So…lighting. Good lighting is absolutely essential if you want to record good images. Think of when you go to have your adorable family photo taken at the local J.C. Penney or Sears. Yeah…all those lights are there for a purpose. If you have bad lighting, you will have bad image quality. It’s that simple. No video editing software on the planet can help you compensate for bad lighting –even RAW cameras that capture incredible detail cannot fully compensate for bad lighting mistakes.
What kinds of lights do you need and how many? Well, that’s really up to your Director of Photography (or you -if you are doing everything yourself). There are a few different kinds of lights to choose from and they each have their own benefits.
Tungsten Lighting: These are typically halogen lighting systems that are super bright and are hot (both temperature and exposure). You usually have to use Tungsten lighting with reflectors and diffusers to minimize or soften the amount of light needed on the scene. These lights create a warmer look on camera –usually creating a yellowish hue which you have to compensate for with white-balance.
LED Lighting: These are also super bright, but do not get temperature hot. LED is also low-wattage whereas Tungsten is very power hungry. But don’t let that fool you. LED lighting can be just as blinding. These lights create a very cool look (almost sterile) and create a bluish hue that you will need to compensate for with white-balance. LED light intensity can also be controlled with dimmer knobs usually built onto the module. This is incredibly helpful and decreases the need for reflectors and diffusers. You can also place gels across them to help with saturation. A bit pricey, but well-worth the investment.
CFL Lighting: On a cheaper budget, these work ok. However, CFL bulbs have a warm up time. When you first turn them on, they are dim. After several minutes they finally reach their full capacity. Because of that, you will want to make sure all lights on set are turned on at least 15 minutes prior to shooting. A big drawback is that if the temperature at the location suddenly drops (cool breeze or A/C), the lighting will dim until the bulbs warm back up.
Fluorescent Lighting: Also a cheaper alternative to Tungsten and LED. Beware of flicker on camera from fluorescent lighting. You may have to adjust your camera’s frame rate to eliminate the flicker if it appears.
How do you set up good lighting? Basically, you want to follow the fundamental 3-point lighting technique and then expand from there as necessary. If nothing else, you want your Talent and the objects they interact with to be well-lit and look good on camera. Everything else is secondary to that priority.
The 3-point lighting rule is made up of 3 lights that serve different purposes.
The camera is always placed in between the Key Light and the Fill Light. If you are using a backdrop, be sure to place the subject far enough away from the backdrop so that you don't get hard shadows.
Once you have lit your subject well, then you can take a look at what else in the scene needs brightened. Is the background behind the subject too dark? Does a piece of furniture look like a black or brown blob in the background? Background lighting should always be subtle. Placing too much light on a non-essential object will create a distraction for viewers. Keep in mind that our eyes tend to focus on things that are bright.
Lighting a scene takes time and a whole lot of patience. Scene Blocking is essential in order to figure out beforehand where your light needs to come from. If you’re filming on a soundstage, you will have to provide all light sources. If filming on location, you will most likely have the sun as a resource –but do not expect the sun and clouds to cooperate the day of your shoot. Always have backup lighting on hand just in case it’s overcast or stormy.
Once you get the lighting set, it is good practice before filming to study the image on the camera. You want to look for a few things that may be causing problems. Things that take a well-trained eye to detect. Some things like lens flares are obvious, but sometimes a light source can be reflecting off an object in a way that creates a hot spot in the image. You don’t tend to notice these -which is why you need to carefully study the image on your camera or an external monitor to see them. Things like lights reflecting off mirrors or glass are usually noticeable, but flat surfaces or objects at just the right angle can create unwanted reflections as well. Reposition the light, use a diffuser or reflector, or adjust the intensity to correct the problem.
You also need to pay heavy attention to shadows. Where are they? Are they causing an unwanted distraction? Do you get weird shadows as the Talent acts on scene? Are people or objects casting strange shadows on walls or floors? Just as important as it is to light a scene properly, you also need to control the darkness –which helps create depth-of-field and makes people/objects appear more 3-dimensional on screen.
If your camera is moving during the scene, do test shots to make sure that as your camera angle changes, the lighting doesn’t create issues from other positions. If using multiple cameras, study the images from all of them to make sure that the lighting is even and issue-free. (Multi-camera filming is covered in another post.)
Taking the time to get the lighting right will pay off in a big way. It will produce better image quality and your videos will have that professional feel to them. You again need to ask yourself the question “What kind of filmmaker do I want to be?” in order to decide what lights (and how many) will work for you.
Copyright 2018 Steven Vest. All rights reserved.
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