Sponsored By

Building the Perfect Key Light

After my blog post about lighting from your local hardware store, I wanted to take it one step further and instruct you on two homemade lights that have been my staple on close-up lighting.  One is and incredible broad soft subtle source key light that is so beautiful with the ambient quality that comes from it.  The other is a very directional soft source that I used with Herb Ritts for many years when I was his assistant.  You will need some carpentry, skills so prepare to strap on a tape measure, a screw gun and some common sense. Remember measure twice, cut once, whatever that saying is.

Cocktail and Buffet Tray Light

Something that I first used on The Greatest Game Ever Played to simulate oil lamp light was what my gaffer Johnny Lewin and I called the Cocktail Tray or the Buffet Tray light. These bizarre names were based on the platform that we mounted our rope light on. I had Johnny go to a Restaurant supply store and buy a cocktail tray and a buffet tray. Take a screw gun and drill a 5/8” hole into the center of the tray.

Buy a 6” -  5/8” threaded rod at Home Depot.

Now take two electrical box 1/8” thick 4.5” x 4.5” metal plates.  Drill a 5/8” hole through the center of both.  Take two  5/8” nuts and put one plate on one side of the tray and slide the threaded rode through the hole in the metal plate as well as the tray. Screw the nut so that there is 1/2” exposed on the front side of the tray. The front side should be the one that has the side edges that stop the drinks from spilling all over the waiters or waitresses.  Then take the other metal plate and put that on the back side of the tray.  You are creating a metal sandwich.  Now take the other nut and screw it down the long exposed rod and pinch it so that it is tight to the tray.  You have just created a very cheap baby nail- on plate that would costs hundreds of dollars in the movie business.

Now take your screw gun and drill four holes in the corners of the metal plates and through the tray and into the other metal plate.Take 1/8” metal bolts and bolt the 4 corners of the metal plates so that they won’t come loose and spin.

It is time to give it a nice coat of flat white paint, two coats.  Once this dries you are ready to mount your rope light.  Start in the center and wind it up in tight concentric circles until it fills the whole cocktail tray up.  I drill small 1/8” holes and then zip tie the rope light to the tray.  Do not use sticky tabs; you need to drill and a fix the rope lights to the tray.  The rope light clustered together like this heats up big time and will melt any sticky stuff.  Been there, done that.

Check out the image below.  The Buffet Tray light is on the floor just out of frame left.  This is giving him an upward glow.  I love the feel of this light. It is the kind of light that Kino Flo is developing with their LED technology.  Millions of micro LEDs to create the source instead of 9 high output or 50 medium size, like a Light Panel LED, which are very hard.  Hundreds of small tungsten wheat grains of  light in several circles, mounted to a tray.

I made a 4’ diameter one for Greatest Game. In the middle of Shia LeBouf preparing to putt into a coffee cup at night in his bedroom, the rope light came crashing down to the floor, scared the crap out of us. You make the Buffet tray size the same way, just much more rope light required.  Now, you have just built one of the most eco-friendly beautiful key lights I have ever used. If this is too warm for your taste, you can easily add 1/4, 1/2, or full CTB gel to the Cocktail or Buffet Tray light and make it whatever color temp you would like.  This usually limits this light’s ability, because it takes down its brightness, but now with the higher ISO cameras, it will give you the ability to filter the light and still keep its amazing soft indirect quality.

 
The Stupid Light

This light was introduced to me by Harris Savides, ASC when I gaffed for him.  It was so simple, we called it Stupid.  Then I took this technology and used it with Herb Ritts for years on many of his famous prints.  You start by buying a metal reflector from an industrial High Bay Metal Hallide fixture at Grainger.

You start with a metal reflector from a industrial High Bay Metal Hallide fixture at Grainger. Then cut a 6” long 1” x 3” piece of lumber.


Then buy a Mogul socket that has the ability to be screwed into wood. Mount it in the center of the 1 x 3.  Attach this to the back of the silver reflector through its mounting holes with 1” drywall screws with the socket landing in the center of the reflector.



The final edition is a 500 watt silver tip globe. What makes this such a beautiful fashion light is that all the direct light is reflected by the silver tip globe into the large silver reflector. I have diffused the front of the light several times if a softer less controllable light is required. I have also cut a donut hole in the center to that I have an outer ring of diffused light with a harder light center, very cool looking.

The final edition is a 500 watt silver tip globe. What makes this such a beautiful fashion light is that all the direct light is reflected by the silver tip globe into the large silver reflector.I have diffused the front of the light several times if a softer less controllable light is required.I have also cut a donut hole in the center to that I have an outer ring of diffused light with a harder light center, very cool looking.

On Swing Vote I wanted to use this light for the media section of the final debate. I wanted the reporters to look great with a beautiful fall off under their chins and separation from the background. Here is a segment from the film. I rigged the Stupid light directly over camera and blasted them.I lit them hotter than the background so that it had a three dimensional quality.


 
Every one of these lights can be used as a Key light, Fill Light, and or Back Light.This little wood and metal shop craft project will change the way you light. Let’s see how your carpentry skills are. KNOCK IT OUT!

What interesting lights have you built?I would love to see your creations.

Author: Shane

Share This Post On

64 Comments

  1. Shane – amazing article! – Here’s the link to the silver tip bulb you mentioned for those interested – http://www.1000bulbs.com/product/55208/IN-0500P35IFSIL.html

    There is sometimes a stigma in the corporate world when lighting with home built lights – any thoughts on this? Seems like you can MacGyver anything on a film set and be safe.

    Thanks again for all you do!!!!

    Post a Reply
    • Mike Chenoweth, thanks Mike for the link and you are very welcome. I never have had an issue with homemade lights. If it looks good, it looks good right?

      Post a Reply
  2. Any pics of one of these lights esembled and in uee?

    Post a Reply
    • Maxi Claudio, no I have built these on all of my films and they have never landed in my hands. That will change on the next one. I promise.

      Post a Reply
  3. Shane, incredibly gracious of you to share a deeper peek into your never ending bag of goodies. I agree with Maxi, it would be helpful to see some of these items assembled and mounted. Again thanks for sharing.

    Post a Reply
    • Philip Ammon, thank you so much for your kind words of support. I would love to supply pics. I have built these lights on all of my films and have never landed in my hands. So sorry

      Post a Reply
  4. You assisted Herb Ritts — how cool is that.

    These cocktail tray lights could almost be hung on a wall when working in tight spaces. Often times we still & motion PJ’s are asked to shoot in really tight spaces (and with people not used to lots of fancy lighting kit) — these could be a nice ice-breaker and effective fill light to boot. (:-)

    Thanks for the advice & tips (especially the money savers)!

    Cheers Chris,

    Post a Reply
    • Chris Gibbs, yep he was a huge inspiration to me. Yes, just take the 5/8″ rod out and you could hang it like a picture or a mirror. They are incredibly light. You are very welcome. Thanks for the support.

      Post a Reply
  5. Some years back I had three heat lamp units from an auto body shop. They were about 18 inches in diameter with seven ceramic sockets facing forward. On the back of the unit was three switches that would allow you to have any number of bulbs from one to twenty turned on.

    These heads are used for infrared heat lamp bulbs to speed the drying of paint. I painted the inside with white automotive header paint to stand the heat. I would use them with either 250 or 500 watt photo bulbs. With 3500 watts each I could light and heat some pretty big spaces.

    Post a Reply
    • Robert, that sounds very warm, HOT!!!! Sweet idea, very much like my Baton lights, the line of light is the secret.

      Post a Reply
  6. Shane,

    Awesome, thanks you so much. I was actually about to go out to Home Depot and Lowes to build some lights. I had a few ideas of my own, but I like the mobility of your designs.

    -Thanks Don

    Post a Reply
    • Donald Hankins, thank you so much for the kind words. Try them. I think you will be happy.

      Post a Reply
  7. I built a flicker box for the fireplace light and wanted a softer light so I made a softlight out of foamcore inside were three bulbs covered with gel red,orange and yellow. We ended up adding an additional yellow gel over the front.
    http://latentimageproductions.com/latent/softlight.jpg

    Post a Reply
    • Bill Hamell, I love that. I mad this thing I called Medusa for Greatest Game. It was on 12 goose neck light arms, you know those ones you get at Home Depot. We mounted them onto a 12″ x 12″ board and then moved all the lights around in weird positions, low, high, etc. Then put them into a magic gadget shadow maker. I took the globes and dipped them in Rosco gel so that they had varying color temps. This was the most realistic fire effect I have ever seen. Check out Greatest Game.

      Post a Reply
  8. Hi Shane

    as allways great post, i too would love to see a picture of the lamps. I also have another question for you. You are my favorite spokes man for the dslr revolution and i would love to see a blog post on your thoughts on the new canon c300, are going down this road or are you staying loyal to the 5D ?

    Post a Reply
    • simon weyhe, Thank you so much for your kind words, copy on the pics. I build these on every film and they never seem to land in my hands. I love DSLR’s, they are so versatile. The C300 looks great in low light and its size is impressive. I was lighting a little scene at 12,000 ISO with a 1/2 of a footcandle. Not big on doing camera posts. Never have. All this new tech is what it is tools, keep your eyes on the storytelling. When you see a great film you never sit in the theater asking what they shot this on if you are engaged in the story and the characters.

      Post a Reply
  9. Shane,

    Loved this and the previous post on lighting. I hope more is to come. I recently saw the trailer for Act of Valor and was wondering if it would be possible if you could do a post or a series of posts on how you lit the film in addition to how you shot some of the action scenes.

    You never see any articles or books that cover this information. I would love to see how you get the coverage you need to shoot an action scene[shot sizes, angles, etc.. and advice on how you could scale that down for lower budget productions] and the decisions that go into what lenses you use for which shots,what depth of field you use for certain shots, and how you light these sequences. And if possible how you approach different types of action scenes[Chase, shootout, hand to hand combat, etc...].

    Shaun

    Post a Reply
    • Shaun, thank you so much for your wonderful kind words. I will try to get some of that together, this is a tall order. I am traveling to Azerbaijan for 4 weeks so while I am on the plane I will try to blast a couple of these out.

      Post a Reply
  10. As usual Shane . . . awesome article . It is rarely to find some people want to share thier knowledge with other people .

    Thank you . . . from middle East . . .

    Post a Reply
  11. Did not know you assisted Herb Ritts! I assisted Richard Avedon for 2 years and I learned a ton of simple lighting from him as well. Just shows that photographers (especially of Herb’s and Dick’s caliber) can truly enlighten us.

    Post a Reply
    • In photography I have used a silver painted satellite dish that a Broncolor strobe with a hard narrow reflector fires into. It softens and spreads the light to mimic light you would get through a sunlit window.

      Post a Reply
      • Pascal Depuhl, that is very cool, reminds me of the stupid light. Very cool. Got any pics?

        Post a Reply
    • Pascal Depuhl, Herb was awesome, some of the greatest jobs/moments in my life was with that man. He was an inspiration to me and my crew. I will never forget our adventures.

      Post a Reply
  12. Great read Shane, thank you. One of my favourite homemade lights is a chinese paper lantern. Take some electrical cable, screw a bulb in at one end and a plug socket at the other and you’ve got an amazingly flexible soft source for £5. Combine that with some black wrap to control and shape and the possibilities are endless. Thanks.

    Post a Reply
    • Oli Kember, Thank you so much for all your support my friend. I agree. I love them too. Try a black collard shirt instead of black wrap, just got this from Nap. Genius idea.

      Post a Reply
      • That sounds like it would work. What would be the advantages over using black wrap..? Speed? Cheaper?

        Post a Reply
        • Oli Kember, I just thought it was cool that they used a black collar shirt because Black Wrap is very scarce.

          Post a Reply
          • I keep a couple of pieces of Duvetyn to drape over the China balls less expensive that using black wrap.

  13. Got a few cheap “wellness lights” of ebay – 45 bucks each – they are actually like little kinos – the cheapest one can get. They come with 2 Osram Dulux daylight bulbs and work quite well for the money. I used one for the bathroom scene on “One Tear For You”.

    Here: http://lh4.googleusercontent.com/-k-R9Y5q3uqk/Tsb0SSpINuI/AAAAAAAAAQ4/POX2k-NCS2s/s720/100_1207.jpg

    And here: http://lh4.googleusercontent.com/-QYtFQOJCeoE/Tsb0G8cCrfI/AAAAAAAAAQo/SmW2CymUmMk/s720/08.jpg

    I really love your writeups Shane, Thank you so much for sharing.

    Frank

    Post a Reply
  14. Shane,

    Thank you for taking the time to share with us. This is an Incrediable write up, and very helpful.
    I have had some great and frustrating times building my own lights. Thanks for providing such detail, and making my next build all the better.

    Post a Reply
    • Tej Babra, one of our co-collabortors has help me out with a schematic for the buffet tray light. Here is the link: “>

      Post a Reply
  15. Shane – I have stopped saying I’m a student of the school of life. I’m now an apprentice of The Hurlbut University of Light:-)

    You pioneer work in sharing what you love is endlessly inspiring. Thank you so much.

    Thomas Roger

    Post a Reply
    • Bill Hamell, thanks so much for the link and all of your support.

      Post a Reply
  16. The black collar shirt was a quick fix to create a skirt effect for the china balls. I used them as a very controled top light source. Worked like a charm.

    Post a Reply
  17. Hi Shane,

    Thanks for sharing these builds. They both produce wonderful results. It is a shame you don’t have pictures, especially of the tray light. I’d like to build one, but the instructions aren’t enough for me to grasp this thing completely. I need to see it!

    Post a Reply
    • Steven C, I am sorry I don’t have a picture. Several people have asked for that. I thought I was fairly descriptive. Please email me your phone number and I can walk you through it.

      Post a Reply
    • Steven C, One of our co-collaborators Logan Courter helped me out here with a picture and description. I hope this helps: Thought other readers would benefit from it’s construction. I am also completing one for the second light and will post it soon. Thanks again for the wealth of knowledge and keep the how-to’s coming.

      Click Here for LightJPEG

      Post a Reply
  18. All really interesting Shane, up till now I worry about using matching lights. You seem to mix temps is that right? How do you usually WB? When you also mix in fluro’s do you WB for the warm lights and let the fluro’s ride?

    I know little about lights and for the moment am looking at fluro for my home studio for DSLR video. Not sure on using warm lights (tungsten) due to the small room and heat. The hard part is finding good fluro’s with high CRI here in Australia without paying high prices. The HMI’s are very expensive here and so are the pro fluro set ups. Be nice to find a good quality CFL supplier in Australia.

    Any tips or links on getting me up to speed with lighting tech would be helpful.

    Post a Reply
    • Paul Abrahams, I never WB to anything. I will look at the LCD screen or my Dreamcolor monitor and decide what looks the best. When shooting with cool white flos as a key light I usually WB to 3600-3700K. Shooting with HPS lights I usually WB around 2900-3200k. I like them to go a little warm. Same with Warm white flos. Metal Hallide I will usually WB at 3200K if I want a strong cyan blue feel. Less heavy handed approach with Metal Hallide would be WB 4300K. I hope this helps

      Post a Reply
  19. Be sure and hit up ebay for much better prices on rope lights. Hey Shane — can you talk a little bit about what you look for in metal halide / HID lights? Do you only shoot with electronic ballast, hot restrike? I’ve been looking at some stadium lights as cheap HMI replacements (they’re the same thing), but those suckers seem pretty big and heavy, though it looks like you shoot with some pretty heavy industrial lights too (this is in reference to your last post). You throw those on a c-stand?

    Post a Reply
    • Dane, Yes I love any Metal Hallide light. It doesn’t matter the size or weight. The cyan quality is what I repsond to. Yes, the hot re-strike is an issue. I just never turn them off, or I pan them away and keep them burning. 15 minutes is usually the cool down period. On Terminator Salvation I used 600 1500 Watt Metal Hallide Sport Fixture. These thing kick ass. They have the output of a 6K Par, the spot ones that I have. They weigh about 80 lbs and yes I put them on a triple riser Junior Stand.

      Post a Reply
  20. Shane, I for serious just spent ALL DAY reading your whole site. You are providing something I’ve been starved of in Nashville; PRO ADVICE AND TIPS!!! Even Googling just brings up so much bad advice! I’m SO glad to have found your site! Thank you so so SO MUCH!

    I am working my bum off full time to become a great feature film director someday. My wife makes our limited moolah, and I make weekly youtube videos with limited gear and mixed results, but I’m learning a TON and fast! I spend an average of 60 hours a week, brainstorming, scripting, filming, editing, coloring, even VFXing when necessary. When I’m not doing those things, I study filmmaking and give myself tasks and little projects to push me.

    My lighting is (2) 2k baby-zip Mole-Richardson softlites and (1) Tweenie II 650w fresnel with barndoors. That’s the most I could afford. Your embrace of DIY lighting is very encouraging for someone like me so, thank you!

    I would be absolutely honored if you’d check out one of my little films and offer any advice for me as an aspiring director and filmmaker:
    http://youtu.be/83rvgaqta1s

    Thank you, Shane! Thank you, thank you, thank you! If you know how I could advance my career or see an area of budding talent in me that you (from your extensive experience) think I could make a living in, I’m all ears!

    Post a Reply
    • Page Lynch, first of I want to thank you for all of those wonderful words. This means so much to me to hear that I am making a difference. All of this takes many hours of my time and wouldn’t do it without filmmakers like yourself. The only advice I can offer is keep making your videos! It’s one thing to go to film school or to read about filmmaking but I believe the only way you improve your craft is to actually do it. You’ll find that your ability to create effects, your ability to shoot and your ability to direct will all improve with experience. Also, watch a ton of movies. Figure out what you like, why you like it and then start dissecting a particular scene that resonates with you. What about it do you like. What is is the frame telling you? What are the actors facial expressions or small details telling you? Keep producing and building an audience online. Many filmmakers are finding a market and an audience online–once you have a platform or a community with which you may share your work, investors will come to you if they like your material. Keep up the good work and good luck! You it Rock Out!!!.

      Post a Reply
  21. Thanks Shane,
    We all learn so much from your first had experience and your willingness to share with like minded individuals. Reading the cocktail tray light tutorial I wanted to better visualize it’s creation and put together this exploded diagram image. Thought other readers would benefit from it’s construction. I am also completing one for the second light and will post it soon. Thanks again for the wealth of knowledge and keep the how-to’s coming.

    Click Here for LightJPEG

    Post a Reply
    • Logan Courter, thank you so much for these wonderful words and support. Your light schematics look awesome. Thank you so much for your input on the blog. This diagram is spot on. Once you fire this baby up you will see the power as a soft controlled source.

      Post a Reply
  22. Hey Shane,

    I’m wanting to assemble a small location lighting kit predominantly for cinematic looking stills both on location and in our small home built studio..I don’t particularly like strobes as I find the modifiers are pretty limited and I was used to (and prefer) the look movie lights give with snoots, flags etc. (But without the expense and hassle/lack of portability of actually using proper movie lights)

    Do you have any recommendations for small SOTA portable kits for a 1-2 person operation re lights /stands/modifiers? i.e LED, dedo etc

    I don’t want to buy a couple of elinchrom with portable battery and a softbox if you have a better idea.

    Any thoughts much appreciated, Herb Ritts and Albert Watson definitely inspirations for stills.

    Post a Reply
  23. Shane, you continue to show what a big being you are by sharing your breakthroughs. Do you love the light the MR-16 bulbs put out? I have been mesmerized by these lights since I shot some extreme closeup work of the faceplates of Alpine’s CD players. I think Kino-flo used to have extremely small lights like that with tiny bar doors etc. Your thoughts?

    Post a Reply
    • Fletcher Murray, Thank you so much for those wonderful words. I use the MR-16 often as well. I find that I have to spray the face of the light with dulling spray to get rid of the weird pattern it exhibits. Kino Flo is very soft and they have barn doors but nothing that would feel like a MR-16.

      Post a Reply
      • Shane,

        Do you use the MR-16s hanging free or in a fixture? I use a few MR-16 Par fixtures with Barn Doors.

        Bill

        Post a Reply
  24. hi, impressi ve blog on suety loss. suchlike helped. Z zagwarantowaniem gęsto rozważałeś o tym dlaczemu znawcy z dziedziny prawa spadkowego nie dają treści zahaczających tej zagwostki w wirtualnym świecie. Od dzisiaj nie musisz się nad tym rozważać. Pragniemy teraz pokazać nowy serwis prawniczy, jaki projektowany jest przez radcę prawnego od prawa spadkowego. Przez oglądanie zamieszczonych tu informacji i szybkie rozważania ze radcą prawnym dowiesz się tu wielu ciekawych treści związanych z spadkiem.

    Post a Reply
  25. Shane,

    These are fantastic. I have recently fallen in love with how non-film tailored lights look and the absolute freedom of creativity they allot an individual with an eye for lighting. I was recently gaffing a music video where I had to come up with a “unique” low-key eye-light that could also be used as a key as well, and after reading about your Tray Light, and remembering what Andrew Lesnie, ACS, ASC did for Galadriel’s eye-light in The Two Towers, I made up this little guy with a little inspiration as well from David Kruta and it is fantastic. It’s super simple, decently soft, light, and has low power consumption (link: http://gaffersunite.com/2012/02/08/my-version-of-the-hanna-light/ ).
    Thanks for the inspiration and wisdom Shane. It is greatly appreciated.
    Cheers!
    Peter

    Post a Reply
    • Peter Mosiman, that is very cool. Thank you so much for your kind words. I love making my own lights. The rope light wound up has a ton of punch that you can blue up or go naked. Little more controllable as well. Try it out, I think you will love it.

      Post a Reply
      • Shane, thank you sir.

        I intend on making one very soon and I love how you say go blue up. I’m more of a “put some B on that” kinda guy, but I think I’ll add the “blue up” to my vocab. ;)

        I look forward to making more lights in the future and sharing them. Thank you also for putting up lighting resources on the internet. There aren’t nearly as many as there are camera resources, hence why I started gaffersunite.com. And as once upon a time gaffer yourself, I’m sure you can agree.

        Seriously thanks again for everything.

        Post a Reply
        • Peter Mosiman, that is what makes us different. Too many GD camera/gear sites. Story and
          Lighting are king. Coming from the gaffing side I feel gave me a leg up. Thanks for you support.

          Post a Reply
  26. Shane,

    Do you use the MR-16s hanging free or in a fixture? I use a few MR-16 Par fixtures with Barn Doors as well as a few free hanging sockets.

    Bill

    Post a Reply
    • Bill Hammell, I use them in a fixture. They are not my favorite light because there pattern is so uneven. Great for background work.

      Post a Reply
  27. Great article! Sometimes DIY stuff is the best solution, I’ve built myself a couple of lighting setups. Theres on in particular that I use a lot! I bought 5 meters of warm white adhesive LED strips and 5 meters of cool white LED strips. Put them on a board, soldered them together and put dimmers so I can alter the color temprature between 2800K to 5700K. Run them for an hour or so on a small 11.1V Lipo battery. Perfect when you don’t have much time, space or electricity available.

    Here’s some pictures, all 4200K balanced:
    The LED: http://i.imgur.com/K7TSG.jpg
    The battery/dimmer: http://i.imgur.com/Jn4q5.jpg
    Warm white only: http://i.imgur.com/bfSEj.jpg
    Cool white only: http://i.imgur.com/ub1I5.jpg
    All LEDs: http://i.imgur.com/kqHoF.jpg

    Post a Reply
    • Jonas Lundin, great lights, thanks so much for sharing.

      Post a Reply
  28. Hi Shane!
    Looking at building one of these – curious though,
    Any reason you advise against using a round aluminum pizza pan instead of the serving tray?
    It seems the pizza pan might reflect back more light, but then again maybe the beauty in this is the type if hardness from the serving tray. Thought I would ask in case you had a thought on it.
    Thanks!
    Daniel
    Portland, OR

    Post a Reply
    • Daniel Rheaume, that is a kick ass idea. Very cool I would try that. I goes I wanted to make sure any other lights did not bounce off of it and create weird reflections

      Post a Reply

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Building the Perfect Key Light | Hurlbut Visuals « Landfill Films - [...] http://www.hurlbutvisuals.com/blog/2011/11/11/building-the-perfect-key-light/#.TsEhdrzz6PI.twitter Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. [...]
  2. Building home made lights that are awesome… « petermosiman - [...] Thanks to Shane Hurlburt, ASC for openly saying a number of times over that if the light works, it …

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>