What You Need to Build a Versatile, Compact, and Ultra Cheap DIY Light Kit

Even on projects that can afford to rent a lighting and grip package, it can be useful for you to have your own lighting kit stashed away. Whether this kit is something you keep in the trunk of your car, good in a pinch -- or what you use to make your living -- the boy scout motto applies. Who knows, maybe you're up the creek, just that one cube tap or ground lift short, but because you brought your kit, your gaffer owes you a brewski when the day is done. Thanks to a few open filmmakers with some ingenuity up their sleeves, we have some details on what extremely affordable and useful gear can comprise your own DIY lighting kit.

Jeremy Widen has just posted a great explanation of his own hardcore-DIY lighting package, itself inspired by that of the Frugal Filmmaker. Before we check out Jeremy's video, here's Scott Eggleston -- the Frugal Filmmaker himself -- with his original lighting kit:

Next, here's Jeremy Widen's recently posted demonstration of the modifications he's made to the recipe:

What I like about these kits is their multi-usefulness. Depending on what you're doing, all the gear here could pretty much take care of your whole scene -- or, at the other end of the spectrum, cover all your bases for that vital, basic stuff you simply can't do without on a gig -- which just so happens to be what, by some misfortune, you would have otherwise found yourself without had you not heeded the boy scout motto. Even if you're going with the latter option and this stuff is just a backup that lives and sleeps in your car, you will never do anything but thank yourself for keeping it close. This is the another thing I like about these packages, they allow you to come prepared for some curve balls without having to commit to being a full-on owner-operator.

The disclaimer is that this is all actually really truly DIY equipment, meaning it wasn't necessarily intended for film production. This doesn't mean you can't do great stuff with it (as we all know, if it works, it works). Just keep in mind that, unless you have a good amount of electrical experience -- well, even then, safety first -- there's a number of considerations that come with using this stuff on a set (which implies made-to-be-temporary rigging and running lighting for extended periods). Ground lifts (cheaters, or three-to-two-prong adapters) are supposed to be grounded. Worklights like these can get hot (caution should be taken with placement), and non-ceramic sockets in any situation shouldn't be trusted, and should be checked occasionally. Make sure you're not overloading things like the dimmers, stingers, power strips, or cube taps (or anything else you're patching through to the wall, also, the wall itself) past what they're rated for. Some of you reading this might already know all of these concerns, but in case this post and these videos are finding the younger or less-experienced versions of all of us, it may be important to note.

If you guys appreciated the videos, be sure to visit Jeremy and Scott's respective pages and let them know! I'm sure they'd also love to here what other sorts of stuff you've included in your DIY lighting kits, and we would as well -- so feel free to share below!


Your Comment


i just bought a bunch of china lamps (12", 18" and 30") and associated cords and bulbs and things, along with a string of LED lights, batteries, extension cords, and wax paper and tape for diffusion. now all my films look like the social network B)

November 22, 2012 at 3:39PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

john jeffreys

Where'd you get your china lanterns?

November 24, 2012 at 2:04PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

You voted '-1'.
Nico Burasco

Hey Nico I don't know about John but I get them from here.


November 26, 2012 at 7:41AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

David F

filmtools.com! and if you live in the LA area you can go pick them up at their store

November 26, 2012 at 8:42AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

john jeffreys

As much as I appreciate the little Home Depot clamp lights for how economical they are, I've just always thought that they were trouble in that they can waste your time like no other. Rigging them and getting them to stay in place is a pain in the ass unless you clip or tape them in place (and sometimes even that isn't enough), and then shaping the light itself is difficult unless you have to time to black wrap them to perfection. And when time is money, as it always is on a film set, dealing with these little lights can cost you. Really, it's no fun when the AD is yelling at the G+E department because they're way behind schedule. Been there, done that. If you're really serious about lighting, then start looking around for used fresnels and such. Go to your local theater (for stage productions) and see what they have lying around. WIth that said, it's still good to have a couple of clamp lights around for when you're in a real pinch. I just wouldn't recommend them for day to day work unless you're on an extremely minimal budget.

Also, I think Jeremy is right on with his various electrical equipment. There are some sets where cube taps and stingers are like gold.

November 22, 2012 at 10:10PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Agreed. Clip lights are annoying too b/c even blackrapping them or gelling them is difficult b/c of the curved surfaces. Even c-47's keep popping off them. They're much more difficult to work with than barndoors.

Every filmmaker now thinks you need LED or flo...but lots of small productions would be better served with cheap teenie-weenies and and mickie-moles and 1k fresnels... full spectrum tungsten looks beautiful.

Those were the standard type lights we used when I was in film school in the 90's, and I've rediscovered them b/c they pack a much bigger punch now b/c of higher sensitivity sensors...in black and white, the faster tri-x was 160ASA with tungsten light!

I was gaffing on something in a basement recently...clip lights definitely have a place...they fit in and on rafters like nothing else. They're a pain though.

December 2, 2012 at 5:34AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Daniel Mimura

I thought the article was a good start. I actually used his list to make up my kit. I like the toilet tubes for the small extension cords/stingers. There are a variety of problems with the shop lights and although I already have a couple, I don't like the color temps, the heat (its very hot here already), and putting barn doors on mine would be problematic. One of mine sags like Robert was commenting too.

I recently went in a different direction to make some "video" quality lights which should cost me about $50 each (without stands or barn doors). I've not received the items to make them to test, but its based on a par 38 fixture and 91 CRI 85 watt (300 watt equal) CFLs from Alzo video. I can get and put bard doors on these. If they start making 105 watt and 150 watt high CRI non-flicker bulbs I can just unscrew as needed. These will be mainly used for small 1 and 2 person interviews where the setup and tear down time is important. I like the safety, flexibility and durability of c-stands so I am also using those. They really are not super expensive for their quality.

November 23, 2012 at 1:11AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Steve V

I likewise have a few low wattage worklights, but they can be a real pain to work with. I've found they're best for bouncing off a wall or ceiling to fill in light for a scene.

November 26, 2012 at 8:17AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


I've done stuff like this in my career before. DIY is always a great way to go, especially if you're inspired by the engineering side of filmmaking. I don't believe any light without barndoors or scrims is useful for lighting actors. Actors are better lit by the cooler lights anyway. (LED, Flos). These kits are great for background or lighting a huge space. Also, there's a reason stingers are usually black. ;)

November 23, 2012 at 10:37AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


I cringe every time I see orange.

December 2, 2012 at 5:37AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Daniel Mimura

People get a lot of flack for asking but, what do you guys think of lighting with red heads for the flmmaker that's broke beyond comprehension?

- & if anyone here's done it before please list the pros & cons( those being on the safety ends too because im sure when dealing with such a high wattage at such a small amount of money you do run up the casualties)


November 24, 2012 at 5:52AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Two grip/electrics on set the other day were debating whether they'd want to buy redheads or kinos for a personal kit.

Kinos pros: big soft-ish light that you can get even softer fairly easily with sheets of diffusion, can sometimes get into tighter quarters, low wattage, operate at low temperatures, bulbs can be separated from the housing and put in tight quarters to simulate practicals (e.g. in a fridge, up in a stove's fume hood), or the bulbs themselves can be swapped into many/most practical fluorescent fixtures so you guarantee you get pure tungsten/daylight colour temperature generally without flickering at normal frame rates
Kino cons: expensive, harder to control the light since its a big source, basically cannot produce hard light because its a big source, can't put on an external dimmer and Divas' dimmers give it a slight but very noticeable ugly purple tint, otherwise controlling the intensity you are stuck with toggling bulbs on/off or switching a binary high/low setting or slapping on the eggcrate, ballast and head cables are a bit of extra gack to shift around

Redhead pros: much less expensive, you can achieve both soft and hard light with them, barndoors make for precise light control, precise control over intensity with scrims and external dimmers
Redhead cons: need frames to get soft light = more stands + gear, run hot

We also mentioned LED panels in the talk but none of us three had used them enough to weigh in seriously.

Consider: why are you thinking of investing in lights right now? What type of projects are you going to be doing i.e. videography/documentary/narrative? Will having a lighting kit enable you to get more work? How often are you going to be shooting with these lights? Will you make enough money to pay them off via contracts/rentals/kit fees? Will you save enough money by purchasing them vs renting them from a rental house or non-profit arts co-op? Do you know how to use these lights?

I personally don't think there's a huge imperative to own lighting unless you know you're going to be working a lot. Some people may learn very productively by playing around with their own kit on their own projects, but I think its absolutely crucial to work under and with people more experienced than you are, to pick up tips and tricks, and see how certain situations and problems are approached. At the end of the day, equipment is just equipment and the person operating it is the most important factor.

November 29, 2012 at 11:55PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


I disagree about owning lights. I feel like you can only get away without owning lights is when you're already established and production is gonna pay for everything and you realize that a joker bug 800 costs over $5000.

You have to own a basic ENG style lighting kit to do a simple one or two person interview...a basic 3 light kit (with tons of other lights like clip lights and china balls) just to get work in the beginning. And those first things you get on are not going to pay enough (or at all) to use them.

Most directors/producers are going to go with a DP and/or gaffer that already has this stuff b/c most do. I can't imagine not having lights.

My experiences with redheads have been terrible. Go super cheap (china balls and cliplights and every kind of light you can rig up with the cliplights without the metal attached) or go to the next step up with things like teenie-weenies or mickey moles. (And then get kinoflos)

Red heads might not be grounded, so double check that---I think there are knockoffs, but I'm not sure. And 2 other problems I've had with them are that they get hot and melt themselves and that sometimes the spot/flood knob is made with such crappy tolerances that it won't track right---this is even with a brand new light sometimes.

Some people swear by some of the Lowell lights for cheaper fixtures...I HATE them...but a couple DPs I respect like them and use them sometimes.

December 2, 2012 at 5:50AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Daniel Mimura

I've used RedHeads before and they get VERY hot - one day we needed to improvise a flag and taped some cardboard to one of these, thinking it would only be on for a few minutes ... smoke, flames, drama! shgould have turned the camera round to catch the action but someone had to get the extinguisher - which BTW should have in your kit along with the heat-proof gloves. If there are others around (director, talent, make-up etc) you should have warning signs on any lights that get hot.

For a DIY kit I now use the 91CRI cfls with a variety of fittings from the hardware store. You can get these up to 135W (650W incandescent equivalent) so they can serve as a key or fill in a close scene.

November 30, 2012 at 1:37AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


I think it's very hard to learn lighting without lights. Rentals are okay if you have the money and insurance, but if you don't know how to use them right, you can lose a lot of time before you get set for the shot. As said above, get good experience from working on sets, but I've run into very few people who will just let you hang around if they have good crew already, especially if they pay them. With the right book (or DVD) and some lights, you CAN learn to shape light on your own. For safety's sake, electrical work is best learned from someone who knows it.

With the economy as it is, eBay and CraigsList can be your best friend for lighting. I got a four light used set of ARRI fresnels (two 300s and two 650s) with 6 extra bulbs, 4 ARRI stands, barn doors, single, double, half-single and half double screens for each fixture, a big case ful of gels and blackwrap, grip arms and heads, super-clamps, and an old Lowel giant soft light (admittedly in poor condition) for $500 from a guy who bought them from a band and used them on a plumbing job as work lights. Lowels are a good place to start for quality Tungsten lights. I've bought my share of cheap photo-video lights, and never again. Buy once, cry once.

November 30, 2012 at 10:16AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Zan Shin

That's a deal!

December 2, 2012 at 5:55AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Daniel Mimura

Granted, you can't buy these yet but with a claimed rollout of 2013 and the potential advantage of a flat white light source with little heat and no filaments to break, this stuff would be a great white light source for a DIY lightbox and booklight. One press release claims a 2' x 4' Fipel source has already been manufactured. The possibility of a variable dimensioned light source is attractive to filmmakers dealing with difficult to light subjects and scenes.

Fipel Plastic Light Bulbs invented by David Carroll at Wake Forest:

New lighting technologies are undergoing a wave of progress and change that can really impact filmmakers.

December 3, 2012 at 10:37AM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM


Wow! That looks like it will hold some promise in a few years. There could be ballast/flicker problems with low spec LED and fluorescent lights...we'll have to see. The fact that it can be made/molded/poured/(or whatever) into any shape holds lots of exciting possibilities. They need to work on their acronyms thou. Fipel is just lame.

December 3, 2012 at 7:51PM, Edited September 4, 7:54AM

Daniel Mimura