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Lighting in a Pinch: Five Tricks Using Your Mobile Phone

Zach Ramelan

Do you need a lighting fix in a hurry, and on the cheap? These cell phone lighting tricks will work when you really need them to.

So, these tips shouldn’t replace traditional lighting setups. I can’t overemphasize the importance of good lighting. But sometimes, things don’t work out the way you plan, and you need a fix, fast. When budgets are tight and timelines are short, try these quick setups.

Tip 1: Moody Lighting

Lighting in a Pinch: Five Tricks Using Your Mobile Phone — Moody Lighting

Getting fast and effective moody lighting can be relatively simple when you have a mobile phone at hand.

  • Step 1: Eliminate as much source light as possible (i.e. close the windows and turn off all lights).
  • Step 2: Search for images (online) of the color red. Once you’ve found a solid version of that color, scale it to fit your entire phone screen. Doing this will create a stylish mood light you can use for highlighting objects and characters within a scene. I love using this technique for run-and-gun product shoots.

Tip 2: Use Your Flashlight!

Lighting in a Pinch: Five Tricks Using Your Mobile Phone — Background Flare

This is by far my most-used technique from the bunch. It’s super simple yet incredibly effective.

  • Step 1: Get out your phone, and (you guessed it) flip it into flashlight mode.
  • Step 2: Find a counter or a flat surface where you can prop up your phone, then angle it toward the wall or item you want to light.

The result is subtle (and obviously it can’t replace a traditional background light) but when you’re in a pinch, or if you’ve run out of lights (which often happens to me), this is a cinematic lifesaver.

Tip 3: Softbox

Lighting in a Pinch: Five Tricks Using Your Mobile Phone — Softbox

Flashlight + white photo = softbox! The Pocket Softbox (came up with that myself) may be one of my favorite lighting hacks when I’m stuck in a dark room with little to no lighting resources.

  • Step 1: Flip on your phone’s flashlight, bouncing the light off a white or bright surface in your location. This will immediately create a DIY softbox.
  • Step 2: Find a photo of a pure white image on your phone, and make sure it fills up the entire screen.
  • Step 3: Crank your phone’s brightness to the max, and angle the screen toward your face. Between the light falling off the screen and the glow from the wall, this should give you (or your subject) the extra kick your scene needs.

Tip 4: Stick It to the Ceiling

Lighting in a Pinch: Five Tricks Using Your Mobile Phone — Ceiling Light

I’ve used this technique on countless projects — anything from a short web series to feature films. To achieve this, you’ll need three minimal tools: gaff tape, a gel, and a phone you’re willing to tape to the ceiling.

  • Step 1: Cut out a small phone-sized square from the gel.
  • Step 2: Apply a piece of gaff tape to each flat side of the square.
  • Step 3: Flip your phone into flashlight mode and stick it to the ceiling, using the taped gel as a pocket for the light.
  • Step 4: Make sure the flashlight is pointing downward (this is crucial).
  • Step 5: Turn off the other lights.
  • Step 6: Stand amazed!

Tip 5: Light It With Mouth Wash

Lighting in a Pinch: Five Tricks Using Your Mobile Phone — Mouth Wash Light

If a room isn’t giving you the stylistic look you want, perhaps it needs some color! A simple way to give it some cinematic punch is to light it with a bottle of mouthwash — seriously!

  • Step 1: Flip your phone into flashlight mode (I’m starting to feel like a broken record here), and place it under a bottle of mouthwash, dishwashing detergent, or any colored liquid you can find under the kitchen sink.
  • Step 2: Turn off the light.
  • Step 3: Mind Blown!

Looking for more lighting tips and tricks? Check out these articles.

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