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Lighting That’s Light on the Budget: Affordable Lighting Options for Shoestring Budgets

You have an upcoming shoot, an idea, or just want to create professional grade photography or stock photography where good lighting equipment is required but you just don’t have the gear. A basic light kit can cost close to $1,000 which is way beyond your means, especially if it’s just to shoot for a couple hours. Are there any options?

Well, yes, of course there are options!

First of all, do you know other photographers that you can contact? Perhaps you might know someone who will let you borrow their equipment.  However, this is also your least likely opportunity to get your hands on lighting equipment. Letting people run off with stuff that can be worth a few thousand dollars for an afternoon is something people don’t do very often, even as a favor for good friends. It never hurts to ask, though.

But if you have a circle of contacts, you can put out some feelers to see if there are are people with studio space that can be rented. Renting out studio space is actually fairly common and it’s how some photographers lower their costs. If no one you know is aware of studios available for rent, then Google online photography forums and ask around the internet.

The higher end camera shops also rent equipment so you might want to check in with the ones where you live. The camera shops may also be a resource for locating a studio for rent.

The kind of lighting equipment you need may also be dependent on your needs. If you’re doing product photography, all you may require is a light tent. A light tent is essentially a partially opaque fabric with a wire frame. The fabric is usually white and the tent comes in a variety of shapes and sizes. You put the object to be photographed inside the tent and you can use cheap desk lamps as a light source. Even though you’re using low end lights, the fabric will diffuse the light more evenly.

By using a tripod and a slower exposure for the object, the negative space around the object will be washed out and you will be able to photograph the item so that it is isolated from the background. You can light one side of the tent more than the other to create contrast on the object, it doesn’t have to be an even light throughout. It’s really up to you and your needs as to how you will light the object. But because of the fabric acting as a diffuser, you can create professional photos using cheap desk lamps and even flashlights.

You can do a wider range of photography if you use colored paper or fabric in the light tent as a background for your object if you want something other than white for the background color.

Light tents may work great for photographing objects but sometimes you do want a background and you may want to photograph larger objects, such as people. You can photograph people in the larger sized light tents but it’s also a static environment.

For those shoots that are more dynamic or a background is desired, then there is always the option to shoot with natural light. Utilizing natural light is a skill unto itself. There are entire books dedicated to the subject and people who spend years perfecting shooting with the light around us.

If you’re going to use natural light for your shoot, the trick then is to not be overwhelmed in trying to learn how to do it all. You most likely will have a specific type of photograph that you want to create so the focus should be on how to use the light to achieve the results you want.

It also depends if you’re shooting indoor or outdoors. Everyone knows about using the light coming in through a window when shooting indoors. However, not too many people know how to control the light entering from the window.

The closer your subject is to the window, the stronger the light will be. You can use a reflector to bounce light onto the subject to make it brighter. A reflector can also create contrast. You can purchase cheap foam board from a hobby store and mount them to bounce the light from different directions. You can also block the light. You can create a variety of structures to control the light in different ways.

You can get an inexpensive shower curtain to cover the window to soften the light. You have three variables here, your light source, the subject, and the camera. The placement of all three will affect how the light will work and it’s up to you to achieve what you seek for the final result. Do you place the subject directly into the light source and shoot from the side? Or do you shoot straight into the light source with the subject in between?

One trick is to diffuse the light from the window with a semi-opaque object such as a shower curtain and using that as a back light. Then with foam board or reflectors, you can bounce the light back onto the subject. In this way you can use the single source of light from the window as both a back light and bouncing it back to light the front.

Most people think of natural light through a window as a single beam. By using cheap filters (shower curtain) and reflectors, the brightness, amount, and direction can be controlled in multiple ways. You can also take large pieces of foam board or cardboard and cut holes and patterns into them so the light produces various effects. You could use a desk lamp to put a pattern on a background wall but it may need to be a fairly powerful light. Outdoor flood lights will screw into most desk lamps.

My girlfriend has a picture of her niece when she graduated from high school. The parents paid for a high end photographer for her senior pictures. The photographer had the girl stand in front of a window and took her portrait that way. The niece is a pretty young woman and the photograph was very flattering except for the huge shadow going along her face because of how the light went across the nose. The lesson here is to pay attention to what you’re doing. It’s fairly common to have people purchase expensive cameras and call themselves a “professional” photographer. Getting paid to do something makes you a professional but that doesn’t mean you’re a photographer. Being able to notice these types of issues is what separates the average photographer from the great ones.

The lesson here is to know what you’re doing when you’re controlling the light. Putting a person in front of a window and getting the exposure correct does not mean you’re going to take a good picture. You may want to do some practice shoots before you go for the money shot. Controlling light means you also need to control the shadows.

When shooting outdoors, it should be obvious that the time of day and amount of sun can affect the light. The light is softer in the morning and evening. A cloudy day means the light will be more even and create less contrast.

If it’s sunny out and you want a softer light, you can have a helper hold up an umbrella of piece of cardboard to put the subject in the shade. Then use your flash so you can get the proper exposure. Or you can use a reflector to add contrast and conversely, to reduce the contrast if the light is on the harsh side.

If you shoot under a tree to take advantage of the shade that way, be careful that you don’t get a pattern of light and shadows from the leaves. The broken light usually is not a good effect. You may think you’re being clever using these types of lights and shadows but in the end it’s usually better to have a more even light. This is especially the case when taking portraits of people.

Keep in mind that shooting outdoors can be a challenge. Sunny days are great for landscapes but for people and objects, the hard contrasts from the sun do not always produce the desired results.

The bottom line is this: No matter the situation, you have options in how you control the light. Expensive lighting equipment means you can put the lights where you want. That’s the one big advantage for using studio lights. With a light tent, you can create smooth, even light with old junky desk lamps. Moving the lights in and out and placing at various angles will produce very good results. There are all kinds of ways to control natural light by using semi-opaque materials and reflectors or even cheap foam board. Outdoor light is a function of weather and time of day but you still have options in how you control the light. You can create professional grade photography without professional grade equipment!

If you still want to use professional lighting gear, call around or look on the internet for used equipment, equipment available for rent, or studios for rent.

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