Starting From Scratch – How to Start a Lighting Rig on the Cheap!

One of the things that I really love about the community that we have, is that you guys often write in and make suggestions for future pages here on LearnStageLighting.

In fact, I get most of my post ideas straight from questions that you guys ask or suggestions you guys make.  Today is no exception.

Tim wrote and asked me to write a post about starting a lighting rig on the cheap – and I gladly accept!

Starting a Lighting Rig on The Cheap!

Many churches, bands and even small companies can save a lot of money by starting out buying used equipment from places like Craigslist and eBay, or websites like SolarisNetwork or  Regardless of where you shop, there is a plethora of used gear out there for reasonable prices, and it can really help you to jump-start your lighting rig from zero.

Finding Good, Used Gear

So how do you find that good, used gear?  Is it a magical unicorn in the middle of the rainforest, or is it actually attainable?

When you first start looking, you may find that you’re seeing a lot of listings that simply look like junk.

Some of it will be, but others won’t.  Like buying a used car on Craigslist, buying used gear requires you to check it out and take it for a quick test drive.

Here are my suggestions for finding specific pieces of gear used:

Conventional Lighting: 

If it looks complete, and the socket that holds the lamp isn’t broken in pieces, test it and buy it!

Conventional lighting is great because it is simple electrically, and there’s really not much that can go wrong.

Even if the fixture is dented and beat up, it’ll still work and a little paint will make it look new!

LED Lighting: 

LED fixtures are definitely something that you need to test and see in action before you buy, unless they carry a warranty from the seller!

When you fire up the LED unit, look at each color individually and check for LED’s that don’t work.  If you’re on a budget, you may still buy a unit with a few LED’s out, but be cautious – more may be on the way.

On the other hand, I’ve also seen LED fixtures that drop a few LED’s right out of the box, and then work flawlessly for years.

Also listen for anything rattling around inside the unit – this could be bad, and if the fixture does have a fan inside, listen to hear if it’s running.  If you like what you see and the price is great, buy it!

Honestly, I’d only buy LED fixtures if I found a really killer deal.  Every few months new models come out, and they just keep getting brighter, more consistent, better looking and cheaper.  With LED’s I’d rather buy a inexpensive unit from Chauvet or Elation than buy used.

DJ/Effect Lights: 

When I looked locally here in Nashville at used lights on Craigslist, most of what I found were DJ/effect lights.  These lights are typically simple, have one or two effects they can do, and may have moving parts.

Test them out in both DMX and sound-active mode and see if they work.  If you like what you see, buy it!

Like LED’s, you do want to know how much you can buy new, inexpensive models for, before you look at used.  You’d be surprised how cheap some of these lights are new!

Moving Lights: 

Used moving lights are a can of worms.

I don’t want to completely shut down the idea of buying them, but do know that you’ll need to become competent in repairing used movers if you want to buy them.

With that said, they can be a great investment if you’ve got the knowhow to fix them, or know someone who does!  I get a lot of emails from readers who buy moving lights used, only to have them break down, and then they literally can’t find someone to fix them.

The thing to remember about moving lights is that they’re 10’s to 100’s of moving parts inside of them – and all moving parts can break!

Once a part breaks, you may lose anything from functionality of one attribute(cyan color, gobo wheel, frost, etc)m or losing all functionality at once, depending on what part has broken!

With that said, used lights from the “pro” manufacturers tend to be more easily repairable than lights from DJ/inexpensive manufacturers.

Foggers and Hazers:

When you’re looking at atmosphere units, the first thing you need to do is decide whether you need a fogger or hazer.

Once you determine that, plug in and test any unit that you’re considering.  If it’s a water-based unit, know that the atmosphere generated will smell like maple syrup – this is normal!

Oil based units tend to put off a nearly scentless atmosphere, and they’re also overall more reliable because they have less complicated insides – there’s no heater to go bad!

If the unit works, and the price is right – buy it!

Stands and Truss:

You can save a bunch of money on the support of your fixtures by buying used – but like anything else, be careful.

You want to inspect any stands or truss you may buy for dents and overall usability.  If it seems questionable, don’t buy it!

If you’re reading this and wondering – “What fixtures do I need to get started?”, check out this page – “How to Build a Basic Band Lighting Rig

Saving Money on Long Cable Runs

Now that we’ve got some fixtures, it’s time to buy some cables.

One of the best ways to save money on cables is to buy CAT5e ethernet wire and use it for DMX.  Why CAT5e?  

Well, it’s remarkably cheap, and it also gets the job done.

Here’s what you need to know:

Not into the CAT5e thing?  Not a problem!  A website called “monoprice” sells highly affordable DMX cables via Amazon and their own site.

Though nothing is going to be as cheap as the CAT5e setup, these cables offer really great value for the cost!

Your First Lighting Console

Lighting Console Hog 4Next, we need to find a console that suits our needs.  If you’re just buying a convention/LED rig, you can start with a basic, 2-scene conventional controller.

However, if you’re using moving lights or plan to expand your rig in the future, the time is now to invest in a console that is better than you currently need.

Using a console that is a little bit overkill for your current context can be really helpful, as it’ll be easier to program and more flexible with the rig you have.

Besides the operator(that’s you), the console is the 2nd best investment you can make in your lighting rig!

Check out this page for more – What Lighting Console Should I Buy?  Your First Lighting Console.

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