Gadgets Hardware Photography

Lighting On A Budget (Pt. 1)

A few months ago, my boss told me that we are expanding my department (me) into the world of video production. I was given complete freedom in choosing the camera, computer, and lighting. Like any good photographer, I spent the entire budget on the camera and computer.

I initially thought that I could use 500W work lights with diffusers, but two problems arose.
One- the color temperature of the work light bulbs is very warm and it changes with bulb life. Two- They throw out a lot of waste heat. Sitting between the equivalent of two space heaters gets old fast. The PVC clip "T" holding the light also began to warp from the heat. I needed something different.
I decided to go with CFLs instead, but I couldn’t find any multiple bulb fixtures that fit my non-existent budget. I wandered around Home Depot for a while grumbling until I saw the security light aisle and the modular fixtures. I sat on the floor of the aisle and started test fitting parts, with a couple quick trips to the plumbing aisle for fittings. A stop at the grocery store and I had everything I needed to make my new light.

Let’s get started:

16" mixing bowl
6 light sockets
2 ½" PVC tees
1 ½" PVC threaded tee
1 ½" PVC cross
5 ½" PVC 90-degree corners
½" PVC pipe
The total cost for materials was less than $35. CFL bulbs were another $18.

The PVC is assembled as shown. Short pieces of PVC pipe are used to join the fittings. The threads on the PVC match the threads on the light fixtures. The wires for the fixtures will run through the PVC.

The PVC assembly is test-fitted on the back of the bowl before any cuts are made.

The bowl is primed and marked for cutting. 

IMPORTANT: EYE AND EAR PROTECTION IS A MUST WHEN CUTTING METAL WITH HIGH-SPEED TOOLS. You only get one set of eyes and ears. The drill and the Dremel™ both throw tiny pieces of sharp metal that can instantly end your days as a photographer.

My trusty Dremel™ tool made short work of the bowl. I used a 1/4" drill bit to create pilot holes, then opened up the holes with the Dremel™.

Each light fixture is threaded through the hole in the reflector, into the PVC assembly. The fixtures have a lock washer at the base that allows them to be tightened in place.

The wires from the fixtures pass through the angled pipe. My original plan was to run all of them into the central tee fitting, but the pipe was too small. I drilled a 3/8" hole in the backs of the tee and cross fittings and ran them out the back of the assembly.

I used twist-on connectors to join the wires to a computer power cord that I had in my big Pile-o-Cables. Zip ties are used to secure the power cord and keep the wires from being pulled apart.

Each fixture gets a 23-watt CFL bulb. This gives me the equivalent of 600 watts of incandescent lighting for a quarter of the power and a lot less heat. I can also vary the color temperature by changing out bulbs. The light attaches to my light stand with a piece of SCH 80 pipe fitted with a thumbscrew. 

It’s alive! Even without a diffuser, the new CFL light gives a nice even light with less heat, bulk and power. 

Stay tuned for part 2 when the CFL light gets a big brother…

Kirk Draut
Director of Design
Aarthun Performance Group, Ltd.
kdraut at



By Kirk Draut

Kirk Draut is a photographer, graphic designer and packrat from Houston, Texas. When he’s not taking pictures or at the computer, he’s puttering around his garage, working on his latest “mad scientist” project.
The son of a photojournalist, Kirk got a start in photography at an early age. He spent his youth hanging out with the wrong crowd – newspaper photographers. Armed with a Nikon FE, he headed off to Stephen F Austin State University, where he earned a degree in Communications (photojournalism).
After graduation, he decided to explore the world of graphic design. He started at a service bureau and then moved to a job running a 4-color press, learning more and more every step of the way. Taking a wide route taught him to avoid some of the pitfalls that can trip up a designer. He then moved into a full-time design job where he was also able to use his photography skills. One of his employer’s largest clients was the Enron Corporation…
After a short period of unemployment, Kirk became the Director of Design for a training and consulting firm based in Houston, Texas. He has also recently moved into the field of digital video.

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