By Ron Dawson
Ask any experienced filmmaker or videographer what is the most essential element of any shoot (other than the camera), and good lighting should be right at the top of the list. When you’re working with a huge production budget, you can pretty much get any kind of lights you want. As the budgets (and crews) become smaller, being able to get good lighting becomes a bigger challenge.
I own a small, independent production company, and many of the commercial video shoots I do fall into that latter category—small budgets ($3,000 to $10,000) and small crews (often just me and an assistant). That means I have to make both the dollars and the labor go as far as possible. I need something powerful and portable in the lighting department.
I’ve used a broad range of lights in the various film and video projects I’ve produced. As is the case with most things, the best of the best are worth the money you invest, but under budget constraints, they can be cost prohibitive. Luckily, there is a range of alternative solutions that offer similar lighting at a fraction of the cost.
About seven years ago, when I first invested in a light kit, I got a small Lowel kit. Lowel is a leading brand in the film and video lighting business. The kit I chose came with four tungsten lights, stands, scrims, an umbrella, power cables, removable barn doors, and a case to carry them all in. It was a good kit for doing traditional three-point lighting setups.
My Lowel light kit comes with a hard case. You get a
good workout carrying this bad boy around.
The downside to this kind of kit is that it is very heavy to lug around, and the bulbs get extremely hot. Within literally seconds of turning them on, the surrounding casings and barn doors can sear your flesh if you’re not careful.
Arri is another popular tungsten light brand. I see a lot of Arri lights on film shoots, probably more than any other lighting brand. But, like the Lowel lights, Arri lights can get very hot and can be heavy.
Arri is a trusted brand that's very common on traditional movie sets.
Both Lowel and Arri lights can tend to be on the expensive side. I believe I invested nearly $1,500 in my kit (in 2006 dollars).
For most of the work I do now, I choose fluorescent and LED lights.
About two years ago I was introduced to Kino Flo fluorescent lights. Kino Flos are one of the most trusted and popular brands for shooting commercial videos. They range in size and style, are dimmable, come in carrying cases, and do not get hot. You can use them with either daylight-balanced (cooler) or tungsten-balanced (warmer) fluorescent bulbs. The downside to Kino Flos is size and cost. Some of them can be relatively weighty and require large C-stands—heavy, three-legged metal stands used to hold everything from lights to boom poles to light blocking flags. Second, they are expensive. The cost of the light alone for a typical 4-foot 2Bank Kino Flo is more than $1,000 (2Bank indicates the number of fluorescent bulbs the unit takes). A 2-foot 2Bank Diva-Lite (another type of KinoFlo) can set you back more than $800 for the light alone, over $1,000 if you get a full kit. But, you get what you pay for. These lights are durable and powerful.
I used a 4-foot 2Bank daylight-balanced Kino Flo to light the desk from above in this scene from my 48 Hour Film Project. Notice it’s mounted on a C-stand. One of my soft box fluorescent lights acts as a fill light to the side.
If I had my druthers, I’d use Kino Flos for all my shoots, but my budget doesn’t always allow me to rent them. I seldom use my Lowel kit, but opt instead to light with a set of fluorescent soft box light kits that my filmmaking partners or I own. They’re light, don’t get hot, and are quick to set up. The downside is that they’re troublesome to transport. The ones in the brand I own don’t fold up, and the ones in the brand my filmmaking partner owns requires a lot of time to take apart and break down—so much that whenever we use them, we don’t even bother dismantling them. We just throw them in the car.
The great thing about this lighting set is that it’s very inexpensive. The Cowboy Studio lighting set we use costs just north of $200 for a three-light kit that includes stands and a carrying case. The build-quality is not particularly durable though. We’ve broken a lot of bulbs on sets.
The Cowboy Studio soft box lighting kit on a recent commercial video shoot.
A few months ago I helped out on a shoot where my filmmaker partner had rented an ikan 500 LED daylight-balanced light kit. (FYI, 500 does not indicate wattage; it’s the actual number of tiny LED bulbs in the light. The wattage is equivalent to 350W). I immediately fell in love with them. They ran cool (both the color temperature as well as the actual temperature of the bulbs), were compact, lightweight, dimmable, and had a strong metal build. It was like having the lighting power of a Kino Flo without the high rental cost or size. I also loved the fact that they came in a padded, easy-to-carry case that included stands. In addition to dimmable lights, the back has switches for turning the four main panels of lights on and off. They run on AC power and can also be powered by Anton Bauer’s V-mount battery if an outlet is not available. Another popular feature of this kit is a remote control that allows you to control dimming and power from a distance. The light by itself runs around $430 at Adorama. You can get the three-light kit with case and stands for just over $1,400.
The ikan 500 comes with attached barn doors, metallic body with handle, power, and remote.
I’ve rented these ikan lights myself from a local rental house for as little as $105 for the three-light kit. Compare that to $165 to rent three 4-foot 2Bank Kino Flos, which are heavier, don’t include a remote and also require three C-stands (which most rental houses include with your rental). What’s also nice about the ikan kit is that they can actually be shipped (that’s how I received them when I rented them). That’s how compact they are. They can be mounted vertically or horizontally.
Here’s a commercial video shoot with a traditional three-point lighting setup using three rented ikans. In the background you can see my Cowboy Studio lighting up the back wall to give the shot some depth. Image ©Mighty 8th Media.
Here’s the reverse angle of the three-point ikan setup. You can see the third light (the hair light) under the moose head. Image ©Mighty 8th Media.
Here I’m setting up the ikan lights outside. The lights can be mounted on light (i.e. non-heavy) stands that are easy to transport—a nice change from the heavy C-stands. Image ©Mighty 8th Media.
An ikan Competitor
Recently I had the opportunity to use a Flashpoint 500 C LED light kit from Adorama. This is an obvious alternative and competitor to ikan’s light. It has a similar build with metallic body, barn doors, handle, AC power, and dimmable lights. The Flashpoint model does not have a remote.
Whereas the ikan light has four sets of panels that can each be turned off by its own switch, the Flashpoint has two groups of lights, each controlled by its own dimmable switch. I tested two models: The Flashpoint 500 has all daylight-balanced (5,600K) LEDs, and the Flashpoint 500C has half the lights daylight-balanced (controlled by the dimmer on the left) and the other half tungsten balanced (2,700 to 3,500K and controlled by the dimmer on the right).
The light on the left is the Flashpoint 500C model that’s half daylight-balanced and half tungsten (although in this image only the tungsten-balanced lights are activated). The image on the right is the model with all daylight-balanced LEDs.
Other than the fact that the daylight-balanced-only model has larger dimmer knobs, there's nothing to indicate the model on the unit itself. The LED 500C is the one with both types of balanced lights, but the paperwork I received for that light just read LED 500. So, if you order either light, test it right away to make sure you received the correct model.
If you want the flexibility of lighting with either a warmer or a cooler tone, then obviously order the 500C. However, the tradeoff is that you cannot use both knobs for more light (unless you want to mix color temperatures, which is not a good idea unless your video will be black and white). If you get the daylight-only model, then you can crank both knobs to their maximum setting to boost light output.
I had the opportunity to use the daylight-only 500 model on a shoot and I was pleased with the results. I was lighting my subject with an entirely black background. For creative reasons I did not want a traditional three-point light setup. I used only a key light, no fill or hair light. The Flahspoint 500, with both dimmers turned up all the way worked perfectly.
Ungraded, raw footage screen grab from my video shoot. The subject is lit solely with the Flashpoint 500.
Flashpoint Pros and Cons
In comparison with the ikan, the Flashpoint build has less quality. For instance, the dimmer switches have a lower quality construction, and the Flashpoint 500 lights did not come on until the knob was at the fifth power mark. On the 500C, the lights did not turn on until the sixth power mark.
Intuitively, as soon as the dimmer clicks on, there should be some light at the lowest power setting. However, the lights did not come on until the dimmer was all the way to the fifth power-level mark.
Also, from a design aspect, I would prefer it had a more traditional on/off switch as well as the dimmer. (You turn it on via the dimmer switches). In addition to dimmers, the ikan lights have on/off switches for each of the four banks of LEDs.
Those were the only issues I had with the unit. In doing research for this article, I did come across user reviews reporting other quality issues on adorama.com. I had no such issues.
As cons go, the ones I encountered are relatively minor when you consider the main pro: the cost. It’s about $240 for the Flashpoint 500C LED vs. $430 for the ikan. So if you’re on a budget and need a relatively sturdy, lightweight and powerful light for video production, the Flashpoint is not a bad investment.
Rent and Experiment
This article only touches on a small set of the possibilities at your disposal for lighting a video or film shoot. I strongly encourage you to test different options by renting first, then seeing what works best for you. Ultimately, you will get what you pay for, but even if in the short term you can get by with the lower priced options, you can still produce quality work, and hopefully earn the money to upgrade to the “big boys” later.
By Travis Orton
The Dougmon handheld camera support system ensures stability through the use of a vertical grip combined with a brace strapped to your forearm. The friction ball head system in the grip, unique to this stabilizer, allows you to move the camera to any angle that your hand and arm can accommodate. The tension can be adjusted to your preference for smooth rotation, or it can be locked in. In other configurations you can use the stabilizer as a short monopod, a top grip for low-angle follow shots, and more.
Designed by cameraman Doug Monroe, the Dougmon weighs 28.5 ounces and supports cameras weighing up to 5.5 pounds. I tested it over several days with a Panasonic P2 HPX170 camcorder, which weighs in at about 5 pounds.
To adjust the Dougmon to fit your arm, you place the grip in the palm of your hand and hold it comfortably, then extend the forearm piece until the padded portion is tucked into your bent elbow joint. The arm strap is tightened with a backpack-type buckle cinch. Once mounted to the Dougmon, my camera worked like an extension of my arm.
It performs solidly as a stabilizer. Though it’s not the best I’ve used, it’s close. I’d give its effectiveness an 8 out of 10 rating. I’m happy with the footage I got while using it, including a variety of high- and low-angle shots.
I tested the Dougmon at Imaging USA in January. The maximum duration of any of my exposures was just a few minutes, but I wore the Dougmon on my arm for well over an hour while moving around for different shots. After a few minutes I did feel a degree of strain in my forearm, but it wasn’t prohibitive. This rig allowed me to be mobile and set up different shot angles in seconds.
The Dougmon is distributed exclusively in North and South America by International Supplies and is available from online retailers like B&H Photo and Video. It’s priced at $529.99, which is a little steep but not outrageous. There’s an optional accessory called a Slingmon for $199. This over-the-shoulder pocket brace lets you use the Dougmon similar to the way a stabilizer is used when clipped to a waist belt. The Dougmon/ Slingmon combo is available for $699.99.
Travis Orton is the producer and studio manager of the PPA Education Department.
As a portrait photographer specializing in fine art prints, I'm keen to try new digital processing methods. I was introduced to The Tiffen Co. 20 years ago as an art student when I was using a film camera and trying out Tiffen's lens filters. Today, I'm delighted to discover Tiffen Dfx 3.0 software, which combines the company's expertise in photo filters, gels, and photo effect accessories in one package.
Dfx 3.0 is available in four configurations: a plug-in for Lightroom and Photoshop ($199.95); for video and film ($599.95); a stand-alone software license ($169.95); and a bundled application ($309.95). I use Lightroom and Photoshop as my primary editing applications, so I tested the plug-in version.
Installation to Photoshop was simple, though I had some problems installing it for Lightroom. Tiffen's customer service promptly replied by email with a set of instructions that helped me resolve the problem. (Phone tech support is not available.)
Once you've selected an image in Lightroom, choose Edit in Dfx from the Photo menu and the Dfx interface launches. As a Photoshop plug-in, Tiffen is a selection in the Filter menu. Work with a duplicate of your original layer, and Dfx effects will be applied as a layer that can be adjusted or removed. I tested the Dfx creative capabilities using filters, special effects, and various image correction modules. The Tiffen website features excellent tutorials that quickly bring you up to speed on how to use each module, and there's an extensive user guide available as a PDF.
The original image (above) is underexposed and needs some color and artifact corrections. I found it easier to take care of those issues in Photoshop, though with time I could learn to do it with Dfx. My final image (below) combines Dfx effects with Photoshop adjustments and creates a look that represents my signature style. ©2013 Cate Scaglione
I found Dfx 3.0 to be most useful with Photoshop as its host application. When you launch Dfx, it opens as a plug-in with a full view along the bottom of the screen of seven categories of filters: Film Lab, HFX Diffusion, HFX Grads/Tints, Image, Lens, Light, and Special Effects. The application populates each effect with your image, creating a thumbnail preview of the effect before you select it. Once you make a selection from the general categories, you get even more available presets for that selection displayed in a large panel on the right. I could then quickly choose the functions and features to enhance my photograph.
Here you can see the original image with the Film Lab module selected. Each of the options within Film Lab has additional presets with adjustable parameters. ©Cate Scaglione
You can apply multiple effects in stackable layers and adjust the parameters for opacity, blending, masking, and presets. Tiffen combines the best of Photoshop and Lightroom's interface in one application. When you finish making enhancements with Dfx 3.0, you can return to Photoshop, where the Dfx effects will appear on a single image layer.
The Dfx interface is simple to use and easy to learn. Advanced Photoshop users will enjoy adding solid creative innovation to their workflow with the plug-in's stackable layer combinations. The number of processing choices could easily overwhelm a novice.
To get the look of historical and alternative film processing effects, Dfx 3.0 supplies scores of accurate film and filter process effects. There are thousands of permutations available of filters, special effects, and film. Software programs such as onOne Perfect Effects have similar capabilities and effects, although for historical processing, Tiffen may have an advantage.
To test Tiffen's creative functionality, I selected a slightly underexposed image in need of color and artifact correction. While Dfx enables you to fully adjust images and remove unwanted details, I find Photoshop and Lightroom are easier and more accurate for color correction and fine-tuning. In time, I believe I could adapt Dfx as my sole means of image correction. However, the true beauty of Dfx 3.0 is its filter, film, and photo effects capabilities.
I made some minor corrective adjustments in Photoshop, then opened Dfx to begin my new creative recipe. Using a combination of Ambient Light, Special Effect module halos, warm color filters, and texture combinations, I was able to enhance the image to my liking, then save the processing layers as a favorite, much like setting a user preset in Lightroom or creating an Action in Photoshop.
I particularly love Tiffen's diffusion, special effects, and light modules, which enabled me to recreate a dreamy, surreal look, despite the hard light and deep shade conditions I faced when photographing the image.
The Rays effect in the Light Module allows you to set parameters for the rays’ length and threshold, color and brightness, shimmer, and opacity. ©2013 Cate Scaglione
The Dfx lens module is interesting. It allows you to modify the photograph through a series of lens correction tools (chromatic aberration, wide angle lens distortion, and depth of field adjustments, for example).
Once I finished building my Dfx layers, I clicked the Done button, and the plug-in returned me to Photoshop, where I continued to build a fine-art recipe with my own proprietary elements that contribute to my signature look. With final tonal, texture, and painted layers in Photoshop, I was able to complete a fine-art execution in less than an hour. This process done in Photoshop or Lightroom would take exponentially longer.
Here you see the image with multiple effects stacked in layers. Each layer is still fully editable. ©2013 Cate Scaglione
I am fond of onOne Perfect Effects software ($99) for its ease and versatility of editing module choices. It's a solid choice for the novice user. For a more advanced or sophisticated editor accustomed to film processing techniques, Tiffen's Dfx 3.0 Plug-In offers extraordinary authenticity for film-like replication, traditional camera effects, and wonderful efficiency when paired with Photoshop or Lightroom.
Cate Scaglione is a freelance writer and fine art portrait photographer based in N.Y./N.J. She specializes in family lifestyle, women's beauty and commercial photography. Cate is also a brand consultant to artists and creative businesses across the country.
Add these to the fine selection of camera bags and cases featured in the May issue of Professional Photographer magazine.
ONA: The Brixton
A classically styled messenger bag, the Brixton features four removable dividers to customize the interior. There’s enough room for a DSLR, two to three lenses, and up to a 13-inch laptop, with a duo of front pockets for miscellaneous accessories, including lens caps, batteries, and media cards. Side flaps protect gear from the elements.
Constructed of either weather-resistant waxed canvas or leather, design details such as an antique brass tuck-clasp closure add to this bag’s visual appeal. The leather model is available in antique cognac, while the canvas models come in black, smoke, or field tan. Additional camera bag dividers, straps and wax to maintain the canvas bag surface can be purchased separately. Both handsome and practical, Brixton works well for stylishly and inconspicuously carrying basic camera gear and a laptop. $269; $469 in leather, onabags.com
Tamrac: Evolution Speed Roller Backpack (model 5797)
Easily converted from roller bag to backpack, the Tamrac Evolution Speed Roller makes it a breeze to truck gear through airports, Drop the telescoping handle into place, untuck the harness straps, and you have a handy backpack. Large enough to fit a wide range of gear as well as personal items and up to a 15.6-inch screen laptop, the Evolution is great for assignments that require a couple of DSLRs and several lenses. The bottom compartment accommodates a DSLR with up to 70-200mm f/2.8 lens attached.
This bag’s duality extends to its two foam-padded compartments. Interior and exterior pockets provide options for organizing memory cards, batteries, and other accessories as well as travel documents and a water bottle. Add a tripod with Tamrac’s Quick-Clip tripod attachment system and you—and your gear—are good to go.
Given its durability and rollerbag-to-backpack design, the Evolution weighs a hefty 7.8 pounds, but with this pack, the only thing you’ll have to leave behind is the kitchen sink (and studio lighting). $380, tamrac.com
Tenba: Photo/Laptop Messenger Bag
Available in a trio of sizes (mini, small, and large), the Photo/Laptop Messenger Bag has been one of my go-to’s for a while for its great combination of ruggedness and flexibility. With a 1,000 denier nylon exterior, he bag has a removable and configurable photo insert and offers lots of pockets inside and out.
A padded interior compartment holds up to a 17-inch laptop (large model), and the rear exterior features a full-size, padded zipper pocket. Velcro and strap closures keep the bag snuggly closed, while a top zipper allows easy top access. The main handle and detachable shoulder strap (on the large model) are comfortably padded.
Web straps at the sides accommodate optional clip-on accessories. Although it’s designed for a DSLR, 2-3 lenses and a flash, I manage to fit two smaller DSLRs, a 70-200mm f/4 lens, a flash, a wide angle lens, and a 15-inch MacBook Pro.
Choose one of seven colors (black, olive, blue, burnt orange, plum, chocolate, or platinum) to add a little pizzazz to your gear. It’s a great bag for traveling when you need to bring basic gear and a laptop. Mini: $94, small: $105, large: $110, tenba.com