Single Bare Bulb Lighting

Posted on February 18, 2012


Something I hear from photographers everywhere, I wish I could do something but I don’t have any decent lighting equipment. I have to be honest that I learned on some expensive lighting equipment because I worked as an apprentice for a photographer when I started. Even so, a lot of people think you need expensive lighting equipment to take really good images. The reality from my point of view, those who start with lower end equipment get a better understanding of light in general. There are things you will learn by trying different things here that you won’t lean any other way.  Some will be worthless equipment that you use. Others, you will find as useful and will teach you something about light.

Image with bare light bulb and modelSo, where do you start? Part of this is to show that you can get good results with cheaper products. The other thing it will do is spur something that you don’t have to buy everything pre-made for you. If you go to most photographers, you will see things that they have done to cut their costs. This may be as simple as a card board box snoot or plastic-ware bulb diffuser for your camera flash. Cheap poster board or similar reflectors. And, many other things, too. This doesn’t mean mean there aren’t better products out there that will do the same thing and be more flexible, but it does mean you are on a budget and every little bit will help.

With this introduction, the simplest and cheapest light to use is an incandescent bulb. You can buy a 200 Watt bulb for about $3 at most. A simple adapter to convert the outlet about $2. A decent extension cord for this will be around $30 (which you would need for higher end equipment, too). You will probably want a clip of some kind to clip the light on something (I usually use the model or the escort of the model for for holding and moving the light around while shooting).  But, you now have a decent light to shoot images and start learning.

Side lit model at high focal length and small apertureI usually recommend that people wanting to start out in lighting use a continuous light, but not to invest a lot into them. There are a lot of pitfalls to continuous lights. The first is that you can only use them inside or at night – they just don’t have the power to light up things during the day and outside.  Even shooting inside, you may have to pump up your ISO to 400 because the amount of light is so weak. The second thing is that they use a lot of electricity – going with one of the more powerful, high-end Fresnel type continuous lights means only plugging one or two into a typical office building circuit. Plug more in, and you blow the breaker. Another thing that is a problem is that they typically generate a lot of heat (the reason most people call them “hot lights”) and require special handling. This may include special holding equipment to additional air conditioning requirements. Most continuous lights can’t be adjusted for brightness, either, so you probably will buy something to adjust the light you just made as your first purchase to upgrade your lights but use the light and adjust the distance of the lights for a few shoots to change the intensity of the light. There are some things to be learned by even doing this.

Why would you recommend that people start with them if there are so many problems? Probably the biggest is that there are things that will help you learn and use more expensive lights. The biggest is that what you see is exactly how the light appears. They are cheap. They also make you grateful for expensive studio equipment – both with their options and consistency in performance. Finally, they give you the ability to see that you can make things inexpensively to adjust your lights – you don’t have to buy everything you use with your lighting equipment.

Let us get back to the inexpensive single light lighting setup. What kind of lights can you get with a single light setup light this? The images throughout this post are examples of what you can do. There are others, too. Have fun and play with the light and see what you can get.
bare bulb lighting of a coupleDouble exposureBulb imagea

A special note of thanks for both Mariah and Colin for what they went through while shooting these images: five degree weather and a slight winter breeze. They exemplify what it is to be a model and hanging in there making it look like it is much warmer than it really is.

If you want to splurge, and you have some electrical understanding (don’t do this unless you do), you can make a coffee can light. This is done by mounting a standard ceramic single bulb fixture (around $6) in the bottom of a coffee can with something insulating wiring under the fixture from the can. Put some holes in the can for ventilation. The fixture and bracket is mounted to the can with some washers. An electrical cord and plug are attached to the fixture. I have found that you get a little better result when you sand and dull the inside of the coffee can. The image below was made with this type of light. The image below is an example of where it is the only light being used while filming in a movie.

Movie set being lit by a single coffee can light

All information and images are ©2012 Don Krajewski on this post.

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