Putting Together a Budget DIY Photography Lighting System Kit for your Studio

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Introduction

A flexible lighting system is something that I have wanted to play with for a while, but like everything else in photography it seems to be a fairly expensive area to get into, at least when you consider the relative simplicity of a light-bulb.

Thankfully there are a number of cheap and widely-available or easily-made items that can provide most of the same functionality at a small fraction of the price. For under US$75, this article will show you how to put together a flexible and robust homemade photography lighting system that is both useful and relatively easy on the hip pocket.

1. This is the kind of kit you should be able to scrape together for around US$75
1. This is the kind of kit you should be able to scrape together for around US$75

I am not suggesting these items are just as good as the expensive purpose-built ones, just that they provide surprisingly good results and are very inexpensive. My main point is that not being able to afford the “proper” gear should not be a barrier to experimenting with lighting. I also don’t pretend to be an expert in these things, so some old pros may well be sniggering as they read this. Oh well. We all have to start somewhere and I am simply sharing my experiences.

Getting Started top

Despite trying to keep costs down, I’ve also tried to avoid being cheap-and-nasty about things. All these items should be constructed well enough to last quite a long time for the average amateur, and when being used they should look like they were built for the task they are being used for. I don’t feel embarrassed using these items in front of other people.

Although I paid for all items in Australian dollars, I will roughly convert the prices to US dollars to provide an easier comparison for our international readers.

The items I include in this article are:

  • A system of 3 hot-lights (2 on a tripod) ranging from 200watts to 500watts each (around US$15 per light).
  • Large diffusers for the hot-lights about 120x135cm with stands (around US$10 each)
  • Large very portable reflectors about 130x150cm of silver and white (around US$4 each)
  • A selection of external Perspex flash diffusers similar to a “Sto-fen Omnibounce” or other similar items (free!)

Before I get into the components of my system I should point out that one very important lighting component that is pretty much essential but does not come under the “Cheap and DIY” heading, is an external flash unit. As far as I know it is a bit tougher to build a cheap DIY flash that is compatible with your camera’s metering, is compact and will easily mount on top of the camera.

I would strongly suggest buying an external flash unit to anyone who wants to go beyond shooting in available light. A decent external flash bounced off a wall looks a million times better than a camera’s built-in flash – its not just the power of the flash, but also the quality of light. If you are on a tight budget then you may want to look at 2nd hand units and/or 3rd party brands. Be careful though, choosing the right flash is important and not always simple! Very important is the ability to integrate with your cameras metering system, which can rule out a lot of brands and older models. I also consider the ability for the head to tilt and twist as an essential requirement to avoiding the flat, “deer in the headlights” look that a dead on flash will produce. Beyond that, it is up to you, your requirements and your budget.

I will assume you already have an external flash unit, but if you don’t then most of this article is still relevant and useful to you.

Components top

Hot Lights

I am not sure about other countries, but here in Australia, if you walk into one of the large hardware store chains (Bunnings, Mitre 10, etc) then you will no doubt have noticed the inexpensive bright yellow 500watt high-power halogen lights designed for home decorators that seem to be perpetually “on special”. They usually come in two flavours – as a single light in a metal enclosure and small base designed to sit on a table or shelf, or as a free-standing pair of lights on top of an adjustable tripod designed to be raised to a height of about 2m. The tripod lights are going to be probably most useful to you (and at about US$25 they are very cheap), but the single lights are also so cheap (about US$11) that it is a shame not to have one of those up your sleeve as well.

2. This pair of lights with a 6ft tripod cost about US$25 at the local hardware shop
2. This pair of lights with a 6ft tripod cost about US$29 at the local hardware shop

There is one big problem with these lights, however – they are halogen tungsten lights. The light they throw is very yellow and usually not desirable for colour photography. If you shoot in Black and White then you can get away with it, but if you shoot colour and especially if you want to mix this light with other light sources such as daylight or flash, then we need to do something about it.

Luckily the solution is just as easy. There are replacement globes available for these lights that are tinted blue to cancel out the warm colour temperature of the light. See the end of this article for some comparison photos of the same scene under different light sources shot with identical white balance settings.

I was a little skeptical at first but I bought some to give them a go anyway. My skepticism quickly disappeared – I was not able to tell the difference between the light from these lamps and from my external flash. They seem to work really well.

3. The globe on the left is tinted to give a much more natural light
3. The globe on the left is tinted to give a much more natural light

The particular globes I bought were made by an Australian company called Nelson (www.nelsonlamps.com.au) and were called “Ultra White Light (3200K)” double-ended tungsten halogen lamps. I bought them from Bunnings Hardware at about US$4 each, and they range from about 200watts to 500watts. I suspect this particular brand isn’t widely available overseas, but I am sure there are other brands that are. The blue tint of the globes is a dead giveaway that the globes are designed to give a light that is closer to daylight.

Note also that these lights get very, very hot! Be careful with them and do read the safety and handling instructions. Make sure you don’t put them too close to anything, and give room for air to circulate around them, unless you prefer shooting by firelight as well.

Hot Light Diffusers Similar to a  Lighting Softbox

One technique to achieve that “soft” quality light is to diffuse the light, or spread it over a large area instead of having it come from one small globe. The simplest way to get a large diffused light from the hot lights above is to bounce them off a white wall or ceiling. But sometimes that isn’t possible, or sometimes you want a bit more control than that.

A very simple solution is to get some material (and old white bed sheet is ideal) and hang it up in front of the light to diffuse it or behind the light to reflect it (far enough away to not be a fire hazard).

The biggest problem is probably finding some kind of framework to allow you to hang the sheet in a free-standing kind of way, in which case you can hit the hardware stores again or go somewhere like Ikea and get a cheap clothes rail like this one for around US$9.99 (the price shown on the website is in Australian dollars).

4. Throw a sheet over a Mulig clothes rack from Ikea, and bingo!

 

I must admit that I haven not actually made any of these yet, so I cannot say for sure that they work well. However, I have used similar things with success and this seems like a good idea, so I am including it untried and untested.

These sheets can have light shined through them, reflected off them, or you could use heavier material (curtain backing material is ideal because it is light-proof) and use them like “barn doors” to prevent light from going where you don’t want it.

You could also use different coloured material (different bed sheets or towels perhaps) to tint the light as it bounces off or shines through.

Reflectors

As you might have guessed, reflectors throw light back onto the subject for illuminating shadow area, providing highlights and lighting from a different angle. They are similar to the items above, but these are handy to have around wherever you are shooting.

The simplest solution I found was a windshield sun shade designed for cars. They are usually silver on one side and white on the other which is perfect , but you can get different colors instead of silver. Here is one on Amazon as an example.

5. At just a couple of dollars each, you can afford to have these lying around everywhere!
5. At just a couple of dollars each, you can afford to have these lying around everywhere!

Just buy one and leave it in your car. Not only will you almost always have a reflector with you, but you will have a sun shade for your car on hot days too! I also keep one folded up in my camera bag.

They also often have suction caps or hooks which allow you to stick them to windows or walls. I most often use these to give me something to bounce my flash off when there is no wall or ceiling handy or to reflect sunlight to lighten deep shadows.

DIY Flash Diffuser

So far everything has really been a matter of finding the right bits rather than actually building anything, but now things get a little trickier. For this one you will need a couple of tools and to do a little bit of work.

The idea is simple. There are plenty of flash modifiers out there, the most well-known being the Sto-fen Omnibounce (http://www.stofen.com). They are really useful, but considering they are nothing more than a piece of translucent plastic they are also really expensive!

I was lucky enough to have a heap of off-cuts of translucent white Perspex lying around my house so thought I should make my own.

6. I made these two designs to do specific things, but you could experiment with all kinds of crazy designs
6. I made these two designs to do specific things, but you could experiment with all kinds of crazy designs

This kind of white translucent Perspex is ideal. It is designed specifically to diffuse light as it is most often used in illuminated signs and so on. It lets plenty of light through but also diffuses the light well. Its also strong and light and will last forever.

In case you are wondering how much Perspex sheets cost, I should perhaps explain how I originally came to obtain it. I simply looked in the Yellow Pages for sign-making businesses in my local area to ask about their Perspex off-cuts (I was prepared to pay a few dollars for a selection of different types – it was for a completely different project not related to photography). The first place I rang that actually worked with Perspex told me to drop in at the end of the day. When I got there the manager walked me over to three large bins full of a huge variety of off-cuts from their day’s work and told me to help myself for free. He seemed happy that some of their waste was being recycled, and obviously I was happy when I walked out of there, barely able to carry the 40kg of Perspex pieces of all shapes, sizes and styles in my arms!

So I recommend you make some phone calls and get some scraps. Not only will it save you money but you will be helping recycle and reduce waste. Plus having bits of plastic and Perspex lying around can be very handy for lots of other things. I have used it to make many things from boxes, face-plates and brackets to a Hannibal mask for a fancy dress party!

7. My first attempt was an 'Omnibounce-style' diffuser that works well and is very compact
7. My first attempt was an ‘Omnibounce-style’ diffuser that works well and is very compact

Assuming you have managed to get your hands on some white translucent Perspex (mine is 3mm thick and works fine, but I would recommend about 2mm if you have a choice) the next step is to make sure you have the tools to work with it.

All you really need are a cheap jig-saw and heat gun. If you don’t have these tools, I actually found the cost of these inexpensive tools still worked out a bit cheaper than buying a single Sto-fen Omnibounce! Plus, you will have the tools to make other things later (including other flash diffusers). You may also want to use a rotary multi-tool such as a Dremel (http://www.dremel.com) to clean up the edges of your cuts if you want a professional-looking job, but if you are careful you can get a pretty good result with just a jig-saw and maybe some sandpaper. You could also use a little blow-torch instead of a heat gun, but you might find it more difficult to get a nice even heat, and the Perspex might bubble and go a bit brown where you heat it too much.

Before we start hacking into the Perspex however, we need to make a template so we know where to cut. This is pretty easy, just measure up your flash and then make some mock-ups out of paper or card and try them on the flash unit. Paper actually works OK as a diffuser and reflector too, so you can take some photo tests and get a rough idea of how the finished product will operate too.

8. This paddle design is slightly curved and allows most of the light to be bounced off a wall
8. This paddle design is slightly curved and allows most of the light to be bounced off a wall

I have made two different diffusers for myself ( see fig 7 and 8 ) – the first acts like the Omnibounce and diffuses light in all directions. The second looks like a slightly curved ping-pong paddle and provides a large catchlight while allowing most of the light to go past it and bounce off a wall or ceiling to illuminate the subject like a normal bounce flash. I find this really useful, although not always convenient to use. Note that in the photos, both my designs have little tabs cut and bent in them that prevent the diffuser from slipping too far down the flash head (see fig 9). I recommend doing this, but it is one thing you can’t easily test with your paper mock-ups because paper isn’t stiff enough.

9. The little tabs are bent in slightly to prevent the diffuser sliding down the flash head
9. The little tabs are bent in slightly to prevent the diffuser sliding down the flash head

Once you have a design you are happy with, simply disassemble the paper version and stick it to the Perspex with sticky tape, to provide a template. Then carefully cut around it with the jig-saw and mark where the bends should go before removing the template.

Now very carefully use the heat gun to apply gentle and even heat to both sides of the Perspex where you want to bend it. It will slowly heat up and then become flexible enough to bend and hold in its new position until it cools. Be patient and careful, and have your flash unit handy so you can test-fit it as you go and get a snug (but not too tight) fit. It is a good idea to do a practice run at this to get used to it first. The Perspex will get very hot, so oven-mitts can be useful for handling it without burning yourself. I recommend having some water close by (like a metal sink), so you can quickly drop the Perspex into should it catch fire or get too hot.

The final touch to this is something to allow the diffuser to fit the flash tightly without scratching it. I used some felt tape that I had lying around that was bought from an automotive store. It is basically a strip of felt material with adhesive on one side, designed to help prevent squeaks and rattles in cars. I simply picked away most of the felt to give a nice fit without scratching. Another alternative might be the adhesive felt pieces you can buy to stick to the bottom of furniture to prevent it scratching floors.

Test Shots top

Finally, below are some test shots of a sample scene with identical white balance settings (set to a generic “Daylight” setting) to see the difference between daylight, flash, the “ultra white” tungsten halogen and normal tungsten halogen. They were not taken in particularly controlled circumstances or designed to be scientific tests. They are just a couple of quick shots to illustrate some of the points above.

10. Curtains open allowing daylight coming in from an adjacent window.
10. Curtains open allowing daylight coming in from an adjacent window.
111. Normal tungsten halogen light (from halogen down-lights on the ceiling, no daylight)
11. Normal tungsten halogen light (from halogen down-lights on the ceiling, no daylight)
12. 'Ultra White' tungsten halogen light bounced off the white ceiling (no daylight)
12. ‘Ultra White’ tungsten halogen light bounced off the white ceiling (no daylight)
13. External Flash bounced off the white ceiling with 'paddle' diffuser (no daylight)
13. External Flash bounced off the white ceiling with ‘paddle’ diffuser (no daylight)

Conclusion: A Perfect Lighting Kit for Portrait Photography! top

There is no question that lighting systems can open up whole new worlds of shooting opportunity and experimentation. The problem for most is that, in the beginning at least, it might be too expensive to justify. For many people, an external flash unit might be the extent (or past the extent) of many peoples’ lighting budgets. This whole system cost me under US$75, and hopefully these ideas might help people in this position to get started.

Key terms [Photography glossary]

  • Lighting Softbox Diffuses light into a pleasing soft, even light. When used correctly, it will reduce harsh shadows.
  • DIY – “Do It Yourself” or Homemade.
  • Hot Lights – Photoflood, Tungsten, Quartz, and all various kinds of continuous light sources.
  • Diffuser – Spreads out the light from the flash of a camera.
  • Photography Light Meter – A device used to measure the amount of light in an area. In photography it is used to determine the proper exposure for a photograph.

Be sure to check out our article on How to Build a DIY Flash Bracket for Under 5 Dollars

Was this article helpful? Feel free to leave any feedback or comments.

This article copyright © 2006, Adrian Broughton.
Email: adrian@digitalkinetics.org Web: http://www.digitalkinetics.org
You may not reproduce these images or article without permission of the author.

68 thoughts on “Putting Together a Budget DIY Photography Lighting System Kit for your Studio”

  1. You can find the ultra white replacement lights at Ace TruValue, Menards, and Von’s hardware stores. In fact, you can pretty much find them at any hardware store. Also WalMart may carry them (but they do not carry the actual lights). This is for US shopping.

    – Danny K.

  2. I found them at B&H in NYC. I took a bulb out of one of the lights and brought it with me to ensure that the bulbs I bought would fit.

  3. Hi Danny (and Anonymous), thanks for the information, and thanks for visiting Shuttertalk! 😀

    – Julian

  4. Anyone have an update on where to find these bulbs? I’m an American living in Europe, and I’ve checked both sides of the pond as to where to find these…no love. I searched Bhphotovideo.com as well, but didn’t come up with anything. Anyone got a lead on these yet? Butter yet – anyone in Oz want to send me a few? 😉

  5. These blue tint R7s are 240 volt.They would work in a 120 volt fixture, but would run at 50% output, which would defeat the purpose.If you tried to use these with a 240-120 volt step up/down transformer you would burn your house/studio down.The only way to use these bulbs is to buy a 240 volt fixture and use a step up/down transformer.This would not be practical if you live in the states, as you would pay out the arse for a transformer and to have the fixtures shipped.Ive contacted numourous lighting supply warehouses and they all said that the major manufactures dont make them in 120 volt.If there is a no-name brand out there that makes these in the 120 volt flavor, please do tell.

  6. As a mom to now 3 little ones and a huge family full of nieces & nephews pictures are getting expensive. As a scrapbooker & camera addict I wondered if I could save some money & start taking ‘professional’ pictures & still be able to bribe smiles 🙂 with sorbet afterwards….After reading this article I know we can! Thanks for posting this & if anyone knows of any other articles about using lights, working with kids or such I’d love to have them emailed to HoneyNBenNKids@gmail.com

    Thanks, Honey

  7. Cracking article. Very informative and well explained. Also the windscreen reflectors is a genius idea.. never thought of that!

    Excellent work and thank you.

  8. I’ve used this type of lamp on a shoot; you must aim these lights through a difuser of some kind the reflectors in the lamp are often strangly textured giving an uneven field. And they don’t call them hot lights for nothing, have a set of thick gloves on hand for aiming them.

  9. I have used worklights in various applications for filming DV. The best option is to go with either a color-temp changing gel or to get the white bulbs if you’re trying to emulate daylight. I have found that the worklights with the stock bulbs will throw very nice light for interview setups when properly diffused and used in a three-point configuration. Something I’ve found out is that unless you’re shooting in a sound-stage, cheap lights are a filmmakers best friend.
    Heck, I’ve even had a film professor give extra credit to assignments for incorporating the use of Christmas lights, just to encourage versatile and creative lighting solutions.
    Basically, it’s the knowledge of how to use lights and not the lights themselves that can keep a flick from looking like a student or amateur project.
    Best of luck, may your video problems roll like water off a duck’s back my friend.

  10. Has anyone ever used these worklights to shoot DV video with?

    I wonder if they’re an answer to the desperate need for inexpensive lighting for no/low budget VIDEO filmmakers?!

  11. I just got the lights and globes today from Bunnings.
    $38 AUD for lights, $7.90 AUD each for the globes.
    I’ll get a dimmer though because they are very bright!!

  12. I was playing around the other day with some cheap reflector lights I have (one of which is kaput), trying to determine a suitable bulb. I ran across a couple of Phillips “Natural” bulbs. They’re kind of bluish in color, but give out a white light, as oppose to that orange you get with standard tungsten bulbs. Something to ponder. These, maybe…

    http://www.meijer.com/catalog/product.jsp?productId=120979

  13. the bulbs: google “studio tungsten halogen” i haven’t purchased any but numerous links are coming up with 32k halogen’s rated for hot lights/studio use 🙂

  14. Search local industrial/Commercial lighting suppliers.
    They usually have every light bulb ever made.
    Phillips Lighting Products is one source.

  15. Just used this for my lighting system at home. Bunnings was getting rid of the Worklights on the stand cheapo here so grabbed on of those and the blue lights. Really nice for the small room I am using. I built a Softbox to go over one light and use the other to bounce off the roof. Not a too bad light system. Just need to get the car window screens for reflectors and I’ll be set

  16. I am in the Mpls/St Paul area and have not had any luck – checked at the same stores as you, along with Lowe’s. Even had Ace hardware checking their supply catalogs, but no luck.

  17. I believe from reading, that you can use a dimmer on halogen bulbs, but, you have to halve the power output. EG: 500watt dimmer switch means you can only use a 250watt halogen bulb. I may be mis-understanding this formula, I aquired it from the Maplins uk site.
    Hope this helps,
    can’t stop to chat, of to B&Q and Wickes (uk hardware shops) to get some lamps.

  18. I made a dimmer with an extension cord, plastic dual plug box a 110 plug and dimmer switch. Just be sure to watch the current rating of the lights does not exceed that of the dimmer switch.

  19. I have used these lights, and found that after a short period of time the reflectors and glass get a white film on them from the heat, I have since removed the glass (leaving the grills in place). I have also done a bit of rewiring to make the lights independent, with there own switches. I have also made a bracket that holds a white umbrella, to shine the lights through, giving a nice light spread. Ernie

  20. Can anyone tell me if there is another name for the perspex sheets? I have called several of the sign maker companies in my town and none of them seem to know what Perspex is…..any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks.

  21. I have used these lights for quite a while, and the main thing to lookout for is the heat generated, these are virtually sealed units, after a while the reflectors and the inside of the glass form a milky film, I was able to remove it from the reflector surface but not the glass.
    My cure, was to remove the glass altogether but leave the grill in tact.
    Great results shining the lights through a white Umbrella. Ernie

  22. Hey Adrian
    this is a great article for me.
    I am a painter, trying to get decent documentation of work (not for catalogues for which I hire a professional) but good enough to send off to competitions.
    I have good south light but the canvases when I shoot always have a difference in lighting across the surface.
    So today i am off to bunnings to get those replacement gloves for my tungsten light stand and see how it goes.
    Otherwise I might have to spend upwards of 300 dollars on two soft boxes with fluro gloves and only be able to do it at night.
    many many thanks
    🙂
    margaret

  23. I just went and bought your set up at Lowe’s today. I have yet to find the bulbs but am going to try a few places or just play with my white balance. Thank you so much for your informative/creative ideas! Its allowed me to take my photography to the next step without breaking the family budget! Can’t wait to get my set up done and start snapping!

  24. I’ve looked all over the place and talked to a number of people can’t find these anywhere in the UK. Any one got any ideas?

  25. hi can i buy online I Live in Ireland i tried to find them online at Ace TruValue, Menards, and Von’s hardware stores but cannot can you help please Thank you

  26. Hi

    Great piece regarding halogen lighting,I have just this morning bought a double light stand and would like to ask if anyone know’s if these are available in the UK?

    I called at a local electrical trade supplier but he could not help.

    digilite

  27. I liked this article,I have just started searching a UK suppliers to find some of these bulbs.

    If anyone knows where I can obtain some would be much appreciated!

    Thanks to all.

    digilite

  28. I KNEW IT!!!! I’ve been looking at those lights at the HW store for years thinking there must be a way, light is light, right? Just get the color right. Great job and nice guide. Thank you Thank you!

  29. Regarding white balance, halogen lighting isn’t all that bad if you shoot digitally. Just be sure to shoot in RAW, and you can set the WB as needed in PP. You can also shoot a gray or white card and use that to set the WB. No need for special bulbs at all.

  30. The exact same set of worklights is currently on sale at the home depot in canada. I dont remember the exact price i saw yesterday, but it was about $50 for the pair with the tripod, and about $20 for the single.

  31. I have been to Home Depot, Ace, Target, WalMart and Menards – they all carry replacement halogen bulbs, but none of them carry the blue tinted bulbs for the more natuaral lighting. If anyone has had any luck locating them in the US, I would love to know where you found them. Thanks!

  32. I actually purchased the single lights from walmart and I saw the twin lights in there. So they carry them now depending on where you are in the US I guess

  33. I’m in the Chicago area. I’ve checked Menards, Home Depot and Ace and none of them has these blue tint ultra white bulbs. They all carry the standard bulbs that come with the light stand. I can’t even find them on the web. Has anyone found these in the Midwest?

  34. Just a quick word of caution.

    I went to Home Depot last night (April 7, 2008) intending to pick up a set of lights. I found that the least expensive brand were unavailable because they had been recalled. I can’t find any information about this on recalls.gov or on Home Depot’s site, but if you picked your stand lights up for about $25 at Home Depot, consider giving the manufacturer a call or at least being very cautious with them.

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