In my many hours surfing movie making sites on the web, I’ve seen the question, “I’m poor and need to know how to light my movie” so many times I’ve lost count. Being a director of photography who’s shot a number of no/low/modest budgeted movies I thought it was about time I just wrote an article on how to light on the cheap.

So you’ve squandered almost all your money on a cool DV camera, decent microphone, tripod and some tasty food for your crew (don’t skimp on food because a crew travels on its’ stomach), but now your actors are standing around in the dark because you don’t have any lights. What do you do? First, you get in a time machine and go back a few days so you can start gathering your jiffy, on-a-tight-budget light kit.

I’m a big believer in get the right tools for the job, but sometimes you just can’t afford the right tools. Here’s where ingenuity comes into play. First, where do you find cheap, or if you prefer, inexpensive, lights. Hardware stores, auto parts, store, Salvation Army stores, Goodwill, garage sales. camera shops that carry used stuff, local production houses and rental houses. You have to keep your eyes peeled and be open to possibilities.


A good key light for cheap is a 500 watt tungsten work light which can be found at hardware and car parts stores. They come with their own stands, but I do find the stands a little short.

There’s some power here, but it’s hard to control, so I recommend that you don’t aim them directly at your actors. Bounce them off a wall or ceiling to create a nice soft light. If you want, you can put them outside windows and blast them through the openings. These lights can get hot, so be careful moving them around. I’ve found them as cheap as $10 and can run up to $30. (11/03 I saw an ad for Kragen Auto Parts in LA had them at $10.) They can be found with two heads that makes 1000 watts of lights.


One thing you can do is get a frosted shower curtain and hang it from a stand and then place the shower curtain in front of one of these babies to create a wall of soft light. Again, don’t get too close otherwise your melt a hole in your pretty shower curtain. (I have to give credit for Bruce L.)


China Lanterns are great. I’ve seen them on the sets of movies costing many millions of dollars. They are paper material which can be expanded into a ball (and now different shapes like squares, rectangles and ovals). They come with a wire support for the bulb. You need to get a socket and cable and they are usually sold in the same place you find the lanterns. I put a regular 200 watt bulb inside and they make a great softlight for close-ups. If the lantern’s big enough, I’ll put two 200 watt bulbs in and I can light a small room with them. Be careful with them because they’re made of paper and can burst into flames. They run between $3 - $7 depending on size. You can find them at Target, Ikea and Pier One Imports, to name a few.

If you’re handy, you can pick up a socket and some zip cord, otherwise known as household extension cord, and make your own cord for the china lantern.


Then you have small sealed beam halogen lamps which cost around $4-$10. You put these in a socket and then clamp them onto a stand, then aim away. It makes a great kicker/backlight and are great for light special items in the background. They come in different beam patterns, from narrow to wide. I tend to go for the medium and narrow. The wide is, well, too wide of a beam.


The old reliable metal scoop light which comes with a handy clamp is a great option. Pop a 200 watt bulb or a photo flood in it to light your set. Supposedly this is what Robert Rodriguez used to light “El Mariachi”.


How about putting a light kit together of real, pro lights. That’s how I did it when I started out. I’d find a deal on a 1K (1000watt) open face light for $30 and snatch it up. Camera stores that carry used gear are great for deals. A while back, I picked up two 1K fresnels (these are lights with a glass lens that focus the light) and a 2K fresnel (with a roller stand) for $50 a piece. The stand alone was worth $50. Now they didn’t have barn doors (metal leaves that allow you to control the light which attaches to the light), so I had to scrounge some up. I found one set $10. So for $160 dollars I had 4000 watts of light.

Sources for used stuff are:
Local camera stores
Goodwill & Salvation Army – it’s rare, but sometimes there are deals to be had
Ebay – get on-line and start searching under movie equipment and video equipment
Local production companies – sometimes they clear out older gear. Talk to friend who works local production and see what’s up
Local Rental Houses - occasionally they sell off older gear
www.visualproducts.com – they sell used camera gear, but have lights
www.woodennickellighting.com – hollywood rental house that sells used gear

There are plenty of other sites. Get on Google and see what you can find.


So you’ve found some lights, but how the heck do you support them. I recommend that all filmmakers get at least one decent light stand. You can clamp things to them, like the shower curtain mentioned previously, place lights on them or hang props off of them. Again these can be found used. I’d plan on spending $20-50 on a good one or even two.

If you have some extra money laying around (yeah, like indie filmmakers have any spare cash) get yourself a C-stand. This is the staple of any pro movie set. It’s a collapsible, three legged stand which comes with a attachable arm that can be used for an infinite number of tasks, like light stand and holding up any number of items. Used, they run as cheap as $75 and up. Brand new they’re $170.

Get yourself a mafer ($20-40)clamp. It’s a device which clamps to about anything and has spud for lights. You can use it clamps lights to set walls, doors, tables or attached to a light stand so you can have two lights on one stand. Lowel makes a light weight clamp called a tota clamp($15) which does much of the same things, but is smaller and cheaper.


At some point you’ll want to add some color or soften your lights, so you’ll need something to put in front of the lights.

Things to remember, gels add color or correct color temperature and diffusion softens the light.

First, how do you attach these gels to your lights? C-47 media attachment clips, otherwise known as clothes pens. Get wooden C-47s, not plastic. The plastic ones will melt. The wooden C-47s can burn, but won’t catch on fire. Gels are fairly heat resistant, but you can melt them if you get them to close to the light, so use caution when attaching them to lights.

Gels come in all kinds of flavors. Number one are color correction gels. These are used to make your movie lights match daylight. You’d slap a blue (CTB, color temperature blue) on your light so it matches the daylight streaming in through a window. (Without going heavy duty into color temperatures, just remember that daylight is blue and tungsten light is orange.) If you have a small window, you may place an orange gel on the window to get daylight to match your movie lights.

For other colors, sometimes called theatrical or party gels, you can find about any color under the sun available. Horror film directors are always asking for red. James Cameron must go through a ton of blue gels. Green can be used to make everybody sick. It’s all a matter of taste. A single sheet (3x3) of gel can run around $6.

You may want to talk to local production houses and rental houses to see if they have scrap gel laying around they’d give you. I’ve snagged plenty of gels this way. In LA, when features wrap, they dump tons of gels.

If you can’t snag some for free, camera stores and theatrical supply stores carry them. A cool thing is to buy small packets of gels. Bogen has put together small packets with different groupings of gels. They offer color correction(lots of blue and orange), diffusion and multi-color packets. They run around $20 a piece, which seems a lot for some colored plastic, but if you’re careful, you can use these gels for a long time. I recommend the color correction pack and diffusion pack.


When you’re without power you can always use some reflectors to get light on your subject. On a pro set, a shiny board is the tool, but they cost many hundreds of dollars. He’s a cheap substitute, Tyvek. Tyvek you ask? It’s household insulating foam board, but the cool thing is it’s coated with a shiny foil outside which can reflect a ton of light. If you need to fill in some actor or pound some light through window onto your set, Tyvek or some other insulation will do the trick. A cool portable reflector is those fold up windshield covers that are coated in silver material. A pro flex fill runs $50 and the windshield covers can run under $10. Finally, if you’re in a pinch, just coat a hunk of foam core with aluminum foil, remember to crinkle it up some so it’s not too sharp with its’ reflected light, and you have a great fill light.


Extension cords, or as they’re called in Hollywood, stingers, are a must have item. Get lots of them. I’d have at least one 50 foot and a couple 25 foot stingers handy. I like the ones with multi-plugs on the end. Some come with a LED in the end so you know it’s plugged in. Get black cords if possible because you can hide them easier in shots than the bright orange ones which seem to overrun hardware stores. I’ve had to run cords through shots and found if I run them along baseboards or natural lines in the set most of the time you can never seen them, if you’re careful. Plan on spending about $40 for the above allotment.

Power strips are a great little item. Make sure they can handle 15 or more amps. $4-$8

Cube taps. There are handy little boxes you plug into an outlet which triples the amount of plugs. $4

3 Prong adapter – in older houses you run into 2 prong outlets. (2 for $2)

Screw in socket to plug adapter – these are handy little things to have. They screw into a light socket and turn it into a 2 prong , so have a 3 prong adapter handy, into a plug. I shouldn’t admit to this, but a couple of time I’ve been shooting outside a building and had no place to plug in my lights. Well, the outside of the building had a light, so I unscrewed the light bulb and screwed in my adapter, thus making it into an outlet allowing me to “borrow” some power for my lights. ($3)

Spring clamps – get a couple decent sized ones. (2 for $10)

Gaf tape. Get some 2 inch black. It runs around $12-15 per roll, but is worth it. Duct tape is cheap, but leaves residue everywhere you stick and can pull paint off the walls. Gaf tape leave very little residue. I’ve built props out of gaf tape, like a bandanna for an actor and numbers for a door.

A cheapie circuit tester. Usually around $2. You can use these when you’re location scounting to test if plugs you thing you want to use are working or not. Nothing is more a pain in the butt than setting up all your lights and finding out that the outlets you’re using are non-functioning.

Hand dimmer: You can find these for household lamps and they will handle around 300 watts. You can run 500 watts, but not for long or you will burn it out. These are great for china lanterns. $10 You can build your own which will handle more wattage.

Gloves: Get a decent pair of leather gloves because these lights get very friggin’ hot. You’ll learn after frying you hands a couple of time that gloves are a must item. $6

Black Wrap/Cine Foil/just plain old aluminum foil – black wrap is heavy duty foil painted black and is great to attach to scoop lights and the 500 watt work lights which will allow to shape the light coming out. You can use regular aluminum foil, but the reflections off it can cause problems and it’s not as durable as black wrap.

Plastic tub for all these goodies. ($6)


This doesn’t cover everything in lighting on the cheap by a long shot, but I hope it gives you some ideas that you can use on your sets. Just a little lighting can go a long way to making you movies look better. Get some lights and play around a little bit.

500 watt work light $20
China Lantern(complete w/cord) $22
Halogen light (complete w/cord) $20
One light stand (used) $40
Gels (packet if no freebies) $20
Diffusion (packet if no freebies) $20
Stingers $40
Cube tap $4
Power strip $5
Gloves $6
Gaf tape $15
C-47 (bag) $6
Spring clamps (2) $12
Tota Clamp $12
Circuit tester $2
3 Prong adaptor (2) $2
Screw in plug adapter $3
Hand dimmer $10
Plastic tub for this stuff $6
TOTAL $265

(Wow, that added up to a big figure, but you can build it over time. Again, deals can be had. If you find a cheapie used stand for $20 and freebie gels, then you cut $60 off this total. Also, remember instead of asking for DVDs for Christmas or your birthday, ask for gift certificates at Lowes or Home Depot.)

Scott Spears is an Emmy Award winning Director of Photography with 14 features under his belt. He’s also written several feature screenplays, some of which have been made into movies. You can learn more about him at www.scottspears.net