5 Small, Budget-Friendly Lights for Any Camera Setup
Proper lighting can vastly improve the quality of your video. Upgrade your kit with these affordable diffused LED lights.
Proper lighting is one of those things that can quickly improve the quality of your video, and you don’t have to spend a fortune to see that improvement. Portable diffused lights are affordable, battery-powered, and versatile, making them a reliable, budget-friendly option for beginners and professionals alike.
Nighttime or low-light shooting is probably the best reason to own one of these portable diffused lights, but they’re much more versatile than that. Vloggers can pop off the screen by attaching one of these lights on their camera. They can also work as background lights to draw attention to a specific object, or create depth by separating the background from the subject. Those who already have a key light can still take advantage of a portable light by using it as a fill or background light, and it’s also good to have for an emergency. Just one portable light can improve the quality of a video. It can even make the difference between looking amateurish and looking professional.
Below, you’ll find some affordable and (excuse the rhyme) portable lighting options to upgrade your gear bag.
1. Aputure AL-M9
Aputure is a well-known brand that makes lighting solutions for filmmakers. Although Aputure markets many of its products to professionals, they also have a line of relatively affordable lights. One such light is the Aputure AL-M9, which is an absolute workhorse of a light that sells for only $45. It is by far Aputure’s most affordable light. This tiny light is equipped with nine SMD LEDs powerful enough to light any subject from a few feet away.
The light has adjustable brightness and a max battery life of 1.75 hours at the highest brightness setting. At first look, the AL-M9 doesn’t look like much, but after testing it out, it’s now an indispensable part of my shooting setup. On video calls, this light (paired with my M50) looks like a camera twice the price, and it also works great for vlogging.
At $45, the AL-M9 doesn’t have every feature I want, but it comes close. I wish this light had adjustable color temperature, but it’s understandable at this price point. Aputure makes up for it by including several gels that change the temperature from daylight to a cooler or warmer hue. This is perfect for situations when daylight isn’t appropriate.
As someone who’s always on the lookout for budget gear, this is one piece I’m extremely glad I picked up, and one that’ll remain in my kit for years to come.
2. Big Softi
Similar to the Aputure AL-M9, the Big Softi is a portable diffused light, but this Kickstarted light has some additional features that make it more appealing. While the project was fully backed back in July—the project raised $491,176 from 6,334 backers on Kickstarter—it’s still available for pre-order from Indiegogo. Those who pre-order can get the Big Softi and one accessory for $65.
The adjustable color temperature setting on the Big Softi is why this light is worth getting. The “daylight” mode is useful for nighttime and some outdoor shooting, whereas the “tungsten” mode gives out a warm, yellowish light for indoor scenes. A third color mode called “clean white mix” is somewhere between the other two.
Whatever the situation, these three color modes should cover all the bases, even though it lacks in the brightness adjustment department. With the option to only choose between three levels of brightness—low, mid, and max—there’s not a lot of room to get the brightness to a perfect level. However, it should still work fine in most situations.
Because of its portability, battery life is important. The company claims the light has a 90-minute runtime at the max brightness setting. On mid, the light lasts 140 minutes, and 240 minutes on low. The Big Softi charges via a USB-C port and takes about two hours to charge from zero to full battery. After hitting one of the stretch goals, the team added a handy battery life indicator. They also ended up adding touch-capacitive controls to help adjust brightness and color.
At a featherweight 74g, this light is a portable accessory that fits almost anywhere. Plus, the three available attachments (all sold separately) make the light is compatible with phones, tablets, cameras, computers, and virtually any flat surface. The universal clip is the most versatile of the trio as it clips onto phones, tablets, and computers. However, the 1/4″-20 thread mount is the option videographers will want to get. A third accessory, the 3M adhesive mount, has a piece of double-sided 3M tape that can stick onto various surfaces.
The AL-M9 is more affordable, readily available on Amazon and Newegg, and has nine brightness settings. However, the Big Softi’s adjustable color settings, touch controls, and battery indicator may be a better option for only $20 more.
3. Aputure AL-MX
If the AL-M9 is for beginners, then the AL-MX is a heavier, brighter, better-made light for professionals. Essentially, this light is the AL-M9 all grown up. It houses 128 SMD LEDs, a “Boost” mode that temporarily outputs more light, plus it’s made from aircraft-grade aluminum. Though the AL-MX is roughly comparable in size to its predecessor, it weighs much more (278g). It also gets hot enough that the entire backside of the light is a heat spreader. While it’s no surprise that an upgraded version of the Al-M9 should cost more, the Al-MX is three times more expensive. So, it may be an option mostly for professionals or serious enthusiasts.
There’s no question that the AL-MX has better specs across the board, starting with five step-up color temperature settings that range between 2800K and 6500K. In comparison, both the AL-M9 and Big Softi have a max setting of 5500K, which is considered daylight. The AL-MX’s impressive range of color makes it the most versatile light in terms of color temperature on this list, able to change from yellow to white to blue in an instant. Not only does it run the color temperature gamut, but the AL-MX is also incredibly bright. This is especially true with “Boost” mode, which instantly outputs thirty percent more light in sixty-second intervals. It’s unclear how “Boost” mode affects overall battery life, though I’m sure it can’t be good. Aputure claims the AL-MX runs for one hour when on the brightest setting, or four hours on the lowest brightness setting.
How a light looks doesn’t affect performance. However, I can’t help but think about the aesthetics of this light. The red and black color combination, paired with an industrial design that uses aircraft-grade aluminum to dissipate heat, screams functionality (which is, in itself, gorgeous). As a fan of function over aesthetics, I admire when a product manages to be functional and good-looking. There’s not much more to say about the AL-M9 except that it’s a great choice, especially for those who want the best. Maybe it’s too much money for a light, or maybe it’s the only portable light you’ll ever need to carry in your gear bag.
4. Neewer LED Lights with Adjustable Tripod Stand
For around $55, these affordable lights from Neewer are a solid pickup for a budget studio lighting. Neewer is no Aputure, but they’re one of the biggest Amazon brands in the lighting space, with several lighting solutions at affordable prices. These lights come in a two-pack, along with two tripods and a set of color filters. While a more expensive softbox and light combination provide better lighting, these Neewer lights do just fine in a pinch, and they’re small and light enough to carry around.
Although these lights are small, they’re not exactly portable. Their lack of integrated battery also means that they’re not easily mountable on a camera. Neewer recommends plugging these USB-powered lights into a wall socket via a power brick, which they do not include. However, in my testing, I found that the lights work just fine when plugged into a battery bank. Of course, use time will vary depending on the power bank.
At such a low price for two decent lights, there was bound to be a few caveats. In this case, the plastic tripods are the cheapest, flimsiest tripods you can buy. They’re absolutely terrible, and they will topple over with the barest hint of force. It’s infuriating to be in the middle of a shot only for the key light to topple over, restarting the whole shot. One other frustrating design choice is that the lights don’t save the previous brightness setting. So every time you use these lights, you’ll have to cycle through the brightness until you find the right one. It’s not a huge problem, but it’s annoying.
Except for the tripods, after hours of research I think these lights are a great deal. Other studio lights were either too big, too expensive, or too much for the setup I wanted. If you simply need a couple of lights to add some quality to your setup, these are it.
5. RX-8T Light with Softbox Diffuser
Similar to the Neewer lights above, the RX-8T by FalconEyes is made for studio lighting. I haven’t had the pleasure of testing it, but Nigel Barros over on YouTube is a big fan of this relatively affordable light. The RX-8T stands out for one major reason: it’s foldable. When used without the softbox, you can bend the light any way you like to narrow or widen the light. This makes it far more versatile in how you want to light a particular subject.
At $75, just one RX-8T is more expensive than the two Neewer lights above. But, it’s more powerful, has more uses, and it comes with decent softbox and standard diffusers. Overall, the RX-8T makes an impact at an affordable price. Just one of these lights pointed at a subject can make a huge difference in how they appear on camera.
Light the Way
After buying a mirrorless camera earlier this year, I’ve slowly been accumulating gear for my setup, adding one or two pieces to the kit every few months. In addition to an external microphone, I’ve found that a portable diffused light is an essential for your kit.
Whether using it to light the background or to fill in the shadows on your subject, a portable diffused light is one of those pieces you’ll constantly reach for, even when shooting in daylight. If you don’t have the budget for a professional softbox, which can cost over $1,000 or more, one of these portable lights can light your scenes for a fraction of the price and space, leaving room in your budget to invest in a better camera or other higher-quality gear.
For additional articles on filmmaking gear and techniques, check out these articles.
- Tips and Tricks for Making a Film with Zoom Technology
- Lighting 101: A Quick Guide for Lighting Film
- Lighting Modifiers: Aputure Light Dome Vs. Aputure Lantern
- 3 Ways to Modify Your Lighting for a Cinematic Look
- Lighting Comedy and Creating Kitsch with Robert Yeoman
Cover image via Yurii Onyshchenko.