensed fixture that throws a very clean and even beam. The lens magnifies the 150w bulb inside to about the equivalent of a 250w bulb. By itself, the light creates sharper shadows than any light previously mentioned – when the projector attachment the shadows become crystal sharp. Drop in a Gobo into the projector and I can throw any pattern I want:
Lighting Odds and Ends
This Rosco LitePad is a really neat little lighting fixture for close up work. Powered completely by LEDs, I modified this to accept 8 AAA batteries to work as an onboard camera light as well. This light is useful in situations where I don’t have access to a power source and I’m looking to fill in a little extra light.
The above frame grab is from my short film “My Emily” featuring the LitePad at work here as the sole light in the shot (the backlight is from a parking lot light) Although it’s a bit of a tangent, it’s important to note that the modern revolution occurring with HDSLR cameras is opening up whole new world of possibilities in terms of lighting. It’s foolish to say that you don’t need a decent sized lighting kit (because it always helps) but you can get away with a lot less light in certain situations. Just like the one above.
Probably every single video production introduction video suggests using reflectors when shooting outdoors – and with good reason. Reflectors are fairly cheap, easy to use, and safe way of adding extra fill light when working outdoors (they also work indoors). I have two specifically reflectors here. The big one has a gold side and a white side depending out how warm you want your reflected light. The smaller one is white with a cover that includes different patters of silver/gold.
I also use white foam board as a reflector in indoor situations. Foam board is not too good for outdoor as the wind easily picks up the rigid surface and blows it away. Flexible reflectors like the ones pictured above aren’t nearly as hard to maintain in the wind.
Here’s an example of the gold reflector filling in the shadow on the actor on the left while the actress on the right is being lit by the sunset – also from the short “My Emily”
My budget isn’t infinite and I’m a very hands on type of person. So I’ve been known to dabble with DIY lighting fixtures. Luckily for the filmmaker, the HDSLR revolution has heralded a new era of very sensitive cameras so that lighting with smaller fixtures has become possible. Pictured above are the tools on the DIYer – the bare bulb socket, China Latterns (available at any department or home decor store), and a worklight reflector. These are common in the United States (folks in the UK may find these as “heat lamps” for large lizards).
Other DIY lights in my collection include a footlamp fixtures for creating low accents and Christmas lights which can be used to create some sparkle in your backgrounds or even as fill in very dark situations.
What is not in my collection and what I’ve been staunchly against are the use of worklights. Worklights are for people digging a ditch in the dark, not for filmmakers. They’re hot, create ugly multiple shadows, and have very little control. In the painting analogy, it would be like trying to color in a space with a shotgun.
I cover this in more detail on my article 3 DIY Techniques to Shooting better Film Noir. Bottom line, if you have them and you must use them… start making plans to ditch them. If you don’t have one – don’t get one. There are myriad of DIY lighting fixtures that are cheaper or just as cheap as the worklight.
One of the epiphanies in my career occurred the day I discovered dimmers. Without dimmers, there are three ways to reduce the brightness of a light:
- Move it further away from the subject
- Bounce the light off a wall or reflector]
- Use a ND gel to block out some of the light
With the exception of the third option, these ways of reducing light also changes how the light spills on the subject. And when using ND gels, you’ll need to have gel holders or ways to attach the gel to the light and that’s not something I have for everyone of my fixtures.
Enter dimmers, a great tool for fine tuning your lighting setup. Although not perfect (they change the color temperature warmer as you dim and they’re limited when using Florescent Lights) they’re great for small quick changes. Color changes are significant but in my line of work warmer is preferential.
This is my Variac Dimmer – capable of handling about 4,000 watts of power. I purchased this on eBay used from another company that restored these types of dimmers. On their suggestion, I built a wood cage around it for transportation. I originally purchased this to operate my 2k because the 2k doesn’t have a switch on it. But since then I’ve used it for just about any lighting fixture.
This Leviton Dimmer Pack and Mixer are very useful for centralizing the control of up to eight lights. The pack itself has 8 outlets, 2 per channel and you can run up to 600 watts per channel. The one that’s pictured here connects to the mixer with a three prong XLR cable which makes it very handy since I carry a lot of extra XLR cable for my sound. I have another functioning 2 channel box but it requires 6 pin DMX cabling (also plugs into the same mixer). These dimmer packs can be daisy chained up to 128 channels of control, assuming you have mixer to control all those channels.
Dragging that heavy Variac dimmer around to dim one small light was getting to become quite a chore. A DP I worked with suggested I get some inline cable dimmers. A production store in LA had them for about $50 a piece. But through an article on this site (DIY Dimmers for just $7.25) I was able to put these together for about $12 (I splurged on the more heavy duty cable with ground wiring). These are also rated for 600watts and really useful as they work as a dimmer and extension cord at the same time.
Another one of those epiphanies I had in my career occurred when I discovered Dichroic Filters. These pieces of glass fit right onto the Lowel Omni (on left) and Lowel Pro Light (on right) and convert the light from tungsten 3200k to approximately daylight 5600k. Using these greatly simplifies lighting when in a mixed color temperature situation (when lighting with the sun).
Gel Holders and Brellas
Part of every Lowel kit should include gel holders and umbrellas. The use of Gel holders is pretty obvious – they hold the colored gels to color your lights. I haven’t used specialty colored gels (also called “party gels”) often since I worked in the local cable market about 7 years ago, most of my work with gels has been to either “cool” or “warm” the lights.
Brellas are small umbrellas made either of white or silver reflective material that are attached to the light to bounce light. They work like a parabolic reflector that is held close to the fixture and are useful for throwing a lot of very soft light over a wide space.
Pictured above are two types of stands that quite common in most video production environments. On the right in black are two heavy duty folding light stands. These stands are sturdy and fold open quickly and easily. I have four of these heavy duty ones myself and I find that I use them whenever I need to do a simple light set up. Even though I have several smaller lighter stands, I usually leave those behind on the day of the shoot in favor of the heavier ones.
On the left is the chrome Avenger Chrome C-Stand. C-Stands are the industry workhorse lighting/anything stand. Their unique leg design collapses and allows you to put the stand right up against a wall which is something that the traditional light stand is unable to do. Pictured above is a C-Stand with a grip arm connected. The grip arm allows lights and other objects to be hung above a subject without the light stand getting in the way.
It’s always been a common word of wisdom for the beginning filmmaker that C-Stands can be picked up rather cheaply on the used market on places like eBay. If you should manage to score one for less than $50, DO IT IMMEDIATELY. Unfortunately the market has realized just how useful C-Stands are and you will be hard pressed to find a used one for sale anywhere. New C-stands run between $100-200.
Even though C-Stands are rugged and heavy, if you have a 6 foot boom on top with a light on it, they’re still easy to tip over. Another nice design feature of the C-Stand is the shape of the legs. Drop a 25lb sandbag on the leg and you’ve got a serious anchor.
Speaking of which, allow me to introduce you to my two homemade sandbags. I didn’t want to pay what basically amounted to $1/lb so I had these made up from an old pair of jeans. They weigh in around 25-30lbs and anchor just about anything I need.
Unfortunately, that means whenever I transport these, I’m lugging around about 50lbs. Good for building upper body strength, but tiring. Zippered sandbags are available for sale, that allow you to fill them up with sand or rocks on location and empty them after you’re done for easy transport.
The Rolling Stand Gathers No Moss
Pictured here are two rolling stands that I purchased after I got my 2k. Before these, all my stands had what is called a “baby” connector which is 5/8″ head which is the size of the connector on all the lights listed above (except for the 2k). The 2k has a “junior” pin which is 1 1/8″.
The stand on the right is one that I was able to find used in an online store in Boston. I wanted to stick to rolling stands because I figured with the weight of the 2k, I wouldn’t want to be taking that fixture off and on to move it about. The stand on the right is very simple and it has a maximum height of about 5 feet. A taller one is available from
The stand on the left has become one of my favorites. It is the Avenger Lowboy Jr. A wheeled stand, this one is only able to telescope up 4 feet but it has both a junior receptor for my 2k and a baby spigot to connect any of my other lights. I’ll often connect a boom to the baby spigot and get an extra couple of feet. For it’s size, I use the Lowboy Jr. with a boom and the KinoFlo a lot for my sitting on camera interviews. I find it be the perfect height and because it’s wheeled, easy to transport from location to location.
The Boom Op that never gets tired
Let’s take a little detour from lighting and grip to talk about a neat little device – the boom pole holder. I work on microscopic crews – most of the time it’s just me. For sound I used to rig up a microphone stand but that never really worked out well. With this boom-pole holder – all you do is attach the the holder to the top of a stand (light stand or C-stand) and it holds the boom pole for you perfectly. Since a lot of my work is mostly interview type corporate documentaries where the subject isn’t moving around a lot, the boom pole holder is an ideal solution. Much better than having a poor PA stand perfectly still for hours…
And all the other Stuff…
I carry all my accessories in two plastic milk crates. Don’t ask me where I got these because I have no idea. Perhaps some where out there, a class of second graders is becoming calcium deficient because of me. Or perhaps my family got them a long time ago while in the process of moving. Milk Crates of various sizes are available for sale all over the internet.
I keep two kinds of extension cable (or “stingers” as they are called in the industry) in my crates – the 15amp orange cable and a heavier duty 20amp yellow cable to handle the 2k (the 2k running on household standard 120 volts draws 16.75 amps). These you can pick up from any hardware store.
Also pictured are a couple different kinds of clamps. Not readily visible are a few rolls of gaffers tape (far superior to duct tape in just about every respect) that I used to tape down cables or to fix just about anything.
One time on a shoot I forgot to bring the camera plate for the tripod I was using (something that all my video professional colleagues assure me happens to everyone). A couple of long pieces of gaffers tape wrapped around the camera and the tripod head saved the day.
The final piece that rounds out my grip kit are these Avenger Super Clamps. These clamps attach to anything be it the base of a C-Stand or the back of a chair and a hanging pipe and really frees you confining your lights to the end of a stand. Make sure to invest in the heavy duty ones as the smaller ones are frankly junk (I have four of them and they have all failed on me)
That’s not all folks…
I’ve pretty much run down my entire collection of lighting and grip kit – although it has and continues to serve me well, there is room for more toys.
But if you’re just starting out, like I did and like every other filmmaker at some point, I hope this little tour has given you some insight into some of the tools used on set.
If you have any further questions – feel free to check the discussions group for all things gear and post a question.