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Lighting: Notes for beginners

March 23, 2013

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If you’re just starting out learning about lighting for film & video production, you might not be aware that it’s very much a case of “Pick two: Good, fast, or cheap.”

For example, if your production schedule allows you to work v-e-r-y slowly and carefully, and you improvise, it’s possible (though not guaranteed) to get good lighting results without spending a lot of money. Talented indie film & video professionals have been doing this for years.

Or, if time is short — as is the case with most film productions — typically the only way to get good lighting is to spend a significant amount of money on experienced crew and gear. Truly talented crew can sometimes even work miracles using very basic equipment.

Terrence Malick and his presumably well-paid, highly-experienced cinematographers and crew primarily use only available light, rarely use reflectors, flags, and overhead silks, and for the most part forgo traditional film production electrical lighting fixtures. What they accomplish is simply amazing. Read all about it here, here & here.

Most productions fall somewhere in-between in terms of experience, schedule and budget, and of course so too will the quality of the lighting.

As is usually the case, you work with what you’ve got, and make compromises when absolutely necessary.

Here are several respected cinematographers who write extensively about lighting for film & video production:

Roger Deakins, ASC, BSE, CBE frequently posts on his lighting and cinematography forum.

David Mullen, ASC frequently posts about lighting and cinematography in incredible detail.

Shane Hurlbut, ASC frequently posts about lighting, such as this recent detailed post on training your eye, light meters and 3-point lighting.

Art Adams, in a recent article makes a good case “against” the 3-point lighting rule. Read many of his other posts here.

John Brawley, well-known to fans of the Blackmagic Cinema Camera, often posts about lighting and cinematography (such as hereherehere and here). On a related subject: Using the BMCC’s zebras to set exposure, see here & here.

Mark Vargo, ASC created the following very informative videos about the history of lighting for film, and the role Grips play in film production:


OK, so now it’s my turn.

The gentlemen above have forgotten more about lighting than I’ll ever know (grin), but I try to offer helpful assistance to lighting newbies. The following are expanded versions of my responses to two questions recently posted on about real-world lighting scenarios.

Q: “… I looked at my new shared studio again, and the tungsten spots are actually quite strong, and there are a lot of them (all on the ceiling though). …”

A: The good news is that your “hot” quartz/halogen tungsten ceiling lights may be bright enough if you’re using a modern video camera such as the Blackmagic Cinema Camera @ ISO 800 and fitted with a reasonably fast lens. And, because your ceiling lights use tungsten/halogen type bulbs, they produce light that is high-quality in terms of the light’s color fidelity (“CRI“; see below).

Because your lights are overhead they may look too “toppy” or “spotty” on your subject/talent, you can shape & control the light to get a more pleasing look by using “light modifiers”: Reflectors, diffusion, and flags.

Light cast mostly from above tends to cause highlights on the top of a person’s head or parts of their face that are relatively too bright, and it may cast dark shadows in their eye sockets. Not a flattering look, unless the story or scene calls for it.

Before you buy or rent a bunch of lights to add to this set, first work with the light that’s already there — the available light. Chances are you can achieve a nice look with minimal effort, cost, and heat, and without blowing circuit breakers.

Most important: Shoot lighting tests before the day of production. Lots & lots of tests. Try many different variations on your lighting set-up. Success requires failing first, so make “mistakes” (experimental tests) before the day of your shoot instead of on the day.

For a CU, medium, or medium wide shot, you might get a very nice result simply by positioning (“blocking“) your subject/talent in a particular area of the room. Depending on the scene, have the subject face or walk in a different direction. Sometimes a few inches one way or another is the difference between ugly light or beautiful light.

Look at the overall composition on the monitor, including what’s in the background of the shot. Adjust the shot’s framing, composition, exposure, focus, and depth of field using the lens’ aperture & focal length (and ND or other filters if necessary) to get the look you want.

Consider shaping & controlling the light cast by the ceiling lights using basic tools such as reflectors and flags. These can be as simple and inexpensive as a few pieces of approx. 32″ x 24″ white and black foam core from an art supply store. Foam core can be held in place using inexpensive carpenter’s spring clamps from a hardware store, or “gaffer tape” from a video lighting equipment dealer. Clamp or tape the foam core to anything handy that’s suitable, or buy a few relatively inexpensive lightweight stands. These items will always be useful even if you acquire additional lighting gear later.

By having flags & reflectors in your “light” kit first, you’ll learn how to work with the light that’s available.

There’s a saying, “Adding a light solves one problem, but creates at least one more.” In other words, adding a light may cause an unwanted shadow, hot spot, or reflection, etc. All of which can be dealt with, but the point is that adding light(s) to a set doesn’t necessarily make things better. It can actually make things worse, unless you know what you’re doing and have time to address issues as they come up.

Not surprisingly, many of the “problems” (challenges) created by adding a light(s) to a set can be addressed using flags, reflectors & diffusion. So start with those first.

If the subject is stationary, and the shot is a CU or medium shot: You might position a piece of white foam core parallel to the ceiling a foot or two above the subject’s head to block light from directly above. Use a second piece of white foam core in front & to one side of the subject to bounce light from the ceiling fixtures onto (mostly) one side of their face & torso. Experiment with where the foam core is positioned and how it’s angled to see how it affects the look. The black foam core can be used as a flag to block light, or as “negative fill” to subtly subtract light, such as from one side of the subject’s face.

A wide shot in a room with overhead lights may require a different approach. For example, you may need to position (“fly”) a “silk” (diffusion material or thin white fabric) overhead, so that multiple ceiling spot lights cause the silk to glow. This will likely reduce or eliminate hot spots in the area of the room beneath the silk. The resulting light might look great, or it might look too flat (not enough dramatic shadows), or too dim, or cause the subject’s eye sockets to be too shadowed, etc. You can’t know for sure until you run some tests in your space.

An overhead silk can be hung from the ceiling, or clamped to floor stands. For example, flying a white cotton bed sheet used as an overhead silk may require 4 stands, one in each corner (or, hang it from the ceiling to eliminate the stands … but then you need a ladder). Alternatively, a small silk pre-mounted in a frame may require only 1 stand or clamp. A very wide shot may require use of a very large overhead silk, which for some budgets or schedules could be impractical or too expensive. As an overhead silk gets bigger, you may also need to provide light from the front, side or backlight. But for a CU or medium WS, an overhead silk can be a good solution in a room with overhead lights. Shoot some tests.

Are there other lights in the room, such as floor lamps or desk lamps? Try turning them on & off, or repositioning them if necessary. See if they help achieve the look you’re after, or if they create more problems than they solve. If they’re off-camera, you can diffuse, gel (color-correct), bounce and control their light as you would with any other light source.

It’s sometimes good to include a practical light in a shot, visible to the camera, to create the illusion that it’s the motivating source for some aspect of a scene’s lighting. Practicals can be lights which are part of a real location, or prop lights brought in for the production.

Caution: Safety first! Be very careful silk, diffusion, walls, furniture, etc. aren’t close enough to hot lights to cause a fire. Even relatively cool fluorescent lights can start a fire if they’re too close to flammable material. Keep lights well away from fire sprinklers and smoke detectors! “Shop lights” and other types of improvised lighting can be less-safe than professional gear, so use extra caution when operating them. Use safety chain or cotton sash to prevent items from falling, especially with all items on stands & overhead.


Q: “What are examples of relatively inexpensive lighting gear for film & video production, and how do they differ?”

A: For lighting exteriors, one reason reflectors are popular is because the color quality (“CRI“) of the light they cast is identical to the source of the light. In general, the higher the CRI, the better. CRI values over 90 are considered good. Here’s a tremendously informative discussion with Dedo Weigart speaking about CRI, LED, and “traditional” light sources for professional video production.

When reflecting natural sunlight, the CRI from a white reflector will be very high & very neutral because it has the perfect CRI & color-cast of the sunlight.

There are many different kinds of reflectors. A reflector with a textured surface tends to cast a softer light than one with a very smooth surface. A reflector can be as simple as a white wall or piece of white foam core, or 4′ x 8′ sheet of white or aluminum-coated foam insulation, or a specialized piece of professional lighting gear mounted in a frame with standard 5/8″ mounting studs. One drawback of using reflectors outdoors is that even in the slightest breeze they must be secured by at least one crew member, or by heavy-duty C-stands and sandbags, or both.

The “softness” of the shadows cast by a light (or reflector) is a function of its size and distance relative to the subject.

For example, a relatively large diffused light source or reflector positioned relatively close to the subject will be a soft source (cast soft shadows). As you move that same size light source further from the subject, the shadows it casts will get more distinct (“harder”). Lights that are “point sources” (such as hot open face or fresnel light fixtures) cast hard sharp shadows, unless heavily diffused or bounced off a reflector.

To get a “perfectly” soft source you may need to use double diffusion, with a gap between the 2 diffusion sheets. If you look at a point light source (such as a typical hot light fixture) shining through a typical diffusion sheet, you’ll notice there’s a fairly bright spot shining through the middle of the diffusion. That will create a slightly harder shadow than if you shine the same light through 2 diffusion sheets. The 2nd sheet will smooth-out the hot spot quite a bit, depending on the diffusion material used and the gap between them. Double-diffusion reduces the light brightness, too.

The same principles apply with bounce reflectors (usually white, not mirrors). Depending on the material used for the reflector, a single reflector will usually produce a light source that creates relatively soft shadows. But some reflector surfaces are shiny enough to produce a hot spot in their center, which may produce somewhat harder shadows. Using 2 bounce reflectors, with the 2nd reflecting the light from the 1st, will produce very soft shadows. There will of course be a reduction in the light brightness compared to using 1 reflector.

A light’s brightness changes with distance.

For example, if you have two identical lights sources, but one is twice as far away from the subject as the other, the more distance source will cast light that is 1/4 the brightness onto the subject.

To serve the story of the film, sometimes you want soft light, other times you want hard light. It’s an aesthetic choice; there’s no right or wrong.

The challenge is figuring out how to get the look you want for the scene or story within the budget & schedule. That’s just as true for a big-budget production as it is for a low/no budget production; it’s just a matter of scale.

Carefully blocking scenes, and choosing locations (and scheduling for day/night) appropriate for the lighting budget & schedule, is a big part of it. In other words, film & video production lighting is first & foremost a “wet-ware” (intellectual) challenge, not a hardware problem. And there are some story scenarios that are difficult or impossible to shoot or light on a low/no budget. If necessary, change the blocking, rewrite a scene, or change location to make it work with the budget & schedule.

If your budget can accommodate it, hire an experienced lighting gaffer, perhaps one who is willing to show you how to light. Or work on someone else’s project where they’ve hired a skilled gaffer, and watch what they do & why.

If available, renting lights can be a good way to stretch a production’s lighting budget, but renting requires buying insurance. Typically you can rent an expensive, high-quality light fixture for a day or weekend for a fraction of the cost of buying the light.

Personally, I hate the low CRI of most low-cost LED & fluorescent bulbs. Their light spectrum contains discontinuous green spikes and other nastiness that can’t be corrected using colored gels or in post. Skin looks especially unappealing under low-CRI lighting, and it can also cause problems in product shots or in any color-critical scene.

Especially when using a modern camera such as the Blackmagic Cinema Camera, which will faithfully reproduce the nastiness of a low-CRI light source, you want to avoid this issue as much as possible.

Whenever possible, capture the beauty of natural sunlight and high-CRI lighting.

Low-cost, high-quality sources of electric light:

If you have little money, but want to own a few lights, consider starting with one or two small “hot” quartz tungsten or fluorescent fixtures.

The CRI of “hot” quartz tungsten (halogen) lights is very high, and they are typically less-expensive than fluorescent, LED, or HMI based fixtures of equivalent brightness. Tungsten lights are typically point sources, but as noted above can be used as soft sources via large reflectors/diffusion. Tungsten color temperature is around 3200K, and if necessary can be gelled with a sheet of blue “CTB” to match or approach daylight color temps (~5600K or higher).

Note that gelling a light makes it less bright. For example, color-correcting an otherwise bright tungsten light to daylight color temp may make it so dim it won’t be bright enough to “fight” daylight (fill-in shadows cast by full sunlight) unless the light is very high-wattage (and big & expensive). Likewise, “white” (colorless) diffusion material reduces the brightness of a light. A specialized “wire scrim” (metal mesh similar to window screen) reduces the brightness of a light without diffusing it or altering its color temp.

The quality of hot quartz tungsten light is beautiful, especially on skin, but there’s a considerable cost: Tungsten lights get very hot, can be a fire hazard, and will blow circuit breakers if you’re not careful. They require >4 times the AC power of flo or HMI lights of the same brightness, and >10 times the AC power of LED lights of the same brightness. In many locations, powering thousands of watts worth of hot quartz tungsten lights will require custom wiring by a licensed electrician, or use of a high-power generator, or both.

Fluorescent lighting fixtures such as KinoFlo are popular because they cast soft shadows, don’t create much heat, require a fraction of the power of a hot quartz tungsten light of the same brightness, and quality bulbs such as made by KinoFlo or Osram have relatively high CRI (CRI ~85 or higher). Many inexpensive flo bulbs have low CRI.

Flo bulbs are available in both tungsten (~3200K) and daylight (~5600K) color temperatures. Buy both, and switch as needed. If you can’t afford a genuine KinoFlo fixture, at least buy KinoFlo or Osram bulbs and put them in whatever fixture is available. It’s the CRI that matters most.

A downside of fluorescent fixtures is that they can’t be a point source unless positioned far from the subject — in which case they’d typically be too dim. And it’s usually difficult or impossible for a small inexpensive flo fixture to fight strong sunlight — it has to be a big fixture containing many high-output ~5600K bulbs to meet that challenge. Even the best flo light isn’t quite as beautiful as sunlight or hot quartz tungsten light, but because of their many advantages fluorescent lights are frequently used in professional shoots.

Examples of relatively inexpensive lighting fixtures:

There’s no shortage of professional, relatively expensive lighting fixtures available for use in film & video production. Many of these tools are not inexpensive for very good reasons. They’re carefully designed to allow experienced gaffers & lighting crews to get exacting results prescribed by Directors of Photography, as quickly, safely and efficiently as possible.

But what if you’re looking for something less expensive, but still want to get good-looking results, perhaps with compromises in terms of speed or ease of use?

The “FloLight” 110-watt low-cost fluorescent fixture is an example of one such solution. It can be useful in a variety of situations. It uses 2 BIAX-type 55w bulbs, has built-in black (not shiny reflective) barn doors to help control & shape its light, and a 5/8″ mounting stud for mounting it on standard lighting stands and other grip gear.

If possible, use high-CRI KinoFlo or Osram flo bulbs instead of the low-CRI bulbs typically included with inexpensive fixtures. For the FloLight, buy 2 pairs each of KinoFlo (daylight & tungsten) or Osram [Sylvania] (daylight & tungsten) color temp BIAX-type 55w bulbs.

A popular type of relatively inexpensive light fixture for film & video production is the paper lantern or “China ball”. Ones that are actually made of paper usually cost just a few dollars, and produce a very flattering soft light (the larger the lantern’s diameter, the softer the light), but they are very fragile. There are more-expensive & durable China ball lanterns designed specifically for film & video production work. China balls can be suspended from a ceiling, or hung on the end of a pole (stand-mounted or hand-held), and can be fitted with a variety of bulb types including hot quartz tungsten and compact-fluorescent (CF) bulbs.

Another popular light is the Lowell Rifa soft light. It can be fitted with a wide variety of hot quartz tungsten or CF bulbs, as detailed on the Lowell website. Lowell sells other popular lights, too.

Used professional lighting gear in safe working condition can be a good, relatively low-cost alternative to buying or renting new gear. Inspect the fixtures carefully before buying (or buy from a reputable dealer who allows for a full refund) to insure the fixture operates correctly, and doesn’t have frayed, damaged or exposed wiring. When in doubt of a fixture’s safety, don’t buy it. Especially in the case of used gear, if the price is too good to be true, it probably is.

“Shop lights”, such as those available at hardware stores, can be used as film & video production lighting. The hot quartz halogen type produce good-quality light in terms of CRI, and they’re relatively inexpensive. However, they usually don’t include barn doors, can’t be focussed, and get too hot to handle without gloves, and of course require 4 times as much AC power than fluorescent fixtures of the same brightness. But used carefully, shop lights can produce good results.

Basic lighting “modifier” tools to consider buying:

A round, collapsable ~36″ reflector, and/or pieces of white foam core approx. 32″ x 24″.

A few pieces of black foam core to use as flags (to block light) or as “negative fill” (to subtract light).

Light stands: For example, 1 each to hold a small light, reflector, flag, etc. Light-duty stands can be adequate to support small items, but heavy-duty stands are required to safely secure larger, heavier gear.

Several inexpensive carpenter’s spring-clamps.

For diffusion or bounce: A white cotton bed sheet (or muslin), or lighting gel diffusion sheets, or silks in frames. Can be positioned using clamps, or hung from the ceiling or from stands. Lighting supply shops sell frames designed to hold silks & gels, and silks pre-mounted in special frames. But a white bed sheet is a commonly-used lighting technique and can work great, too, as seen in this example.

Other inexpensive, but extremely useful items:

At least 1 spare bulb for each light in your kit. So-called “C47″ (wood clothes pins) for clipping diffusion & gels to lights. “Black wrap” (heavy aluminum foil painted flat black) for improvising small flags & “cookies” especially for use with hot lights (a cookie is a material with cut-out holes in it which cast patterns of light). “Gaffer tape” (specialized 2″ wide adhesive tape; black is most common) has a 1,000 uses. “Stingers” (heavy-duty AC power extension cords) for electric lights. “Sash cord” (lightweight black cotton rope) to use as a “safety” for securing lights & other gear overhead.

There are relatively inexpensive specialized clamps & grips available that let you safely hang a light from anything strong enough, such as on the top of an open door, or hanging from the metal framing of a dropped ceiling, or from large beams, etc.

These inexpensive items will be useful for many situations for a long time, even if you later move on to bigger budgets & additional gear. Big-budget shoots frequently use low-tech gear together with pricier kit. It’s the results that matter, not the gear.

A few common, basic lighting scenarios:

If there’s nice natural sunlight coming through a window, you might use the sunlight as the key light (through diffusion if necessary), and use a reflector as the fill light, and a fluorescent light with daylight bulbs for the back/hair light.

Be aware that sunlight lighting a daytime interior scene may flicker or flash as vehicles drive past the building. If you don’t want this effect to be part of the scene, using diffusion on the window to minimize it. Likewise, a night interior scene might be affected by vehicle headlights or other outdoor lighting. Again, it’s an aesthetic choice as to whether it’s appropriate for the scene or not.

Alternatively, you might use a flo light as the key, a reflector (bouncing some of the key) for fill, and available light (natural sunlight or practicals) in the room for the back light.

Or, use bright direct or diffused natural sunlight as a strong back light, and use a reflector to bounce some of the sunlight onto one side or the front of the subject, adjusting to taste. This technique is commonly used outdoors, often with the variation of the subject standing in available shade and/or with a silk “flown” (mounted) overhead.

For practice, mimic aspects of lighting effects you see in films. For example, it can be useful to look at the reflections in actor’s eyes in a film to determine how many lights were shining on their face, and approximately where the light was positioned. Try many different lighting set-up combinations to see what you & your director prefer, but do most of your lighting tests before the day of production. Remember that there don’t need to be 3 sources of light shining on your subject in every scene, or in any scenes. 3-point lighting is not a law which must be rigidly be adhered to. Test, test, test before the day of production.

There are so many different kinds of lights and lighting accessories available because there are an infinite number of lighting challenges — and an infinite range of production budgets & schedules.

There’s no one piece of lighting gear or technique that solves every lighting problem. So, again, perhaps before you consider buying or renting expensive lighting equipment, first learn how to work with, shape & control the light that’s already available using simpler tools, such as reflectors, flags and diffusion.

Caution: Safety first! Be very careful silk, diffusion, walls, furniture, etc. aren’t close enough to hot lights to cause a fire. Even relatively cool fluorescent lights can start a fire if they’re too close to flammable material. Keep lights well away from fire sprinklers and smoke detectors! “Shop lights” and other types of improvised lighting can be less-safe than professional gear, so use extra caution when operating them. Use safety chain or cotton sash to prevent items from falling, especially with all items on stands & overhead.


UPDATE 12/20/13:

I recently shot a series of basic “talking head” style interviews against a black background. Here’s a description of how I lit it.


My list of related links, short films, and resources for Blackmagic Design cameras.


For my words & photos only: ©2013 Peter J. DeCrescenzo. All rights reserved.

Note: I don’t receive income or remuneration for this blog, or for products seen or mentioned here. Advertisements on the page have nothing to do with me. The ads support WordPress, the publisher.

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