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Film Gear: Little Lights

by on Jun.18, 2012, under Filmmaking, Gear

A little pepper can really spice things up.

I don’t own any big film lights—my biggest lights are a couple of 1,000-watt Fresnels.  With today’s fast film stocks and digital sensors, you can easily illuminate a medium sized set with a couple of 1,000- and 650-watt lights.  Often on a location you can’t go above about 2,000 watts total without blowing a circuit, anyway.  So, like me,  many smaller producers keep their personal lighting packages constrained and rent bigger lights like HMIs only when they need them and know there will be plenty of power to run them.  (And enough man-power to haul them around and set them up.  Big lights can be a lot of work!)  So the ‘big’ lights I carry are pretty standard (boring) stuff.  What I really dig are the little lights.

I own—and highly recommend—a complement of little Fresnel lights in the 100 to 300-watt range.  These are miniature little Fresnels, with barn doors and scrims that can flood or spot like any other Fresnel, but rather than keying or filling a scene, these add texture, style, and focus.  In my mind I think about the big lights as the ones that light the scene, and the little lights as the ones that make it look cool.

Using Little Lights

Little lights have a lot of uses.  I think I find new ways to use them almost every time I shoot.  (One great thing about trying to do a lot of things with a small number of really useful tools is that you can stretch your mind finding solutions to new problems you encounter.)  Here are some of my favorite uses for little lights:

  • They make great backlights, hairlights, or rimlights to spice up a shot or provide background separation.
  • Bounced or diffused, they can also act as mini fill lights to pump up the illumination in an unwanted shady corner.
  • Undiffused and with the barn doors they can send a little slash of hard light onto a background.
  • Placed by the camera (or attached) they make a fabulous eye-light.
  • Snooted with a cone of blackwrap, they can put a tight beam of light on a specific object.
  • Aimed at dark foreground objects they can illuminate them much more easily than the key light, which would often overpower foreground elements.

It seems like adding a bunch of little lights might slow down the lighting process, but often the opposite is true.  Little lights can help you work faster because there’s less Futzing required from the main lights in a scene since you no longer have to find that perfect key or fill light position that lights everything just so.  You can get a pretty good placement on your main lights and then punch up the scene with your little lights as you need.  Individual little lights also allow you to place pools of light without needing quite the C-stand forest that you would if you were trying to make it all happen with flags and nets.

Cameras have become a lot more sensitive these days so they can reach the illumination they need with a lot less light.  That means that a little 200-watt light that used to be good only for filling in the eyes on an actor’s close-up can now illuminate half the background in some scenes.  (And they look great with a textured background, courtesy of some cut out blackwrap!)

Inkys, Midgets, and Peppers

Little lights come in a variety of names.  A 100-watt Fresnel light is called an “inky”, a 200-watt Fresnel is a “midget.”  Sometimes they’re also called by the manufacturer’s name like Mini-Mole, or Pepper.  My little lights are all Peppers, made by LTM.

I’ve never weighted these lights, but I’d guess none of them tops out at more than a couple of pounds.  Because they’re so light, you can easily hang them off a wall, door, or chair back with a Mafer clamp or hang from a suspended ceiling with a scissor clip.  Since they draw so little power, you don’t need a heavy-duty power cable and can get away with using a thinner indoor extension cord that you can tape up with gaff tape.  These lights are so small that you can easily hide them behind something in a scene—even an actor!

Douglas Horn is a feature film writer-director and a creator of independent series.  Douglas and Dan Southworth founded the web media company Popular Uprising.  The company’s action/sci-fi series DIVERGENCE will release its first season in 2012.  More information at:

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