Buying Lights: Kit vs. Components

An old college friend of mine, Matt Ward, called me up today, to talk about lights for a microbudget music video he’s producing.

“Everyone talks about how to light,” he said, “but nobody talks about what to light with.” Having worked on giant productions like Beowulf, A Christmas Carol, and the Star Wars prequels, Matt is much more familiar with major studio lighting equipment than the pack-in-your-trunk type of gear that I work with.

As our conversation progressed, I learned that Matt is a fan of kits: he wants everything he’ll need in one case. He already knew that my favorite lighting instrument for microbudget productions is the venerable Lowell Tota (Why? Three words: small, cheap, bright.), but remembered all too clearly that when we were in film school together, lighting with Lowell’s Tota & Omni kits tended to suck mightily. (Of course, that was because in film school, nobody ever bothered to teach us about lighting modifiers. I don’t think I saw a softbox, let alone a silk, until after I graduated. When you’re working with the raw light from an instrument like a Tota, you always have to bounce, diffuse, or otherwise modify the light if you want it to be aesthetically appealing at all.)

My curiosity piqued, I spent some time on the web, and I thought I’d share my findings with you. I found a decent two-Tota kit on B&H. It occupies the #1 slot on my wishlist, here. For $560, you get two 750 watt lamps, an umbrella, two stands, a small collection of gels, and a hard case.

Not a bad deal, but not exactly a complete lighting package either. In addition to a couple of lights, you’ll need spare bulbs, a reflector/silk combo kit, and at least one C-stand to hold said reflector/silk. On the wishlist they go. Total tally so far: about $855. That’s not exactly microbudget, but all this stuff will last for years, so if you can amortize the cost over a few shoots, it’s not unreasonable.

But, the more I looked at that kit, the more I thought that Matt could do better. The Lowell stands are flimsy. The Lowell case is heavy, not padded, and difficult to stack because it’s ribbed (for nobody’s comfort). The little umbrella is too small and silver to work well under most conditions.

So, I decided to look at some alternatives.

I’m a cheapskate, so I tend to use inexpensive toolboxes from K-Mart to hold my gear. They’re very light, unobtrusive, and since I don’t fly very often, I don’t need super-heavy-duty padded cases. But, if I were going to buy a case (or recommend one), I would buy a Hardigg Storm Case like the one at the #5 position on my wishlist. Not only is it fully as rugged as the ubiquitous Pelican case, it has delightful clasps that open with the touch of a fingertip, as opposed to the flesh-pinchers that Pelican installs.

Next, I added two Totas with 750 watt lamps, a la carte. Instead of the weak Lowell stands, I put in two air-cushioned Impact stands. In place of the little silver Tota-brella, I selected the 5′ silk that I use on a regular basis myself. Last but not least, I put the Tota’s gel pack on the list, since not everybody wants to buy big sheets of gel and cut them to size like I do. Total price for the components? $600. That’s only $40 more than the Tota kit, for a collection of gear that is – IMHO – vastly superior in quality, utility and durability.

Unlike the Lowell case, the Storm Case will accommodate everything except the C-stand, with plenty of room left over, so if your budget allows, get more than two Totas and stands, and more than one C-stand. You’ll always use them. If you need to cut a corner, skip the gels and wait on the umbrella.

I’ve used a lot of light kits – Arri, Lowell, Mole-Richardson – but I’ve never bought one. Purchasing mix-and-match components may not be for everybody, but I find that I can get better deals, and better quality, by shopping a la carte. Generally speaking, kits are made to be small and light, and – in my experience – that means lightstands that fall apart, and modifiers that are too small to properly affect the light. In addition, kits usually come in cases that are specifically made to fit the bits and pieces it comes with – and nothing else. I like more flexibility than that, and I prefer to determine for myself what I need to carry around. On a more practical level, it’s very often easier to buy pieces of gear as you can afford them than to spring for a matched set all at once.

The final word? Buying a kit gives you convenience and maybe saves a few dollars. Buying components gives you more freedom and allows more room for growth. Whichever approach turns out to be right for you, I hope that this post helps you make an informed decision.

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6 thoughts on “Buying Lights: Kit vs. Components

  1. Hey Alex. more info on what “inexpensive toolboxes from K-Mart?” I’m a cheapskate and bought my kit ala carte too, but need a case…

    • Doug, I like the “Stack-On” plastic toolboxes. They’re cheap, rugged, and come in different sizes (to accommodate a variety of gear). The only really critical factor is to get a toolbox with metal clasps. The plastic clasps fall apart. Get a toolbox you like, put a towel in the bottom for padding, and stick your lights in it. : )

  2. The toolboxes generally aren’t big enough for light stands, but I’ve found that a very simple golf bag works extremely well for stands.

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