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Building A Compact Lighting Kit

Have you ever found yourself setting up a lighting plot on location for an interview or product demonstration, and realized that you have suddenly become the center of attention? By the time I've made the fifth or sixth trip to my light kit to pull out a piece of equipment, curiosity strikes the room. People seem to be fascinated by both the amount and the variety of equipment I take out of my little box. I equate it to the old visual gag of a Volkswagen Beetle filled with 15 clowns.

I have a small case with more stuff in it than seems physically possible. I've learned to carry more equipment in my one kit than most folks carry in two kits. Age and experience are probably a factor. As I get older, I become more economical; no longer do I want to carry around C-stands, flags, or soft lights for most two-person shoots. So I've figured out ways of getting the job done while reducing what I need so that it fits into one light case.

A single Kata Maze-4 soft case is packed tight but holds everything Walter Graff needs for one- and two-person interviews.

My kit may be small, but it's done the job for projects broadcast on A&E, The History Channel, Fox Sports, and elsewhere.

My kit starts out with a Kata Group Maze-4 semirigid case, referred to by some folks as "the coffin." This case is 35 inches long by 14 inches wide, and is the perfect combination of hard and soft case. Best of all, it has built-in wheels. Inside are four pockets for lights and grip equipment, and one long pocket for stands and the like. In my favorite light kit, I carry eight incandescent lights; two custom-made fluorescents; nine light stands; assorted gels of every color; two Flexfills; two types of Chimera-brand light diffusers (soft box and a lantern); three dimmers; various pieces of foamcore; some makeup foundation; and grip equipment for every occasion. Everything but the kitchen sink.

For me, ruggedness and efficiency are the hallmarks of a reliable light kit. I want a small package with as much punch as possible. I need fixtures that take the day-in, day-out abuse I give them. Although I own a wide assortment of lighting instruments from LED fixtures to HMIs, many of today's new-fangled fixtures need special cases for transportation. Some lights have individual cases because of their fragile construction or because they require all sorts of accessories.

With these lights and stands, plus the rest of the equipment in his kit, Graff lights everything from infomercials to corporate productions.

I used to carry around more stuff than I needed "just in case," but in reality, I never used most of the equipment.

Size does matter, at least with regard to efficiency, and as a result, I found a balance between the two that offers versatility and economy without making me feel like I'm carrying around an anchor. In addition, in this age of heightened security, I don't want to spend 10 minutes watching security guards check eight cases in every building I enter.

Lighting fixtures

The core of my favorite light kit consists of three 600-watt Lowel Omni lights. These lights can be used in a variety of configurations. Whether I need to attach a light box, bounce light off a flexfill, or send a spot down a 40-foot hallway for a little punch, Omni lights have the versatility, weight, and durability I need.

My kit also contains two Lowel Pro-lights that produce a more focusable beam than the Omni's. The Pro-lights are great for edge lighting and creating shadows on a wall. I also carry a 12-volt bulb and Anton-Bauer adapter that allow me to convert a Pro-light to 12-volt use if I need to run it off the camera battery during emergencies, or when I need a super sun-gun. In addition, I have a very small Chimera soft box that attaches to the Pro-light, making it a great, small, soft light.

This Lowel Omni light has taken a beating over the years, but continues to be one of the core fixtures in Graff's kit.

For harder cuts, I carry two LTM Peppers 100 Fresnel lights outfitted with 200-watt lamps. I have never found a better all-purpose fixture; it's durable and doesn't take up much space. Dedolights are great too, but in my book, the Peppers win out because Dedos are usually kept in a separate box and the Peppers are smaller, more durable, and a lot less expensive.

Because blowing a fuse is an issue when an apartment or conference room I'm shooting in has limited power, I pack a Cool-Lux Mini-Cool fixture. Its MR-16 lamp is efficient but uses far less wattage to get the job done than a conventional incandescent. And as the name implies, the Cool-Lux doesn't burn hot.

My last incandescent light is a 500-watt Lowel V-light. When I first bought this fixture some years ago, I had no idea what to use it for. Now I find it's one of those lights that does the trick for certain situations, such as when you need an up-light, or a general purpose fill light. The V-light folds up smaller than a 30-minute Betacam tape, so it is a great light for kits such as mine where every inch counts.

$15 fluorescent

To round out my kit, I have two fluorescent fixtures. These are not ordinary store-bought fixtures. Well, actually they are; just not from the store you might have thought.

I own a few professional fluorescent fixtures, but I find them a bit bulky, as well as fragile for run-and-gun setups. The last thing I need when I get on location is a light kit filled with glass dust from shattered lamps. And if I am going to drop a fluorescent fixture down a flight of steps, I'd much rather know I paid $15 than $700 for it. But where can you find a fluorescent fixture good enough for broadcast clients for only $15?

Graff uses dimmers to bring down the brightness of both practical lights (e.g., desk and table lamps, overhead office lighting) and his own video lights.

One day while I was walking through a major home improvement store, I came across some fluorescent fixtures that caught my eye. They were small, had a one-piece plastic design, and they appeared to produce color-accurate light. I bought a few to see what I could get on camera. I was pleasantly surprised. They performed well and, best of all, they fit into my light kit.

Read the "Hardware Store Fluorescent Lights" sidebar to see how I rig cheap fluorescent lights for my kit, then visit your local home improvement store and see what you can find.


I have one 600-watt and two 2000-watt dimmers-all homemade devices that I find indispensable on location. Whether I need to dim a practical light in a room or warm up the light from one of my fixtures, these dimmers are as important as my light stands.

Foamcore is a durable, light, and cheap material to fashion reflectors, flags, and cookies.

Why dimmers with vastly different wattages? Have you ever dimmed a light and heard buzzing from the filament? That's a result of filament design and how well you matched the rating of the dimmer to the total wattage in the circuit. A device called a choke inside the dimmer is supposed to suppress the filament noise, but conventional dimmers are made for use with conventional household lamps, not professional video fixtures. I have found that by using a 2000-watt dimmer, the buzz of noisier professional fixtures is substantially reduced. I use the 600-watt fixture primarily to control whatever practical lights I find on location.

Stands, flags, and gels

A lot of people ask me how and why I manage to fit nine light stands in a kit. Although I don't normally take C-stands on shoots with this kit, I still need stands for holding foamcore flags and cookies. The secret is that I've found stands that fold into much smaller configurations than average stands.

Manfrotto, sold in the United States by Bogen Imaging, makes a stand that collapses down to 26 inches long by 2.5 inches wide while still extending to 8 feet. It's as durable and sturdy as a larger stand. I have six Manfrotto stands in my kit and three larger stands from Matthews Studio Equipment for the heavier stuff.

A variety of grip equipement provides fixture-mounting options for any situation and location.

My kit would be incomplete without a few pieces of foamcore for flags and cookies. Foamcore is durable, inexpensive, light, and a lot easier to replace when it tears than more expensive manufactured flags. One trick I've discovered is to take two pieces that just fit into the case by themselves and tape them together at one edge. This results in a large flag that still folds up into the kit.

I cut one piece of foamcore into a cukaloris, which is one of my most frequently used light diffusers. I also carry an assortment of theatrical color and color-correction gels. To save space, I cut full sheets into quarter sheets and then create folders out of matte board to organize and store the gels in the kit.

In the image on page 46, you'll see my three gel folders, which are the white folders with the orange tape in the top flap of the kit. The orange tape is an identifier; I tend to leave the folders around the room during shoots and the colored tape allows me to find them easily so I don't forget them.

I've found that orange is a blessing. I've even begun to make dimmers with orange plugs, and I'm thinking about changing all of the plugs in my kit to orange. There is nothing worse than realizing you left equipment somewhere because you didn't see it on your dummy-check of a room. In fact, I can think of a few nonorange dimmers that I've left somewhere out there in the world right now. I hope they're not being used; I imagine someone buying 300-watt replacement bulbs for his office lamp because the fixture just doesn't seem to get that bright since those video folks left.

Cables and grip

Another way I found to make space in my kit is to become more economical with cables.

I rewired my Omni lights with 20-foot cables and replaced the switch with a much more durable switch from an Arri light. I don't need an extension cord with these fixtures anymore, so I've eliminated the 50-foot hedge-cutter extension cords that I used to carry around. I custom-made 25-foot cables using 16/3 cable with no thick sheathing around it. I carry three of these in my kit and can now store them easily.

Inexpensive flourescent lights found at a home improvement store don't match the flexibility of video-specific flouros, but they cost a lot less.

As you can see by the photo of my grip equipment, I carry a lot of little odds and ends. I am always attaching foamcore to something, so I carry an assortment of spring clips. I also have a few Matthews Mafer clamps with studs that I use to fasten light fixtures to various pieces of furniture or doors when necessary. They are also great for fastening a mic boom to a stand for an interview.

I still carry an assortment of drop-ceiling scissor clamps just in case I need a high hanger for a light. A short grip arm and two Matthews knuckles come in handy.

Reflective tape applied to the inside of the fixture improves the light's usable output.

A Matthews 6-inch Baby Plate lets me safely put fixtures at floor level when necessary, or on top of a cabinet when space is tight. My gaffer clamp is the greatest general-purpose clamp in my kit. I don't think I've had a shoot where this wasn't one of the first few things I took out of the kit.

I also carry an assortment of ground lifters and three-way adapters. I have one L-shaped extension arm that fits into the Mafer clamps for mounting close to walls or other obstructions. And I carry a screw-in Edison plug converter to pull power from a standard light plug, which is ideal when there isn't an outlet to be found.

Of course I carry gaffers tape, but duct tape is equally important. Gaffers tape has many uses, but there are times when I need something that adheres more reliably, and for those times, duct tape can't be beat.

Spring clips designed to hold rakes and such to garage walls are attached to the light with sheet-metal screws.

I carry around a lot of lighting equipment, but it doesn't feel like a lot because my kit is efficient and compact. There is nothing worse than doing a two-person shoot with equipment that requires three people to transport. Creating a light kit that has enough equipment for any job is the first step toward eliminating that problem.

My kit needs two people to lift into and out of a vehicle, but the built-in wheels make most trips outside of the car a painless, one-person job. That means one less cart to take. Of course there are plenty of other things I could add to or take away from this kit, but in the end, as they always say, it's not the equipment you have but how you use it.

Hardware Store Fluorescent Lights

The key to getting a $15 fluorescent fixture from a home improvement store to work well with video is measuring the color temperature range of the lamp, which for our purposes should be between 2700 K and 3000 K. Most lamps are stamped with a Kelvin number or have a color designation. Lamps labeled "cool white" have a bluish tinge, while lamps labeled "warm white" or "soft white" reproduce colors more like an incandescent bulb.

These lamps don't work well with film, but they reproduce color nicely with video. For times when they spike a bit in one color or another, I spray mount a light-grade plus or minus gel on the inside of the fixture to correct the problem.

Attached to light stands, the clips allow for easy rotation to aim the light.

The fixtures I purchase are 8- and 15-watt models. Neither is longer than 16 inches. I'd give you a specific model, but you may never find exactly the ones that I have. These large home improvement stores don't carry identical merchandise from store to store or month to month.

At the home improvement store, you'll also find rolls of shiny aluminum tape normally used to seal air conditioning ducts. This tape is highly reflective and resistant to temperatures up to 200 degrees. I cut a piece of the tape to fit on the inside surface of the fixtures behind the bulb, improving reflection.

For added durability, I wrap the fluorescent tube in clear packaging tape. The lamp burns cool enough that heat isn't a problem, and it takes a lot more abuse this way. In the event that it does break, the bulb does not end up as glass dust in my light kit.

Next I attach the fixture to a light stand. I first tried attaching a piece of double-sided Velcro tape, then I tried using a stud I had fabricated. Both methods met with little success.

These cheap flourescent lights, when combined with standard video-lighting equipment and craft, produce excellent results.

Now I use those little spring clips used to hang a rake on a wall in a garage. Using 3/8-inch sheet-metal screws, I attach two clips-one to either end of the back of the fixture. The fixture can be mounted easily to the shaft of a light stand and rotated 360 degrees.

Before I first took the light on a shoot for a client, I did some at-home tests with the lamp to make sure it produced light in sufficient quantities and with an appropriate color rendition. The fixture, which I called a Graff Light, worked well.

It's become a staple of my light kit. I use it for everything from tabletops to interviews. In fact, I shot an entire series of interviews for an A&E Investigative Reports program using only two of these fixtures.

Graff's Light Kit

- 1 Kata Maze-4 lighting case
- 2 Lowel Pro-lights (AC and DC)
- 3 Lowel Omni lights
- Custom-made 20-foot cables for Omni lights
- 2 LTM Pepper 100 lights with 200-watt bulbs
- 1 Cool-Lux Mini-Cool light
- 1 Lowel V-light
- 2 16-inch homemade fluorescent lamps
- 3 custom-made, 25-foot 16/3 extension cables
- 1 Anton-Bauer AC/DC adapter
- 3 pieces of foamcore
- 1 Chimera micro lightbank for Pro-light
- 1 Chimera medium Video Pro soft box
- 1 Chimera small Video Pro soft box
- 1 Chimera small lantern
- 3 Visual Departures Flexfill 36-inch silver/ white reflectors
- 6 Manfrotto Lightweight Pro light stands
- 3 Matthews light stands
- 2 2-kilowatt dimmers
- 1 600-watt dimmer
- 20 spring clips in various sizes
- 6 Matthews Mafer clamps with studs
- 1 L-shaped extension arm
- 5 drop-ceiling scissor clamps
- 1 short grip arm
- 2 Matthews knuckles
- 1 6-inch Baby-Plate
- 1 Matthews gaffer clamp
- 7 ground lifters
- 1 6-inch extension stud and adapter
- 1 screw-in to Edison plug converter
- 3 three-way adapters
- Makeup powder
- Multipurpose tool
- Gaffers tape
- Duct tape
- Clothespins
- Full, half, and quarter CTB sheets
- Full, half, and quarter CTO sheets
- 40 theatrical gels in different colors

WALTER GRAFF is a lighting director, cinematographer, and director (www.Waltergraff.com).

Copyright 2003, CMP Media LLC