The SECRET Costs Of Cheap Lighting Equipment

All of those “make your own cheap lighting kit” articles you have read on a hundred different blogs and filmmaking fan sites are lying to you…

…Cheap Movie Lighting Gear costs a lot more than you think!

Over the years I have worked with a wide range of professional (and not so professional) gear while creating film and video projects. I know how easy it can be to light an area from 50 feet away using an Arri 1K and how frustrating it can be to have the lights on one of those cheap halogen painter’s lights start to droop in the middle of a take (ruining the take, forcing a quick relight, and destroying lighting continuity with the rest of the takes already in the can.)

Clip lamps, fluorescent bulbs, and halogen shop lights are tempting alternatives to expensive pro lighting equipment. Now, a flood of cheaply made imported gear, promises pro results at home-center prices.

After all, light-is-light. It doesn’t care how much the fixture it came from costs.

Truth is, a couple of clip on reflector lights loaded with fluorescent bulbs and covered with a little diffusion material can produce illumination every bit as beautiful as a $2000 softbox. But, the real costs of cheap gear includes much more than adding up the purchase price of the hardware…

…THAT is what most people forget when deciding what lights to use on their movie project.

The Hidden Costs of Using Cheap Lights

These are my top reasons for investing a little more money to get professional gear on my movie sets.

  • Cheat crew out of experience with professional gear
  • Slows pace of work
  • Parts do not work with each other
  • Difficult to control light
  • Looks bad for clients/investors
  • Cheap Gear breaks under working conditions

Let’s break these down a little more and see why they matter so much.

Cheating the crew out of valuable experience: If you are looking for cheap gear, the odds are that you do not have much money and will be looking for free help too! You might be able to convince your best friend to help you for a few days, but filmmaking is hard work. There should be something valuable in the filming experience for everybody. The actors, directors, writers, cinematographers, and producers are looking for screen credits and demo reel materials. But, the crew get little benefit from publicity. However, give them hands-on experience with some professional equipment and they can promote this knowledge when looking for work.

Slows the pace of work: Gear that is not designed for use on a movie set is not built to meet the demands of filmmaking. Work lamps come with short stands that do not rise high enough to position the light. Wheel chairs do not come with tripod mounts. A c-stand with a boom arm and a grip head can quickly place a backlight behind an actor without placing the stand in the shot. A doorway dolly will create a smooth visually dynamic camera move without bumps or jiggles. It takes more time to achieve similar effects with lesser equipment.

When you slow down the pace of your shoot to deal with cheap gear, you must work more hours to get the same number of shots. You crew will get tired and your actors will get bored. This is not a recipe for success. Endless frustration does not inspire great performances from cast or crew. Specially not on day 10.

Parts do not work with each other: Pro gear is built using standardized components. The clip lights and halogen work lamps you get at the local home center are not. When you find yourself needing to get a light positioned in a tricky location, this will be a problem. With pro gear you connect the light to a boom arm, move it into position, tighten down the grip heads and throw-on a sandbag for balance. Cheap lights will give you sub-par results and also slow you down.

Looks bad for clients/investors. This one is obvious. No investor or client wants to show up on the set of a project they have spent good money on and see the crew taping lights to a stand with duct tape or pushing around a wheel chair. They want to feel like they got a real movie for their money. They need to be confident that the results will be good. Nervous investors/clients do not improve the mood on any production.

Gear breaks under working conditions: Production work puts a strain on your gear. Cheap gear is often made with lower grade materials. Few people care if a painting light they bought will lock in place at a precise angle and stay there for hours. But mid-take, when the light heats up and starts to tilt down, your shot is ruined. Plus, when you reset the light, it might not be exactly where is was before. This is extremely bad because…

…you will not notice the problem until everyone else has gone home and you are alone in the editing room with shots that don’t match and won’t cut together.

A Case Study In Low-Budget Lighting

I was brought on board to help out with a very low-budget film called “Dark Chamber” (working title “Under Surveillance). Producer/director Dave Campfield had run out of cash and still had a huge amount of work to be done.

The morning I showed up to help, he was working with whatever gear he could scrape together – 3 flimsy reflector lamps and one studio soft-light meant for use as a fill light and not as a primary lamp. Plus, we had a couple of gels and c-47’s.

That first day was a long day. We got the lights to work and created some nice looking shots. But, they took forever to set up.

We had to move lights into hallways to reduce the intensity. We were bouncing light off every imaginable surface to try and soften harsh shadows. And, getting enough light on the actor’s faces without over-lighting the rest of the scene was a challenge.

Everyone was exhausted by the end of the day and we didn’t cover much of the script – but we got something done. And, Dave saw what I could do and asked me to be the cinematographer for the rest of the movie.

After I said yes to the job, I started scouring eBay for deals on used gear and spent about $1500 to get a Lowell light kit (not high-end, but built for professional use and sturdy), some basic grip gear (wall mounting plates, clamps, gel frames, etc.), and a workhorse Arri 1K for when we needed a little muscle.

Not free, but not outrageous either. It probably cost slightly more than I got paid for the entire project – but the results were worth it. Our shoots were much smoother than that first day. Often, when I walked in to tell the cast the set was ready to shoot, they where shocked. They had been expecting a much longer wait and had to hurry to finish getting ready.

It’s only my opinion, but I don’t think we would have been able to finish the film without that gear. Dave had to work hard to keep everyone committed to the project, and the speed and quality results they saw on set made them more confident that this project was going to get finished and look good.

The film got finished. It looked pretty good. We won a few awards and got some nice reviews (and a few kind comments about the lighting.) And, thanks to Dave Campfield’s relentlessness, it even got a direct-to-DVD distribution deal. That is a lot more than most low-budget wannabes ever accomplish.

How Do I Light My Movie On The Cheap?

It may seem like I hate low-budget filmmaking and turn my nose up at non-professional gear. But, I use it all the time…

…when it makes sense!

My definition of cheap equipment is anything you are using that is not designed for professional use in film or video production and has been chosen because it is freely available or cheap. This applies to halogen painting lights purchased from Home Depot, to theater lights being adapted for use on a set, and even those super cheap ‘professional light kits’ that are just flimsy imports that look like professional gear. Purchase price is not the primary characteristic of what makes gear cheap.

Personally, I recommend purchasing a few key pieces of lighting gear that will get used every day during a shoot. Then, when the project is done, you can sell it again and recoup some of the money spent to use in post production (on a long shoot, this can make your equipment costs almost zero because good lights hold their value on the resale market.)

For those few occasions when you need a special light – rent it (most major cities have equipment rental houses with 9-lights, HMI’s, and other gear that you might only need for a day or two.)

For everything else – get creative.

Film crews tend to attract a lot of people who like to tinker and invent things. If that is part of your reason for making movies, invent away. Every cinematographer and grip has some story about how they cobbled together a new piece of equipment to solve a unique problem on set. Some have gone on to create side-businesses manufacturing and selling their inventions.

Garrett Brown invented the Steadicam in order to create smooth camera moves without using dollies. It is now the industry standard. Chris Gyoury created a flourescent lighting system to meet the needs of a television series he was developing.

Just make sure that the tinkering happens off-set. Nothing kills the energy of a set like waiting around while a couple people try to get some temperamental bit of DIY gear to work as planned.

Film and Video Production Gear Should You Never Buy

There is a lot of ‘stuff’ you can buy when you start planning to make a movie. You don’t need most of it and many things are just bad investments. If you are in the indie film game for the long haul, it makes sense to buy a few things you can use over and over.

Invest your money in tools that do not go obsolete. Video cameras are the last thing you should purchase. A newer, better model comes out every few months and suddenly the one you have is not worth much. Unless it’s a cheap ‘crash cam’ video camera, rent it…

…Lighting and grip gear is another story.

Lighting and grip equipment (stands, booms, clamps, flags, nets, etc.) tend to hold their value very well when well cared for. A 10 year old light stand is just as useful today as when it was new. My Arri 1K light looks a little beat up on the outside, but switch it on and it works just as well as a brand new one.

Be a low-budget filmmaker. Solve problems with creativity instead of cash. But don’t get fooled buy the false economy of cheap lighting gear. Some things are worth spending a few dollars.

Happy filmmaking, my friend 🙂

Andrew Seltz

Andrew was born in Michigan, raised there and in Tennessee, and has since lived outside Orlando, in Chicago, New York City, and now Birmingham, Alabama. He produces videos and websites for a living and is married to a beautiful, generous, loving woman who also happens to be a talented actress and writer - www.ellenseltz.com. They have two daughters.

5 thoughts on “The SECRET Costs Of Cheap Lighting Equipment

  • October 25, 2011 at 12:16 am
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    Nice article! I have used the ole halogen work light for a while and agree with you big time. Been working on some other sets and having lots of 1Ks and a 2K around is supper nice! Been looking for my own ever since! 🙂

  • October 26, 2011 at 12:03 pm
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    Thanks! 5 minutes spent with a professional tool and you suddenly know what all the fuss is about (and it’s hard to go back.) Same goes for stuff like editing software.

    Andrew

  • November 29, 2011 at 10:36 pm
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    BTW, I was hunting around for a followspot today for a stage production and came across a pretty cool site for used lights…

    http://www.UsedLighting.com

    Check out their selection. Prices I saw were decent and no eBay haggling to waste your time.

    Andrew

  • January 27, 2012 at 5:26 am
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    Thanks a lot this is a very informative piece. Lighting has always been my weakness.

  • February 7, 2012 at 1:14 pm
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    currently i am working on a DIY LED lighiting system, and believe me, it is not as good as a pro kit. i dont wonder anymore why good lighiting gear are so expensive that much.

    it contains hours and days of hard work and creativity built in. all u have to do is to buy them and get the benifit of the stuff u bought.

    but as a prson who is always lookking for new things to achive, in new way, and a little low on budget, i guess i hve to stick to the DIY things and have to spend montsh to figure how to make it looks and work like a profeshional gear.

    the article was very nice and insightful. thanks for the hard work!

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