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4 Cheap Practical Lights That Can Work Wonders On Set

Noam Kroll
By Noam Kroll

Placing an emphasis on lighting is one of the most effective ways to keep your production value high. The 4 lights on this list will allow you to not only light your film beautifully, but do it on a minuscule budget.

Nearly every indie filmmaker will rent or buy a standard lighting kit for their productions (such as an Arri or Lowell kit). While these types of lighting kits are reliable and versatile, inexpensive consumer lights may also have a place in your production. Unlike traditional lighting kits, practical lights (that can be bought at places like Home Depot or Ikea) are often sold at a fraction of the cost of film lights, since they don’t have the same functionality built in. While the lack of functionality can seem like a big downside, you can often use the quirkiness of these lights to your advantage…and ultimately give your film a distinct look.

It’s not just filmmakers on a budget that are known to make use of practical lights either. Many well established filmmakers (like David Fincher for example) are known for utilizing household lights or work lamps in order to achieve a desired effect. So if you’re looking to save a few bucks on your next production, or just want to try something new and different – these lights are for you:

1. China Balls

China BallsImage from Pasadena Daily Photo

Nearly every lighting store or home furnishing store (such as Ikea) will sell these china balls, and generally they go for under $20. They emit a beautiful soft light that can be used as a key, fill, or even a background light and are extremely adaptable. For daytime use, you can switch to daylight balanced bulbs easily, which makes them such versatile and valuable tools much like the work lights above.

They can be mounted on a light stand, used on a boom pole (for run and gun/walking scenes), or rigged up just about anywhere you can imagine. Many film lighting manufacturers now make more expensive “pro” versions of these lights that have a stronger ball (the cheap ones are made of paper), so if you want to use a light like this on multiple shoots, you might want to consider a more heavy duty version.

2. Work Lights

Work Light

These common construction lights can be bought at just about any hardware store for about $30, and considering the amount of power that they can generate they offer some of the best bang for the buck out there. You can buy these lights with tungsten or daylight balanced bulbs which makes them extremely versatile, and their strong output makes them fantastic options for demanding lighting situations such as night exteriors. These lights have been used in countless feature films (even large scale productions such as Fight Club), and are a must have for DPs on a budget.

3. Energizer LED Folding Area Lantern

Light Panel

These little light panels are a relatively new product and available at nearly any Target, Wal Mart, or supply store. They are often used for camping as a means to light up a completely dark area at night, and as such they well suited for use on a film set. The light quality and fall off from these little panels can be brilliant, and I generally find them to give a similar aesthetic to shooting with regular LED panels or at times even flourescent Kinos. I would suggest using these as a soft key or a fill light, as they do a great job of illuminating skin tones in a natural way.

4. Clamp Flood Lights

Clamp on Light

These good old fashioned flood lights have been used for decades by filmmakers and photographers on a budget. They can be bought for as little as $9 (without the bulb) at your local hardware store, and much like the construction lights on this list, they offer a great solution for inexpensive high power output. You can use a single lamp as a high key (or add diffusion to it if you prefer), or combine multiple lamps to illuminate an entire room. There is a reason why these have been used for so many years, and it’s not just because they are cheap!

Final Thoughts: Use What You Need

When approaching the lighting setup for any given project, you never want to take a one size all fits approach. Always carefully consider what the stylistic and creative needs are of your project, and of course what your vision is for the overall aesthetic. From there, you can start to build your kit in a way that is unique and specific to your project.

Know of any other cheap practical lights? Share in the comments below.