Friday, July 25, 2014

Hot Lights On a Budget

Good reference can make a huge difference in your painting, but photography can be an expensive and jealous hobby.  It is always there when I get a little extra money, nagging away and telling me I need a new lens/body/bag/strap/flash/gadget...  I try my best to resist but photography has a Borg like ability to assimilate my will.

Because my wallet is generally smaller than my wants, I am always looking for a cheap way to do something well and I came across some intriguing options on Amazon and thought I would give them a try.  I have always wanted a set of hot lights for my photography.  I have a nice set of strobes (flashes) that I use but hot (or continuous) lights are nice because they are always on so you can move them around and see in real time exactly what your light is going to be like.  They used to be really expensive for good color corrected lights but that has changed.  Not only that but with CFL or LED bulbs they aren't all that 'hot' anymore (halogen and tungsten bulbs are powered by liquid hot magma I think).

Plus, the tungsten and halogen kits are much warmer.  I wanted a kit that was closer to daylight.  See this chart to see where the temperature of the light falls.  If you aren't familiar with what this means, it will be useful if you do much photography and are going to buy a set of lights:

Back to the hot lights.  I bought this set: LimoStudio - Photography Photo Portrait Studio

Update 11/2914 - If the LimoStudio kit is not available, this is a similar kit:

CowboyStudio Triple Lighting Kit


It comes with two tall light stands and one small one, three light heads, three 6500k CFL bulbs and a case.  All for $38.  Wow.  They aren't very rugged, but for indoor use, they feel like they will last.

The umbrellas are delicate, but with reasonable care, they should hold out.  They are designed to reflect the majority of light back, but you can also turn them around and shoot light through them like a softbox.

I do have some gripes and fixes though.

Gripes - The bulbs that they came with stink.  They are quite bright (200W equivalent which means they put out as much light as a typical 200W incandescent bulb), but at 6500k, I had a really hard time getting good skin tones, even with a grey card (for getting accurate white balance) and messing around in Photoshop.  The highlights were too cool and the shadows a yucky orange/green.  I also found that even with as much light as they put out, I could use more.  More light means more options with your camera, i.e. lower ISO for less grain, more options with your f-stop to get a sharp image and faster shutter speed.  All useful.

Fixes - I went to Home Depot in search of some 5000-5500k bulbs.  I found a 4-pack of 5000k spiral CFL bulbs for $8, but they weren't as bright as the ones that came in my kit, only 100W equivalent.  I remembered seeing a 4-socket head on Amazon, so I bought 2 4-packs of bulbs and a 200W flood, all 5000k, went home and ordered two 4-socket light adapters.

Here is a link to bulbs I purchased at Home Depot: EcoSmart Daylight 4 pack

I bought two of these for $10 each: Flashpoint 4 Socket Adapter

After impatiently waiting for them to arrive, I was ready to go, now with 1000W of total light!

With two main fixtures, I can use one as the primary light, and another as a fill, or double them up for an 800w equivalent single light source and good simulation of daylight.  Here is a shot of my setup from a photoshoot just earlier today.  You can tell that I have a supportive wife by the big hooks in the ceiling that I can attach my grey photo backdrop to, transforming the family room into a temporary photo studio.  The backdrop is nice for isolating the subject, but not mandatory.  You can use a sheet or a solid color wall with similar effect.  The background fill light also helps with that too, eliminating shadows.

I dialed my camera's white balance to 5000k to match the lights and shot away.  Here is a shot of the model from the shoot today:

I was very happy with the range of skin tones and information in both the highlights and shadows.  I shot the image with Nikon D7000 and a 50mm lens, ISO 400, f 3.5, 1/60th of a sec, handheld.

Not only are the lights useful for photography, but they work well when painting from a live model too.   To summarize, for about $80 I have three tripods, a couple umbrellas and about 1000 watts of effective light and at a versatile temperature.  I have used them a few times now and am very happy with the results.

Thanks for giving this a read and I hope you found it useful.

Howard Lyon


  1. Replies
    1. You are welcome Cameron. Thanks for giving it a read and taking a moment to reply!

  2. Excellent and thorough information, Thank You!

  3. Needed this--I flat out appreciate this info

  4. This came at a perfect time, I was looking for some affordable light stands for live model drawing. Didn't expect to find a whole kit though! That's just wizard.

    1. I hope that they work as well for you as they have for me. Thanks for the reply!

  5. When you say '200 watt equivalent' '800 watt equivalent' etc., what are the actual wattage and lumen specifications of the CFL bulbs you are using?
    LED floodlights might also be an option worth considering; they're fairly cheap, come with a mounting bracket built in, available in wattages from 10 to at least 200, 4500-6700K colour temperature, a 50 watt LED flood will put out close to 5000 lumens and in a much narrower field than a fluorescent, though diffusing that might be harder.

    1. Good question. When you buy a CFL, sometimes on the packaging, it will give you an idea of how much light it produces as compared to an 'equivalent' incandescent bulb listed by wattage. I think it is just a convenient correlation since many people relate the brightness of the bulb with the wattage. It does also give a more accurate rating in lumens. In this case, the bulbs I purchased are 1600 lumens and 23 watts, plus the background flood was 2800 lumens and 42 watts, so I get in total just around 15700 lumens. LOTS of light and cheap to replace, $2.25 a bulb.

      LED lights are fantastic and at some point I will have to give them a try with my photography. I have painted from life using an LED light, but I don't have a set myself. If I get them, I will definitely do a follow up post. Thanks for participating on MC!

  6. WOW! This is great, Howard! And really inexpensive.....yikes. Thanks!

    1. Thanks Greg! I need about 87 more useful posts to catch up to you. I was just rereading your most recent post and committing myself to be more efficient with my brushwork.

  7. I update the article with a link to the bulbs I purchased at Home Depot.

    Including the link here as well:

  8. The likely reason your OEM bulbs gave you such poor skin tone has to do with a low CRI (Color rendering Index) number. Typically you want as close to 100 as you can get with your CRI in video and photography, so that colours are properly rendered. The CFL bulbs you got from Home Depot have a CRI of 81, which isn't bad. It won't matter what color temperature your lights are, if you don't have a good full spectrum of distributed light you won't get the color you need.

    1. Great point Tim. I forgot to mention that. I did a bit of research on high CRI rated bulbs when I purchased the overhead lights for my studio. That is an advantage some the older incandescent and halogen bulbs, it is much cheaper to get high CRI bulbs.

      If anyone wants to read up more on what Tim is talking about as well as some more technical information on lights and lighting, this is a good link:

  9. SO informative. If someday I ever get to the point of having enough room and $$ for a light set-up (not to mention a camera), I'll be coming back to this post!

    Great website, too, by the way! Love the "Tools" section.

    1. With this kit, it doesn't even take much room. It also will work with a phone camera. I saw Rebecca Guay shoot some reference on her phone for a painting at IMC and it worked well. Good lights will go along way towards helping with reference. Budgets are budgets though, I totally get that.

      Thanks for giving the article a read, visiting my site and for taking a moment to comment!

  10. that camera though. so expensive

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