Film Lighting on a Budget
Film lighting is expensive but your budget is small…sound familiar?
When parting with your hard-earned cash you can usually muster up the courage to spend £1000 on a camera and maybe even £800 on a couple of lenses, but £1200 for one light?!
The truth is you should value your lighting as much as your camera; lighting is everything in films (particularly storytelling/fiction), and it is what separates the amateurs from the pros.
Yet even if you understand this, it is still hard to fork out the money that film lighting can cost!
One of the industry’s most attractive film lighting kits on the market is the Aputure 120D, perfect for independent filmmakers who shoot a variety of content including fiction, documentary, vlogging and corporate.
But one Aputure 120D light and the softbox to go with it will set you back over £970…that’s a lot of money for one light! But before we list some cheap alternatives let’s first look at what makes a good light.
What makes a good film light?
Firstly and most obviously is the power. Cameras these days can shoot at much higher ISOs than ever before, which means you need less light to get a decent exposure.
Nevertheless it is important to have film lighting powerful enough to offer the contrast you are after and lights that can add a punch even in daylight are going to be a lifesaver far more often than you might expect.
Film lighting historically came in either daylight (white) or tungsten (orange) but now most lights can do both. They can even be set to any colour on the RGB spectrum, illuminating the need for (suprisingly expensive) gels.
But cheap film lights are renowned for having poor colour rendition. What does this mean? Well for instance some of the small LED panels may be daylight balanced, but a weird tint of purple or green may filter through, giving you strange uneven colours in the edit.
Colour rendition is most commonly measured by the CRI scale. As a general rule of thumb you shouldn’t be considering anything below 90. The top lights such as the aputure 120D have a rating of 97, offering outstanding consistency and will reliably provide you with that nice neutral light.
Want to know more? Check out this article on CRI
Soft vs hard light
9 times out of 10 you will want a soft light for your shots, which is why buying a soft box is such an essential part to buying lights.
Soft light gives an even spill that wraps around the face and has a nice natural fall off in the shadows, often used on interior shots where you are trying to replicate lamps, window light or just general ambient light.
Hard lights (such as dedos and HMIs) provide much harsher shadows and are often used for background or artistic film lighting; almost any film noir will be shot with hard lights to create lots of interesting shadow patterns.
Some examples might be using hard lights to make it seem like sunlight is coming through a small space such as a letter box or when you want to create highlight something on the wall in the background without spilling light onto the entire wall.
Heat, weight and size. There was a time all film lights would be heavy, large and often stay hot for at least half an hour after being switched off, making pack down a drawn out affair.
Luckily we live in an era of amazing technology and now you can buy small powerful lights that don’t weigh you down and can be packed in a hurry without needing gloves. LED lights and the new chip-on-board lights are amazing, so don’t overlook these features when choosing your film lighting set up.
Which film lighting kits should I buy?
So taking the Aputure 120D (with softbox), the Kino Flo lights and Dedo (basic three point filming lighting kit) as our basis, we are going to turn this £4480 combo into a sub £1000 kit.
Aputure 120D alternative → Godox SL150W
£248.00 Inc Delivery
The Godox SL lights are almost identical to the aputure lights and offer a beautiful daylight balanced colour at a fraction of the price (£248). With the same bowens mount as the aputure 120D you can use a variety of film lighting modifiers including umbrellas, beauty dishes and softboxes.
If you have the cash to splash out on the aputure softbox then we recommend you do, but if not then why not use this Godox softbox for less than £50.
Of course there are drawbacks, the light has a slightly noisy fan and the softbox has an umbrella system on the inside that makes inserting gels incredibly awkward, but you’re saving about £650 with this combo! It has a CRI rating of 93 and if the light is still too much for you then you can downsize to the SL60W for £108.
Dedo Alternative → Neewer Film Lighting Kit
£169.94 Inc Delivery
Neewer are a well known brand who make cheap film lighting kits. These will only put you back £199.94 which is insanely cheap compared to the dedos and they are able to be powered via mains or batteries.
Kino Flo Alternative → Yognuo Handheld LED Sticks
£78.99 Inc Delivery
Why not nab yourself 4 of these film lights for a grand total of £292? Whilst they will be far more awkward to rig than the kino flo lights, they are also far more adaptable in their ability to handhold and move around.
RGB control and battery powered (you’ll need some sony NP batteries), these are the perfect lights for anyone looking to create some artistic films (music videos, sci-fi) on the cheap.
If you are after something more similar to kino flo lights then check out the Quasar science lights, but these come unwired so you will have to attach a dimmer and plug yourself if you are UK based.
So there you have it. Film Lighting doesn’t have to be expensive and there are reliable cheap alternatives if you’re prepared to miss out on some conveniences to save yourself £3000.
To really excel in film lighting start looking at gels and different light modifiers, and most importantly just start practicing. A good learning technique is to grab screenshots of lighting set ups you like in films and try to replicate them. If you’re feeling adventurous then checkout our other article on Cinematic Lighting Techniques.