By Doug Gritzmacher
Creative Director, Z-Channel Films, Denver, Colorado Google+
This is one in a series of occasional posts about gear and technique: lessons we’ve learned over our 40 combined years in the video production industry. Here we show you how to build a China Ball for cheap video lighting!
In this era of small handheld video cameras with large 35mm sensors and impressive high ISO performance, you can get away with shooting in very low light!
However, our experience producing corporate videos over the years is that video lighting is almost always a necessity. The only exception is verité documentary, when the exigencies of observational filmmaking trump the higher production values you get with correct professional lighting.
So, for most corporate video—whether you’re a Denver video production company where Doug works or a Los Angeles video production company, where Steve works, light is right. But which lights to use?
Up until the 2000s, the industry revolved around tungsten sources and bigger, more expensive HMIs. The downside was that they almost always had to be plugged in, were often heavy, and they gave off a ton of heat.
Then LED lights for corporate video production were born. Light, battery-powered, dimmable, and with adjustable color temperature, they came in all shapes and sizes: big ones for interviews, small ones for under the car dash and every conceivable dark nook and cranny.
These days, innovation in LEDs has continued, with prices coming down and color accuracy improving (as measured by CRI scale).
Over the years, we’ve used China balls from time to time, particularly in situations where we want beautiful, diffused soft light for faces. A great example is a dinner party with a bunch of people. Some people blast a light off a white ceiling for this, but a China Ball is a better tool.
China Balls, however, can be expensive for what they are. The Ikan at B&H is more than $600.
We wanted one for less. Our requirements: the China Ball light had to be cheap, battery-powered, light, and easy. For that reason, this 18″ Kupp China Ball from Adorama, while reasonable at $90, didn’t fit the bill since it requires outlet power.
We next researched a DIY solution. This article from B&H describes how to make your own China Ball. This YouTube video from FilmRiot and this one from PremiumBeat.com also give you step-by-step directions. The problem with these is that they’re working with wires and dimmers and electricity! This doesn’t fit our requirements of easy and battery-powered.
So we came up with our own DIY option. First we bought a package of five 18” China paper lanterns from Amazon for $10.95 and free shipping. The product name is: Just Artifacts 18″ White Paper Lanterns (Set of 5) – Click for more Chinese/Japanese Paper Lantern Colors & Sizes!
They are easy to put together but are pretty fragile, so store them somewhere safe and be sure to transport them carefully.
Then we bought two rechargeable LED bulbs that are 850 lumens, 60w equivalent, daylight 500k for $16.99 and free shipping. The product name is: Rechargeable Emergency LED Bulb JackonLux Multi-Function Battery Backup Emergency Light for Power Outage Camping Outdoor Activity Hurricane 9W 850LM 60W Equivalent Daylight 5000K E26 120 Volt 2 Pack
I’m assuming that if you’re a video production professional, you should have the rest of what’s needed in your kit: a light stand, a sand bag, and a boom pole. I’ve provided links to what I have in my own kit if that’s helpful for you.
First, open the China lantern and hang the two LED lights on the top hook. Then slightly open the top of that same hook and attach it to the exposed male end of the boom pole. Use a sand bag or two, so the light doesn’t fall on your talent.
As you can see, the before and after is pretty stark. Before, it’s dark. After, the soft, diffuse light of the China Ball illuminates the model’s face in a soft, believable way.
A China Ball isn’t something you’re going to want to use all the time. But for select scenes where you want soft, diffuse light, it might work for you. And for $27.94, the price is right!
Hit us up if you have any questions, or would like to work with us for video production in Denver.