Lighting is such a critical element of great photography that many opportunities can be missed if you don’t have the budget for a proper lighting setup, or just happen to be in a dark place at the right time. With a little bit of imagination and creativity though you can make those darker moments shine and sometimes create new and unexpected effects.
Below are a few tips on how to make the most of the light available to you and use your imagination to create new light without having to break the bank or go over your budget.
The first thing you can do if you’re struggling to light a scene properly is make the most of the natural light around you – remember the sun’s always shining somewhere, it’s just the clouds that get in the way. Open every curtain, every blind, every door, and move closer to any available windows if you’re not getting the shutter speeds you want.
If you have time to plan your shoot, for example if you’re taking portraits, think about quiet and well-lit public places where you can capture your subject. Locations like universities out of term time are great because they tend to have loads of buildings with lots of big windows and large open spaces. For more information on shooting in natural light check out Damon’s beginner’s guide.
If the light is too strong, or not in the right place, consider using a reflector to create a more diffuse glow and move the light. Reflectors can be purchased quite cheaply anyway, but a simple home-made solution is to cover a large sheet of cardboard in tin foil. Aluminium foil has a shiny side and dull side which can be used to create different levels of diffusion, and can also be crumpled to change the quality of the reflected light.
Over the years I’ve had varied success searching for a cheap alternative to a proper spotlight. Any torch that comes close to the brightness of a low-end spotlight is likely to cost just as much if not more than one, and the batteries will run out quickly. The best thing I’ve found is a basic clip-on lamp that plugs into the mains, combined with a regular lightbulb and lampshade.
For less than £10 the adapted work lamp works a treat, offering a good level of light – it can easily light up a room – and flexibility in terms of positioning. The lightbulbs can be switched to provide a better colour temperature, and it can be easily raised up by clipping it onto a tripod (or any convenient high place like a curtain rail). The setup below cost me just £8.50 in total (not including the tripod) and is something I’ll be using a lot.
Another option is to use any bright light or lamp to hand. Turning on a ceiling light generally doesn’t help because the light isn’t being directed anywhere, but table lamps and especially bendy desklamps can make great impromptu spotlights.
Although approaching the same price as a proper spotlight a cheap third-party flashgun can make a great portable solution which can work great as a basic flashgun or a way to fine-tune the lighting in a scene. For less than £30 you can pick up a cheap flash gun, which although not as advanced as the more expensive models gets the job done in terms of generating light.
You can also have great fun creating different lighting effects with flashguns, by adjusting their brightness but also by adding different coloured gels (as I will describe below). I once had to turn a dull meeting room into something that looked a bit more romantic, so added a red gel to my flashgun to turn the wall behind the subject a nice shade of pink.
If you want to add some colour to a scene, or set a particular mood, combining gels with your budget lights can create some interesting effects. Making the gels is simple and cheap. All you need is a few strips of cardboard from something like a cereal box, some transparent materials, and a stapler.
While trying things out for this article I went to my local stationers and picked up a packet of colourful document wallets for £1 and was able to create a Red, Yellow, Blue, and Green, gel for my flashgun. I had enough material left over to make one for my desk lamp as well and also experimented with a rainbow-coloured pencil case.
With a little bit of outside-the-box thinking there are plenty of ways you can improve the lighting of your setups for little or no money, depending on the materials you have lying around your home. From simply being more aware of your surroundings to being inspired by the lighting department at your local hardware store, you just need to get creative to make your budget go further. Why not trying creating your own lighting solution and see what bright ideas you can come up with? For more inspiration for cheap lighting see Julian Rad’s guide to making a DIY light tent for under $5.