This is a quick guide to affordable lighting techniques that any production can—and should—practice.

1. Natural Light

The absolute cheapest way to light your scene is to work with natural light, which will almost always be from the sun. The concession you make here is giving up full control over the positions of your subject and camera. Instead, the light will dictate this for you.

If you’re indoors, shooting near windows can help light your scene naturally. The added bonus of staying indoors is that all existing lights and lamps (i.e. practical lights) are fair game, and can be moved to areas that need more light.

2. Bouncing

Bounces reflect the light back onto your subject, which helps fill in shadows and reduce contrast between your light and dark areas. Bounces can cost anywhere from $20 to hundreds of dollars for the really fancy ones. Really, though, any lightweight, flat, white surface will do fine. I once saw a friend use the top of a pizza box as a bounce to fill in some shadows on a subject’s face.

3. Cutting

When you need to reduce the light in a scene, using a flag for negative fill is an easy, cheap technique. A simple black card or even a black bed sheet can do wonders for controlling light and adding some shape and contrast to your scene.

4. Household Items

If you need a light but don’t have a budget for professional equipment, there’s probably a light around your house that will achieve a similar effect:

  • China ball lanterns fill a room with even, soft light, so you’ll have fewer shadows to deal with. Pick these up at most party stores or even Ikea for just a few bucks.
  • Floor and table lamps highlight specific areas in a scene and pull double duty on camera as part of the set. If they end up being too bright, purchase affordable dimmers from hardware stores to help control intensity.
  • T-shirts, tights, shower curtains, trash bags and tracing paper diffuse or cut light, though exercise caution when using any flammable materials in this way—make sure there’s a good distance between your light source and the improvised diffuser.

5. Flood Lights

Flood lights or shop lights give you a massive amount of light for very little money (for example, Home Depot has two-in-one 1400-watt “Twin Head Telescoping Worklights” for just $80). These will give you lots of harsh shadows. If you want something softer, bounce them off a ceiling or diffuse them. Just remember that these get extremely hot, so wear gloves when you adjust them.

6. LEDs

Maybe you can’t afford one now, but consider investing in an LED fixture, which will save you money in the long term. LED lights are generally pricier than tungsten Fresnels—compare ARRI’s T1 1,000-watt Fresnel at $655 to its L7-C LED, with a tungsten equivalent output of 750 watts, at $2,800. With LEDs, though, you won’t be dealing with bulb replacements, burnt fingers, blown fuses, and worst of all, potential fire hazards from objects getting too close to your lights. The other benefit of LED lights is that even the “big” ones are often small, lightweight and usually flat, which, along with the fact that most can run off batteries, makes them ultra-portable.

ikan’s IB1000 bi-color LED studio light

ikan’s IB1000 bi-color LED studio light

Higher-end LEDs are bi-color, which means they can be set to different color temperatures. The higher the color temperature, the bluer the light. The lower the color temperature, the more yellow or red the light. Noon daylight (sun shining, no cloud cover) in the area of the globe between the tropics is considered for practical purposes to have a color temperature of 5,000 degrees Kelvin. With a bi-color LED, everything from tungsten (which is warm) to daylight (which is cool) can be achieved with a single light, which is great when you’re trying to match multiple light sources, or when you story calls for mixed-color temperatures in a single shot. Some even offer a full-color spectrum mode for red, blue, green, pink, etc., handy for mimicking environments like bars or concert halls.

Vimeo’s in-house production team uses ikan’s bi-color kit, while the Story & Heart team loves Westcott’s Flex series. Do some research to find the best LED for your needs—and start saving for those puppies! In the meantime, brush up your lighting chops any way you can. The sun will always be there. MM

This article was written by Andrea Allen and Story & Heart. Andrea Allen is Director of Production at Vimeo. She oversees and produces content such as Vimeo Originals, Vimeo Video School Lessons and on-site reporting from events such as the X Games, SXSW Interactive, and the NAB Show. Story & Heart is a collaborative filmmaking community and story-driven video licensing platform.

Featured image: Three Westcott Flex lights (2″x2″, 1″x3″, and 1″x1″) are used by Story & Heart to light an interview. Courtesy of Story & Heart.