Low Budget Lighting (5 replies and 3 comments)

6 months ago
ramirezd2 6 months ago


I'm trying to pull together a shoot for a short film I wrote, and I've been having a crisis of faith. My budget isn't very large, and my DP is telling me that it would cost a few thousand to rent all the grip and electric equipment necessary, but my gut is telling me that it would be possible to just go to Home Depot and buy lights and build rigs.

I realize that without the specifics of the situation, no one can give more than a general answer, so I'll try and ask a general question: In your experience, what have been some of the disadvantages of using Home Depot cinematography you've faced, and in what situations did you feel it worked best? 

David M
6 months ago
David M 6 months ago

When I first started out, I shot everything with Home Depot lights thrown through some scrap fabric clipped to a PVC pipe frame. I lit a night time exterior scene with a bunch of work lights up on a ridge running off loud rented Home Depot generators. What I did turned out well enough that it got me better work with better budgets.  Is it ideal? Obviously not, but if it’s the best gear you can get your hands on and you just want to start creating, don’t let a gear wishlist stop you. 

6 months ago
Wouter 6 months ago

Me too, some of the rigs I've built.. oh dear 😀

You have to work the other way around. Remember a long time ago in math class, when you had to work starting from the end to solve the equation? Same applies here.

First you have to know you restrictions. Then you figure out how you adapt the script and the workflow to make the equation work!

A practical example: if you're going to have to use a lot of natural daylight, try to reduce the amount of shots to cover the scene to a bare minimum to increase your chances of lighting consistency.
Find locations with good natural light (low contrast) and properly designed practical lighting.

Limit the amount of locations by adapting the script: do you really need another location to communicate what you want?

Limit yourself in terms of gear; the more gear, the more people, time and/or money you'll need to achieve the goal.

Don't let your cinematographer oversell things too much.. as cinematographers our main purpose is to figure out how to make do with what we have.

6 months ago
jthomsg 6 months ago

I think it also depends, you can't light everything with practicals. If there are scenes where natural daylight is needed for effect, you have to have HMI units to make the scene work. Roger has used Mole Richardson units to augment the use of practical lighting in many of his films. If you want good results, it just requires some money to pull it off. 

6 months ago

"you can't light everything with practicals. If there are scenes where natural daylight is needed for effect, you have to have HMI units to make the scene work."

I'm sorry, but this is simply not an absolute truth.

Remember Lubezki's work.. which is just one of many examples.

I've shot entire projects without the use of a single c-stand or film light unit.

There is a student short film, entirely shot under fluorescent practical light; and somehow it managed to win quite a number of cinematography prizes all around Europe and beyond.»

6 months ago

Lubezki shot the majority of The Revenant with an overcast sky and meticulous planning! And the short you mention, on the website it seems the entire thing was shot on a stage, and I see they used other units that are not fluorescent sources. How are cinematographers supposed to light without lighting units, especially in an exterior scene or a court room scene like the one in True Grit.

6 months ago

That light in the trailer was a profile spot, used for an effect shot in just one scene. All of the rest was shot under the fluorescent practical light, occasional poly boards for close ups. Yes it was shot on a stage, but does that matter? The entire project was shot on a shoestring budget, the stage was offered to the production for a symbolic minimal amount of money because they liked the theme of the project.

I'm not saying that it is *easier* to shoot with natural light or practical light, it takes more planning, more careful location scouting and a lot of back and forth work on the script and mise en scène. I certainly agree with you on that! But it is possible.

But nevertheless, if money is an issue, and you're willing to sacrifice your own spare time to fill in the gaps, there is a lot more possible than we might think!

James Parsons
6 months ago
James Parsons 6 months ago

I’ve collaborated 4 times with a director who very much agrees with your gut! He’s always confident that he can get the light he wants from scraps and basement finds and daylight. I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of trying to make that work, and I’d say we’ve done pretty well, but it’s never as easy as it would be to throw money at the problem!

Night exteriors and variably sunny days are a nightmare. Large interior spaces are tough, too. But, overcast days and close interiors are really fun to shoot with a lightweight, run-n-gun set up and practical lights. You can set up a shot in seconds, carry through 360 degrees, and it’s great for inexperienced actors to feel comfortable moving about more freely.

Another thing that I’ve found helps is if the story works well in black and white and high contrast. If you’ve only got light for the actors faces, limited control over the color temp, and the background environment is going to necessarily be underlit, can that be a “creative choice” instead of a problem?


Roger Deakins
6 months ago
Roger Deakins 6 months ago

The 'Dogma' film makers had a rule that they would only use 'natural' light. Anthony Dod Mantle developed this style on a number of films he shot including the brilliant 'The Celebration'. He did admit to me that at times he used to place two or three practical lamps side by side to create a soft source. Is a practical lamp a 'natural' source? What is the difference between ganging up three practical sources and bouncing a 650?

Yes, if it is a budget issue or a manpower issue go to Home Depot. there are plenty of 'off the shelf lights' that can be used to light a set and I have gone that way on many occasions. Some films that I have shot, such as 'Sid and Nancy, were shot with a multitude of household units rather than traditional film lights but I didn't use either exclusively. Were the concert lights I used for the concerts 'natural'? 

All that matters in the end result.

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