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Like most independent filmmakers, you’re probably working with a less-than-Hollywood-sized budget. That doesn’t mean you have to cut corners or produce a lower quality film. It simply means you need to find ways to maximize your dollars while still optimizing your movie’s appeal. One of the best ways to produce a stunning movie is to make the most of your lighting options. The tips and techniques below will help you break into the movie scene with a well-lit cinematic masterpiece without breaking the bank.

  • Drape sheets of dark fabric around overhead light sources to create a pseudo spotlight effect. You’ll create a cone of light that forces your viewer to home in on the spotlighted person or object without distractions. Choose medium to heavyweight fabrics from the remnant bin or buy cheap, high thread count sheets at a discount store.
  • Take advantage of the best source of free lighting – natural light. Pick up an inexpensive 5:1 reflector/diffuser. They enhance natural light, block out distractions, create deep shadows, and pair well with reflectors that allow you to bounce lights off walls for a surreal effect.
  • Scour the aisles at home improvement stores and big box retailers for clamp lamps, construction work lights, and even China balls. China balls are very inexpensive and come in a variety of sizes and shapes. They’ll provide good color renderings and definition. In addition to home improvement stores and big box retailers, clearance aisles, pawn shops, secondhand stores, and online ads (like Craigslist) are often great sources of inexpensive lighting equipment.
  • While lighting is crucial for good cinematography, remember that some of the appeal comes from the combination of lighting techniques and camera skills. Camera movement, camera sweeps, interesting angles, and overall composition play a role in the appearance of lighting as well.
  • Watch online tutorials and classes on techniques like shooting in the shadows (filming actors from the shadowed side), edge lighting that appears to separate your subject from its background and creating color contrasts that guide the viewer’s eye right where you want it.
  • Think you can’t create texture with lights? Think again. You can actually use a variety of lighting textures to your advantage. Try using twinkly Christmas lights, a fog machine, or blinds and gauzy fabric to create shapes, shadows, and textures that create cool lighting effects.
  • Head back to those big box retailers and cruise their hardware and sporting goods departments for folding LED lanterns. These cool little gadgets run on batteries and are used by campers to light up dark nights in the woods. Imagine the illumination theses little powerhouses can bring to an indie movie set. Because they’re foldable, they’re easy to angle and adjust.
  • Finally, look for construction warehouses and other places where you can rent what you need rather than purchasing it outright. It’s a smart way to get the lighting and other equipment you need without breaking your budget right from the start. Filmmaker communities might also be a good source for renting – or even borrowing or bartering for – the high ticket lighting items you need.

Contrary to popular belief, cinematic appeal doesn’t have to mean spending a small fortune on expensive lighting. The easy-to-implement strategies above can help you use affordable lighting elements to elevate your cinematography skills.