How to put together a Lighting Kit for Video (Part Four): Your First Lighting Kit

In Part One we looked at quantifying how much light we might need based on the spaces we might shoot in.

In Parts Two and Three we looked at the different kinds of light, modifiers and sources. It’s time to put everything together.

In this final part we’ll organize whatever we’ve learnt so far and see if we can figure out basic ‘starter’ lighting kits for various scenarios. Hopefully, if we do it right, we’ll get a solid and versatile lighting kit for video that’ll serve us professionally for years to come.

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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’.
  • On average, airplane carry-on luggage is restricted to about 14 inches x 9 inches x 22 inches (23 x 35 x 56 cm).
  • On average, airplane checked baggage is restricted to about 60 inches and about 50 lbs (23 kg)

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. Going by what I see above, 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).

We’re not done yet. 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. When using extension cords or surge protectors, get gold-rated stuff like the ones made by Belkin.

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 Tungsten, LED or Fluorescent kits for the one-person cinematographer.

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. C-stands are a luxury to carry around.
  • Don’t forget the case or bag itself. For more information, check out Bags and Cases, from the Comprehensive Guide
  • 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 last one is beyond the scope of this article. It’s simply not a job for a one or two person crew.

You’re buying a lighting kit because you are cinematographer, right? This article isn’t for a rental house or production company (though even they consult with cinematographers).

There are broadly four ‘kinds’ of one-person cinematographers:

  • Run-and-gun (documentary, light-weight, fast)
  • Small Business (weddings, corporate videos, events, big-budget documentaries, etc.)
  • Small Fiction (short films, music videos, etc.)
  • Big Fiction (features, television, etc.)

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.

The following kits are what I think might work if I’m in that given situation. Hopefully you know that you are allowed (and encouraged) to blaze your own trail. Please do, that’s the fun part.

Lighting Kit for the Run-and-gun Specialist

Speed of setting up, packing, unpacking and positioning are critical. Obviously it also must be light-weight. In most likelihood, you’ll be carrying only one light, one stand and a reflector. At most, you might want three lights in your kit, but that means two stands at least.

Litepanels Sola

My recommendation: Litepanels Sola (As I’ve said earlier, I’m not a fan of flat panels. If you’re okay with that, then I recommend Litepanels for that as well.)

Cheaper LED lights have color issues, aren’t as sturdy for tough run-and-gun work, and aren’t as reliable.

Lighting Kit for the Small Business Specialist

Unless you have an assistant, it might be impossible to make lighting work consistently. When shooting events or weddings, people (except the couple and immediate friends and family) aren’t going to stay put for you for any extended period.

When doing corporate videos with executives rushed for time, you need to be up and running in five or ten minutes. Sometimes locations change arbitrarily at the last minute, and you need to be ready for it. The same applies for ‘big-budget’ documentaries, which might also involve high-profile individuals in tough, uncontrollable situations.

All said and done, the lighting is expected to be a lot more sophisticated than the run-and-gun setup.

Arri L7-C LED Fresnel
My recommendation: In addition to the handy Litepanels Sola, I also recommend –

  • For simple interviews: An Arri L7-C LED fixture – it’s a little heavy, but it is extremely versatile, powerful and doesn’t get hot.
  • For bigger projects: An Arri L7-C LED kit (two lights). If you need more punch, just gang them together! You can plug in eight or nine of these into a single socket, so three lights would ‘max out’ your physical restrictions but not your electrical limits! If you need even more punch, then replace LEDs with the next kit:

Lighting Kit for the Small Fiction Journeyman

You are an aspiring filmmaker or cinematographer training for the big-leagues. Fiction demands good lighting aesthetics. Not only are you lighting for light and location, you are also lighting for mood, consistency and story. As you gain experience, you also need to factor in personal style.

Nothing but a well-rounded kit will do. Your accessories are as important as your lights.

Arri Tungsten Kit

My recommendation: An Arri Tungsten Fresnel Kit. There are many kits available from Arri, and it is tough to pick one without knowing your exact requirements. The right way to do it is to pick a basic kit and then add lights as you go.

For starters, I recommend the Softbank II kit (3x650W fresnel + 1x750W open face + softbox). This weighs about 40 kg (90 lbs). Remember, the 650W fixture can hold 300W or 500W bulbs, and it only weighs 3.5 kg. The equivalent Arri L7-C LED kit will be too heavy.

Lighting Kit for the Low-budget Feature Cinematographer

What separates a small fiction cinematographer from a low-budget feature cinematographer are:

  • Number of locations – space
  • Number of days in the schedule – time
  • Size of the crew

You’re dealing with greater complexity, fatigue over a longer schedule, pressure to work fast but still needing to find interesting shots and lighting, people and gear management, etc.

A good low-budget feature cinematographer will have a well-rounded lighting kit (the same as the small fiction dude), plus have the option to rent lights. I don’t recommend owning or buying lights beyond the small fiction level.

I want to stress (again) that my recommendations are based on the way I work, and what I think works. You absolutely must experience these things in the field. Remember what I said in the beginning: Your lighting kit will evolve, and your tastes will change. Think of them as pencils or paint brushes, not investments.

I hope this four-part series has given you enough ideas to confidently put together a versatile lighting kit for video. I would love to hear your stories or experiences putting your first kit together.

How hard was it? How did you evolve? Am I off the mark in my recommendations?

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).