Light the Way: A Beginner’s Guide to Video Lighting on a Budget

Lighting is critical to producing high-quality video. If you’re shooting your videos using only ambient lighting in most corporate offices or homes, you’re leaving lots of quality on the table. You don’t have to spend a fortune to get good lighting, but you do need to buy smart and know what you’re getting. In this article, I’ll cover two common types of shoots and the lighting you should buy to enhance them.

Let’s start with a touch of theory.

A Little Light Theory

There are two details about lighting you should know before buying or using lighting gear. The first relates to color temperature. That is, all lights have different color temperatures, which is why you have to white balance your cameras before shooting, and why all webcams have automatic white-balancing functions. If you mix lights with different color temperatures, you produce bizarre colors because your camera can’t tell what’s white. So if you buy lights to supplement existing lights, like the overhead fluorescent lights in your office, you need to make sure they share a similar color temperature.

This is shown in Figure 1, a chart produced by Philips Lighting. As you can see, color temperatures are measured according to the Kelvin scale, and range from warm orange (2700 K) to cool blue (6500 K). Most video lights come in one of two color ranges, around 3200 K to match traditional incandescent lighting, and around 5600 K to match daylight. Note that some light kits include two sets of lights, one for 3200 K, the other for 5600 K, while some higher-end lights enable variable color temperatures ranging from 2700 to 5500 K.

Ten years ago, the bulb type largely dictated the color temperature; you bought incandescent lights for 3200 K and fluorescent for daylight. Today, as the Philips chart shows, you can buy fluorescent, compact fluorescent (CFL), and LED lights in a range of color temperatures. Again, if you’re buying a bulb or light kit to match the ambient lighting in your office, make sure the color temperatures are close, if not identical.


Figure 1. Color temperatures of common lighting fixtures from Philips Lighting.


The second detail relates to the Color Rendering Index (or CRI) which is a measure of how accurately a given light source renders color. Older style incandescent and halogen bulbs have a CRI value of close to 100, which is the best possible score. This is because they produce light that’s very evenly distributed over the complete color spectrum.

Compact fluorescent (CFL) and LED bulbs output color much less evenly, often spiking in the green and blue color ranges. The CRI values of high-quality CFL and LED bulbs can approach 92+ and higher, but can also drift down into the low 80s. As you would expect, shooting with high CRI bulbs produces colors that are more vivid, which you can see here where the shots on the left were with higher CRI bulbs, and here. When buying bulbs for video use, always buy the highest CRI values available, and when comparing light kits, try to identify the CRI before buying.

With this as background, lets look at our two scenarios.

Webcam Shoot

The first scenario is the webcam shoot, perhaps for a webinar, maybe for FaceTime or Skype, or perhaps to record video for a class or other presentation. You’re sitting about three feet from the webcam, and often using overhead lights for the bulk of the lighting. The problem with this kind of top-down lighting is that it leaves the lower portion of your face too dark. The simple and easy way to avoid this problem is to place a clamp light with a CFL, LED, or even a soft white incandescent bulb about five feet from your face, shining down at a slight angle.

Figure 2. A clamp light comes in handy for webinars and videoconferencing.

Figure 2. A clamp light comes in handy for webinars and videoconferencing.

Figure 2 shows a configuration that I frequently use for webinars and Skype and FaceTime conferences, though I’ve switched from incandescent to CFL bulbs. This particular bulb doesn’t match the color temperature of my overhead fluorescent bulbs, but was strong enough to supply enough light by itself, so I turned them off. The result is a well-lit face, and a relatively noise-free image. Total cost, well under $30.

Figure 3. Output equivalency of standard incandescent, CFL, LED, and Halogen bulbs.

Figure 3. Output equivalency of standard incandescent, CFL, LED, and Halogen bulbs.

Since clamp lights don’t have dimmers, you’ll have to buy a bulb that outputs the necessary intensity. At the 3- to 5-inch distance, about a 60 watt incandescent bulb will get the job done. As shown in Figure 3, from U.K. site Which?, this translates to about a 12 watt CFL light or a 10 watt LED light. In essence, this means that a CFL bulb produces about 5 times the brightness per watt as a standard incandescent bulb, while an LED bulb produces about 6 times the brightness. There won’t be a test later, but these numbers come in handy below.

Applying the lessons from above, when buying a bulb for your clamp light, make sure it matches the color temperature of your ambient lighting, and buy the bulb with the highest CRI rating possible.

Scenario 2: A Simple One- or Two-Person Shoot

Figure 4. A simple two-person shoot.

Figure 4. A simple two-person shoot.

The second scenario you’ll frequently encounter is a one- or two-person shoot like that shown in Figure 4. With shots like this, a clamp light won’t do. You need more powerful lights that you can place further from the subject.

There are multiple ways to light this shot, but the simplest involves two lights, each pointing at the speakers, as shown in Figure 5, created using the lighting diagram available at If you are concerned about shadows, light the background by placing lights to the side of each speaker, outside of camera view, shining on the background.

Figure 5. A simple lighting pattern for one- or two-person shoots.

Figure 5. A simple lighting pattern for one- or two-person shoots.

There are myriad options for lighting a shoot like this, but the two I’ll discuss are light kits that use CFL softboxes and LED lights. Briefly, most CFL light kits include 2 or 3 soft boxes like that shown in Figure 6, which is the CowboyStudio 2000 Watt Light Kit available from Amazon for around $160. If you visit the page, you’ll see that each soft box has five bulbs that you can turn on and off individually to control intensity.

CFL soft boxes provide a soft light, which is good, and run cool, also good. However, they’re big and bulky, which makes them tough to use in tight spaces, and kind of ugly, which makes them less than desirable when there’s a live audience. They’re also difficult to focus because there’s no way to hang a barn door (Figure 7) or other directional device from the frame, and if you need to hang a gel off the light to correct the color, there’s no easy way to do it.

Figure 6. A two-light CFL soft box kit.

Figure 6. A two-light CFL soft box kit.

Despite the case shown in Figure 6, these kits are not optimal for travel. Setup and teardown can take 10-minutes per light. Inexpensive units like the CowboyStudio lights also feel fragile, like they might rip if you pull too hard, which is certainly possible, if not likely, during setup. In other words, these lights work well in a studio or office setting where you can leave them assembled and pull them out when necessary. I have two sets that I’ve used many times in my office for about 4 years now with no issues, but I’ve only travelled with them once or twice.

The other concern is CRI, and not surprisingly, the CRI value for these lights is not listed. This means you can expect it to be in low 80s, which means less than optimal color. So consider replacing the lights with bulbs with higher CRI values, which means about an extra $120.

How much light do these fixtures output? Note that while most CFL light kits supply wattage figures, the term is confusing, though not necessarily inaccurate. For example, the CowboyStudio 2000 Watt unit has 10 bulbs that draw 45 watts of power each, for a total of 450 watts, not 2000.

What CowboyStudio undoubtedly means is that the light kit outputs the equivalent of 2000 watts of incandescent light, and in this case, they’re not far off. That is, as discussed above, CFL bulbs output five times more light per watt than incandescent bulbs, so the 450 watt output translates to about 2200 watts of incandescent output. In practical terms, this means two lights in the kit can provide sufficient light for the two speakers shown in Figure 5 if located about 6 to 8 feet from the speakers.

If you look at the CowboyStudio unit on Amazon, you’ll undoubtedly scan the reviews, and notice a lot of quality-related issues and concerns. Ditto for similar kits like the Fancierstudio 3000 watt kit. Unfortunately, there don’t appear to be any moderately-priced, high-quality CFL-based systems, or at least none that I could find with multiple reviews on Amazon, B&H, or Adorama. If all you have is $200 or so, these are a great options; if you have a bigger budget, you should probably look at the other option, LED lights.

LED Lights

Like CFL lights, LEDs output a soft, cool light, but their hard fixtures avoid many of the shortcomings of CFL softboxes. For example, the Flashpoint CL-1300 PanelLight, which I reviewed, has barn doors that you can use to shape the light. That’s useful when lighting a backdrop or in a host of other applications. It has a slider on the back for adjusting intensity down to 10 percent of total output, with a decent but not exceptional CRI of 85+.

Figure 7. The Flashpoint CL-1300 with barn doors for shaping the light.

Figure 7. The Flashpoint CL-1300 with barn doors for shaping the light.

The unit comes with a gel which you can slip into a slot in the light to change the color temperature from 5,600 K to around 3,200K. There’s another slot for a diffusion filter to soften the light even further. Because the case is hard, you can easily attach additional gels to adjust the color, if needed. You can also pack the unit into its carrying case in about 2 minutes, and it’s small enough to use even in tight locations. The only problem is that it costs $329 without the stand, which brings the cost of your two light kit up to about $800.

There are cheaper units out there, for sure, like the StudioPro Double S-6000 D two light kit for $399, with barn doors sold separately for $35. These have an impressive rating of 4.5 out of 5 with 36 reviews, but the CRI rating isn’t listed, and one reviewer who measured the actual color temperature found it to be a 7200, not the advertised 5600, an issue if you’re mixing these lights with others.

What about light intensity? In most LED fixtures, the number in the title represents the number of individual bulbs, so the Flashpoint CL-1300 has 1296 bulbs, while the StudioPro 600 kit has 600 lights in each lamp. All the comparisons I’ve seen with CFL and incandescent bulbs are for large LED bulbs, not the tiny ones used in these lights, so the numbers shown in Figure 3 don’t appear to apply.

For example, the CL-1300 draws about 70 watts, so at the 6:1 ratio, would output the equivalent of a 420 watt incandescent light, which is clearly not accurate. It’s much closer to a 1200 watt implement. In my experience, 500 bulb LED lamps output about the same light as a soft box with bulbs drawing 220 watts. The Flashpoint 1300 is at least twice as bright, making it an extremely powerful fixture.

About Cheap Lights

None of these light kits will ever find their way onto a movie set, or even an expensive corporate studio. For example, while the Flashpoint is great for corporate work, it lacks the color precision needed for serious movie work, as you can read about in a comprehensive review of the unit by documentary filmmaker Dan McComb. The inexpensive CFL lights would fare even worse under a similar analysis. In addition, the superior bulbs used in professional gear from companies like Lowel and Kino produce more accurate lighting with CRI values of 95 or higher and the fixtures themselves provide additional features for light shaping and using gels. Some professional lights enable programmable color temperatures, allowing them to easily simulate different environments and match all types of ambient lighting.

All that said, for the typical webinar or corporate interview, an inexpensive light kit will dramatically improve video quality over no light kit at all. If you’re currently shooting without lights, buying a low priced kit is a smart investment.


Comments are disallowed for this post.

  1. Thank you for the posts! I’m currently learning lighting for video production in school and I’m shooting a 30 second student commercial next week. Thank you for the tip about StudioPro Double S-6000 D two light kit.

    Posted by Jennifer Andrews | October 12, 2015, 8:45 pm
Subscribe to our Newsletter
email address
Online Video Playlist
Online Video Bulletin
Streaming Media Xtra
SM Europe Xtra