Green Screen on a Budget – DIY Light Kits on the Cheap

I’ve seen dozens of strange lighting setups over the years, where people have had to cut corners and use what they had available (or what they could afford)—everything from clamp-on desk lamps to standing work lights and fluorescent light fixtures designed for a garage or workshop. Sure, you may be able to get away with some of these crude basics, especially with today’s digital cameras and camcorders that let you set the white balance to adjust for off-color temperature lighting. But when it comes to shooting green screen, the fewer corners you cut, the better. That still doesn’t mean that you have to buy or rent expensive lighting gear to get a good result.

I was inspired at a conference by colleague Victor Milt (, who showed how he makes homemade light kits from simple materials. He calls them the Milt NanoSoftLights (see Figure 5.4). He has included step-by-step instructions for building this light box in his video Light It Right, which is available from his website.

You can easily build one of these soft-boxes for less than $100. The bulbs will cost you a bit more, depending on the quality you use, but this is by far the best alternative to professional studio lighting that I’ve seen to date. If you take your time and build it correctly, it will look as professional as well.

This professional-quality light can be made into your own configuration, size, and scale using simple tools. As you can see in Figure 5.4, the plug-in dimmer is an option I chose to control my lights, but it only works with the more expensive dimmable bulbs. You can’t find these easily at the hardware store, so if you want optimum color temperatures that are closest to daylight (such as the 5100K dimmable bulbs I used here); you’ll have to find a professional online lighting source. I got mine at and spent about $18 per bulb. At 75-watt light output per bulb, giving me a 450-watt output fixture, that’s still a very reasonable price when you consider the alternative of having to buy expensive cool-lighting fixtures and tubes, or renting lights for a single day.

Figure 5.4: DIY lights: the Milt NanoSoftLight with a plug-in dimmer and 5100K dimmable fluorescent bulbs.

You can also use bulbs from the hardware store, but mind the color temperature of the bulb—most are very warm, because they try to simulate incandescent bulbs for use in the home. You can also unscrew a couple of bulbs to diminish the light output of your fixture as needed, if you choose not to use the more expensive dimmable bulbs.

Using these simple materials, you can create a professional-looking, fully functional studio light kit that’s portable and durable.

NOTE: Any time you’re working with electrical wiring and devices, it’s important to take extra precautions for safety. Be sure your wiring is correct and all insulation is properly positioned, including tape joints, solder connections, and hot glue points. Also take care when handling light bulbs. It’s a good idea to use gloves, not only to keep from burning your fingers but also to keep your bulbs clean and free from hand oils that may shorten the life of the bulbs. Even fluorescent bulbs that have been on for a period of time can be very hot to the touch.

I built one of these lights from Victor’s instructions and added a few variations of my own as I went along. I used white duct tape on the inside surfaces to give the light a clean, professional look while maximizing the reflective white space. I also used more hot glue and Velcro than the original plan called for, because I wanted a sturdy and durable design (see Figure 5.6). I used more black duct tape over the heavily glued tabs shown here, to make the light look better and be more durable.

Figure 5.6 Reinforced mounting and Velcro tabbed corners and fl aps make this lightweight studio light more durable, for years of use

You can also glue or Velcro a sheet of Mylar or frosted white fi lm over the grid to get a softer, more even light. You could even drape a piece of white silk over the light box for a soft effect. The lights can be on for hours and still stay cool, which is a big advantage over the old-style hot lamps still used in many studios today.

The light can easily be collapsed for transport or storage. As shown in Figure 5.7, the screen comes out; then, you remove the bulbs and put them back in their original boxes for safekeeping. You remove the Velcro tabs, collapse the sides of the box, and fasten them together with Velcro tabs.

Figure 5.7 The Milt NanoSoftLight design allows you to collapse the fi xture for easy transport or storage

I also used this simple concept to build some smaller, more compact fixtures for lighting my green screen backdrops. By using some simple components from the hardware store and some green fluorescent bulbs to enhance my green screen backdrop (and use much less light to get the coverage I needed), I was able to put together light fixtures for less than $20 each. In Figure 5.8, you can see that I started with a couple of the green fluorescent bulbs screwed into a T and then attached to a socket plug. I put two of these into a power strip that I glued to the inside of the fixture. Because each of these bulbs draws only 24 watts (but has a 100-watt output), there is no danger of overloading the power strip: you’re getting about 400 watts of light with less than a 100-watt draw. These lights burn cool for hours.

Figure 5.8 This simple mini-fi xture design is made up of simple components that you can pick up at the hardware store, along with a couple of foam-core fl aps and a grid

You can simply attach these mini-fixtures to any stand and move them around as needed (see Figure 5.9). You can also stack them vertically or attach them over each other on a stand to get a fuller light coverage.

Figure 5.9 The mini-fi xtures are small and light and can be clamped or stacked anywhere

NOTE: It’s very important that you keep all the packaging materials for your bulbs to store them in after each use. These bulbs are expensive, and protecting them in storage and transportation ensures longer life for each bulb. You should also be sure to have a couple of spare bulbs on hand in case one gets damaged or stops working.

When you understand the concept of using fluorescent bulbs for quick and easy affordable lighting, you realize that you can put them up just about anywhere. You can use gaffer tape or duct tape to attach a power strip to a light stand, wall, or piece of furniture and pop in any number of bulbs to put light right where you need it. These are great for filling soft spots on a wide screen; or, use a single bulb on a stand as a quick backlight to rim your subject’s hair against a green screen.

Shooting with Inexpensive Background Materials and the NanoSoftLights

People (including me) have used many materials over the years to save money—colored sheets, paper, plastic, and green paint from the hardware store. Yes, you can get by with these materials in a pinch, but your results will be far from perfect, and your shots will require a lot of postproduction work. In some areas, you can’t scrimp and expect decent results.

For simplicity and portability, I’ve found the portable Lastolite green and blue screens the best for the money. They’re durable and fairly accurate when lit properly. If I’m in a small confined space, I use green lighting to illuminate the background, because it requires less light output and produces less spill from the screen onto the subject I’m shooting.

In the example shown in Figure 5.11, I was shooting the model in my kitchen in an area approximately 10′ x 10′. This isn’t much space to work in, but it’s typical of what many people have available in their work environment or at home or school. I used the Lastolite green screen and two of my mini NanoLights to illuminate the background. Because I had low white ceilings, I had to block off some of the light spilling from the top of my fixtures with a couple pieces of cardboard (obviously a design flaw on my part—something I need to fix for next time!). I also used a single bulb on a power strip attached to a stand for my back light, to rim the model’s hair and give it a warm glow (the background footage also had a warm light). I lit the model with only the NanoSoftLight; a reflective card (a piece of white foam core clamped to a stand) bounced back the white light, filled the shadows in her face, and helped wash out any green spill.

Figure 5.11 Using the NanoSoftLights with the Lastolite green screen background in a small space

Another material I recommend for the budget conscious is a green screen paper background that you can get at your local photography supply store. This isn’t just green paper on a roll, like that you might find at an art supply store; rather, it’s a deep green impregnated paper that usually comes on a 9′ wide roll 12 yards long for about $60 (see Figure 5.12). You can hang the roll on a frame, roll it out to use it, and roll it back up when you’re done; or you can cut off sections as you need them and tape them on any wall for an instant green screen.

This paper works really well with the green NanoLights, and it doesn’t create as much overspill as a more reflective screen material. Of course, optimally you want more distance between your subject and the green screen if at all possible; but when you’re working in confined spaces; you need to minimize the spill as much as possible by manipulating the light sources and positioning.

The final result from the video footage captured on this shoot resulted in a decent composite in After Effects. I used Keylight to key out the green background (see Figure 5.14). Minimal color correction was needed on the foreground, because the Milt NanoSoftLight with the daylight bulbs did a great job of providing proper coverage.

Figure 5.14 Compositing the fi nal shot in After Effects with Keylight

Of course, you can’t expect to get the exact same results with a setup like this and a mini-DV camcorder, but you’ll get something that is acceptable.

Excerpt from The Green Screen Handbook:Real-World Production Techniques, 2nd Edition by Jeff Foster © 2015 Taylor and Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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