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Lighting for videography and theatrical works are very different yet very similar.  Theatrical lighting is generally intended to be more dramatic whereas lighting for videography is more utilitarian.  Regardless of your needs, UES can assist you in planning and implementing the correct lighting scheme you need.  There are HUGE energy savings to be had for a lighting system designed properly.

The following information is intended to help introduce you to basics of lighting for use in videography.

Picturesque Definition of a foot-candle

Lighting for videography today is an engineered science and like most engineering principles follows a set of guidelines in order for proper lighting to be achieved.  These rules are:

  • Get enough light on the scene so that your camera can "see".

  • Position your lights to create shadows which will, in turn, create the illusion of depth and texture on a smooth flat TV screen.

  • Maintain consistent color temperature unless you are using color for dramatic effect.

Enough Light?

The most recent color TV cameras can produce a remarkably good image in just a couple foot-candles of light, the amount you might find in a typical living room.  This does not mean, however, that the camera makes a good picture at that low level. When the camera chips are gasping for photons, the amplifier circuits crank way up to yield a picture that is grainy and has poor color rendition. It's a lot like turning up the volume on your radio to hear a distant station; you increase hiss, noise, and interference from other stations.  Most TV cameras today, even if they are rated for 1.5 lux minimum sensitivity, require nearly 120 lux, to generate a clean, clear, normally amplified (the +18 dB boost circuits are not engaged) picture. Even at 120 lux, the camera lens has to be open all the way
(around f/2) yielding a diminished depth-of-field and perhaps fuzzy corners in the picture due to lens aberrations.  Most TV cameras today are rated at 2,000 lux with the lenses set at f/8 yielding excellent depth-of-field.  Two thousand lux is the brightness you find in a TV studio or outdoors on a lightly cloudy day.  How we acquire that 2,000 lux is the subject of this article.

If you are racing around with an ENG camera, your only hope is to place your subject under some existing light and maybe enhance the brightness a little with the onboard camera light. It is surprising how much brightness you get from a 25 watt onboard light when your illuminating a newsperson only 5 feet away. This type of light isn't beautiful, but at least it makes a picture.

Blinded by the Light

Normally you want light to be behind you (the camera), not shining into the camera lens from behind the subject. Perhaps you've already seen what happens when your camera follows a person walking indoors across an open door or window flooded with daylight.  Everything in the scene goes dark (except what's outdoors) leaving your subject in silhouette.  Possible solutions: Lock your camera's auto gain and auto iris circuits on manual so that the window gets overexposed while your interior shot remains unchanged. This still doesn't make a pretty shot. Covering the window glass with a neutral density gel (a sheet of tinted plastic-like material) may help, but the technique doesn't work on open doors, and requires you to carry around huge rolls of gel material. Another solution is to pour lots of interior light onto the subject, equal in brightness and color temperature to the outdoor light.  You'll come across dozens of situations where a desk lamp in a scene silhouettes your performer, or too much sky in an outdoor shot darkens the desert roadway, or your performer is forced to stand with the sun to his/her back (ie. the talent is standing at the edge of a canyon and the only way to have the canyon as a backdrop is to shoot into the sun.)

No problem --- In the case of the desk lamp, just insert a low wattage bulb to tone down the brightness. Gel the bulb to the right color temperature (explained later) if necessary. If the sky is too bright in your outdoor scene, either tilt your camera down to reduce the percentage of sky in the shot, or employ a graduated filter on your lens to darken the top part of the picture. As for the sun to your talent's back, set up a few reflectors to bounce the light into the talent's face. Now the sunlight becomes a back light (explained shortly) adding dimension to the scene. This shot, in fact, is often preferred over the sun-in-the-face shot because the uncontrolled sun tends to make the talent squint; the more controlled reflected light can be positioned to yield desired shadows without the squints.

Me and my shadow

If you've just arrived from Mars, you've probably noticed that TV screens are nearly flat. Engaging imagery is three dimensional.  Somehow you have to create the illusion of texture and dimension in your picture to keep it interesting. You do this with light and shadow. The basic rules of 3- and 4-point lighting haven't changed since Daguerre slipped the first light sensitive copper plate into a camera in 1939. Here they are:

If you have only one light (1-point lighting), place it to one side and above the camera aiming at the subject. If the light is too close to the camera, your subject will appear featureless (no shadows). If the light gets too low, the subject will look spooky or ominous. Campfires and candlelight are the only illumination that normally come from below. We are accustomed to light coming from above, from ceilings and the sun. Light from above and to the side of the camera will create a shadow under the chin and along one side of a face, giving it dimension.

One light alone does not do a great job. It is often so harsh that it creates super black shadows which exceed the contrast capability of the camera. You may diminish these shadows by bouncing your light off a white surface such as a wall or ceiling behind and above you, or by using a light with a large reflector, or one covered with specular (dimpled) glass, or with a fine screen called a scrim, or a white fiberglass sheet. All of these will weaken the light and soften the shadows. On faces, soft shadows are more flattering than hard shadows.

Two-point lighting adds much more flexibility and I feel it is the minimum number of lights that you need to do a creditable lighting job.  The first light, called the key light, creates the basic illumination for the scene; you might think of it as the sun.  Place the lamp to one side of the camera and above it.  How far you place the light from the camera is a matter of taste.  The farther you move the light from the camera, the more pronounced the shadows will be, making your subject more dimensional, but you don't want to overdo it.  You might place the lamp at an angle of 20 degrees to 45 degrees to one side and 30 degrees to 45 degrees above the subject. (When working with a single light, you keep it closer to the camera to downplay the shadows.  When you have two lights, the second light takes over the job of downplaying the shadows.)  A naked key light may be too harsh for video portraiture: every zit and wrinkle will show.  Soften it with a scrim.

The second light, the fill light fills in the shadows you just made.  This light is generally placed 20 degrees to 45 degrees to the side and 30 degrees to 45 degrees above the camera-to-subject-axis just like the key light but on the opposite side of the camera from the key light. The fill light is generally softer, not making strong shadows of its own, but mitigating the shadows made by the key light.  The fill light generally has a larger reflector and scrim to weaken the light and soften its effect. The fill light shouldn't be as strong as the key light; you don't want to erase the shadows, just diminish them to the point where they add subtle dimensionality. The fill light may be half the wattage of the key light or be placed farther from the subject, weakening the light, or be gelled or scrimmed to weaken the light. The fill light may often be dimmed up to 20% without ruining your color temperature (a subject we'll discuss later).

Three-point lighting adds a third light, a back or modeling light that sets the subject off from its background.  The backlight, which is a hard, focused light, positioned 45 degrees to 75 degrees up from horizontal behind the subject, places a rim of brightness around heads and shoulders. Position the light far enough out of the scene so that it doesn't shine into your camera lens. Make the light bright enough to do the job without being obvious.

Even the experts don't trust their eyes when lighting, and view the camera's image through a TV monitor when adjusting the brightness of the lights. Although the process can be done with light meters and calculations, it is quick and easy to observe the TV screen and use common sense and your innate aesthetic prowess when adjusting lights.  Be careful not to aim the light directly down on your talent.

This would create a halo across the top of a person's head and illuminate their nose. As the person's head moved, their nose would dip into and out of the light blinking on and off like Rudolph, the White-Nosed Reindeer.

Three-point lighting will get you through most situations.  Most small studios and office shots don't have room for a backdrop to be placed far from the talent. This means the background gets illuminated by the spillage from the key and fill lights, and you cannot do much about it. In larger areas, the backdrop or set may be far enough from the talent to become dark. It is appropriate for the background to be darker than the foreground; after all, you want the foreground to be the center of attention. If the background becomes too dark, you need to add a fourth light (thus the term 4-point lighting) which is called the set light. This fixture can be positioned overhead or near the floor or anywhere out of sight of the camera, aimed at the set. If the set is small, nearly any light will do the job. If the background is a tall curtain that must be illuminated evenly, special fixtures with semi-parabolic reflectors are used. When aimed towards the set from above, the fixture will beam most of its light towards the bottom of the set which is farther away, and beam a smaller amount of light at the top of the set which is nearby. This keeps the nearby part of the set from becoming overly bright.

Color Temperature

Lights come in different colors as we all know, but white light can have subtle color differences that are not obvious to the naked eye. This explains why we can buy a blue suit in a store and wear it outside only to find it's sort of brown. The store lights make the colors look different than the outdoor light. The amount of redness or blueness found in white light is called color temperature and is measured in degrees Kelvin. A Kelvin degree is about 273 degrees higher than the same temperature measured on the centigrade scale. Physicists derive color temperature by heating a very black object hotter and hotter. As the temperature rises, the color changes. At first the object would glow red at 500 degrees K, then orange at 2000 degrees and white hot at 3500 degrees K. Applying more heat in Tim Taylor fashion, the body would glow bluish-white at 6000 degrees through 10,000 degrees. Above 10,000 degrees, the color gets no bluer. Probably the instrument melts at that point setting off smoke detectors all over the physics laboratory.

Thanks to physicist Max Planck, who first described this phenomenon and the patience of his local fire department, the subtle coloration of white light can be described by its color temperature.  Incandescent light in a home, as well as outdoor light in the early morning or around sunset, is about 2000 degrees K.  Early or late daylight or the light from professional quartz studio bulbs is about 3200 degrees K, slightly less red than home light bulbs.  Mid-day light is about 5500 degrees K as is HMI (Halogen Metal Iodide) lights.  This light is bluer and looks "colder" than 3200 degrees K studio lights.  Daylight on a hazy or foggy day could be as high as 7000 degrees K.  Fluorescent lamps may be around 3500 degrees to 6000 degrees K but have strong amounts of green and may be missing other colors entirely making them hard to describe on the color temperature scale.  Professional fluorescent lamps are made which approximate a 3200 degree color temperature.

When setting up your camera you can adjust your color temperature filters and white balance the camera for tungsten, halogen, fluorescent, or outdoor light and get a good image.  A problem arises when you have two different colored lights in the same scene.  If, for instance, you illuminated a face with a fluorescent light on one side and incandescent light from the other, the fluorescent cheek will look greenish-blue and the incandescent cheek would look reddish.  By adjusting your camera you could make one side of the face look fine, but the other side would be ready for trick-or-treat.

Dimming an incandescent light cools it and makes it redder (just like the physics experiment).  You may get away with 10 to 20% dimming before the color shift becomes noticeable, but beyond that you create a color temperature problem, especially if the light coming from the opposite side of someone's face is running undimmed (the full 3200 degrees K).  If you have to dim, say, your fill light more than 20%, it may be time to re-lamp the fill fixture with a lower wattage bulb or add a scrim or neutral density gel, then run the lamp undimmed.  The color temperature of light can be changed by placing a colored filter, called a gel (short for gelatin, from which it is made) into the lighting fixture.  Say you were shooting outdoors in 5500 K sunlight and were trying to fill in shadows on a face.  If you aimed your trusty portable quartz light at the shadowy side of the face, that cheek would appear reddish.  The problem can be solved by placing a blue filter in front of the quartz light changing its color temperature to 5,500 degrees K.

Blue filters seriously reduce the amount of light that comes from a lamp, sometimes making it necessary to use more lights and more power.  Once solution to this problem is to avoid electric lamps altogether and using a simple reflector, bounce the existing sunlight onto the dark side of the face.  A white sheet or a white foam-core board would bounce a soft reflected light.  The light may be so soft that the reflector will need to be near the subject.  Placing wrinkled tin foil over the foam-core multiplies its reflectivity, allowing the reflector to be used from farther away from the talent.  The foil reflector, however, would make a very focused beam that may be a little hard on your talent's eyes.  For a more professional strategy, buy a commercially available fabric reflector.  Several varieties are available and they are typically white on one side, gold or silver on the other.  The fabric is stretched over a wire hoop to form the reflector.  With a twist, the hoop collapses into an easier-to-transport figure eight.

A third solution to the above dilemma: HMI lights.  HMI lights are color balanced to 5,400 degrees K and are perfect companions for sunlight. Since they do not need filters to achieve the 5,500 degree temperature, all of the light gets used, wasting none going through filters, and wasting no electric power.

Kinds of Lights

TV studios typically use tungsten halogen lamps in big clumsy fixtures with clamps to hang them from the ceiling grid.  Key lights are usually focusable which means the bulb can be moved closer or farther from the reflector or a front lens spreading the light into a wide flood or a narrow spot.  Fill lights are usually large, with scoop-like reflectors.  To soften the light, sometimes several are used side by side.  Professional soft lights have the lamps inside a big white box that reflects the light smoothly over a larger surface.  Fiberglass or steel mesh scrims can be slid in front of lights to soften their beams.  Colored gels can be slid into the same slots to change the color of the lights. Hinged flaps called barn doors, affixed to the front of the instrument allow the beam to be aimed and shielded from certain areas of the stage.  A backlight, for instance, would have the top barn door turned down like a visor so that light would strike the subject but would be shielded from the camera.  HMI lights are a favorite for outdoor portable shooting because they make a large amount of usable light with minimal power.  For instance, because of its outdoor-compatible color temperature and high efficiency, a 1200 watt HMI light produces just about as much light as a 10 kilowatt tungsten lamp after the tungsten light passes through the blue gel. HMI lights are less likely to overburden office or home electrical outlets, and because of their efficiency they don't turn offices and homes into ovens or stress a smaller building's air conditioner.

HMI lights have two disadvantages.  First, they are more expensive than their 3200 K brothers.  Second, the instruments don't plug directly into a wall outlet.  Instead, they plug into a large and heavy ballast, a transformer which powers the light.  The ballast plugs into the wall outlet.

A third solution to the heat/electrical problem is to use banks
of fluorescent lights such as those commercially available from lighting manufacturers such as Lowel.  Unlike incandescent lights that waste 80% of their power creating invisible heat, fluorescent lamps create only 20% heat and the rest is light.  Because the fluorescent tubes comprise large surfaces, the light is "soft", excellent for soft shadows and fill, but poor for making pronounced shadows or forming strong beams.

Greasy Fingerprint

No basic article TV lights would be complete without warnings about how to handle them.  Never move a lamp while it is lit.  The hot filament is mostly gaseous, making it very delicate.  If you bump the lamp, the filament may break apart and the light will go out.  When your light does go out, turn off the fixture's power (unplugging it is even safer), and let it sit while you search for a replacement bulb.  Bulbs and fixtures get hot and you will fricassee your fingertips if you go fishing for the bulb too soon.  A glove might be helpful here.

The replacement bulb's glass should never be touched with your fingers.  Small amounts of oil from your fingertips will de-crystallize the glass when it heats up, causing it to crack.  Instead, transport the bulb by its packing, and slip it into its socket without touching the glass with your fingers.  Once the fixture is re-lamped, you can plug it in and turn it on.

Don't unplug or plug in fixtures while they are turned on.  Lusty sparks will jump from the plugs as you make or break an active circuit.  Turn off the studio dimmer for the light or throw the light switch before disconnecting it.

If using extension cords, remember that lights use a lot of power.  Check the temperature of your extension cords near their plugs from time to time; don't wait until you smell smoke.  Also, don't turn all of your lights on at the same time; the power surge may trip your circuit breaker.  Office and school electrical outlets are often good for 30 amps (3,600 watts) and older homes may be good for only half that much.  Heavy duty extension cords are generally rated at 15 amps which translates to 1,800 watts of power.  You'll be overworking your extension cord if you try to run two 1,000 watt lights from it.