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DIY Project: Video Lighting

July 25, 2009

At work, we’ve been investigating the feasibility of producing videos in-house, soup to nuts. At the very least, it’s an awesome learning experience for all of us. At the best, if everything works out, we’ll have a new capability to add to our content arsenal.

While we’re not going for the slick production values of our brand-quality videos, we’re trying to shoot for something better than your average YouTube video. Part of that goal involves solid lighting. Now, proper studio lighting can cost thousands of dollars, but since we’re still in the investigatory phase and thus trying to keep costs down, we decided to go the DIY route. And since I have tools and some photographic know-how, I volunteered to build the lighting rigs.

I began by scouring the internet for inspiration. I’ve known for a long time that it’s possible to rig up workable lighting with inexpensive shop lights using some type of translucent fabric as a diffuser (to soften the light), and lo and behold, there are examples aplenty. No single solution quite did what I wanted, but I took bits and pieces from around the web and came up with my own designs.

Basically, the lighting setup includes the following:

Lights

  • Key Light: The “main” light source. In this case a Utilitech Tripod Work Light ($29.98) from Lowe’s.
  • Fill Light: The complementary frontal/side light, which literally “fills” the shadows created by the key light. I’m currently using an old shop light I had lying around, but will probably replace it with another Utilitech light since it seems a bit underpowered.
  • Backlight: Used behind the subject. Comes in handy for killing shadows created by the key and fill lights. For the backlight, I’m using a Utilitech 500W Portable Work Light ($9.98) from Lowe’s.

Diffuser Panels

The key and fill diffusers are pretty similar in design. Both consisit of a 3/4″ PVC frame faced with white ripstop nylong (product #263-7783 at Jo-Ann Fabric – thanks interwebs!). These frame attach to a post of 1″ PVC that slots into a second post of 1 1/4″ PVC. The reason for these sizes is that the 1″ fits perfectly inside 1 1/4″ PVC, allowing the diffusers to be raised and lowered as necessary. The bases are similarly build out of 1 1/4″ PVC laid out in an “H” configuration for stability.

The backlight diffuser required a different approach, since it sits on the ground. I wanted it to be adjustable so it could be tilted up or down as necessary, and after beating my head against a wall trying to figure out how to rig this up I finally settled on using a length of 1″ PVC running through a 1 1/4″ tee joint. It’s ghetto as all hell, but it works.

Step 1: Materials

After I sketched out the plans for the various diffuser panels, I hit Lowe’s to grab my PVC. In all I figured I needed about 80 ft – 30′ of 3/4″ PVC, 40′ of 1 1/4″, and 10′ of 1″. I also picked up a ton of joints – 90 degree elbows, end caps, tee joints, and a few 3/4″ – 1″ tee joints to connect the diffuser frames with the posts. And yes, it all fit in the Mini:

Step 2: CUT!

Once I got everything home, it was time to cut the PVC. I started with a hacksaw and miter box, but the damn blade kept turning angles on me and shaving bits of yellow plastic off the miter box. Fortunately all the PVC was going to be slotting into joints, so a perfect 90 degree cut wasn’t necessary. Even so, the hacksaw got old fast, so after the first ten or so cuts I said screw it and found a better toy:

The pneumatic cut-off wheel is designed to cut through metal, so you can imagine the effect it had on PVC. Hot knife through butter is actually a really apt description of what ensued, except in this case the knife spewed powderized particles of butter all over the place. The mask and safety goggles were a good call.

Step 3: ASSEMBLE!

Once all the PVC was cut down to size, it was time to assemble. At which point I discovered the flaw in my sketches – I didn’t account for the additional inch or so the tee joints added. Didn’t matter for the stands, but it made my pretty rectangular frames look rather more like trapezoids.

Frustrating? Sure. But easy enough to fix. All I had to do was disassemble the frames and cut a half inch or so off each side of the lower bars.

Step 4: DRILL BABY DRILL!

Once the frames were assembled, I tried my lazy-ass solution for keeping the posts extended – clamping them in place. Yeah, that didn’t work. So instead I drilled a series of 1/4″ holes at about 6″ intervals through the 1 1/4″ posts. Just shove a screw, paperclip, or whatever through the holes, and the 1″ post will rest at that height. Elegant? No. Functional? Sure as hell.

While I was at it, I also drilled a bunch of smaller holes into the diffuser frames for mounting the nylon.

Step 5: Turn in Your Man Card

At this point, it was time to tackle the part of the project I was dreading most – buying the nylon. This necessitated going to a fabric store. I had the product number for the ripstop nylon at Jo-Ann Fabric, but since Jamie swore up and down the closest one was way up north, I decided to try Hancock Fabrics. Yeah. I lasted about three minutes amid the felt, denim, and assorted prints before I just had to leave. I don’t think I’ve felt so uncomfortable since I flipped off a friend’s dad when I was a kid – and got caught.

Using the trusty iPhone, I found there was indeed a Jo-Ann Fabric in south Austin – at Manchaca and Slaughter – and made my way post haste. Armed with the product number, I managed to get some help finding what I needed and got the hell out of there.

Step 6: Screw the Nylon

Back in the garage, I laid out the nylon, placed the key diffuser frame over it, and started screwing it into place. The best way to do this is to work opposite ends…top center to bottom center to left center to right center…and so on…and do the corners last, pulling the fabric taught before each screw goes in. It seemed to take forever (probably because I drilled way too many holes), but the end result was three really great looking diffuser panels.

Step 7: Light ’em Up

After trimming away the excess nylon, it was time to test these puppies out, so I took everything inside and fetched our random Mr. Toad statue to act as a stand-in.

This first shot was taken with the lights off:

And this one was taken with the lights fired up. It may help to click through to Flickr to see these larger, but the second Mr. Toad has a lot more depth and dimensionality and the highlights in his pants and the entertainment center in the background are a lot more muted. The effect is a lot more noticable on video, too. And for that matter, the camcorder seemed to do a much better job handling the white balancing than my Nikon did.

And that, as they say, is that. If you want to build your own, it’s actually not that hard. Mostly, you just need the time to do it. And if there’s any interest in my actual design sketches, I’ll happily put them up.

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