Keeping Affordable Lighting in Your Kit

If you are going to invest in equipment as a cinematographer or lighting technician, lights are a good way to go. They will consistently serve you on a shoot, last for a long time and uphold their value. I want to step away from the larger, expensive units you always find on set for a moment and talk about the small but powerful things you can have in your bag. There are a lot of useful, affordable units you can accumulate, or even build, to utilize on set.

Strings of Christmas lights in a desert shoot create the illusion of a city in the distance.BULBS

There is no reason why there shouldn’t be bulbs in any ditty bag. Having a variety of bare bulbs is invaluable. We are still shooting movies with a lot of incandescent light in them, so having incandescents is pretty necessary.

I am always replacing the bulbs in the lamps the production designer provides with my own, knowing the wattage needed if we are utilizing something as a practical and seeing it in the shot. Another obvious reason to carry bulbs is to rig up a Chinaball, which makes for a beautiful, soft key light.

LED strips come in a variety of colors and can be controlled by a remote or mobile device. Incandescent bulbs are extremely inexpensive. Purchasing clamp light fixtures is also inexpensive and a good way to acquire the “guts” or socket for a lightbulb. In addition to the socket, you get a parabolic housing that can be clamped onto countless surfaces.

Another popular bulb is the Philips Hue, which comes in white or color. What is unique about the Hue is that you can change the color of the bulb, which can go between 16 million colors, with your mobile device. You can also sync them to music and dim them. You cannot go wrong with these, though they are a bit more expensive than a regular household incandescent.


The original strip was the classic string of Christmas lights. These will always be great to have. They are beautiful in the background of a restaurant scene or even bundled up into a cluster for a key light. Warm or white Christmas lights can also be slowly pulled across the back window in a poor man’s process to effectively simulate the shifting of a horizon line of city lights.

I have even taken multiple strings in a night exterior desert shoot and laid them 500 feet out into the sand to create the illusion of a city way out in the distance and add some depth to the world. You can also take a string of these or firefly lights like you would find in home decor, and create a ring light.

Clamp light fixture More popular now, and more affordable than ever, are LED strips. These tend to be much more controllable than people think. Like Christmas lights, they come in a variety of colors and can be controlled via a remote or mobile device.

LED strips are available in a hard fixture, resembling a fluorescent, or soft LED “rope” for more flexibility. They also attach easily to surfaces, so placing them under cabinetry or shelves in a bar scene is done with ease. With colored strips, neon signs outside of a window can be simulated. Just like Christmas lights, they can even be bundled up to create a soft source that is more specific.


Small, mobile LED panels have become very affordable and popular. Now with more accurate CRI ratings, they are great tools to have. I carry two Amaran M9 lights with me, which are powered by 5V USB, so they never require batteries, but there are a variety of small LEDs that you can get that are compatible with other batteries such as LP-6 and/or even have a p-tap input onboard.

Ring light fixture These units always have onboard dimmers and can be wrapped in diffusion like grid or silk to become a soft, spread out source. They are easily placed in a set with Velcro or a clamp. Instead of having a complicated car lighting kit you have to wire, mobile LED lights make for great extensions of a car dashboard, and an easy, go-to fill light.

LED panels can also be built. This is a little more expensive to do, but it is possible to create a custom panel with your choice of LED brands, colors, quantities and qualities.


If you know how to light, you will find very effective ways to implement the simplest of sources. When space and budget are limited, it is helpful to bring your own lighting tools to the table, but even on the big sets, we are constantly playing with the small, versatile lights in our own kits. There are hundreds of uses for every light and that includes everything from an ARRI Skypanel to a flashlight. With this in mind, you can accomplish anything.

Julia Swain is a cinematographer based in California, whose narrative films include “Killing Animals,” “Jilted” and “Cassidy Red.” She continues to shoot on a variety of formats, seeking to create compelling visuals for every story and brand. She can be contacted through TV Technology.