How to put together a Lighting Kit for Low Budget Filmmaking

Film lighting is intimidating. Let me simplify it for you.

The important thing to keep in mind is, there is no ideal lighting kit. What you buy today might lay unused tomorrow. You can never have enough lights, and every film you make alters your idea of what a lighting kit should contain.

What we should look for then, is a low budget starting place that still delivers impressive results.

Let’s take baby steps and dive right in!

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Quantity of light

By quantity I mean intensity. The higher the intensity the brighter it is.

The quantity of light is decided by three factors:

  • Light intensity (measured in foot candles or lux)
  • Area (measured in square feet or square meters)
  • Distance between the Area and the source of Light.

For an overview of these terms, read Units of Photometry Parts One and Two, and Camera Exposure.

For now, you shouldn’t get too intimidated by the words foot candles or lux. I’ll stick to lux. Lux is the amount of light falling in a particular area.

The quantity of light, though, is measured in another term, called lumens. There’s a difference between lumens and lux. Let me explain with a simple example:

Earth Lighting Strip

The sun throws light in all directions (3600), and the orange patch is our ‘party strip’. The area of the orange patch decides how much light it gets, since we can’t control the intensity of the sun (actually we can, but that’s for another day).

The light thrown out by the sun can be measured in lumens. But as you can see from the above image, not all of those lumens fall on the party patch.

The sun delivers a total of 100,000 lumens per square meter (lux). If our party patch has an area of just one square meter, then the light intensity is 100,000 lux.

On the other hand, if our party patch had an area of 30 x 30 feet (900 sq.ft or about 82 sq.m), then the lumens falling on it is about 8 million. However, the lux is still lumens per square meter, or 8 million / 82 sq.m, or 100,000 lux.

This never changes! On an average bright day, the sun throws out an equivalent of 100,000 lux.

Stay with me here.

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Why we’ll always need ‘big’ lights

Let’s say we try to light the same patch with a 100 Watt tungsten bulb with an LPW rating of 10 (if you don’t understand these terms, please read the links I’ve given above – it’ll make your life a lot easier). This gives us 1000 lumens.

For simplicity’s sake we’ll assume all of these lumens are available for our patch, and there’s no light loss at all. The lumens per sq.m (or lux) is 1000/82 = 12.2 lux.

So, how many 100W bulbs do we need to replace the sun? About 8,000. That’s 820 KW of light.

How many 18K HMIs (at about 85 LPW) does it take to do the same thing? About five at full spot. That’s 90 KW of light. Now you know why we need large HMI lights for exterior daylight sets.

Here’s what an 18K HMI looks like:

Here’s the takeaway:

No matter how good a camera ISO becomes, and no matter how many ND filters you use, if you want to match the sun, you need to match the sun in lumens. Slice it any way you like, with any technology practically available today for filmmaking – big expensive lights are here to stay.

An 18K HMI kit runs about $45,000, excluding grip and transportation. Five of them will cost $225,000.

Sounds expensive, right? What if we used 8,000 100W light bulbs instead?

8,000 $2 100 Watt tungsten bulbs will cost $16,000, plus the cost of rigging them. Don’t forget that 5 HMIs are about 90 KW, while 8,000 incandescent bulbs are about 800 KW.

Before you jump up and down thinking 8,000 bulbs are way cheaper, please call a few rental houses and find out how much it costs to rent generators (and trucks, with drivers and grips) to cover 800 kW. After you’ve recovered, continue reading.

Mole Richardson Baby

Okay, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out we shouldn’t mess with the sun. This is why over the last century of cinema, cinematographers have always tried to use the sun to their advantage, instead of trying to fight it with their own light.

Luckily for us, most cinematography and lighting happens at light levels below what the sun gives us on a bright day.

Light and Exposure

Here is a simple and inaccurate (but good enough for our purposes) table that plots exposure alongside f-number, area and light output:

Quantity of Light vs Exposure vs Watts

Note the following:

  • Most cinematographers plan on using an f-stop of at least f/2.8 for low-light scenarios.
  • In What Lens to Get?, I’ve explained how the typical shooting area falls in either a 1,000 sq.ft area (Hall, studio, large office, etc.) or 100 sq.ft area (room or office). I’ve given the Lumens and Wattage measurements based on those numbers.
  • One can say 1,000 lux is typical of studio setups. It allows you to shoot at up to f/8. If you’re looking for shallow DOF at f/2.8, you can get by with about 150 lux. I haven’t given the lumens vs ISO reading because that depends on f-stop as well as the shutter speed.
  • If you look at the low-light row, a small office will need about 632 Watts of a tungsten source. Is it a wonder then, that both Arri and Mole Richardson have a 650 Watt (sometimes called a Tweenie) Fresnel in their arsenal, which also happens to be their most popular light? Don’t forget that this approximate value covers the entire 100 sq.ft. area, so it’s a very rough guideline. Also don’t forget that you can always choose to have an area light ‘brighter’ or ‘darker’ than average, but you don’t learn this until you’ve done it many times.
  • Typically, the most ‘necessary’ lights are 1,000 and 2,000 watts, which is why a 1K or 2K Tungsten Fresnel was extremely popular. Nowadays, people try to replace that with LEDs instead, because LEDs have a far greater efficiency. In other words, you get the same light for less wattage.
  • When working outdoors, tungsten lights are hugely inefficient when compared to HMI or LED lights, and also need to be daylight balanced to match sunlight. For this reason, when the sun is providing light, either directly or indirectly, an HMI or LED is always the right choice.
  • If you discount ‘distant night’, which is almost impossible to shoot, the typical exposure latitude (dynamic range) of a ‘well-lit’ production is 10 stops. Any camera that can cover more than 10 stops is good enough as long as the lighting is controlled, and is in the hands of an experienced cinematographer.

How to determine the quantity of light

If you step back and assess your requirements, you will notice that most lighting scenarios can be bracketed into spaces similar to what’s given in the above table. This is why lighting manufacturers stick to traditional wattages.

It’s not something they conjured up over the weekend. It’s taken them a hundred years of experience to arrive at these numbers.

As a general guideline, you could find the total quantity of light in the following way:

  • Find what scenarios you’ll be shooting in. From the above table, you can determine the approximate lux ratings you’ll encounter.
  • You can get more accurate lux readings with a good light meter like the Sekonic series. However, for the beginner, I don’t recommend you buy a light meter. If you do buy one, here’s how to use it.
  • Once you’ve found the typical lux ratings, you can determine the dynamic range of each scene. Isolate the highest dynamic range. Don’t forget to take into account specular highlights.
  • If your camera can handle this dynamic range, you know you can play around with the lighting. If your camera falls short, you know you’ll need to find a way to light the scene to keep everything within the acceptable dynamic range. Luckily, as of 2019, most cameras, even cheap ones, easily attain about 12 stops of DR. This means, with adequate lighting, you can make any camera sing. Good to know!
  • Determine the f/stop. This number is typically set for aesthetic reasons, but you could have your own reasons. From the above table, or a light meter, you will be able to determine the practical f-stop range for your scene.
  • Find the area of the space you’ll be shooting in.
  • After you have a full list of areas (room sizes or spaces), you can multiply this by the lux rating to get the typical lumens necessary. This will tell you what the ambient lighting will be like, and what you’ll need to augment or match it. Some lighting manufacturers make apps to give you this answer easily.
  • Always err on the side of caution. You can always find ways to cut down light, but you can’t do anything much if you fall short of the required intensity.

Let me give you a practical example:

  • Let’s say I want to shoot a living room for a candle-lit dinner. From the above table, I see I won’t need more than 100 lux.
  • This means, if I point my incident light meter at the spot where the actors are going to sit, it should read about 100 lux, and I’ll have a well-exposed image.
  • If I set my ISO to 800, which most prosumer cameras can do nowadays without much noise, I know I can expose for f/2.8 (or T2.8). If I want a different f-stop, I will need to adjust the ISO, dim the lights, or use an ND filter to cut down the light hitting the lens. But let’s say T2.8 is good enough for now.
  • I see from the table I need about 5,000 lumens. If I use tungsten, I’ll need about 500-600 Watts, as the table says. Nowadays, though, we should look for LEDs instead to save power. LEDs have a far better LPW, about 80-100 or so. Let’s say 80 LPW. This means, for 5,000 lumens, I’ll need a 62.5 Watt LED light.
  • Now I’ll need to find a light that delivers 100 lux at the distance I’m going to place it in. So I can browser manufacturer sites for 60-100 Watt LED lights until I find one that gives me 100 lux at the distance I want to place the light in.
  • The distance you want to place the light in is purely practical. You also have to consider modifiers, and the type of light, and how it throws light, etc. It’s not as simple as buying a 62.5 W LED and shining it on the couch!

Don’t worry, we’ll get there. I just wanted to take you through the process so you understand measuring light is a key skill for film lighting. This is what gaffers do before any project to estimate the lights required for a film. After, it’s only a matter of finding out if you have the budget to match your requirements.

Now let’s look at the different types of lights available, and how they affect our choice of an all-round lighting kit.

Litepanels

Types of Lights

I’m not going into the gory details of how lights work. If you would like to know more about this, watch my excellent video about light fixtures and why we need them.

Here’s a quick summary:

Tungsten and Tungsten-Halogen

The oldest technology (short of a candle, that is). It gets hot and isn’t very efficient. It emits yellowish light (which is similar to halogen and sodium vapor lamps). On the flip side the bulbs are cheap, it is relatively maintenance-free, and can be dimmed. Even today, nothing beats it for color quality, barring sunlight.

HMI

You don’t earn points for knowing what HMI stands for. HMI is usually daylight-balanced and is excellent enough to match the intensity of sunlight, provided you can afford everything else that comes with the territory: ballasts, extra human beings, and lots of power. Nothing comes close to HMIs for intensity vs price.

LED

The technology that is most promising as of this writing. Doesn’t get hot, but isn’t very powerful either. The technology is maturing rapidly, and LEDs are the lights of the future.

Arri L7-C LED Fresnel

Today LEDs have matured enough to almost replace Tungsten-Halogen. You’d be stupid not to consider LED first before moving on to other lighting fixtures.

Fluorescent

Fluorescent lights were as ubiquitous as tungsten bulbs, and is usually daylight balanced but with a green-ish bias (not on the high-end models though). If electronic ballasts aren’t used, they also create flicker problems. Unfortunately, most cheap fluroscent kits can’t be dimmed or shaped much, and their intensity and versatility isn’t anywhere near tungsten bulbs. However, when done well, like the Kino Flos, the results can be stunning. However, the world is moving away from fluorescent, so I will not recommend this option unless you have no other choice.

Plasma

Plasma was the new kid on the block, with claims to great outputs for very less power and heat. The problem is, the technology hasn’t developed much, and the company that championed it has moved on to LED lights. Forget this until things change.

Here’s a chart that compares these light types, along with what they bring to the table:

Lighting Type Comparisons

Notes:

  • *I’ve used Arri systems for easy comparison only. For plasma, I’ve used the Hive Hornet. I’ve normalized the lumens rating for 650 Watts for easy reference, but don’t forget that some fixtures aren’t available in 650 Watts. To get lumens, multiply the LPW by the wattage.
  • **Pricing is not going to be accurate, and is just a general indicator. Do your own research and contact the manufacturers for actual pricing. The price includes one bulb, if necessary.
  • Just because I’ve only included a few selected items doesn’t mean other lighting instruments follow the same behavior or performance. There’s a lot of variation between fixtures and blubs, so don’t make the mistake of assuming what’s shown here is representative of the entire industry.

In general, one can surmise the following:

  • Nothing beats LEDs for price vs performance.
  • HMIs aren’t dimmable (some go up to 50% but nothing in between), and need ballasts and ballast cables. They are a chore to setup, and are temperamental beasts. Yet, nothing comes close to the raw power that these are capable of at the moment.
  • The only major advantage of tungsten-halogen at this point is the color accuracy. However, the high wattage, heat and price you pay (and the fact you have to keep replacing bulbs!) makes tungsten-halogen a last-resort option as of 2019.

You can generalize in this way:

  1. HMIs for day exterior work, large studios and/or when you need lots of power.
  2. For everything else, LEDs.
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Hard light vs Soft Light

Hard light produces hard-edged shadows, while soft light produces tapered shadows that gradually move from light to dark. Take a look at this:

Hard Light vs Soft Light

Soft light is light spread like butter. The fun part is determining how to use hard light, soft light and all its variations, permutations and combinations.

To know more about hard lights, soft lights and diffusion, watch this video.

The general ‘term’ used in the industry in conjunction with hard and soft lighting is ‘modelling’. Modelling is the practice of giving shape to an object to make it appear more three-dimensional.

One tries to “model” an actor to give them:

  • Prominence (areas of interest are brighter and well-lit, so you can see them clearly),
  • Shape (three-dimensionality),
  • Texture (realism and three-dimensionality), and
  • Mood (ambiance, emotion, etc.)

Lights are just one part of the equation. To modify it to suit our needs we need light modifiers and sources. Without modifiers there’s really no kit!

Kino Flo Bank

If you are a newcomer, you might be overwhelmed with the types and amount of modifiers available. Do you really need to know all this stuff?

Actually, you do. But the good news is, you don’t have to know all of it right now.

Think of these new terms as playing cards spread on a table. You probably remember the first time you saw suits, diamonds, jacks, etc., and thought: “What the heck is all this?” This article will have a similar effect, so the simple way to deal with it is just stand back and look at it from afar. Take it slow.

You don’t have to memorize the following terms or commit to anything at this point. You’ll have enough opportunities to familiarize yourself later.

The Case of the Imaginary Wall

If space decides how much light you need, space also decides where you are allowed to place your lights. Look at this:

The Imaginary Wall

There is always a subject, and there is always a light source (even the sun or moon is a source). The imaginary wall is something that limits the relationship between the two.

For interior locations, this is pretty much obvious. The walls of the room or studio limit the placement of your light source. You can’t put it outside, can you? This same analogy applies for the sun as well. It’s always there, but your subject might be indoors, and the imaginary wall (windows) limits it or blocks it entirely (real walls).

When you’re in an exterior location, you still have the imaginary wall. You might have trees, other buildings, roads, etc., blocking the sun.

If you aren’t relying on the sun, and have light sources of your own, you are still limited by where the generator can park, edges of where you can place the light (riverside, roads, and so on), laws, power sources, cables and so on.

Takeaway: No matter where you’re shooting, you always have an imaginary wall at a certain distance from your subject.

This wall limits where you can place your lights, and

how many lights you can place within this distance.

Bounce vs Diffused Lighting

Interior lighting is designed for diffused light (soft light). We no longer use bare bulbs in our homes or offices (or do we?). Take a look around you. You’ll see fluorescent or LED banks in offices and public areas.

In regions where sunlight is mild (north light away from the Equator), you have normal glass windows. In regions where sunlight is harsh (Equator) you have windows either tinted or frosted. Obviously, this system isn’t followed half the time, because not all architects agree on how light should be used. At the very least, we have roofs over our heads so the noon sun is rarely in our interior spaces.

That’s a start.

For this reason and more, recreating the effects of soft lighting is extremely important. For situations that are dramatic, or which have to justify the sun as a source, hard lighting is extremely important.

You need both kinds of lighting in your kits – hard and soft.

The two ways in which we can soften light are:

  • Bounced lighting
  • Diffused Lighting

Look at the basic difference:

Bounced vs Diffused Lighting

Look at image A. Due to the proximity of the imaginary wall, you might not have enough space to put a diffused light between it and your subject. You might have other limitations, like e.g., the light source might be visible in your frame, etc.

When we place lights, there’s always a certain amount of ‘tweaking’ involved. This tweaking is done in a physical space – you move lights around, you rotate them, you change the angles or heights, etc.

In simple terms, an imaginary wall restricts your freedom.

Look at image B. When you’re faced with an imaginary wall you can bounce (reflect) light off the wall. This ‘wall’ could be an actual bare wall, or a wall covered in diffusion material, or a foam board, or a reflector, etc. More on these later.

As a general rule of thumb, when you have more space, you can diffuse light and move it around. When you don’t have space, it is easier to bounce. There is no such thing as ‘one is better than the other’. A good cinematographer must know how to use both, and a good lighting kit will have allowances for both.

A beginner isn’t expected to have the experience to know how to tackle all scenarios. Usually, you learn as you go, and handle problems on a case-by-case basis.

The idea of a beginner lighting kit is to have sufficient resources at hand to at least give you a shot at tackling these problems.

The Light Source

A diffusion system is one which forms an ‘alliance’ with the bulb. Together, they diffuse and shape the light. In essence, the combination behaves like a single source.

E.g., look at this simple difference:

Image Source: http://www.iamanangelchaser.com/processes/light_bulb_recycling/light_bulb_recycling.html

You could apply a similar concept to get a softbox:

Softbox

A softbox is nothing but a diffusion element in front of a lamp/bulb to soften the source. You could call the ‘combo’ a single lighting source.

You don’t have to get too technical with your definitions here. No one’s going to ask you these things on a film set. Learn, understand, and then forget!

Bounced light can also be called a single source. If you step back and look at diffused or bounced lighting sources, ultimately they all achieve the same purpose – which is to soften the light given the constraints of the space created by the imaginary wall.

Diffusion systems

I’m not going into the details here, but for quick reference, here are the most popular diffusion systems:

  • Diffused light sources (e.g., fluorescent lights and large LED panels are already diffused inherently)
  • Light banks (many light bulbs put next to each other – therefore a ‘bank’ – act as a diffused source. Fluorescent and LED lights are used as banks more often than not)
  • Fresnel lens (a lens and bulb arrangement that allows you to spot (focus the light beam) or flood (spread the light beam) for aesthetic effect)
  • Softbox or Chimera (Depending on how big you want your diffused source, softboxes can be created in various sizes and shapes)
  • Reflectors (material that has a special surface to reflect light. The most popular types are silver, gold and white)
  • Muslin or Cotton or Calico (cloth that reflects or diffuses light, comes in bleached or unbleached versions)
  • China lanterns or balls (These are similar to home lampshades made of paper or cloth, and come in various sizes and shapes. The most popular is the globe-shaped material, hence the name China Balls)
  • Umbrellas (These are umbrellas that reflect or diffuse light, and are available in silver, gold or white)
  • Foamboard (boards made of foam, usually white. These are the cheapest and most handy reflectors available). Some film sets also use Styrofoam.

Hard lights are usually called Open-faced, simply because there’s nothing between the light source (bulb) and the subject. Open faced systems are used for hard lighting and to bounce light off diffused surfaces.

But, a soft source can also become a hard source if you take it far enough. Click here to learn more.

Whew, that’s a lot!

Take a deep breath, there’s more.

Light Modifiers

Once light has left the source, you might still want to modify it for many reasons. Some of the prime reasons are:

  • Blocking light from hitting a space you don’t want lit
  • Further diffusing it
  • Changing the color temperature of the light
  • Redirecting it

Sometimes the modifiers are on the light source itself, so the distinction is usually a gray area. Who cares?

Here are some popular light modifiers:

  • Barn doors (These are flaps placed on the light source to block it from hitting places you don’t want shone)
  • Egg crates (These are egg-crate or grid-like patterns placed in front of the source to diffuse or direct the light. They are very handy in a tight spot)
  • Nets (These are nets either screwed on to the light fixture or placed separately to diffuse light)
  • Filters or Shapers (ND filters are one good example of filters used to cut the intensity of light. There are an infinite number of doohickeys available to diffuse, shape or redirect light. Snoots are one good example, cut-outs are another)
  • Gels change the color temperature to match existing sources of daylight. The most common are CTO (Color Temperature Orange – changes 5600K to 3200K), CTB (Color Temperature Blue – changes 3200K to 5600K) and Minus Green (Removes green casts due to fluorescent lighting). All of these gels come in various ‘strengths’ so you can precisely set your temperature.
  • Flags – these are black boards (or frames of black cloth) of various sizes and shapes that are placed in different areas to cut light selectively.
  • Mirrors – these are mirrors of all kinds that reflect light, usually used in tandem with direct sunlight.

We’re almost done. If we play our cards right, we’ll get a solid and versatile lighting kit for film that’ll serve us professionally for years to come.

But first, there is a tiny roadblock: Restrictions.

Arri Fresnel Lighting Kit

No matter who you are, you’re always tackling restrictions. Knowing your boundaries beforehand helps you isolate only those items that work for you.

Restrictions are dictated by factors beyond light. Some of the common roadblocks are:

  • Money/Budget
  • Crew size
  • Locations
  • Speed of Production, schedule
  • Weight and Traveling Limitations

Physical Restrictions

Here are some real-world physical restrictions that you should consider:

  • A grown fully-fit male should only carry about 20% of his weight regularly to avoid health issues. A 150 lb (70 kg) individual should carry no more than 33 lbs (15 kg) regularly.
  • A small car can carry a lot more weight, but don’t forget: You still need to get it out of the car to your location, and the other way around. And of course, you need to get your car to your location, and back.
  • Even the ‘leanest’ cinematographer who aspires to carry one light will also need to carry one light-stand/tripod (Either the camera or the light will be away from his/her body). I’m not considering on-camera lights in this article – one light fixture does not make a ‘kit’.
  • There are also airplane carry-on and checked luggage size and weight restrictions.

If you are one-person cinematographer who aspires to move around a bit in his or her own car, there are physical restrictions on how much you can carry, set up and use.

I don’t recommend any kit weighing more than 30 kg (65 lbs) total. You can always split your cases, in which case I recommend a total weight of not more than 50 kg (110 lbs).

Next restriction. Let’s talk power. Electric power.

Electrical Restrictions

Here are the typical electrical specifications available:

  • Single-phase 120V 60 Hz
  • Single-phase 220V 50 Hz
  • Three-phase systems

Unless you are consistently shooting in industrial areas, it is unlikely you’ll have access to a three-phase supply.

The Ampere rating required depends on the voltage (larger the voltage, lower the amperes for the same power source), and typically, you’ll see ratings from 2A to 50A or so. An electrical circuit is designed for all of these specifications. E.g., the socket will be rated in Amperes, say 20A, for a certain voltage. The wires that run from this socket to the breaker must also be rated for the same current. Finally, the breaker and distribution board must be rated for the same.

Let’s say you have a 15A socket over a perfectly designed circuit. In theory, this circuit can drive a device with a power rating of 1.5 KW (at 120V) or 3 KW (at 230V). Don’t make the stupid mistake of using formulas meant for DC for AC. Also, most people forget to factor in voltage drops, power factors, loops, distances, and many other factors.

If you have access to more than one socket, you need to first determine if they are within the same ‘loop’ or ‘circuit’, fed by one breaker. You’ll find the breakers in the Distribution Box (DB). If you have different circuits, you can draw 1KW off each socket. Luckily, larger spaces will have more high-ampered sockets/circuits, so the situation is ‘just about manageable’.

Please get a certified electrician to inspect the cables, voltage levels, etc., to ensure the wiring can sustain the lighting load. Also find a backup plan for blown fuses or breakers.

If you found the last few paragraphs tough reading, then you’d be better off hiring a gaffer or working with just low-power LED fixtures that you can power off a household wall socket.

See how the restrictions affect your choices?

If you really want to know how to estimate electric power and generators for large sources, I have an exclusive comprehensive article on the subject available to members.

All said and done, a typical room or office anywhere in the world won’t usually allow for greater than 3-10KW at the same time. You could get by with additional circuitry from other rooms, but just ensure you’ve got all your bases covered ‘electrically-speaking’.

Always aim to use existing circuitry. It makes a big impression on the budget.

Space Restrictions

From What Lens to Get? we know we can group our spaces into three broad categories:

  • General room – 100 sq ft
  • General studio or hall or open area – 1,000 sq ft
  • Typical sound stage – 10,000 sq ft

The height will vary. Usually, spaces with high ceilings will also have ways to get there.

Lighting-type Restrictions

We’re knocking them down one by one. I’ve already said I don’t recommend Plasma lighting for a single-person cinematographer. The price itself puts it out of contention. The same holds true of HMIs as well. Here are some serious points to consider regarding HMIs:

  • Additional equipment and gear to carry around, HMIs are heavy
  • Extremely expensive, at all power ratings
  • High power also means having to rent generators (and diesel)
  • It is not very dimmable
  • It’s not the fastest way to work.

For these reasons and more, I only advise LED lighting kits for low-budget filmmaking.

Modifier and Accessory Restrictions

We’re almost there! This is a subject too broad to quantify, though we can put common sense to good use:

  • Reflectors are a must, especially the fold-able type.
  • China Balls or lanterns are light and extremely handy, and it’s easier to hang off ceilings.
  • Foam boards are a must, usually white on one side and black (Duvetyne) on the other. A roll of muslin (or bedsheets) is handy, too.
  • Cheap black cloth is always handy.
  • Barn doors are exceptionally important. Take your pick – a small movement of a barn door flap, or a flag on its own c-stand.
  • Gels of all kinds.
  • A softbox is extremely handy, but I wouldn’t call it necessary. The size of the softbox is always limiting – one size doesn’t fit all scenarios.
  • Let’s not forget light stands and arms. Here’s an article all about light stands.
  • Don’t forget the case or bag itself.
  • Don’t forget important accessories like sandbags, gloves, extra bulbs, cables, extension cords, clips, clamps and a million other things you won’t know you need until you need them

The point is, when you’re carrying lights, you’re not just carrying lights. In fact, accessories might be half the weight of your lighting kit.

“Whatever is left must be the truth”

So, where does all this lead us? Let’s distill all this into a nutshell:

  • Maximum weight for one person is 30 kg. Maximum weight for two people is 50 kg.
  • If you are traveling by car, you can carry 50-100 kg, but don’t forget you have to move it from the car to the location.
  • Maximum airline travel weight is 25 kg, while the size is limited to 60 inches.
  • Your accessories might make up for half the weight and space of your lighting kit – this means fixtures that’s not more than 15 kg for one person, and 25 kg for two people.
  • You should plan on shooting at an f-stop of f/2.8, and ideally, at a camera’s native ISO (or at least within ISO 800).
  • To cover 100 sq ft, you’ll need 3,000 lumens (about 650 W tungsten)
  • To cover 1000 sq ft, you’ll need 30,000 lumens (about 4 KW tungsten)
  • To cover 10,000 sq ft, you’ll need 300,000 lumens (about 40 KW tungsten). This is simply not possible for low budget productions to own. But you can rent lights if your needs are only for a couple of days.

How to put together a Lighting Kit for Low Budget Filmmaking

So you’re making a short film or feature film or web series and you need a low-budget lighting kit.

You can broadly classify productions into these five needs:

  1. Run-and-Gun Exteriors (lightweight, fast shooting, naturalistic lighting)
  2. Classic (you are going to compete with the best)
  3. Large Day or Night Exteriors
  4. Night City Lighting (where you have to control street lights)
  5. Green Screen or Blue Screen for VFX

For 3 and 4, you need help. You need to rent lights or you need to replace street lamps to get that professional cinematic look. There’s no way around it unless you’re only shooting close ups. If you just have a few close ups then you might be able to make it work.

Sometimes, you might have assistants or a helping hand. The most important question (you could call it self-assessment) you need to ask yourself is: Are there going to be any scenarios where I’m going to be on my own?

If you are, then you might want to plan a lighting kit that can be broken down into a one-person kit. No harm in having more lights at home, but if they’re going to be staying at home instead of being in the field with you, maybe renting is a better option.

Can’t make up your mind? Use my rule of thumb:

When in doubt, rent.

Sareesh Sudhakaran

For number 5, you need a cleanly lit green or blue background. What you choose here depends on what options you have in post production. If you can afford a roto artist and a talented compositor, then you can go cheap. Otherwise your chroma key work will look amateurish. You might get away with it, but you need to work backwards from VFX.

In other words, I don’t recommend having any chroma keying options in your kit.

Which leaves us with options one and two, where 99% of the low budget filmmaking game is played. You can do wonders here, if you know what you’re doing.

Hopefully you know that you are allowed (and encouraged) to blaze your own trail. Please do, that’s the fun part.

The next steps are to go through these articles to understand grip equipment a bit better:

  1. A Guide to Grip and Lighting gear
  2. 9 Important Lighting and Grip Tools for Low Budget Film Lighting

Lighting Kit for Low Budget Filmmaking

So what exactly should you get in your ‘beginner’ lighting kit? Lucky for you, I’ve put together a complete list in PDF format (it’s free)!

Exclusive Bonus: Download your FREE list: 25 Proven DIY and Cheap Lighting Gear that actually delivers cinematic results (PDF file optimized for mobiles and tablets).

I hope this article was helpful to you. Let me know what you think in the comments below.

5 replies on “How to put together a Lighting Kit for Low Budget Filmmaking”

  1. In your chart, how are you getting your lumens values for 100 square feet?

    For example, if you’re exposing for say 1000 lux in a 1,000 square foot room, then if lumens = lux/square meter (and 1 square meter = approx. 10.76 square feet), then the lumen value for the room ought be 92,903.04 lumens, correct? Now if I do the same calculation for a 100 square foot room, it seems like I should get 9,290.304 lumen, but your chart indicates 31,623 lumen? I’m not sure how that number is occurring, would really appreciate explanation on that point. Thanks for all the info by the way!

    1. Oh…. is it because you’re accounting that you’re trying to hit t/2.8 in your 100 sq ft calculation, and therefore need approx. 3 stops less light? I can get close, but I still don’t know how you got those exact numbers though…

    2. Check out the articles in detail on photometry. Lumens is what the light outputs, there’s no such thing as “92,903.04 lumens for the room”.

  2. You are such a valuable cinematographer master !
    Thanks for all the knowledge you share with us !
    Its gold mine !
    Nicolas from Netherland

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