5 min read

4 DIY Light Fixtures For Under $100

Whether you are filming your next big feature documentary, a protest in the streets, or taking photos in a studio, you always need to think…
4 DIY Light Fixtures For Under $100

Whether you are filming your next big feature documentary, a protest in the streets, or taking photos in a studio, you always need to think about lighting. Fortunately, there are many different ways to get the right light without breaking the bank.

1. Hard Lighting

What you use it for: Hard lighting is a type of lighting that is not diffused. You can use it when you want to create harsh shadows for dramatic effect. It’s directional and can be aimed through barn doors, flags, and more, to accentuate the details of your subject. While it’s not the most natural form of light, certain film genres like film noir use it almost exclusively. A powerful light could cost you hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars. However, if you have the patience, and a bit of technical know-how, you can build this lighting yourself.

When filming a documentary, you may want to use hard lighting to create an atmosphere and emphasize certain aspects of your character. Visionary documentary filmmaker, Errol Morris (errolmorris), used this technique in his documentary Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr, which tells the story of an execution technician. The film uses hard light in scene recreations to emphasis the strange and intense nature of the subject.

Harsh lighting creating shadows for dramatic effect in Schindler’s List. Credit: Movieclips

What you need to make your own:

  • (1) 12 x 10” White plastic dish pan
  • (4) Weatherproof sockets
  • (4) Splitters
  • (8) 5,000K 100W equivalent CFLs
  • (1) Wired on/off switch
  • (1) Metal handle
  • (1) Plastic flag pole holder
  • (1) Blank plastic yard sign
  • (1) Clear silicone sealant
  • (1) Bare AC cable
  • (6) Wire guards
  • (1) Spool of 12 gauge wire
  • Assorted 3/4” screws and nuts

Total cost: Less than $90

Set it up:

Credit: Indy Mogul

2. Soft Lighting

What you use it for: Soft lighting has soft edges and creates less shadows than hard lighting. It’s one of the most common types of lighting because it creates a realistic atmosphere. It will also reduce wrinkles and blemishes and is a much more flattering than directional lights, which are harsher. This type of light can be created using china balls. China balls are low cost and come in various sizes. By putting a light inside a china ball, it is diffused in all directions leading to soft light. The size of the china ball and wattage of the bulb will determine how the light is diffused.

In documentaries, soft light can be used when all elements on screen deserve equal attention. In the NYT Opinion documentary, Gut Hack, we see several scenes of a man taking pills in his bathroom. Soft diffused lighting is used so our focus is not brought towards just the pills or his face.

An example of how china ball lighting can be used in combination with other light sources: Credit: Production Attic

What you need to make your own:

  • (1) Painters pole
  • (1) 70 watt halogen tungsten bulb
  • (1) Light cord with switcher
  • (1) China ball

Total cost: Less than $40

Set it up:

Credit: Production Attic

3. Gel Lights

What you use it for: Gel lights are used to change the color temperature of your lights without changing bulbs. Uses for gels include converting tungsten light to daylight, reducing general light output, and to change color for effects. Gel lights can completely change the atmosphere of your shot. Color temperature is measured in Kelvin so a light that has a temperature of 2,000K to 3,000K will be ‘warm’ while light that is 4,600K to 6,000K is ‘cool.’

Gel lights can help establish the mood of your shot. Legendary documentary director, Werner Herzog, often uses color and light to create a specific mood. His latest documentary, Into the Inferno, emphasizes color to show the intensity and power of nature.

The movie Terminator 2: Judgement Day uses ‘cool’ lighting to show a cold and robotic atmosphere.

What you need to make your own:

  • Craft paint
  • Saran wrap
  • Cardboard
  • Exacto knife

Note: Although saran wrap can withstand high temperatures, if your light is hot enough, it can still cause holes to form in the plastic. You can upgrade to clear plastic sheets if necessary.

Total cost: Less than $20

Set it up:

Credit: Nathanael Lathrop

4. LED Panel

What you use it for: LED panels are popular on film and photography sets because of their convenience and efficiency. They are small and less prone to breaking than alternative light sources. They require very little energy to use and convert 90% of their energy into light. Because LED lights are less hot than traditional light sources, you will feel more comfortable transporting them and using gels. Other lights are still cheaper to buy, but if you’re feeling motivated, you can DIY using supplies from Amazon and your local hardware store.

As a documentary filmmaker you can use an LED panel with natural daylight to film well lit interviews. Instead of having to carry around several lights for a three-point lighting setup, you can take advantage of natural light and use your cheap LED panel to control the contrast and background. You can also move your subject around without having to worry about the natural light. An LED panel can also be used as the key light as demonstrated here.

An example of LED panels for nighttime shooting by Andyax.

What you need to make your own:

  • (1) 1/8"X24.75"X14.25" hardboard
  • 1"X2" finished pine board (actual dimensions: 3/4"X1.5") — two 8' boards is sufficient
  • (2) 24" Pine board
  • (2) 13.5" Pine board
  • (2) 2" Pine board
  • (2) 9.25" Pine board
  • (1) 27.875" Pine board
  • (1) 1/2" threaded female PVC coupler
  • (2) #10 32 threads/inch 2.5" screws
  • (1) #10 T-nut
  • (4) #10 washers
  • (1) Screw for tripod
  • (2) 1.5" wide steel angles (optional)
  • LED Strips
  • 24 Volt 5 Amp AC/DC PSU
  • 24 to 12 Volt DC voltage Regulator
  • Female CCTV DC barrel connector
  • 22 Kohm Potentiometer
  • On/Off Switch
  • Mini Fan
  • 12 AWG bus wire
  • 22 AWG jumper wire

Total cost: Less than $50

Set it up:

Credit: How We Make Things

Written Instructions can be found here.

By Josh Futtersak, Storyhunter Writer