Six great tips for lighting on a very low budget

Written by Neil Oseman

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Forget the lighting truck. If you can't afford the budget for even a single HMI, how do you go about creating a big budget look without much money? Here are Neil Oseman's essential tips to get the most out of a meagre lighting budget.

Good lighting can boost the production values of a film tremendously, making the difference between an amateur and a professional-looking piece. For filmmakers early in their careers, however, the equipment typically used to achieve these results can be prohibitively expensive. Far from the Hollywood productions attended by trucks full of lights, a micro-budget film may be unable to rent even a single HMI. Do not despair though, as there are ways to light scenes well without breaking the bank. Here are my top six tips for low-budget lighting.

1. Make the most of natural light

The hardest shots to light without the proper equipment are wide shots. Where a fully-budgeted production would rig Maxi Brutes on cherry-pickers, or pound HMIs through windows, a filmmaker of limited means simply won't have access to the raw power of such fixtures. Instead, plan your day carefully to capture the wide shots at the time when natural light gives you the most assistance. For a day interior, this means shooting when the sun is on the correct side of the building.

2. Keep LEDs to the background

There are a plethora of LED fixtures on the market, designed for all kinds of applications, some of them very reasonably priced. It might be tempting to purchase some of these to provide your primary illumination, but I advise against it. Cheap LED units (and fluorescents) have a terrible Colour Rendering Index (CRI), making for unnatural and unappealing skin tones. Such units are therefore best restricted to backgrounds, accent lighting and "specials". For example, I purchased a little LED camping light from a charity shop for about £1.50 and I often use it to create the blue glow from computer screens, or hang it from the ceiling to produce a hint of hair-light.

3. Key with tungsten or halogen

By far the best solution for a high output, high CRI, low-cost key, is a halogen floodlight; 500W models are available for as little as £5. Their chief disadvantage is the lack of barn doors, making the light hard to control, although, if you can stretch to a roll of black wrap you can fashion a kind of snoot. Alternatively, consider investing in a second-hand tungsten movie fixture. With many people switching to LEDs, there are plenty of old tungsten units out there. Try to get a reputable brand like Arri or Ianiro, as some of the unbranded units available on Ebay are poorly wired and can be unsafe.

4. Control the light

Flooding a halogen light onto a scene is never going to look good, but then the same is often true of dedicated movie fixtures. Instead, it's more how you modify the light that creates the nuanced, professional look. Improvise flags from pieces of cardboard to stop the light spilling into unwanted places – but be VERY careful how close you put them to a tungsten or halogen source, as these get extremely hot. For example, when shooting indoors, flag light off the background wall (especially if it's white or cream) to help your subject stand out.

5. Soften the light

Almost all cinematographers today prefer the subtlety of soft light to the harshness of hard light. You can achieve this by bouncing your fixture off a wall or ceiling, or a sheet of polystyrene or card.  Or you could hang a white bedsheet or a shower curtain in front of the light as diffusion, but again be sure to leave a safe distance between them. Professional collapsible reflectors are available very cheaply online and can be used in multiple ways to diffuse or reflect light.

6. Make use of practicals

Finally, don't be afraid to use existing practical lighting in your scene. Turning on the main overhead light usually kills the mood, but sometimes it can be useful. You can generate more contrast and shape by covering up the top of the lampshade, thus preventing ceiling bounce, or conversely use the ceiling bounce to give some ambient top-light and cover the bottom of the lampshade to prevent a harsh hotspot underneath it. Table lamps and under-cupboard kitchen lights can add a lot of interest and production value to your backgrounds. If possible, swap out LED or fluorescent bulbs for conventional tungsten ones for a more attractive colour and to eliminate potential flickering on camera.

Header image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Tags: Production

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