DSLR Cinema, Cinema Raw, and Cinematic Journalism

by Kurt Lancaster

The $100, 3-point light kit

DSLRs are known for low-light capability and many shooters have been able to get some nice shots with natural lighting setups — especially in documentary work. But sometimes you need some lights to make the scene shine with cinematography power. But if you’re on a super low-budget framework, or you’re a student trying to build your own setup, you already know a good light kits cost a lot of money.


For example, a Lowel Omni 3-point lighting kit costs about $900:


For about $900 the Lowel light kit is outside many student and super low-budget filmmakers.


It’s got a nice set of barn doors to shape light direction, cords, tripods, and a carrying case. But that’s the price of a Canon Rebel T3i — which is what many of you saved up to get in order to make movies. Another $900? I’m not doing it.


I’ve consistently told my students — and I’ve built one myself — to go to Home Depot and build your own kit, with a couple of inexpensive items from B&H to supplement.


Bare bones light kit: ~$100

Three aluminum work scoops:


A work scoop lamp about $8 each (three for about $24)

Because the scoops come with clamps, you can hook these on door knobs, bed posts, doors — whatever is available on your shoot.


Three extension cords:


25′ ~$9 each for a total of about $27.


Daylight lamps (or whatever color temp you want):


2-pack 100W daylight CFL about $4 (three sets for about $12).


Aluminum foil: Get at your local grocery store — around $5. Use this to act as your barn doors, but never enclose your scoop, since you need the heat to breath!


One other key tool is a reflector — allowing you to bounce light or use as a scrim to defuse light.


Impact’s 32″, 5-in-1 reflector for about $39.

This is an essential tool for lighting, providing you with silver, gold, and white combos. Even if you’re outdoors using natural light, this is a great tool to bounce light back into the performer’s face.

There it is, for just over $100, you can build a workable light kit. And at the equivalent of 100-watts, these CFLs are more than adequate for DSLR lighting setups. Throw them in a duffel bag and you have a nice portable kit.

Anything else is just extra.



Sometimes you may be in a place where you can’t clamp your aluminum scoops, so you may want some light stand tripods to clamp them. The Smith-Victor Ravens from $33-40 each (price differences reflecting height extensions from 6′ to 8′).

Black wrap: http://www.filmtools.com/blacstudfoil.html

Black wrap, good for blocking light like a flag.


The Smith-Victor Raven RS75 light stand tripod for about $38. Three of them for just under $115.


The full package with light stands, aluminum foil, and assuming you already have a duffel bag, it will cost you less than $220. That’s the cheapest 3-point light kit I’ve come across.


Another inexpensive 3-point kit:

One of our reader’s pointed out the Cowboy Studio kit on Amazon (see comment below):


For under $70, this kis is a great option.

You will not have as much control as the scoops — where you can wrap tinfoil around them, but for general lighting, this is likely a nice setup, but I haven’t used this kit.

Scrims, flags, and C-stands

For those of you with an extra budget, I found the following equipment useful for more advanced work:


Scrim and flag kit:


The Westcott 24″x36″ fast flags scrim kit: $160

This puts you into some of the higher budget equipment, but it includes the fold-up storage bag and:

  • 2- Frames 24″ x 36″
  • 1- Black Single Net Fabric 24″ x 36″
  • 1- Black Double Net Fabric 24″ x 36″
  • 1- Artificial Silk Fabric 24″ x 36″
  • 1- Black Block Fabric 24″ x 36″

These are designed to be attached to C-stands:

Avenger C-stand with arm and clamp: ~$160a c-stand by itself will cost about $100, but the clamp and arm is useful for hanging the flags, scrims, and reflectors.

So for about an additional $480, you can up your game with how you control your light with two C-stands and a scrim/flag kit, but I wouldn’t recommend this unless you really need it. In either case, if I had the choice of purchasing a $900 light kit and the DIY scoops and have money left over to get a a couple of C-stands with a scrim and flag kit — that’s where I would put my money and it’ll still cost me less than ~$700!

The $100 kit is a good place to start and you can work your way up to the light stands. Only get the C-stand with scrims if you know you need it, and only for those advanced enough to use them for their full benefit.


Kurt Lancaster, PhD, is the author of “DSLR Cinema: Crafting the Film Look with Video, Focal Press, 2011.” He teaches digital filmmaking and multimedia journalism at Northern Arizona University’s School of Communication.

Category: Articles, Equipment
  • JWise says:

    Thanks for the tip on the reflectors. Upon looking for them at Amazon I found 43″ versions of the same thing for $25 plus shipping. I hope there isn’t an inherent advantage to the smaller units.

    June 20, 2011 at 2:32 am
    • Kurt Lancaster says:

      Find the best deals out there! The size of the reflector is all about preference, not performance.

      June 20, 2011 at 4:02 am
  • Dame says:

    I recently purchased a kit off amazon (CowboyStudio New Photo Photography Video Studio Umbrella Continuous Lighting Light Kit Set- 2 7ft Stands, 1 Mini Stand and Carry Case) for under $70. Great beginner kit. Bulbs were a little dim, but swapped them out for stronger ones and it’s perfect. The case is nice too. I have some clamp lights I use as well mainly for accents but their a great, inexpensive solution as well.

    June 20, 2011 at 4:25 am
    • Kurt Lancaster says:

      Fantastic! I’ll update the site to add this.

      June 20, 2011 at 4:28 am
  • Seany says:

    Great post…I passed this on to a lot of friends who always ask me this question.

    June 20, 2011 at 10:29 pm
  • Seany says:

    Another random thought – not sure if you’ve ever posted bits about using black wrap. As you know black wrap is gold and a great way to ghetto rig some barn doors with laundry clips aka c-42′s. That always pops up as a usefull tip..

    June 20, 2011 at 10:31 pm
  • Kurt Lancaster says:

    Do you have a link to the black wrap? I couldn’t find it on B&H.

    June 20, 2011 at 10:39 pm
  • Katie says:

    C-stands never worked well with the reflector when I’ve shot – since you have to angle it, you need the stretchy cords to pull it, which tips the c-stand, unless you also lug some good old sandbags into the Canadian wilderness, midwinter.

    June 21, 2011 at 10:59 am
  • Rexy Inc says:

    you know those cheap fluro blubs you get for $4 from the supermarket have massive colour phase changing which means nonstable colour and they flicker also and a Actual Color Temperature (K) : 5000 °F which is off and changes a bit the longer its turned on… you will totally screw your shoot up using this crap !… I’d raver pay upwards of $80 for the real things – at least they are made for photography/video with stable colour electronics in the bulbs and totally flicker free. i use 70w fluro bulbs for our video work very $$$ but at least stable but still very fragile – you only have to drop them a 1mm off the table and they explode :(

    July 5, 2011 at 11:39 pm
    • Kurt Lancaster says:

      I’ve used these cheaper bulbs and have not run into any flickering or color temp issue.

      July 7, 2011 at 7:38 pm
    • Michael says:

      Here you go, 300w equivalent CFLs for $16 on Amazon from Square Light. In fact there are half a dozen venders with similar deals, and the number is growing every day. Same for LEDs, they are amazing, cheap and indestructable. I love them personally for hair and fill light with a dimmer, I would never go back to Tungsten. I agree with Kurt, even the cheap CFLs from Home Depot [they have a whole line of them available in 5500k by the way] are decent bulbs these days. Two years ago that wasn’t true, but it is now.

      August 10, 2011 at 8:27 am
  • WorldsoldestFreshman says:

    One thing I would add: Sandbags. Very cheap peace of mind. You can buy them for $5 each on Ebay or make your own with nylon canvas, but get some either way. Nothing is worse than having your lights knocked over by the talent or the wind. You’ll feel like a knucklehead if it happens and there will be a mess from broken glass and bent reflectors.

    And they’re useful for so many other things as well like holding doors open for the crew.

    March 29, 2015 at 7:56 pm

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