Light your way

My current lighting kit

Lighting is a very important aspect for many filmmakers, whether it’s naturalistic, dramatic or ambient, you need to know about how to use the equipment effectively in order to do your film justice.

I’ll start with a few easy concepts. In general we have two sorts of light – hard and soft.

Hard Light

Hard light is light that casts very defined shadows and therefore has a high contrast. It’s very useful for creating scary shadows on walls, showing up imperfections in skin and actually flattening an image – if used face-on. The way you use hard light is actually pretty simple. First there’s the natural light option – direct sunlight creates good definitions in shadows. The second is artificial. How do you get artificial hard light? Easy, remove any softboxes, and diffusers, etc. In other words, have the bulb bare.

Hard light used to cast Spock half in shadow. Added note, using another light to help define the shape of the dark side of his face

Soft Light

Soft light is when there either aren’t any shadows or not very defined ones. It’s useful for lighting entire areas (rather than parts of the picture), smoothing out imperfections in skin and generally having everything visible. The natural version of soft light is on overcast days, since the light is scattered by the clouds. But how to do it artificially? Using soft-boxes, diffusers.

Most of Star Trek TNG is shot in fairly soft light. Even the shadowed side of Picards face is very visible

Next onto colour. In general, you want a camera with a decent white-balancing operation. Most cameras come with standard pre-specified white balance settings, although the more professional and high end ones can set a white balance to anything (within reason). But what is white balancing?

Well, your eyes automatically white balance for us. But cameras don’t have that, so they need to know when a colour is meant to be plain white. White balancing needs to be done in every scene – taking special care in high colour settings. For example, when shooting in a green area – woods perhaps, the general image will be green. In order to get a true white though (which is needed if you have any other colour involved – including skin), you’ll need to reset what white is meant to be. How do we do this? Simple. On a high end camera, hold a plain white piece of card/paper/board (it can be anything that is pure white) up in front of the camera and hold the white balance button in. On consumer level devices, do the same, only toggle through the settings until the object turns plain white (or closest setting to it).

The same bell under different types of lighting

Of course, sometimes you want a specific colour tint to your film (although remember to be certain you want to have this, or post-production colouring is not going to be easy), you can use an off-white board instead of a plain white one. Although remember the colour wheel – you’ll need the opposite colour in order to achieve the desired effect.

Lighting can make a lot of difference. You’d be surprised just how much a scene can look improved by playing with lighting – rather than simply relying on natural light.

Oh, and one last bit of advice for this post – if you can do it, try and create a catch light. A catch light is shone into actor’s eyes, not a bright light, but something that will give a little shine making them seem alive. (e.g see Spock above)


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