Video Lighting on a Budget
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.