How You Can Light for HD... Until You Can Afford to Hire Professionals
Photo Credit: S & A
Filmmaker Toolkit

How You Can Light for HD... Until You Can Afford to Hire Professionals


Following up my “How to Shoot HD, Create Art and Not Be Overwhelmed…” piece, now it’s time for you to tackle lighting. Second to poor audio, improper lighting is the surest sign of an amateur production (keep breathing, stay with me). I was hesitant at first to do a post on lighting. I like to keep my advice simple and easily digestible yet, there is nothing simple about lighting. Even when you use one light, the process by which you come to that decision (when made artistically not because you only have one light) is not a simple one.

I also like to to stay free of contradictions, yet even I know the concept of “improper lighting” is terribly subjective.  

So why are we here? Because I like a challenge. Also, lighting is my most enjoyable aspect of being a Cinematographer and it would be a shame not to share that. Every DP’s approach to lighting is very personal, derived from years of observance, practice, trial and many embarrassing errors. Nuances in lighting is what separates a technician from a Master DP. Deconstructing a Vittorio Storaro shot is like dissecting a poem.

Many new filmmakers either have impressive SLRs with a good dynamic range (latitude) and think they can shoot with only available light. Or they have low end HD cameras and overcompensate by using every single light in their Lowel or Arri Kits. Let me guide you to somewhere in between.

As is my custom, I’ll give you some basic rules on how to light for HD. Your job is to learn these rules, apply them, gain some confidence and then break them.

Everyone needs to know how to do Three Point Lighting. There are several tutorials online. However, regardless if you’re shooting a doc, web-series or narrative, you do not have to light every subject this way. Lighting and contrast ratio choices are ultimately about mood and what is most appropriate for the subject. Frequently when I shoot interviews for documentaries, one soft key light is sufficient (Lowel Rifa lights are a good cheap investment). This is because I work with HD cameras with a healthy dynamic range. They can record significant detail in the highlights and shadow areas. If you are shooting with a lower priced “Prosumer” camera, you’ll probably always want a fill light to show detail in your shadow area. Or maybe just the third light, the hairlight, to separate your subject from the background (helpful if you don’t have filmic lenses to create shallow depth of field).

When setting a light, I try to place it a few feet above the actor’s head and tilted down at a 45 degree angle. Not only does this reduce the possibility of an ugly shadow but the actors don’t have to worry about being blinded by your lights.

Have a basic knowledge of color correcting and diffusing your lights. Chances are whatever lights you are using are tungsten balanced. When your camera is set (white balanced) to 3200/light bulb icon, all of your lights (rentals and house lights) will match. If you are shooting near windows, the daylight will look blue. If shooting in a grocery store, hospital etc under fluorescent lights, those overhead lights will look green. If that’s your look? Great. If not, cover your tungsten lights (the Arris, Lowels etc) with a CTB gel to match the daylight and white balance to the 5600k/sun icon. Or put Plus Green gel on your tungsten lights to match the fluorescent and manually white balance using a sheet of white paper. All gels range from Full to ⅛ correction. This is helpful, for instance, if you want an actor to be a little warmer (not bright orange) in comparison to the window light. They give you the option of subtlety. Please note: all gels will reduce the light’s output. Professionals also rent HMI lights which are daylight balanced. We’re not going to go near that. However, do investigate Kino-Flos or Daylight Photoflood bulbs for a budget friendly and relatively easy to manipulate light to match daylight.

Lighting serves two purposes: to either augment what is already there or to add what was never there, thereby creating a mood/atmosphere. I cringe when people say they love “natural lighting” and equate that with using no lights. Obviously, you could shoot a night time exterior scene using no lights and record an image. But to sell the experience to your audience, it’s best (my opinion) to use lights to augment what is there naturally. This is what is meant by “motivated light”: you place a light whose direction and color implies it’s coming from the sun, the moon, the chandelier, candle etc.

If you’re really nervous about lighting a scene either because of your lack of experience, you’re low on skilled crew or low on time, at the very least aim one light with lots of diffusion on your actor/in the scene. Diffusion gels help to hide your light source while still allowing you to add a little “oomph” to your actor. Try to use the biggest light you have access to because diffusion also reduces light output. Every Cinematographer has their favorite diffusions. My gaffers could rattle mine off in their sleep. To get your feet wet, buy some 216, 250 and Opal. Most gels are available by sheets or by the roll. Purchase according to your budget.

Another “diffusion” option is to use Paper Lanterns with either a household bulb or photoflood bulb inside. They’re relatively easy to assemble and can be placed just out of frame as a soft key light or to mimic an overhead lamp. Be careful if the wattage of the bulb is high and the lantern circumference is small. The paper lantern can burn.

Get a Lee or Rosco Gel book to learn of all of your color correction, party gel and diffusion options. Party gels help you to create a light source that may seem unnatural or unmotivated  but captures the intended romantic/scary/mysterious/unearthly mood.

You will never fix “it” in post. The best Colorist collaborate with the DP and Director and build upon what was originally lit. That’s how we create art. Yes, a Colorist can correct a lighting mishap but that takes considerable time and money, which I assume you do not have. (I will write a post in the near future about how to prepare for the Digital Intermediate and communicate with your Colorist.)

Learn to think like a Grip. In addition to operating camera support (dollies, jibs), Grips also handle all non-electrictrical equipment to modify your lights and ensure a safe set. Grips are also the best problem solvers. Some suggestions that might come from a grip: black out the windows so you don’t have to worry about competing color temperatures, angling a mirror to redirect the sunlight to elsewhere on set, placing a Silk (type of diffusion) in between your actor and the sun to reduce contrast or put your lights on stands with wheels so the light can move alongside an actor. Sometimes the best, cheapest and fastest way to light a scene is eliminate lights. A possible book to flip through is “The Grip Book” by Michael Uva.

Pre-production is your best friend. Location scouting is key. At the very least, know what practical lights are already at each location, which way the windows face (I always bring a compass with me to scouts) and how much electricity is available. Until lighting is second nature, I strongly urge you to create lighting diagrams for each scene: where you expect the camera to be, where you’d place each light and with what gel. This will save you time and simplify communication with your crew during the shoot. If you have access to the location prior to shooting, you can “pre-rig” meaning place most of your lights ahead of time. It’s less stressful and gives you time to play with different lighting concepts. If you have a comfort level with light meters, then I’d advise you look up footcandle charts for all of your lights.

Whenever possible, watch a full rehearsal and practice any camera moves before deciding upon placement of your lights.

Low budget is never an excuse. Whenever I’ve taught lighting, either at CCNY or during my workshops in Nigeria or Belize, I’ve played a game with my students: Name 20 different light sources that cost $5 or under. We always hit at least 20, sometimes more. The whole point of the exercise is to recognize the resources all around you. I won’t give you all 20 but will start you off: sun, car headlights, refrigerator light.

No matter what, I can not overemphasize the importance of safety. Place sandbags on your stands. Know what is meant by “lefty loosey, tighty righty”. Have safeties on all lights hanging from above or in a precarious position. Another excellent book is “Set Lighting Technician’s Handbook” by Harry Box. It might be too advanced, but it is an excellent resource.

Follow me on Twitter at @CybelDP

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