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Ghetto-Flo: How to Create Your Own DIY Kino-Flo-style Lights for Portraiture

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We were introduced to the “Ghetto-Flo” lights after reading the excellent blog of New York-based photographer Brad Trent. He had mounted 4 standard workshop fluorescent light fixtures into light-stand mountable strip lights. “Ghetto-Flo” because they’re similar in use to the much more expensive Kino-Flo lights, though there are advantages to the later (variable power and output).

This post stuck with us for a while, and one day we watched an excellent portrait video by Peter Hurley. In it, he used three large Kino-Flo lights in a triangular configuration to produce a wrapping light around his subjects. We knew, after seeing this, that we must have it – but we couldn’t afford his lights (or the Hasselblad, but seriously… who can?).

We wanted to, for once, produce something on a budget. Here’s a tutorial on how you can build your own Ghetto-Flo lights.

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First off, let’s look at the core elements of the units to be fabricated. We’re using three sets of standard neon fixture work lights commonly available at Home Depot for about fifty bucks. In order to mount these fixtures to standard light-stands, we had three Avenger F805 6” Baby Wall Plates the end of which can attach to any Manfrotto C-stand arm. A simple project: securely affix the plates to the light fixtures.”

What you’ll need

  1. Neon Worklight Fixture
  2. Avenger F805 6.0” Baby Wall Plate
  3. Custom 2.5x6x0.250 aluminum backplate
  4. 4x 0.250 diameter hex bolts
  5. 4x 0.250 diameter washers
  6. 4x 0.250 locknuts
  7. 4x 0.250 lockwasher
  8. Threadlocking fluid
  9. PL Premium glue

Tools

  1. Drill
  2. ¼ sized bit
  3. ½ sized bit
  4. C-Clamps
  5. Ratchet wrench with 7/16th box
  6. 7/16th wrench
  7. Philips head screwdriver

These fixtures are designed to be suspended from a ceiling, not to be moved around, battered, and re-adjust on a light-stand. The material they are made of is a cheap flexible aluminum and I was afraid that straight-up bolting the plates would allow some movement which, over time, could shear and wear out the holes attachment. I like to build things that last, and I know Justin breaks his gear all the time, I figured we’d spend an extra $25 to make it as sturdy as possible.

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To prevent potential shearing, we reinforced the back side of the fixture with cut-to-size metal plates and sandwiched the fixture’s aluminum between this and the Wall-plates. It gave extra strength to the nut side of the bolts and make sure they would not eventually bend and tear the fixture’s thin metal.

Ian from The Federal pointed me in the direction of The Metal Supermarkets which has a franchise here in Ottawa. They do custom metal orders and have no minimum, making them a perfect provider for our little custom needs on the Ghetto-Flo’s.

We ordered plates 2.5 inches wide, and the same 6” length of the Avenger baby plates. I ordered .250 inch thick plates because I had misread the website and thought it was their thinnest available. Let’s be clear: .250 inches is massive overkill, and had we talked to the guys over at the shop first we would’ve gone with half that. Still, the plates cost less than $5 each and they were a very light aluminum. Also, for even better support, resistance and margin of error, I recommend you go slightly longer than 6 inches: perhaps 8 inches. 6 inches will work, but you’ll spread your shear and bend resistance more with longer plates. Keep this in mind when you do your own.

Mea Culpa: We opted to use the four small holes on either end of the plates to attach them to the fixture. When taking hole measurements on the plates keep in mind that the holes on its shorter side are ever so slightly smaller than the ones on the long side, which are .250 inches in diameter. I had mistakenly guestimated them to be the same size and realized later that the .250 wide bolts I had gotten were slightly too wide, and thus had to drill out those holes to .250 too. No big deal, but more work.

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We picked up 12 .250 bolts and 12 regular washers. Make sure you use bolts that are long enough for both of your plates and washers; you’ll probably need at least 1 inch long bolts). Then I kicked the overkill mode on. I picked up 12 locking washers, 12 nylon locking nuts (locknuts) and a small bottle of thread-locking fluid (they only had the medium blue level strength, but you can double-overkill it if you can find red level strength). Finally, since I was still not satisfied with the locking potential of the plate-sandwich effect, I also used some PL Premium on both sides of the fixture’s backside to prevent any torque on the bolts which would cause shearing on the cheap fixture’s metal. PL Premium is the Frank’s Hot Sauce of construction and DIYs, you use that $#!T on everything. Massive overkill, but this thing will not move.

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Construction

We’re going to use some power tools and potentially toxic glues, make sure you have your parents approval and take all necessary precautions. Safety first!

With all this hardware, I set myself up in my ghetto workshop. You would want a good work table, but since we’re talking ghetto workshop, I had to make do with two a-frames. Ideally, you’ll have removed the back part of your fixture already to know its precise measures (you may have picked a different model than ours). Step 1 in construction will be to center the plate on the back side of the fixture. Here you have another choice. You’ll notice that most of the weight of the light fixture is on one of its side, due to the the ballast being on one end. You can choose to keep the baby plates centered on the fixture, keeping in mind that it will be unbalanced and heavier on the ballast side, or you can compensate a bit for it by fitting your plate closer to the ballast. We chose to keep it centered because symmetry is awesome!

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Once you’ve properly centered the plate, you will want to use a C or G-Clamp to fix it solidly in place. I recommend you use clamps that have plastic caps on their ends to limit the marks they can make on your metal surfaces.

Once you’re satisfied that it is solidly fixed by the clamps, you can then use a center punch for each of the plate’s holes you’ll be using. Using a fine drill bit (1/16th, for example), you can then drill your pilot hole in the fixture’s backside, and then switch to the ¼ sized drill bit (.250 in our case) to make the hole the same diameter as your Baby plate’s holes. You then remove the clamps, and clean up the holes from any burr. Clean up the edges of one of the aluminum plates with a metal file, replace the baby plate, and line it up with the holes you just drilled.

Be careful you don’t squeeze the fixture’s wiring under the aluminum plate. You can approximately line up both plates and then apply a bit of torque with the clamp; just enough so that they can’t move on their own anymore. Drill into the aluminum plate using the lined up holes (no need for a center punch here since the baby plate’s holes will act as a guide, assuming you have properly clamped the whole thing down). Once that is done, you should clean up all holes of all parts of any burr, and clean up everything of any floating metal particles.

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Clear all the debris, you can then apply the Premium PL glue on both sides of the fixture’s backside, as wide as to the holes. You don’t have to put a lot here, but make sure most of the surface is covered. When the plates are bolted in, it will spread.

Put both plates back on and clamp them lightly, being sure to line up your holes. You can then put your bolt in a washer, and apply a drop of threadlocking fluid on the bottom end of the bolt’s thread. Insert that bolt from the baby plate-end, and from inside the fixture add a locking washer on the bolt and then the locknut, turning by hand until you reach the nylon lock. Repeat for the 3 other bolts. Grab wrenches or ratchet wrenches and tighten the bolts. You can then remove the clamp since the bolts are now doing their job. Re-assemble the fixture with the face plate you removed at the beginning, and allow 24 hours for the PL Premium to cure.

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As I said, this take is our own little bit of overkill. You can scale it accordingly, based on your own familiarity with tools and your own use of gear. For us, it was important to create ghetto-flo lights that would hold-up to some not-so-ghetto professional use.

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Conclusion

You’ll still need bulbs; I picked up a 10 pack of “Natural Light” T8’s at Home Depot for about $40, they had the colour temperature listed on the box (5000k) so I was able to dial that exact number into my camera’s white balance when shooting. Other temps were available which would come in handy if you plan on using them to blend with other flourescent bulbs in a location. My first setup was to try the “Hurly” look of a boxed off triangle of lights. My space had very little ambient light, and the bulbs were right up in front of my subject, so I was able to get a very clean look. Of course these bulbs don’t have the 200+watts of studio lights, each bulb is only 32w, to get a decent depth of field I was shooting at ISO 800, 1/200th at f/7.1.

Here are some sample portraits that were created using the Ghetto-Flo:

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ghettoflo-042

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ghettoflo-049-Edit

ghettoflo-157-Edit

When you add it all up, $250 is a pretty great deal for this kind of setup assuming, of course, that you already have three stands to mount them on.


About the author: Alex Tetreault is a photography enthusiast based in Ottawa, Canada. You can find him on Twitter as @TetreaultAJ. This project was done in collaboration with Justin Van Leeuwen. This article originally appeared here.


 
  • Jeff Foster

    Fluorescent. Not neon.

  • marcos molina

    any photos of what the whole rig actually looks like?
    otherwise, thanks for this tutorial.
    looking forward to trying this out.

  • Steve Oakley

    a couple of things : replace the magnetic ballast which will flicker at certain FPS / shutter rates with an electronic one. it will greatly reduce flicker problems, and also you’ll reduce the weight quite a bit. there are even some electronic ballasts that will dim with an extra pot circuit. very easy to wire up.

    next I’d go with T9 bulb and fixture – they are more efficient, smaller tubes.

    otherwise I’ve done similar mods. while at one time I loved my DIY kinos for size / price / performance, I was never thrilled with changing bulbs from 3200K to 5600K, and the risks involved with the tubes. I’ve pretty much moved to all LED and HMI lighting now. tungsten very rarely works now, same for my kino’s… except maybe the 2X2 which I like for a hair light.

  • harumph

    That’s what I was about to post. Lots of close-ups, but I have no idea what this thing actually looks like.

  • Renato Murakami

    Nice DIY, but man, it could’ve gone way simpler (and more ghetto) if I’m understanding the whole thing.
    A nice pic of the whole setup could’ve helped, but seems awesome.
    For those interested in something similar I’d recommend watching Joe Edelman’s tutorials… and perhaps tweaking them a bit to your tastes (it’s what I’m doing for my homestudio):
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mtsKPaLMP7o

    My take is far faaarr more ghetto, but it’ll fit my needs (doing a full post when it’s ready). I’m using some crap curtain rails, PVC, cheap plastic sheaves, some standard very cheap metal clamps and ready made fluorecent light kits that uses 2 T8 bulbs… a small set on one side with 18W bulbs, and a bigger set on another side with 32W bulbs.
    Other than a bit of drilling, spray painting (both optionals depending on what you need), and other very simple stuff, didn’t have to do much.
    Still thinking of what I’ll do for back light, and maybe adding another ghetto project as reinforcement to key light – probably something like this:
    http://www.diyphotography.net/white-video-studio

    Curtain rods on the back of the set for chroma or just to set the mood with different backgrounds. Bought 3 sets of cloth yesterday (white, blue and gray)… not shure it’ll be good enough (didn’t buy anything specific… just cloth that I think might work), will be installing this weekend. Couldn’t find a good enough color/material for green chroma… will research a bit more on that later on.

    Anyways, fun project. Results might impress, and depite the hard work needed, it really is a fraction of the cost of pro stuff. Not that I’m expecting for it to be anything close to a pro studio of sorts, but for a small homestudio might be even a bit more than enough. :D

  • Mark n

    Other than the fact that these are continuous, is there a huge diff between kinos and using three strip lights? Perhaps remove the diffusers from the strips? Should be close, no?

  • MS

    And the results? Pretty awful. Alright.

  • sproketholes

    Ok I havent fully read this yet, so I probably shouldnt spark yet, BUT Kino-Flo are all about the LACK of flickering for video work. That is their primary deal. So if there is circuitry in this DIY rig that compensates for that then yay, but if not then dont compare them to Kino-Flo (and Im no fan-boy of $1500 flickr free lights).

  • http://www.bradtrent.com Brad Trent

    You’ve certainly gone a lot farther than I did when I built my Ghetto’s…..I’m not sure that bullet-proof plate you added to mount the Baby Plate is really necessary, but there’s no denying yours is gonna be ‘stronger’ than mine! Keep in mind…no matter how beefy you build these things, the weak link is always gonna be the tube socket. As you mentioned, these fixtures aren’t meant for traveling, and those sockets are pretty fragile. Another thing I’ve done is to add a clear plastic cover over the tubes. That will protect you in case the tube blows up. I also added silver ‘egg crate’ grids over the face of the light. This adds another layer of tube protection that also acts to direct the light path

    BT

  • http://www.bradtrent.com Brad Trent

    You’ve certainly gone a lot farther than I did when I built my Ghetto’s…..I’m not sure that bullet-proof plate you added to mount the Baby Plate is really necessary, but there’s no denying yours is gonna be ‘stronger’ than mine! Keep in mind…no matter how beefy you build these things, the weak link is always gonna be the tube socket. As you mentioned, these fixtures aren’t meant for traveling, and those sockets are pretty fragile. Another thing I’ve done is to add clear plastic covers over the tubes. That will protect you in case the tube blows up. I also added silver ‘egg crate’ grids over the face of the light. This adds another layer of tube protection that also acts to direct the light path.

    But how do you figure it will cost $250??? I can build these things up for maybe $65-75 each!

    BT

  • http://www.leifhurst.com/ Leif Hurst

    The issue with strip boxes (this is all I use now for headshot work) is the depth of the softbox if you’re up close with a subject. I use Profoto RFi boxes with Profoto D1’s and your talking about a depth of 2 feet from the back of the strobe to the front face of the softbox. Kino’s or most continuous lights (as long as we’re not talking about HMI PAR lights or something crazy) you’re talking about 4-6″ in depth.

    I know that may not seem like a big deal but I’m usually 3′ from a subject and they’re usually 18″ away from the face of a light. That puts you and the camera standing over and under strip boxes almost diving into your setup to get the shot (I’m shooting on a Full Frame with a 100mm Macro). It’s doable, but I’m wanting to get more into a LED based Kino or at least something that is tube based but is dim-able. It needs to be slim enough where I don’t feel like I’m diving into my own gear to get a picture, light enough that I can move it around to adjust light without feeling like it’s going to break, dim-able and color shift-able to work in most situations I might find myself in, and reliable enough so I, honestly, can forget that it’s even there (quiet, stable, sturdy). Once I’ve found my light I want to forget that they’re even there so I can work on my subject.

    Peter’s work isn’t about the light, it’s about the interaction with the subject. None of shots above look like Peter’s work even though the light is setup in the same setup he has. I’ve taken two of his workshops and would call the guy a good friend. He actually spends about 20 minutes talking about gear… that’s it. The rest of what happens between you and the subject is what seems to make the difference. Just my .02

  • Justin Van Leeuwen

    Yay, you read my post Brad! $250 was the full cost of the three we made. Canadian dollars… you know, tax, The plate is $50 at HD and the brackets are $15 from B&H add light bulbs and a few extra extension cords, I don’t want to low-ball people here ;)

    The plastic cover & grid are great ideas and I wondered what the black-straps on the back of yours were… Forget travelling, I don’t even know where to store them in my house now. I know some people are hating on my comparison to “Hurley” and I’m certainly not saying I’m him (or you). If the gear made the photographer we’d all be out of business. It was all just photos inspired by you guys. For me, this’ll let me not worry about setting up strobes in my tight space and just focus on interaction with my clients.

  • Justin Van Leeuwen

    So I guess I can’t book you for a session? Damn.

  • Justin Van Leeuwen

    Good point, I guess the only comparison being that they’re *constant* lights for my still photography. Not a video guy so I didn’t even consider that use.

  • Justin Van Leeuwen

    Sorry, wasn’t trying to say “now I’m Peter Hurley”, more like watching his work inspired me to actually make these so I can set and forget them, then work on my subject interaction (as he does). Like you said, he’s a master at working with people and getting them to look their best through that, the gear doesn’t matter in that, but gear that you don’t have to struggle with (like you sometimes do with strobes, or people blinking during the flash) can certainly take away from that interaction.

    In the end, I wanted to provide photographers with an inexpensive choice to get a “look” considering three of these cost less than a single flash – that’ll help people get shooting without spending too much bank on new gear.

  • Justin Van Leeuwen

    That is more ghetto, but I like it. Lots of different takes on this, hell, I copied mine right? Some folks need a step by step and others can take what we did and change it and imrove it. It’s definitely been an inexpensive addition to my studio kit.

  • http://www.leifhurst.com/ Leif Hurst

    And you did a great job man! This was an article about creating lights… not about creating the best from your subjects. Thank you again for your time and the reply!

  • Justin Van Leeuwen

    Hey, sorry this took me so long!

  • marcos molina

    Thanks Justin!