One of the greatest misconceptions about video production is that you need a small fortune to make professional quality content. With handheld HD camcorders now capable of quality professional rigs just 10 years ago would have cost thousands of dollars to replicate, this is truly the tipping point where media production equipment is being made available to virtually everyone.
Once you have your camcorder in order, the next thing to consider is your filming environment. You could tidy up your bedroom, living room, or some other part of your home and hope your topic doesn’t conflict with the environment. Alternatively, you could consider investing in a home studio that can be assembled and broken down as you need it. A good studio setup can be as simple as the right lighting and a backdrop conducive to your production.
Believe it or not, there is a multitude of great studio kits available on the Web that can be found for less than $150. Some of these setups are quite large and can turn an entire room into a full-blown production paradise in minutes while others are more space friendly. Little extra touches that you add in addition to the lights and rigging can make all the difference in the world, too.
Aside from your camera, lighting could be the most important thing you invest in as a video maker. While some lighting rigs can go for thousands of dollars, and require experienced eyes to set just right, you can get away with relatively inexpensive options that look great in a variety of situations. You don’t even need to have any actual technical experience to set them up.
Umbrellas are a favorite among portrait photographers. When it comes to shooting video, a few umbrellas can fill the shooting area with a diffused light which can have a number of different properties.
Some umbrellas have a black exterior and a reflective interior. This allows them to be used as both a pass-through light source for dramatic (darker) scenes or a direct light source as reflectors minimize the diffusion effect other umbrella systems might offer.
A snow white umbrella can be used either as a pass-through or a reflective light source (in most cases). This soft, diffused light is excellent for shoots where flesh tones need to be softened.
Umbrella systems are somewhat portable, though the umbrella itself is fragile and can be easily bent or torn during the bumps and bruises of the road. I’d personally recommend this lighting system if you’re shooting from a stationary home studio rather than a portable one, though some might disagree.
A good soft box (or softbox) offers a superior light diffusion over the harsher contrast of an umbrella. Because the light surface is wide and flat, light from these sources can wrap around a subject better and provide more of a “grey zone” between lit and unlit areas.
The advantage of a soft box in terms of portability are clear. The box itself can be folded and tucked away in a bag, and the light can be stored as you would any other free-standing light. A lot of the less rugged-framed soft boxes can bounce back into shape consistently when bumped or jarred.
Spot lights are direct, typically strong lights that are aimed at the subject or background. These lights are used to emphasize a subject in an otherwise noisy background or even drown the background out entirely.
In general, I don’t recommend spot lights at all for a home studio. The light is usually harsh, unless gels and diffusion paper are used, and they are typically better for highlighting than primary lights.
For example, a spotlight might be the perfect way to light the top of someone’s head from behind as a large soft box could be difficult to hide off-camera. I’ve seen spotlights used for document or product shots where a particular object needs to be lit differently than the rest of the environment.
Residential lighting such as lamps and ceiling spotlights can also be used to create a fairly nice video set in the home. Granted, this is much more difficult than using objects that are specifically made to light photographs and video.
Consider using the same type of bulb in every light in the room. For example, I use natural white bulbs that have a slight blue tint to avoid the yellow hue of a soft white or standard incandescent bulb. LEDs are a great option, though you may want to test the flicker rate on them prior to trusting a long shoot. Newer LEDs don’t flicker as much as older ones did.
CFLs are a good option, as are halogen and incandescent bulbs. Remember though to always overlight your set. Even if it looks too bright to be natural to your eyes, the camera will see it a few shades darker than it actually is.
There are a few inexpensive things you can do to create a more professional background. You could decorate your home to reflect your production. This does, however, drive the wife/husband a little crazy because video sets rarely look like something you’d want to find in your home (unless you host a home improvement show).
So, you could invest in a lighting/backdrop kit or create your own cloth backdrop using a shower curtain and a portable clothing rod (a method I used for doing Google+ Hangouts for a while). Either way, a good backdrop can be as simple as a curtain or as complex as a constructed set. If you’re building your sets at home, chances are you don’t want something that will be difficult to pack up and stow away when company comes over.
Sticking to the under $200 rule, it’s probably better to use something like a green, white, or black backdrop which you can supplement with picture-in-picture effects in post. You might even be able to wheel in a monitor to sit behind you to add more of a set appeal.
A plain wall will work, too. Your set doesn’t always have to be as fancy as what you see on television, but a little something extra (and appropriate) never hurts.
You can find lighting / backdrop kits all over the Web. Some of the best ones I’ve seen are found on Amazon for as little as around $120. These sets include 2-4 lights and a backdrop material made out of muslin, a slightly transparent and yet lightweight material that is commonly used on theater sets.
As long as you don’t have a window behind your backdrop, you can make it look remarkably good with the included lights. Ideally, this setup would be done against a backing wall, but it’s somewhat forgiving in other circumstances as long as the stronger light is coming from the side the camera is on.
Here are three of my favorite kits found on Amazon.
StudioFX 1200 Watt Photo Studio – $120-140
This kit comes with two snow white umbrellas, each with three light sockets suited for 45 watt CFLs. Three muslin backdrops (green, white, and black) stand 10′x10′ thanks to a large adjustable stand. You’ll need a space about 12 feet wide in order to fit this monster in your home, but it sets up and breaks down in minutes.
2400 Watt Soft Box / Green Screen Kit – $189
A 10′x20′ green screen lit by three quad-light soft boxes makes for an excellent home studio for the video maker that loves chromakey technology. This studio allows you to capture video from head to toe, and lighting should be even all around your subject thanks to two side soft boxes and an overhead light. Each soft box is powered by four CFLs, giving a total of 2400 watts of lighting power to your production.
Four-Piece Lighting Kit – $89
This kit works great if you’ve already got a decent background to work with, but just want some lights to help make things pop a little bit more in your video. At just under $90, it’s also one of the least expensive sets I’ve come across. Keep in mind that a soft box kit without a backdrop would run about the same, and may provide better light diffusion. This rig has two background lights on stands in addition to the umbrellas, so your background can be lit as well. Finding good places to stick these lights where they can add some highlight to your set is something of an art form.