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I now have a camera that I'm quite satisfied with, and also a couple of different microphones for recording audio that doesn't sound horrible. However, something I haven't paid attention to yet is lighting and I have the feeling I could improve the quality of my shots dramatically by starting to think a little more about this.

So, given that I'm on somewhat of a tight budget, is there some piece of equipment that would be great for all-round use when it comes to lighting, both indoors and outdoors, at day and at night? I realize that you will have to acquire a whole truckload of gear to actually perfect your shot, but given that you only can start out with one piece of equipment, something that might come in handy during many different scenarios (like duct tape is to the engineer), what should you invest in? Would a strong flashlight be of any use? A big piece of white cardboard to reflect already present light? A couple of logs and a lighter to create instant bonfires wherever you are?

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If you're on a budget, look at getting some 250-500W work lights. They're less than $20 a pop, and coupled with some stands, some elbow grease in the workshop, you can build a barn-door lighting rig which will give you more control over the lights. Work lights, while cheap, are not as flexible and don't produce the same quality of light as dedicated video lights, but if you're smart with how you use them, they should fit the bill just fine. You'll likely want to have some reflectors and diffusers at the ready to modify the light. And determine the colour temperature of the lights (halogens are ~3000K) to get the correct white balance.

That being said, as a portrait photographer who works with a lot of strobist lighting already, I would probably advise you to learn everything you can about lighting, whether it's lighting a scene or lighting a subject. Learn where to place back lights, key lights, use gels to add coloured light to a scene etc. What makes a scene pop with the lighting.

Knowing how to control light in photography, both artificial and natural, definitely overlaps that of video and personally, it's probably what has made my own upcoming project possible in my eyes. The main hurdle was moving to continuous light sources, which can be very expensive if you don't go the DIY route (which I did and it's working out just fine).

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Lighting is not trivial and deserves attention and training to master. I certainly have lots to learn even after more than 25 years with working with studio lighting. There is no one thing you can buy that will work in every situation beyond understanding and mastering white balance and exposure. Nothing to invest in on this step. However, if you want to illuminate an outdoor subject that is silhouetted, then a round reflector held by a camera assistant will make a huge difference and this won't cost you much, under $75. Here you won't have to worry as much about color temperature as you are reflecting the same light as the sun provides to cast a fill in light on the subject.

For most studio lighting, you need to learn the basics of 3 point lighting. Here are three Vimeo School tutorials on basic lighting that I recommend you review before buying or making anything:

http://vimeo.com/videoschool/archive/lighting

While I shoot in my studio, I am generally shooting 1:12 scale subjects so my lighting can be somewhat small. I have two 100 watt tungsten lamps with big reflectors (available at Ace Hardware for about $12 each) mounted on vertical rails on my bench.

I have metal clips holding plastic diffusers made out of discarded computer plotter opaque plastic. I also have an array of smaller 40 watt tungsten lamps that I can place in strategic areas such as under a lift frame that has a diffuser on top for under neath lighting.

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This is a great answer. Reflectors are the way to go it you are shooting outside on a budget. You can even kick it up a notch by getting a set with a reflector and a diffuser. That lets you sculpt the light even more. –  Bryce Alan Flurie Jan 25 '12 at 17:19
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