Lighting Basics: Going With What is Available

The exciting thing about the Arri Alexa, F-3 and the new wave of DSLRs is their high ISO range to minimum noise ratio. This has opened up a whole new way to light as a cinematographer. Whether it be daylight interior or exterior, dawn, dusk, night exterior or interiors the option now exist to use available light in new ways, as well as working with less. On the films that I shot prior to Act of Valor, our lighting package fit into a 48’ semi truck along with multiple 10-ton truck drop loads to expose film. We are in very exciting times and they are being shaken again with Canon’s November 3rd announcement . Using available light is one thing, but shaping the available is what cinematography is all about. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

Here is a perfect example. St. Germain Puerto Rico. We needed to light 8 city blocks. I had two lighting technicians. So I rented two 1200 watt HMI par lights and a 3000 Watt Honda Generator that I hid behind the church to block the sound so that it would not effect our dialogue. Added six 4’ green and yellow single KINO Flos in the store windows behind the actors as they walk in the plaza, this would also help add color dimension as well as great out of focus highlights when I went in for close ups. Their key light would be two stings of carnival bulbs that were 200’ long, and the edge/back lights would be the street lamps that lined the side of the plaza as they took their stroll. There was way too much light at 1600 ISO. So I started to manicure and shape the wide shot. Bottom left corner I used black wrap to block out the streetlamp because it was too hot on the left side of frame and took my eye away from the actors on the cobblestone street in the center of the plaza.

The building on the left that has a coolish tone was smoking hot. I wrapped Neutral Density .9 gel around that so that I kept the cool color contrast but it took it down. A church is such an important part of the Hispanic culture. I wanted to highlight the steeple as well as its body. We were under serious time constraints that day and I should have taken the 1200 HMI par down about two stops that hit the body of the church. The steeple looked great but I burned the church up just a bit too much. I added Rosco full plus green to the HMIs so that they felt dirty and not perfect.

Here are the units that lit the Plaza:

My lighting package now is pretty much everything you can either purchase from Home Depot or out of a Grainger catalog. I always used practical light to motivate my sources but now the practical can be the source. There is no need to hide lights or hang them to simulate what that particular light would be doing. I have a very simple package which is a mix of some movie lights, some theatrical lights and then your local hardware store. Here you go:


4-Single bulb shop fluorescents w/ cool white tubes, with daylight & tungsten bulbs. Vitalight for Daylight and Optima 3200 for Tungsten. This is easy to hide behind bars, bottles, in corners, great top light in a garage, office, etc.

4-Dbl Bulb shop fluorescents w/ cool white tubes, with daylight & tungsten bulbs. Vitalight for Daylight and Optima 3200 for Tungsten. This is easy to hide behind bars, bottles, in corners, great top light in a garage, office, etc. On Swing Vote I hung 4 double units in the kitchen with cool white globes in them to give a cool/green feel in Bud’s trailer. It felt real and not so polished.

4-12” Silver Reflector Clamp lights w/ 150 watt globes, 50 watt Halogen Spots. You can add diffusion on the front if you would like to make it softer. This can be used as a harder source with a spot globe.

4-6” Silver Reflector Clamp lights w/ 100 watt globes, 50 watt Halogen Spot

4-18” Under Cabinet Fluorescent w/ cool white tubes, with daylight & tungsten

6-MR-16 50 Watt Flood screw in household socket

6-Household socket dimmers

6-1000 Watt in-line dimmer

6-600 Watt Wall outlet dimmers

2-70 Watt Dusk to Dawn lamps Metal Halide (MH) This is my go to source for lighting the exterior of barns, houses, and in the case of Swing Vote this Dusk to Dawn was to illuminate his driveway to his trailer and bring ambience to his truck driving in at night. I also mounted it to Kate’s garage to give me some color contrast in the deep background. They’re so versatile, lightweight and require little power.

2-100 Watt Dusk to Dawn High Pressure Sodium (HPS)
I used this in the night scene on Swing Vote where Molly finds Bud in his car drunk. She walks down the street and then gets to his truck and looks off camera. The HPS fixture is giving her a beautiful back light and then I used a 12 x 12 ultra bounce to reflect light into her face.

2-Wall mounted 70 Watt High Pressure Sodium (HPS)
Great to mount in background of night exteriors for out of focus highlights, hide in tight spaces to light people.

2-50’ Strands of Rope light, I use this to light under counters, under cabinets in kitchens. I use very long strands of it that I fold back and forth on itself about 6 times to create what we call a colon light. Look at the still shot from Act of Valor. That warm glow in the background was the colon rope light giving that beautiful glow.

1- LED Hockey Puck Light kit w/ 3 heads perfect to light paintings, under light bars, streak walls, light bar backs, under light bottles,etc.

2- 100 Watt Tungsten Hockey Puck lights, perfect to light paintings, under light bars, streak walls, light bar backs, under light bottles,etc.

2-12”, 2-18”, 2-24”, 1-30” China Balls w/ 100 watt & 150 watt globes. These are beautiful key and or fill lights. I use black wrap to shape them sometimes by blacking the back half to cut down on spill. Philippe Rousselot uses these on every film he shoots, wonderful soft ambient lighting tool for cheap.

1- Fluorescent Trouble light, hang in places quickly to give yourself nice out of focus highlights in the background

4-50’ 12 Gauge Stingers

4-25’ 12 Gauge Stingers

6-Power Strips

8- Cube taps

This lighting package should get you started on your way to create and light on a budget. Try new things work with less and see how it turns out. Remember the secret to exposing HD is to starve the CMOS chip of light.

  1. Ahmed 2 weeks ago

    Hi Shane i feel after reading this post that you are treasure founder who can see what the others can not see . And i hope that you create new posts entitled ” Shane hidden gems ” .

    • Author
      Shane 4 hours ago

      Many of these are on the way inside the Inner Circle.

  2. Ricky Laprade 2 years ago

    Your blog is an inspiration. It’s my go to site nowadays not only for tips, but for hope that one can create fantastic things even when on a strict budget. Thank you!

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