EVERYTHING YOU EVER WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT CHINA LANTERNS, BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK.
For the uninitiated, china lanterns are those paper lanterns that you see on sale at furniture stores and some lamp stores. They come flat, but expand into balls, ovals, rectangles or squares and come with wire frames to keep them stiff. Most people tend to get the round lanterns, but recently I tried a square one with good result. These babies can make great soft lights for video. Pop in a high wattage bulb and away you go.
You can pick china lanterns up at Pier One, Ikea, World Market and even Target to name a few. They range anywhere from $3 to $7 for the globe. The cord and socket can run in $8-15. Some come with in-line on/off switches. If you’re enterprising, you can buy your own socket and cord at the hardware store and make your own cord for under $5.
I tend to use 200 or 250 watt regular household bulbs in my china lanterns because they’re cheap, but the color temperature is a little warm (2800-3000 K) so it will go a little orange which can be corrected by white balancing. Some folks only use photo floods because they're 3200k, but they're at least twice the cost and only last 200-300 hours.
Sometimes, if you have a really big china lantern, you can put in two 200 watt bulbs. Be careful, if the lantern is too small, it will get too hot and catch on fire. Safety First!
I tend to get white china lanterns. Some lanterns are warm in color. If you want a warm look with a white lantern, you can always toss in a gel. There are colored lanterns, but I prefer to use gels for color effects. You can wrap a gel around the bulb and clip it to the lantern frame with a clothes pin (otherwise known in the biz as a C-47). A white lantern can become multi-colors with gels, but a blue lantern will always be blue.
You can buy professional china lanterns made out of canvas, but they run $200 and up. They will last a long time, but you could buy 20 paper versions for that.
One thing you will want to have is a dimmer so you can control the light levels coming from your lantern. You can find 300watt hand dimmers at hardware and lamp stores for in the $10-$14 range. Again, you can build your own and save money. NOTE: Remember when you dim a tungsten light, the color temperature will go down and the light will get warmer, so be aware if you're actors start looking orange. Time to re-white balance unless that's the effect you want.
I like to hang china lanterns from C-Stands, or a light stand. You also hang them from room supports. In a pinch, I’ve even gaffed taped them to ceilings. You should have some spring clamps handy to attach them to whatever you want to hold them.
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