Choosing the Ideal Lighting Set: My RecommendationsSep 18, 2023
The current lighting market is experiencing an unprecedented surge in offerings, presenting consumers with an extensive array of lighting sources to choose from. Seven years ago, obtaining sufficient lighting was an expensive task, often requiring the rental of hefty 1200W or 2500W/4000W (or higher) HMI metal halide sources, typically accompanied by noisy and unwieldy generators. The prospect of purchasing such equipment was daunting, with high price, such as the eye-watering $10,000 and beyond for the ARRI 2.5KW model.
At present, we find ourselves in a vastly transformed landscape where powerful lighting solutions have become remarkably affordable, courtesy of brands like Nanlite, Aperture, and Godox.
With this backdrop, I am eager to share my insights in this article. I aim to explore the considerations surrounding which light sources to invest in, ensuring that you acquire a versatile and indispensable tool to support your filmmaking endeavors for the next 3 to 5 years. Moreover, we will delve into the essential question of determining the ideal power output for your lighting source and discuss strategies for expeditiously recouping your investment in these sources.
What kind of power to choose
To gain a better understanding of the power you'll require, I recommend considering the typical scenarios in which you'll need illumination, as this will enable you to identify your most frequent shooting environments and determine the corresponding lighting needs.
Our primary focus will be on LED units, given their current status as the most convenient and cost-effective choice for shooting.
Daylight / sunlight for interior scenes
When simulating daylight or artificial sunlight for interior scenes, you'll require varying levels of light sources, typically falling within the range of 500, 600, 1200, or even 2600 watts (LED).
These light sources are often sizeable, offering directional lighting capabilities. This allows you to position it outside the window and create a simulated sun effect. They can also accommodate additional attachments such as Fresnel lenses, curtains, or softboxes etc. However, it's important to note that these powerful sources also tend to be on the pricier side (obviously, lol).
I recommend having at least a 500 or 600-watt fixture in your inventory. Such a tool proves highly versatile and can cover a wide range of filmmaking tasks. For instance, to effectively mimic daylight in a smaller room, you'd aim for an average illuminance of around 3000 lux at a distance of 5 meters (approximately 9.8 feet) between the source and subject with a 55° beam angle from the fixture lens. With fixtures like the Nanlite 500 II equipped with a Fresnel lens or the Aputure 600D, you can create a powerful artificial sunlight effect in a confined and small space.
Moreover, directional lighting provides the ability to light the long shots. When using a Fresnel lens, you can generally work at longer distances without losing power, even when placing the fixture behind a window or positioning it 4-9 meters away from a subject.
This is where the Evoke 1200 comes into play, casting its brilliant radiance throughout the entire cave. We harnessed its capabilities for simulating daylight, even on an overcast day.
Here's a list of lights sources that can be useful if you primarily work with daytime scenes to complement natural light or when you need to illuminate extensive areas of long shots:
- Aputure 600D / 600W
- Aputure ELECTRO STORM 2600W
- Aputure ELECTRO STORM 1500W
- Nanlite 500 II
- Nanlite 500B II
- Nanlite Forza 720B
- Nanlite Forza 720
- Nanlux Evoke 1200
- Nanlux Evoke 1200B
- Godox Knowled M600D
- Godox Knowled M600B
- Godox Knowled MG1200
Prior to purchasing any light source, I strongly advise examining the lux rating. Each brand and model, whether it's daylight or bi-color, often possesses significantly varying power coefficients. A higher coefficient is preferable as it allows you to illuminate long shots and larger room spaces more effectively.
When deciding how many sources to purchase, I recommend acquiring two bi-color versions if feasible. To be able to make warm (3200K) or cold light(6000K) on the set. To make a moonlight, sunrise, cold daylight, warm sun, or streetlight. One source can serve as a fill or background light to adjust exposure and create a bright background atmosphere, while the other can be dedicated to lighting your actors, whether for backlighting, side, or fill.
A common mistake to avoid is relying solely on a single powerful light source for the actors while neglecting the background exposure. In such cases, the characters may be well-lit, but the background could appear unnaturally dark.
Two Aputure 600Ds work as a side / backight on each of the characters here.
The potency of these light sources very cool complements natural light. This implies that you need not postpone your shoot until nighttime or labor within a dimly lit environment to craft captivating, contrast-rich imagery with expressive lighting contrast. The 500/600W power output proves invaluable for elevating exposure and make contrast ratio between shadows and light (1:4 contrast ratio or more), even in the presence of cloudy or overcast conditions.
Exterior light / daylight
If you find yourself shooting predominantly outdoors, the prevailing weather conditions become a key factor to consider. In sunny conditions, your primary requirement may shift from light sources to a comprehensive grip set, stands featuring frames with textiles. However, when faced with overcast skies or rainy weather, a powerful lighting source becomes an invaluable tool for enhancing light contrast.
But how powerful should it be?
For outdoor use, you'll want a lighting source that surpasses the specifications I previously recommended for interior scenes. A minimum of 720W or 1200W is advisable. Alternatively, you can work with 500W or 600W fixtures, but these are better suited for mid-range or close-up shots.
Here, we introduced an additional lighting source for backlighting, using the Nanlite Forza 500 II B model. Given the highly changeable and cloudy weather conditions, I was eager to create this damn backlight to achieve the desired contrast in our shots. As you can observe, the power output of this source suffices primarily for mid-range shots.
Conditions are considerably more favorable when blessed with stable, sunny weather. If you have confidence in the reliability of your weather forecast, I strongly recommend contemplating the acquisition of textiles to accompany a 6,8,12-ft frame.
These textiles can serve you in several crucial ways:
- Shading and providing negative fill (ultra bounce, black textile)
- Sunlight reflecting (silver, gold, checkerboard reflector, white textile)
- Sunlight softening (Light grid, silk)
With the versatility to work with shading, reflecting and softening on the set, don't need to use any additional light sources to craft cool and contrast shots, you already have an ability to use the textile for this.
The classic approach of using sunlight as a backlight, bounced with a checkerboard reflector, employing shading from the camera side using a black textile, and creating soft side lighting for the second half of the face through a white textile. No light sources, only a textile for reflection and shading.
The checkerboard is a valuable tool when you seek a reflection that is neither too cold nor too warm, making it an excellent choice for achieving a blended and balanced temperature effect.
If you have the opportunity to work with sunlight - here's a comprehensive list of items I suggest you consider for potential purchase:
- Ultrabounce (Black/White textile) — For a negative fill
- With textile – silk or grid #1/4, #1/2, #1 — For a diffusion
- Checkerboard / Silver / Gold fabric — For reflection
- Butterfly Frame Kit (12 x 12) for grip of fabric
I recommend getting textiles in sizes of at least 6 or 12 feet as these are the most common sizes for frames of that length. Also, keep in mind that you'll need at least two people on your team to help with the assembly and ensure the stability of the frame structure to which the textiles will be attached.
By the way, I have an awesome and super useful free master class on how to create cinematic-quality shots while working on exterior. It covers topics like finding the right location and working with natural light. It's absolutely free, and you can start using my secret lighting techniques in your projects right now.
Interior light / night lighting
You might find yourself a bit taken aback when you first glance at the price tag of the Evoke 1200. But fear not, for you won't typically require such potent devices for interior work.
In most cases, for a contrast, when you're operating in well-lit spaces, your goal is to augment the existing natural light streaming in through the windows by extra light sources. But sometimes, for the same goals, all it takes is deepening the shadows to achieve a three-dimensional effect and create contrast between the brighter and darker areas within the frame. And no need to use extra light sources to make a volumetric shot.
Based on my experience, if you're shooting during daylight hours, fixtures in the range of 150 to 300 watts should suffice to make additional contrast. For nighttime shooting, you can work with fixtures ranging from 60 to 150 watts. These figures are rough estimations, as the ideal wattage depends on factors like the area you need to illuminate, the frame's dimensions, the number of characters etc.
Side light from Nanlite 300b + soft diffusion frame. For mid shot.
What about LED tubes? LED Tubes can be like an interior element in the frame for a viewer. They can also be easily hung or concealed due to their lightweight and convenient design for grip.
I often employ tubes as side lights, backlighting, or fill lighting for medium shots. They also come in handy for augmenting interior lighting to brighten up dark background areas.
Two TL 30 LED tubes from Godox (30W)
Moreover, compact devices like Aputure MS or Godox Knowled M1 are excellent for similar tasks. However, it's important to note that these devices are not the most powerful, and their light can be noticeable in low-key or dark set.
One Godox m1 is in the background, casting a warm hue on the wall of the house. The second device, held by the heroine, is green.
To illuminate a broader area within the frame or to achieve a softer quality of light, I tend to opt for LED panels or light mats.
The general rule is that the larger the surface area of the light fixture, the softer the resulting light. Conversely, with smaller light sources, you tend to create more pronounced and harder shadows on the subjects being illuminated.
In addition to practical lighting, there's an extra side warm light in use. This large light mat (150W Bi) produces soft side illumination, thanks to its size and diffusing material. It's ideal for achieving excellent skin tones in portraits without extra diffusion or bouncing of a lighting.
The light on the right side here is provided by a 4000K light mat 150W Bi.
Light mats prove exceptional for capturing portraits / mid and close up shots, providing room-filling illumination, and generating overhead lighting effects. Their substantial size and lightweight design allow for easy installation under various conditions and at different heights.
For indoor shooting, the ideal power range for a light mat typically falls between 150 to 200 watts. Devices with higher power ratings, such as 300 watts or more, are better suited for nighttime outdoor shoots, larger interior spaces, or shooting in a studio with a cyclorama.
In essence, the guiding principle here is straightforward: the larger the area you need to illuminate, the larger and powerful the light mat should be. Light mats and panels excel in this regard due to their combination of being lightweight and generously sized
Light mat 600W
Here's a list of recommended light sources for your consideration:
- Amaran F22x 2x2 (or 2x1) Bi-Color LED Flexible Mat
- Aputure nova p300c (panel)
- Godox (Flexible mat) F200Bi/F400Bi/F600Bi
- Gogox (panel) P600Bi Hard
- Any COB lights from Godox, Nanlite or Aputure with a minimum of 150W for daylight scenes and not less than 60W for nighttime shoots.
- Any LED tubes from Godox, Nanlite or Aputure
- Nanlite mc or Godox Knowled m1 (small light tool)
How to recoup your light investment
If you have the opportunity to benefit from tax deductions through the purchase of lighting sources or grip, it's a cool — don't hesitate to take advantage of this option. Regardless, every purchase like this represents an investment in yourself as a professional and in your business.
For those just beginning their journey into lighting and seeking a practical tool for practice and low-budget projects, it's advisable not to risk investing in expensive and powerful lighting sources initially. Instead, start with one or two affordable and versatile devices (150–300 for interior scenes or mid shots). This approach allows you to gain a better understanding of the nuances of working with light and its capabilities. Once you've accumulated experience, you can then consider investing in more powerful and higher-priced fixtures.
If you find yourself working approximately 5-10 shooting shifts a month, I recommend purchasing the equipment that you most frequently rent. This approach not only saves money on rentals but also reduces the need for constant interactions with rental services, all while potentially generating additional income.
For instance, if you own a 500-watt light source, you can charge an extra $65 (approximately) for its use during a project, essentially renting it out from yourself. With this strategy, many cinematographers opt to acquire optics, cameras, and accessories, which they can then rent out to themselves for commercial projects.
Following this model, equipment valued between $1500 — $3000 can often pay for itself within a matter of months.