An amateur’s guide to affordable video lighting

Walk toward the light…now back, and to the left.

Smile, you’re on Candid Camera

Remember when “Zoom, Zoom” was an automaker’s marketing slogan, and not a summary of your daily business calendar? We don’t, because most of life prior to mid-March is kind of a blur. Anything in 2019 was, like, ten years ago. Now that work life is defined by telecommuting and social life is coordinated on Facetime or Duo, people who very recently had no idea what “going live on YouTube” meant are getting crash courses in webcam use and online presentation, including ways it can fail. Video lighting is the subject of today’s word count. We assume you’re not going pro here. In fact, if you’re just sprucing up for a remote job interview, in times like these even a $15 purchase might be a stretch.

Want to get straight into the workshop section, where we not only walk through the lighting options but also break out the digital multimeters and calipers as well? Our latest Workshop Quick Takes feature is ready for you, and while we know r/aww offers stiff competition for your time, pop the corn and click below for an illuminating alternative. Looking to shoot the breeze with twenty-six friends from the alphabet?  Scroll past the YouTube link to continue reading our feature article.

Captain, we think it is trying to communicate

Distance learning and telecommuting are the new reality in a post-COVID world, and some of it is permanent. Not everything moves cleanly to remote, but anecdotally, a friend recently told me that his company’s customer support call center has converted permanently to work-from-home. They now have better employee morale, higher customer ratings, and lower overhead compared to the previous cubicle farm. For many people, the traditional office job has gotten a long-term makeover.

A portrait of the author as an obvious stereotype.

But, home environments can be challenging for audio or video, especially if you, our loyal reader, do not have a dedicated office space. Video quality might not matter for routine project meetings. But for showing finance numbers to the board, conducting a job interview, or teaching night class to an online audience that also has Minecraft and Netflix apps available, it’s time to ask if anything on your side of the connection prevents your viewers from engaging.

Light and sound, smoke and mirrors

Given an either/or choice between sound or lighting, resolve sound issues first. Viewers will forgive a lot of visual failures provided they can hear clearly, and teleconference apps prioritize audio on that basis. Fortunately, sound is mostly a solved problem, since modern phone and webcam DSPs are astonishingly good at extracting auditory blood from a turnip. If you have good earbuds or a quality webcam, and the room doesn’t echo too much, your audience should be in the loop. Just double-check your microphone level when you start presenting, as some apps will fiddle with it behind your back.

Lighting is a different story. Some webcams are good at evaluating the lighting and adjusting to compensate, but others struggle. The ability to decide what’s important in the active image also varies depending on subject distance and overall room environment. On desktop or laptop PCs, some cameras have software that offers more direct control. Lacking that, there are options such as the free OBS Studio which can be upgraded with a virtual camera plugin that translates any suitable camera source into a customized webcam.

But that kind of software doesn’t play well with some apps or cameras, and it adds a layer of settings roulette when joining a last-minute meeting. For most users the camera controls are at the mercy of autonomous software. That sometimes yields perspectives like those in the following collage. (Content warning: the following may trigger PTSD in frequent Zoom or BlueJeans users.)

Would you buy a used car from any of these guys?

Summary:

  1. Ghost Man. Lighting is weak and dominated by screen glow from the monitor. Subject achieves a disembodied hue; cue theme from a 1990s SciFi show of your choice.
  2. Extraordinary Rendition. A strong light source, such as a window or poorly-placed overhead fixture, is located toward upper left of subject. Where were you on the night of April the fifteenth?
  3. The Dramatic Escape. A strong light from behind and right looks great on a night mission in Siberia while fleeing from the guards. It’s less great for a quarterly report to the CEO.
  4. Glaring Obviousness. A strong light source behind the subject is both swamping out the camera’s exposure reading and adding too much J.J. Abrams to the scene.
  5. The Shadowlands. We’ve got your back…and not your front, because the backdrop is strongly illuminated while the subject is correspondingly under-exposed.
  6. See you at 8, then? Short of going professional, this is the best balance: a strongly lit subject in the foreground, a modestly lit background, and neither one is over- or under-exposed.

Often, the room lighting is what it is. But another option is to control the light that falls upon you, the subject.  When the room is bright and the subject is slightly brighter, most cameras will find an exposure balance that settles near desired scenario (6), above.

Laying out the possibilities

The goal is to fill in a subject’s dark side, and we’re not talking about The Force. You can read up on fill-light theory elsewhere, but the basic idea is to add lights that remove dark shadows, without washing out the subject into a cardboard cutout.  Lights can be quite cheap, especially when correcting for a webcam, provided they do the job. Sometimes they need to be directed at the subject and sometimes they can be reflected off a wall or ceiling. For a human facing that camera, we usually have partial light from the room but may need one or two lights that are just behind the camera, and somewhat to the sides, so the subject’s face has a more uniform cast.

Fill lights should not be harsh or glaring. Dedicated video lights compensate with built-in diffusers. For other sources, glare can be defused by placing a random translucent household object between a light source and the subject, provided you are mindful of any heat buildup that might occur. Or, try bouncing a small floodlight from a wall or ceiling area that will reflectively illuminate the subject but not create a hotspot in the camera’s field of view. If you can, move lights closer or farther away. And if you wear glasses like yours truly, keep an eye out for broad light reflections that might turn you into Marcie.

To emphasize, we’re not going pro here, we’re just trying to improve our technique, and yours, as amateur users. Fortunately, bright, portable LED light sources are increasingly cheap and widely available. The following are examples from our own collection.

Option 1: LED panel video lights

You might see these in the backdrop of many YouTube channels. Cheap LED technology and cheaper lithium batteries have made commodities from tech that was formerly the domain of professionals.  These won’t substitute for umbrella diffusers and custom wall treatments in a proper studio, but for casual photo and video, they can turn a dark, grainy image into something that looks more natural and engaging. The one catch is you may need at least a small desk tripod to use these effectively.

Viltrox L132T Panel Light, currently available as a kit for about US $45.

The Viltrox L132T is typical of the current generation of edge-lit panel lights, which are constructed similar to the backlight assemblies in many computer monitors and mobile devices. Measuring at roughly 10 inches wide and just under 4 inches tall, it offers a lightweight, diffused display with selectable brightness and color temperature controls. At maximum output it yields a bit north of 1000 lumens, or nearly what a 75W incandescent bulb from þe olden days would do.

Like most lights of this type, it uses the Sony-style NP-F550 camcorder battery pack. The L132T ships with the hotshoe mounting accessory, and may or may not include a battery, so keep a good eye on listings when browsing. Fortunately, compatible batteries and chargers are widely available and fairly cheap if you buy separately or just want spares. Viltrox has many other options at similar pricepoints, so shop around before committing as you might find a better sale.

If you prefer Viltrox’s close competitor, Neewer is in the mix as well:

Neewer T100, also sold as a kitfor about US $45.

The T100 is another edge-lit LED panel, again using the Sony NP-F550 battery format. The T100 is 7-3/4 inch by 5-3/4 inch design that otherwise looks, weighs, and outputs about the same as the Viltrox option above.  Both units can be shore-powered via 12V, 1.5-2.0 A power adapters with a 5.5×2.0 mm barrel plug, which avoids burning down your batteries if you’re not working on-the-go. In a pinch, both units also make for passable light tables if you ever have that need. We once used our Neewer light with a simple tagboard mask to shoot macros of photo negatives for conversion back to digital images.

Here’s Neewer again, this time with a compact twist:

Neewer ML-180AI, an integrated USB power bank and video light for around US $35.

This aluminum-body option is barely larger than a cell phone and equally pocketable, provide you are mindful of the powerful magnet it contains and possible risks to credit cards. At a mere 5-1/2 x 3 inches, and offering both micro-USB and USB-C charging plus a USB-A powerbank output, the ML-180AI is incredibly handy for someone working in the field. Also, it’s about half or less the price of several Lumecube products that professionals often prefer.

The grid-type LED layout includes a color-temperature range like its larger brethren, and the powerbank feature means it can charge your phone or GoPro while also powering itself.  The downside of an integrated battery is that it can’t be swapped for a fresh unit midway through a filming session. Also, the 4500mAh battery rating is plenty to run the light for an hour or three (depending on brightness settings) but just a bit thin for charging another device at the same time. For short meetings on-the-go, or longer sessions with a charger and cable handy, this is probably the best value we have found.

Option 2: Unconventional Sources

Another option, which your budget might justify more easily, is some kind of flashlight. These can get as expensive as you dare, but unlike dedicated video panels, flashlights have more uses. You might even have one or two that are already suitable. Emphasis on “might,” because digital cameras sometimes pick up flicker and strobing patterns that aren’t visible to the human eye, and most modern LED lights use some kind of high-frequency power converter to drive the LEDs. The panel lights we looked at are designed with this in mind. Flashlights are luck-of-the-draw.

We’re still shopping at Harbor Freight regularly, and we were initially tempted by their newer, midrange “Quantum” product line. Unfortunately, two different products we tried were unusable on camera. Great light sources for general use, not so great when a digital sensor is screening the action. Then we stepped up to their higher-end “Braun” branded rechargeable model line, and picked a winner.

Slim Bar LED: lighting with a twist, a fold, and a magnetic base, from US $27-38.

The Braun Slim Bar LED is a multi-use work light with an 18650 rechargeable Lithium cell in the base and a micro-USB port on the side. The main COB (chip-on-board substrate) LED panel puts out a claimed 390 lumens at maximum output and is selectable between two brightness settings.  There’s also a flashlight-style LED installed at the bar’s tip. We found the COB panel does strobe on camera slightly on the low setting, but the high setting works fine. The magnetic base and ability to rotate and fold the light bar mean the unit can be tacked up anywhere that a steel surface is available.

The catch on this one is price.  Off the shelf, it will cost around US $38. Fortunately, Harbor Freight has been advertising this one with coupons and it has been available for around $27-28 in the recent past. And there are no ongoing battery costs, which is not the case with the mid-range Quantum line, or the general-purpose products slotted below those. But speaking of which:

Stick-anywhere work lights, US $3-5 (sometimes free with any purchase).

Ignore the haters. These ultra cheap lights you can buy at Harbor Freight, or just about anywhere else, are surprisingly good photo and video lights for one reason: the LEDs are driven directly from the DC battery source. No converter means no flicker.  The disadvantage is that the light intensity falls off as the battery depletes. Remember, we’re talking amateur level here, and not everyone can afford to collect $30+ kit, especially if loss or damage is possible. For that matter, even the pros sometimes improvise. What matters is if it works in the time of need.

Just be sure to check for alkaline-type cells, and swap out if necessary. After that, you should get at least 2-3 hours of usable brightness, maybe more. These are cheap enough that you can experiment with mods, such as using sandpaper to turn the front panel into a diffuser.  You also won’t have a heart attack if one of these gets lost or damaged during use.

Option 3: DIY builds

We discuss this one a bit in the video feature. Suffice to say if you have a soldering iron, and like to buy COB LED panels and small DC-to-DC power converters on eBay, your imagination is the only limit.  Or you can even cannibalize the puck-style lights described above to get things going.

Wrapping it up

Check out our YouTube feature, linked at the top of the article, for a demonstration of all of this equipment. We also discuss ways of scrounging up and validating AC-to-DC power adapters you might already have available or can get very cheap, and take a couple power measurements on the Neewer USB model’s input consumption just because we could.

Have fun finding whatever style of lighting fits your budget, and when you do, remember the most important rule: tools are only as good as how you use them. Experiment with different fill lighting angles, positions, and intensities until you understand what works for your setup, and what doesn’t. Your online audience wants to see you, but you don’t want to be fatigued by harsh glare. Cheap lights can meet a need when positioned carefully, and expensive lights won’t help you if the camera can’t find the right light level. Every room and desk is unique.

Check out our video feature if you haven’t already, and then start checking out your newfound lighting options.  Got a question, or an experience to share? Comments are enabled below, and on our YouTube page. See you there!

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Aaron Vienot

Engineer by day, hobbyist by night, occasional contributor, and full-time wise guy.

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alice jonas
1 month ago

What about whiteness of light like I get 5700k cool white color light in market. And I Need more, I got a indoor led lighting they sell 6500k cool white color light which can help

chuckula
chuckula
2 months ago

Hey Aaron, this article is so thought provoking that I won’t even talk about canceling products!
 
But I do have a followup request for ideas concerning audio capture with videos as well. I have a GoPro and do some amateur nature videos where sunlight is typically fine for scene lighting, but the audio capture in in the camera body is lousy and I’m always looking for tips in how to improve it.
 
Thanks for sharing your expertise.

ludi
2 months ago
Reply to  chuckula

My audio work is relatively hackish compared to what you see the big YT channels doing.   As far as I know this GoPro dongle is the only way to bring an external microphone into older GoPros (such as the Hero 5s that I just recently got): https://gopro.com/en/us/shop/accessories/pro-3.5mm-mic-adapter/AAMIC-001.html?shopping=noredirect&gclid=CjwKCAjwjLD4BRAiEiwAg5NBFhrgBxY2jHZ1PBh-9ItHf5SHvo7JRAgNpN9Ec2MlUKrL6cAc9da9NxoC1IAQAvD_BwE&gclsrc=aw.ds I don’t have one of these yet although the price is coming down, so it might be worthwhile soon.   For the Hero 8, there’s the “Media Mod” frame adapter: https://gopro.com/en/us/shop/mounts-accessories/media-mod/AJFMD-001.html?shopping=noredirect&gclid=CjwKCAjwjLD4BRAiEiwAg5NBFhJ9Y_zuzOITE8lkrnnvbAqNNcBMpxBPkpZWmqKWVthOVy2QRk3YwBoC4OgQAvD_BwE&gclsrc=aw.ds   An Aussie company, RØDE, makes a range of affordable video microphones including the SmartLav+, which is what you see clipped… Read more »

chuckula
chuckula
2 months ago
Reply to  Aaron Vienot

Thanks!!!

derFunkenstein
2 months ago
Reply to  Aaron Vienot

I’m a big fan of the RODE Video Micro. $20 and fits into a hot shoe. Not sure if a GoPro has a shoe, though.

Aaron Vienot
2 months ago
Reply to  derFunkenstein

The MediaMod for the Hero 8 has two shoes, but that’s an add-on purchase.

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