Points in Focus Photography

A Near-Zero Budget Video Studio

Near Zero-Budget Video Studio Project

When I got my 5D mark 3 a year ago, it wasn’t for the video capabilities, however having them and the challenge of a new undertaking planted the seed to do something with video. A lot of that has been a learning process trying to find and adapt to what the camera is best at doing. VDSLRs can bring tremendous advantages to low budget videographer in terms of portability and image quality, but they do have drawbacks.

The biggest trick I’ve found to effectively leveraging a VDSLR is playing to its strengths—and perhaps more importantly planning around your own limitations. VDSLRs aren’t setup to be camcorders, most don’t have autofocus, and on the ones that do, the performance is far from desirable. Within a manual focus, manual exposure, pretty much manual everything, environment many things can be difficult to shoot, especially without any production aids like a follow focus or an EVF.

That said, the story isn’t no crew, no gear, no video.

The impetus of this whole project is to try and get some video content up on this site to go along with the text reviews. Don’t get me wrong, I like text, it’s far easier to skim text than it is to skim through a video, however I’ve found numerous concepts that can be explained in 30 seconds of video that can’t be clearly or concisely articulated though text alone.

Moreover, I’m aiming to do this with a limited budget and equipment investment. That said, this isn’t a zero-budget project, some money will need to be spent, though my goal is to keep the costs as low as possible.

For this series, I’m going to focus on putting together a basic studio you can use for shooting news or review segments with 1 to 2 people in front of a static camera. Moreover most of what I’m list applies to shooting interviews with 1 or 2 people in a prepared environment.

I’ll be starting with the basic considerations of location, space required, and what to do about a set. I’ll move from there into lights and lighting. Finally, I’ll spend some time talking about sound, shooting, and some pre- and post-production thoughts. For each section, my goal is to cover the general pros and cons of various technologies and techniques, then how I’ve applied them to my own project as a demonstration.

The next part of this discussion is on location, space, and setting the stage for your set.

Near Zero-Budget Video Studio Project

VDSLRs have provided a huge amount of latitude to photographers and videographers in where they can shoot and the quality of that shot. The large sensors and high ISO capabilities makes lighting much less of an issue and the advances in LED light sources have even made the lighting much more portable and easy to deal with.

That said, if you’re considering doing any kind of long running production and want any kind of consistency to the set you need a studio of some kind. But where? How big does it have to be? And what about a set?


VDSLR video is portable enough that you can pretty much shoot anywhere, but it’s hard to beat having a consistent environment to work in. You can nail the lighting once, mark the locations and repeatedly recreate your lighting setup at will—if you even bother taking it apart.

Where you work is more of an open question. Obviously, a professional with a budget would use their studio space or build new studio space to meet their needs. Of course, that’s not very Near-Zero budget, so I’m going to just ignore that.

The image side of the equation dictates that you have to have a space big enough to work in and one where you can control the lighting. The sound part of video means you want a space that’s free of noise sources, or at least free of ones you can’t control, and reasonably well isolated from sound outside of that environment.

Ideally, your space will meet all 4 of those objectives. However, in many cases you’ll like be unable to control or economically affect how well isolated your space is from outside noises. In which case, you’ll likely have to resort to creative scheduling to record when there’s otherwise no noise.

If possible, you want to avoid rooms with ceiling fans (especially if they’re noisy), computers, and refrigerators. However, in all of these cases you can readily turn the device off while you’re recording. Moreover, on the point of ceiling fans, I’ve found that if the fan is sufficiently quiet and you are using a directional microphone boomed in close to your subject’s position, you can often leave them running at low and not have a problem with the recording—test this in your environment though.

One further consideration is the flooring material in the room. Hard floors, such as tile, wood, or vinyl have pros in a lot of respects. A smooth hard surface, like wood or vinyl allows you to dolly your tripod around easily, and a hard surface of any kind is a necessity if you need to roll out and stand on a paper background.

On the other hand, hard floors reflect sound whereas carpet will absorb it. In a small room, this can mean you need to add sound absorbent panels to insure a proper working environment. I’ve also discovered that if you’re barefoot, hard floors can sometimes make noise when you walk that can be picked up by the mics that otherwise isn’t an issue if you’ve got carpeted floors.

My near zero-budget studio space is a typical spare bedroom with carpeted floors. It’s away from the air handler for the AC and most other major noise sources that I can’t easily turn off, though it does have a ceiling fan. In my case, I’ve made recording tests and determined that the fan on low speed doesn’t adversely impact recording. What it isn’t, is well isolated from outside sounds, which means I’m at the mercy of things beyond my control when it comes to shooting. Soundproofing would be an option, but also an expense that isn’t very zero-budget either.


Most professional studio spaces are large, and have high ceilings. This provides a lot of flexibility in positioning lights and equipment, and due to the inverse square law, eliminates a lot of problems with reflected spill light.

That said, you don’t actually need a large space to shoot decent quality video. What you do need is enough space to setup your camera and lights, and provide enough separation between you and your background if it’s needed. In general, you can do this in a space as small as 12’ x 12’ with 7’ ceilings. In other words, a typical residential bedroom is sufficient to be a workable zero-budget studio.

One consideration with respect to the size of your studio is how your composition and focal length, affect how big your background needs to be. A larger, or at least longer, room allows you to shoot with a more telephoto lens, which can reduce the size of the background you need to have. On the other hand, if you can’t move the camera back, but have to use a wider-angle lens, you’ll find you need a larger background to cover the frame. That said, for virtual sets it’s only necessary to green screen the area directly behind your subject; the rest of the area can be masked out with a matte instead—just make sure your wild gesticulations don’t go outside the green screen.


The final decision in planning the physical space is whether you have a physical set or go with a virtual one. They each have their pros and cons in various ways, and again can play towards or against strengths and weaknesses in your gear, abilities, and most importantly budget.

Physical sets have some nice advantages. For starters, even if your set is nothing more than a simple backdrop, everything is done in camera. There’s no need to worry about chroma keying, or matching lighting with potential background plates. You also have something you can touch, which may or may not be worthwhile. Moreover, a physical set can allow you to reduce the size of the area you need to shoot, as there’s much less of an issue with evenly lighting a background.

On the other hand, physical sets cost money to make, can take up space, and can be harder to fold away when not needed. Cost wise they can range from not a whole lot, if you just use a backdrop, to quite a bit if you actually invest the effort into putting together a real quality set (never mind the costs of tools). There’s also a space consideration for anything more complicated than just a backdrop.

A virtual set, on the other hand, poses different problems and solutions. On the up side, it offloads almost all of the costs and space concerns. All you need is a green screen and some lights, not exactly hard to store out of the way. On the other hand, it requires a considerable investment in post-production, both in time and money.

I chose to go with the a virtual set, in part because I could reduce most of the upfront costs, and in part because I already had both Premiere Pro and After Effects to do the keying. I had looked at painted/printed backdrops, such as the ones offered by F. J. Westcott, but at $100 or more I felt they weren’t necessarily a good deal for me.

For me, the collapsible background option was attractive, as my studio space is shared use with a guest bedroom and spare project room; a collapsible screen would make it easy to fold it down and get everything packed out of the way quickly and easily. On the other hand, for the size I needed, the price of a cheap collapsible background was more than I wanted to spend.

One good solution is the same paper background material used by many photographers for temporary sweeps. A 53” wide roll of Savage Tech Green background paper is only $26, and a 107” wide roll is only $46. A bit of gaffer’s tape, or some Velcro, to hold it up and you have a perfectly workable green screen for under $50. I’ll get more into green screens in future installments.

There’s one final set consideration. One thing a virtual set can’t do is provide a place to set something down, or sit down. I hadn’t planned on this initially; I was expecting to just stand in front of the camera and speak. However, after working through some early tests, I’ve noticed that in a lot of cases I want a table that can put relevant props on or just for shooting cutaways of various small things.

As for the budget, so going with a virtual set, and ignoring the costs of keying software, the set aspect of my video studio has cost me $40 so far, for the background paper. However, I expect to add another $100 to that when I finally pick a table to use.

Next up is an overview of lighting technologies and how they play in a near-zero budget situation.

Video doesn’t really change the conceptual nature of lighting. What it does change, is the type of lighting you need to use. Flashes are out; continuously lighting is in, and with that comes a number of considerations that may not seem obvious at first glance.

For starters, video demands light, lots of light. So much so that I’m frequently surprised by just how much light is needed. For example, a single diffused 50W CFL (~200-250W Tungsten equivalent) in a softbox placed 2-4 feet from a subject will generally give me an exposure around 1/50th f/5.6 ISO 1250. With a full frame or APS-C VDSLR that doesn’t give an awful lot of depth of field to work with, without pushing the ISO up even higher.

Light, well the power requirements can pose real problems in a small studio environment, depending on the choices you make.

Types of Lights


Tungsten is by far the cheapest option in terms of initial costs, and the incremental costs aren’t stifling on an ongoing basis. 250W and 500W lamps run from $4-8 apiece and last for 60-200 hours. Fixtures designed for those lamps can be as inexpensive as a $5 hardware store work light, or a $35 Smith-Victor Adapta-Light.

The biggest advantage to tungsten is that since it’s a black body radiator it produces light in the same way cameras expect light to be produced. That is there aren’t any peaks or gaps in the color spectrum. This leads to generally the best color reproduction you can get compared to LED and fluorescent sources.

On the other hand, the real problem with Tungsten is that 70% of the energy used by the light is emitted as heat. Lighting a subject with 1000W of tungsten light and it gets very uncomfortable being in front of the lights very quickly. The heat load translates directly to increased cooling requirements, and increased power requirements—1000W tungsten lamp on a 120V circuit draws 8.3 amps, meaning you can only put 2 on a 20-amp circuit.

Tungsten can be a real attractive option for getting a very low budget studio up and running, due largely to the relatively small initial costs. That said, as attractive as the costs sound, the heat and power draw factors quickly become problematic. If you’re working in a “converted” bedroom for example, you may only have 1- 15-amp circuit to work with, and a small room will get very hot very quickly with even only a couple of 250W lamps running.


Hydrargyrum medium-arc iodide, or HMI as it’s known is a vapor arc lamp that’s widely used in larger scale productions due to the efficiency of its output and that it’s daylight balanced. An HMI lamp produces about 4-5 times more light for the same input power compared to a tungsten lamp. Though the spectral efficiency making the situation even more lopsided. At daylight color temperatures, a HMI lamp can be 16 times more efficient than a CTB gelled tungsten lamp; at tungsten color temperatures, a CTO gelled HMI lamp is about 8 times more efficient than an ungelled tungsten lamp.

That said, as attractive as it might make HMI sound, the capital and operating costs are significantly higher than any of the other options, making them largely useless for the low-budget studio.


Fluorescent lamps have been making inroads in the video production market recently, they are considerably more efficient at producing light than tungsten is, and as a result draw considerably less power and produce considerably less heat. My experience has been that standing in front of 500W of CFL driven light sources isn’t any hotter than standing in a dark room.

Fluorescent lighting has two main drawbacks, color reproduction, and for the low-budgeter upfront costs.

Fluorescing lamps produce a color spectrum that has large spikes in various colors that doesn’t conform to the way cameras expect to see the world. Lamps with a CRI in excess of 95 can do an acceptable job but there are still places where they can and will fall down. I’ve done some testing with CFLs and color rendition here and here.

On the other hand, if you can live with the color reproduction issues that can crop up, you can get quite a bit of power out of not a tremendous amount of electricity. A 50W CFL is roughly equivalent to a 200W tungsten lamp. On a 15-amp circuit, you can power more than 20 of those lamps, giving you the equivalent of somewhere in excess of 4000W of tungsten based light.

The second issue, and it only really effects low-budgeters, is upfront costs. Upfront costs can be considerably higher than for tungsten lights. A 2 lamp Smith Victor FLO fixture is $300, and a 6-lamp F.J. Westcott TD6 Spider Lite $420. Moreover, lamps run $20 to $50 depending on wattage. However, in the long run you’re looking at a fraction of the costs in electricity, cooling, and lamps.


LED is the newcomer to the photographic/video lighting world, and well the world of lighting in general. LED lights have some huge advantages in terms of power and longevity. That said, they do suffer some from some of the same issues in color reproduction that fluorescent lamps do, as well as the potential for significant upfront costs.

Power and heat wise, LED systems draw less than fluorescents and produce more light. A 40W LightPanels 1×1 is rated as the equivalent of 200W of HMI or 500W of tungsten by their measurements. On the other hand, a panel of that size from Lite Panels costs between $1200 and $1800.

There are low budget alternatives to the professional grade panels, for example, Cowboy Studio makes a number of LED lite panels in various sizes, up to 1’ x 1’ like the Lite Panels products at a much lower $500 or below price point.

Number of Lights

Lighting a video set isn’t especially different than lighting a stills one. You still need to light the subject, or subjects, as well as the workspace (if there is one) and the background.

For the subject, or subjects, you really will want a 3-point lighting setup, so plan on at least 3 lights for 1 subject, and more for more subjects.

While I’m on the subject of lighting people for video, I’ve found 2 things in my testing so far. First is that you really do need the hair/separation light. Not having one dramatically impacts the readability of the scene, and can easily result in your subject disappearing into the background. This is especially important if you’ve elected to use a plain black background. Even if you choose your wardrobe such that it doesn’t blend into the background, having the separation light adds a tremendous amount of pop to set your subject off.

Secondly, while you can get away with replacing the fill light, with a fill card, especially if you’re going for a dramatic look, it’s also considerably harder to control and manipulate than a controllable light source.

In addition to lighting your subject, you’ll need to address lighting the set. How many more fixtures this requires varies based on what you actual set and shooting will be. This topic could actually be a full post in and of its self.

That said, for an interview like setup in a real room, I’d consider having at least 2 additional fixtures to light the background beyond the subjects. The same 2 fixtures would likely also be sufficient if you’re lighting a printed/painted backdrop.

Green screens pose a slightly more difficult problem, as they need to be lit more evenly. You can almost get away with 2 fixtures for lighting a small green screen, but it may be real touchy. You could use long (4’) florescent fixtures (more than 1 depending on how big your background is) along the bottom aimed to light the background.

For a basic setup with a single person in front of a background or green screen, much like what I’m doing, you’re looking at somewhere between 4 and 7 fixtures.

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