Some thoughts on lightweight lighting solutions that are good to go.
By Jay Holben
Just about every other month, and especially when I do lectures and workshops, I get asked about the “perfect” lighting kit. Invariably, someone will send me a link to something they found online or bring me a brochure or ask me about this kit or that… “Is it a good kit?”
My answer, unfortunately, is nearly always the same, “Looks like it could be good… It really depends…”
Unfortunately, it does depend. And it depends on a lot of factors, such as:
• Your budget
• Your intended use(s)
• Your shooting style
• Your physical space/weight and size requirements
Budget is a biggie. Lighting is rarely, if ever, cheap. Although good, high-quality lighting fixtures will last you a long, long time and are, therefore, cheap in the long-run – that initial expenditure can be painful. In this regard, I highly recommend spending as much as you possibly can. There’s a lot of truth to the old adage “you get what you pay for.” Higher quality, and thusly more expensive, equipment will last you longer and provide better results. Does that mean the cheap(er) stuff isn’t good? Does that mean it doesn’t work? No. It just means it might not last you as long as the more expensive stuff.
For high-quality Fresnel tungsten fixtures, expect to pay anywhere from $0.50 to $2.00 per watt, on average. A good quality 650W Fresnel should run you between $325 and $700. For high-end fluorescent fixtures, expect to pay about $100 per lamp-foot. Meaning if you have a 4', 2-lamp fixture, expect to pay about $800. LED fixtures are harder to get a price fix on because they vary so much with their functions, electronics and bells-and-whistles. Be wary of super-great deals on LED fixtures — or, if you do snag that bargain, be aware that you’re probably going to have to invest in some minus green gel to cut down on the gross green spike from the cheap LEDs. These prices are, by no means, the end-all-be-all, but can be taken as a rough guide to what you should be paying for high-quality gear.
Your intended use is the second biggest factor in determining what kit works for you. Are you shooting all talking-head interviews? Are you shooting food? Are you shooting narrative material? Are you a run-and-gun documentarian? If you’re all-of-the-above, or any combination thereof – there’s no one kit for you. There’s no magical light kit that works in every situation. Are you typically working in a controlled studio environment, or are you often working in practical locations with mixed lighting sources? Do your fixtures need to have battery power or will you always have electricity handy? All of these factors have huge impact on the lighting requirements.
Your shooting style has to weigh in here. Some people are die-hard LED aficionados: lightweight, low-power, low-heat. These are all great factors, but LEDs don’t really have the power of their Tungsten counterparts, especially when diffused – which they almost always need to be when used on people. Maybe your lighting style is incredibly soft sources, but you need a lot of “punch,” then open-face tungsten units are probably the best bet for you with large softboxes. If your shooting style is on-the-fly, you might be looking at on-camera lighting or very lightweight, portable and battery-operated LED fixtures you can pick up and run with.
Finally, your physical space and weight requirements. I’ve talked to a lot of professionals who are often one-(wo)man bands and are responsible for their own gear. One of their biggest concerns is that the gear need to pack down tight and light. On the other hand, a professional with an equipment truck, or a large vehicle, might not worry about the size and weight of their gear — they just want the most bang for their buck. If you’re traveling a lot, you’ll want to look into hard cases to protect your equipment. Soft cases can be lightweight, but aren’t as rugged dealing with the rigors of real-world production. In the post 9-11 world, excess baggage on flights can be a nightmare, and if you do a lot of flying, you’ll want to try and keep your kit below 50lb. to save yourself some hassle.
So what’s the answer here? What is the perfect lighting kit? The truth is – there isn’t one. If you’re doing a lot of types of shooting, you want a kit with the most versatility you can find. Generally you’ll want at least three fixtures in a kit – to give you the ability to do the classic key, fill, kicker lighting. I prefer four fixtures as it gives you just a bit more flexibility to add a background light to that classic scenario.
In 2004, while I was shooting a documentary, my producing partner and I purchased an ARRI Fresnel kit (similar to the one above) that consists of one 650W Fresnel, one 300W Fresnel and two 150W Fresnels along with four stands and a small Chimera softbox. The kit came in an ARRI hard case and cost about $2,500 at the time. In the seven years since, I have used that kit on, literally, hundreds of jobs and shoots. It has traveled all over the world and I’ve lit everything from studio portraits and interviews to feature films and television shows. Is this kit the end-all-be-all? No. But, quite honestly, when its what you have on-hand, you make it work. I would actually prefer two more heads: a 1K and an additional 650W for a little more punch and versatility, but this four-light kit works great.
In addition, a few years back, we purchased a Kino Flo “Gaffer’s Kit” which consists of two 4’ 4-bank Kino Flo fluorescent fixtures. Just two large fixtures aren’t as versatile as I’d like them to be – but these lights have, also, worked non-stop since we purchased them. I love the quality of the Kinos, but would never say that this two-light kit is a recommendation for all situations. However, the combination of the two kits has served me very well in micro-budget productions for several years.
The bottom line is to really look at what your needs are and go for the highest quality equipment with the most versatile assortment of fixtures that you can afford. Augment with a few compact accessories, and you’re off and shooting.