Low Budget Filmmaking: Tips and Tricks Part Three – Cheap Film Lighting Equipment & Techniques


One thing I didn’t touch on my last post was why writing a script (as well as your shot list and schedule) helps you keep your production cheap. This is because you can utilize your time better, and therefore you can focus on the best possible image quality. When you start out making your own productions, you’ll most likely have people working multiple jobs. You’ll probably run camera and direct. Knowing what you’re gonna shoot saves you a lot of time, and time IS money!


I’m gonna be honest with you, I’m pretty much broke. I haven’t always been this way, and I won’t always. But for now, I’m broke. So saving money on projects is THE WAY to go. Plus, as you build your success, the more you can stretch a budget, the better your production could be. That’s why we’ll talk about cheap film lighting techniques and why your camera choice doesn’t matter as much right now in this post.

So when it comes to camera choice, you obviously want something nice, but you maybe can’t afford it. Your smart phone is probably more than capable of making a film. And if you don’t have a great phone, sweet talk a friend into using theirs. I’m lucky in having access to a couple of Canons at school and a Nikon D5100. This month, I will be getting my hands on a Canon 70D, I believe. If you don’t have access to a DSLR or a camera, use your phone. It’s fine. The key will be to make sure you stabilize whatever you use as a camera (preferably a tripod, but use a coffee table and a book, whatever who cares?). If you’re going for a handheld look, your smart phone will work fine. In Sammy’s Tape, the shots of Pete the Schnoodle were done with my iPhone on the fly, while the rest was the D5100.

Now we get to more difficult stuff. If you want to make films on a budget that look nice, you need lighting. Lighting is expensive, though. Even if you go outside and shoot with natural light, you will need to take some measures to make it work right. IF you have access to a camera with image control, take this by the reigns. Learn about ISO, f-stops, etc. I am still learning these details myself, but learn the basics and you should be okay.

From there, your ideal is 3 point lighting. That would be a key light, fill light, and a back light. Here’s a really basic explanation. If you do not have access to a light kit, you can make a cheap one using PVC pipes and clamp lights. I will make some of those soon, and do a review of them.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

If you’re just gonna wing it and use household lighting, be aware that you will run into a lot of issues. I suggest buying as much bounce boards as you can (use white poster board, white curtains, white sheets, a thousand white t-shirts stitched together). Set up your lamps with bounce to at least illuminate your subject with a key light. If you can get any fill after that, you’ll be okay for small projects. Not great, but okay. You can always toss diffusion over the lights you’re using if they are too harsh. I’ve also heard inserting paper lamps (Chinese lamps?) into shots can help illuminate subjects.

Regardless of what you do, make sure you take control. To reiterate, learn your lighting, implement it. If you have to wing your lighting, make sure you bring bounce and reflectors with you. Learn your camera settings, and adjust as needed. And when it comes down to it — edit whatever you get to look okay. We ended up with a few harsh shadows on some of our green screen work in Sammy’s Tape, but I was able to blend that noise into the VHS grain we were going for.

green screen low budget filmmaking
From Green Screen to Old Tape

What are your cheap film lighting tricks? Do you have equipment or do you have to be creative to light your shots?


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