How to build your own High Pressure Sodium and Mercury Vapor Lights pt. 1

As I began to prep the short film “Talent” I knew the look would have to be bold and unique. I couldn't chicken out. I had to take some chances. I was going to have to summon Tony Scott.

As things began to come together, I decided high pressure sodium and mercury vapor fixtures would help give me the gutsy look I was imagining. Unfortunately, these are not very common film lighting units and getting my hands on them would prove tougher than I had thought.

CUT TO: Why don’t I just build them myself?

The following is a brief description of exactly how I made my high pressure sodium vapor units - or HPSV units - and what you would need to create your own. I have also included photos taken under my new HPSV units and photos of the unit itself. The best part about it, it costs under $100 and can be assembled in about the amount of time it takes to drink a cup of coffee.

I will be creating and posting a video tutorial of how I did this in the next few days, so check back soon.

The Components:

You’ll need 6 components to make a very basic 150 Watt HPSV “Film Type Fixture.”

  1. (1) 150 Watt High Pressure Sodium Fixture ($67.50)
  2. (1) All Weather Outdoor Outlet Box with top ($5.40)
  3. (1) 1/2” Electrical Clamp ($1.79)
  4. (2-3) Wing Guard Twist on Connectors ($0.17)
  5. (1) 6’ Garbage Disposal Cord ($2.01)
  6. (1) 150 Watt High Pressure Sodium Bulb (Included with Fixture)
Total Cost: $76.87 per unit. (not too bad if you're handy)
  1. We begin by separating the top portion of the outlet box from the bottom half. Take the wires from the fixture and pull them through the threaded hole in the top of the outlet box. Now screw the outlet box lid into the threaded base of the light fixture.
  2. Line up the 2 screw holes on the bottom potion of the outlet box with the lid of the outlet box, but don’t screw them together yet. We are only doing this to identify which of the ½” holes faces the rear of the unit. This is important because this is the hole you will thread the ½” electrical clamp into. When you’re sure you’ve identified the rear hole attach the clamp.
  3. Now take the 6’ garbage disposal cord and thread the exposed end of the cable through the clamp you just inserted and into the bottom portion of the outlet box.
  4. Inside the box you will find a green ground screw. Take the green line or bare copper wire coming from the fixture along with the green wire coming from the garbage disposal cord and loop them around the ground screw and tighten down, making sure neither wire slips loose.
  5. Next, move on to attaching the neutral wire from the fixture, which is usually white. In my case, it bore the abbreviation “COM” to the neutral wire from the garbage disposal cord (usually white) in my case it was not marked. The neutral line can sometimes be identified by looking at the end of a polarized plug to see which blade is “fatter.” The “fatter” blade is generally connected to the neutral lead. Once you have found the neutral wire from both the fixture and the garbage disposal cord, twist them together with a wing guard twist on connector, and then tape securely with electrical tape.
  6. After the neutral line and the ground are secured, you should only be left with the 120V hot lead on both the fixture and the garbage disposal cord. This wire is generally coded black. On my particular unit, it was a white wire, but the wire had a repeating 120V printed on the wire’s coating. The garbage disposal cord once again did not have any sort of markings on it. I was able to determine it was the hot lead based on the fact that it ran to the “skinny” blade of the plug.
  7. Now that you are wired up, you’ll want to secure the garbage disposal cord with the ½” clamp so that the wire can not be pulled free. Tighten the clamp down till it holds the wire firmly in place but not so tight that it punctures the wire's protective coating.
  8. You are now ready to screw the top and bottom halves of the outlet box together.
  9. You now have a functional, portable, "film style" high pressure sodium light.

If you are slightly more ambitious, you can do what I did and take it one step further. I purchased a Matthews 5/8" Receiver Mounting plate for $32.00 and made the unit stand mountable.
Before I began step #1 above, I took this plate and aligned it with the bottom of the outlet box. Using a Sharpie marker, I made 4 small dots on the bottom of the electrical box using the plate for reference. After marking the box, I took a Titanium drill bit and drilled 4 holes through the bottom of the outlet box. I could now insert four 1” bolts through the holes in the receiver mounting plate and into the outlet box. Once the screws entered the box, I was able to add lock nut washers and nuts.

(Matthews 5/8" Receiver Mounting plate bolted to the bottom of the outdoor outlet box.)
(Here is what the final unit looks like.)

(1/2" Electrical Clamp)

(High Pressure Sodium unit mounted on a baby stand.)

I have included several photos taken using my new High Pressure Sodium Vapor unit all pictures were taken at 3200K:

(Control shot in which the HPSV was not used.)

(Same lighting as the control, but with the HPSV unit added.)

You can clearly see the unique color tone a HPSV unit creates. I don’t plan on lighting this way, but I wanted you to be able to see what an HPSV looked like on a person with no other lighting.

(HPSV unit with no additional lighting.)

Remember to check back in the next few days for a video tutorial on how to assemble your very own HPSV “Film Type” unit.