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Everything You Need to Know About China Balls Lighting

China balls, or paper lanterns, are some of the easiest and cheapest ways to light a photo or film scene. Unlike more elaborate lighting setups that require a lot of know-how to apply, China ball lighting setups are quick, easy, and very intuitive. In fact, they can even serve as ambient lighting in your scene — this way, you don’t have to hide them from the camera! With that in mind, there are a few things you should know before deciding to use China ball lighting for your shoot. Let’s take a look at some of the basics, including what kinds of projects China balls are best suited for and how to get the most out of your lighting setup.

Where to get China balls

First, where can you buy China balls? China balls are a pretty standard item at many hardware and department stores, from IKEA to Home Depot. You can also order them online in sets of 10 or 12 for under $20. However, keep in mind that if you purchase them from a generic retailer or online seller, they won’t typically come with light bulbs, power cords, or stands.

If you buy or rent China balls from a film equipment retailer or rental house, then you may be able to get an all-in-one package, with C-stands, power cords, and other accessories, such as skirts and dimmers. For example, this Chimera 30-inch lantern available from ProPhoto has a 1K halogen bulb with dimmer and a black covering on top to prevent light leaks.

Professional-quality China balls may be more durable and less likely to get burnt or torn than cheap paper lanterns from a department store. But if you need a lot of lanterns for a scene or just want to save money, DIY China balls are a worthwhile option.

You can customize them by choosing the size of the lantern, the bulb, and the fixture. Just be sure to choose the appropriate bulb for your lantern. Any tungsten bulb over 250 watts may be too hot for your 30-inch lantern and risk setting the whole thing on fire. Consider using LED or fluorescent bulbs instead, which produce less heat and are less of a fire hazard.

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How to use China balls

China balls are omnidirectional, which means they cast light in all directions — unless you use a skirt or flag to control them. As a result, China ball lighting is best for soft, even light that can be used to add ambiance or background lighting to a scene. It won’t typically be used to replace a three-point setup, but can be included as part of the lighting design for a portrait or headshot.

There are three main ways to use China balls in a scene:

1. Ambient light

If you’re shooting an interior scene in a dimly lit location, such as a restaurant, bar, or Peerspace venue, consider using China balls lighting to add brightness to the background. This is great for situations when you have a bright light on your subject, but not enough light elsewhere in the room. Use paper lanterns to raise the overall brightness of the location.

The great thing about China balls is that they’re a common fixture in many places already, from college dorms to fancy restaurants. So while you can do your best to hide the light source from the camera, you can also embrace them as part of the decor.

Unlike many other lighting fixtures used in photography and filmmaking, they don’t look like work lights. Just hang them from the ceiling or string them along the walls and they’ll fit right in.

2. Mobile light

While China balls lighting is often used for indoor scenes, sometimes it’s exactly what you need for an outdoor shoot. Whether you’re working on a documentary, a photoshoot, or a “walk and talk” scene in a movie, you can use paper lanterns to supplement natural light.

Since you won’t be able to hang any lights from the walls or ceiling, you can make your own mobile China ball setup for outdoor shoots. For example, this DIY rig uses LED lights and a rechargeable battery, and it can last for up to eight hours of continuous use. This rig uses a painter’s pole, but you can also use a standard boom pole used for sound recording.

Since China balls are so light, you can simply have a crew member hold the pole overhead to light your scene. Use this setup for night or evening shoots, or for tracking shots of all kinds. It will save you the trouble of having to create multiple static lighting setups for your scene.

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3. Soft light

Because China balls are omnidirectional, you can’t simply swap them out with other studio lights without making some adjustments. But with a few accessories, such as a black skirt and some bounce boards, you can use them as part of a three-point lighting setup in place of a softbox or other directional lights. They can be used for portraits or studio shoots when you’re looking for soft, overhead lighting without harsh shadows.

Another DIY option is to use them with a speedlight for a portable soft flash. For example, this photographer uses them for outdoor night portraits at music festivals. This setup offers some protection from the wind and saves you having to carry around a softbox or umbrella.

In summary

China balls are an incredibly versatile lighting option that are a must for any photographer’s gear closet. They’re light, portable, and can be easily folded up and stored when not in use. Plus, you can create your own DIY lighting setups and swap them out with a variety of bulbs for indoor and outdoor scenes, daytime or nighttime shots, studio lighting, and more.

If you plan to use them regularly, consider investing in professional-quality China ball lighting to avoid the risk of burning or tearing cheap paper lanterns. You can also purchase power cords, dimmers, battery packs, and more to design your own portable DIY rigs. Experiment with LED bulbs or even colored lighting options until you get the perfect ambiance for your shoot.

China ball lights may not be powerful enough for every purpose, but there’s a reason that even big-budget film sets rely on these inexpensive lighting options. With just a few of these lanterns, you can bathe your film set or Peerspace location with soft, omnidirectional light.

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