Video Lighting - Part I
Folks just moving
into video often ask, "What kind of lights should I buy?" Yoicks,
what a loaded question. "It all depends," say I. It depends on the
type of work they want to do, on the style they'll use, and most
importantly, on the amount they want to spend, for lighting kits
can make a major budgetary dent.
I feel very
fortunate to have a big room full of lighting gear at my beck and
call. If 60 Minutes wants me to light the elegant ballroom at the
Russian embassy in Washington for a three-camera interview, then
I can haul out the big guns -- the '200w HMI fixtures that pour
out massive amounts of beautiful daylight. If the Discovery Channel
wants beauty shots of a kitchen in Padua, I have a battery of small
fresnels, with their finely controllable light beams, to shine on
the subject. If 48 Hours wants its usual gritty, hand-held style,
I can leave the lights behind. To have all these tools, all these
alternatives, at my disposal, makes my life as a Director of Photography
a lot easier, and a lot more fun.
So now you're
saying, "Great, Smith just told us how to light for 60 Minutes,
but all I want to shoot is a one-camera talking head with my Canon
GL'." Am I bad?
Here's my recommendation:
Put together a basic three-light tungsten kit. What follows is a
description of a workhorse package that will be compact and cost-effective.
Stick to small
fixtures -- 300w max should do it. Cameras today are so sensitive,
most setups don't require thousands of foot-candles. If you can
afford them, buy fresnels. The design of these lensed-luminaires
give you a lot more beam control than an open-faced light (though
open-face fixtures tend to be cheaper and do provide lots of "punch"
when you need it). For fresnels, I recommend Arri or LTM lights.
For open-face, Lowel Light makes a good range, from '00w to '000w.
A nice fresnel combination would be two 300w and a '50w.
Before we go
any further, you should be aware that a number of manufacturers
sell pre-packaged kits. Buying one of these will save You from having
to create your own set, but sometimes these off-the-shelf units
come with accessories you'll never need or use. Look around to see
what's available. The Arri '50/300 kit has four fixtures and will
do nicely. If compactness is an issue, Lowel makes a neat little
kit called the GO, which comes with two Pro-lights and a V-light,
and stands, all packed into a molded case not much larger than a
By the way,
good stands are worth good money. For compactness and reliability,
I like the Lowel Tota Stand. Both Lowel and Arri make heavier-duty
stands. Bogen/Manfrotto has an extensive range that is well-made
and fairly priced.
Next, get yourself
a nice collection of bells and whistles. I'm talking of clamps and
adapters and flex arms and other stuff known generically as "grip"
gear. Bogen/Manfrotto and Matthews both offer a wide variety. Must-haves
include: Mafer Clamps (also called Superclamps), a pigeon (metal
plate with a 3 - 6" stud) for putting lights on the floor or on
top of a cabinet, a gator clamp (spring-loaded device with light
stud), and a package of wooden clothes pins (to clip gels to barndoors,
among other uses). There are dozens of little grip gadgets you can
buy. On the one hand, you can never have too many. On the other
hand, they can weigh a ton. Purchase prudently.
Assemble a collection
of gel filters. Bogen, Rosco, and Lowel sell pre-packaged gel packs,
usually cut into '0x'2 pieces, or you can buy standard 20x24 sheets
and cut them down yourself. You'll want to have a couple grades
of color correction Blue (Full Blue and BD Blue, at the least),
CTO for warming things up (Full and BD again), some diffusion (Tough
Frost and Tough Spun are both very popular -- get a little of both)
and some "theatrical" colors for special effects (rich blue, green,
and red). Your dealer will be able to help you choose what you need.
Get a couple
of small sheets of foamcore to use as a bounce reflector and, if
necessary, as a "cutter" to help control light. The best are white
on one side, black on the other. You can score a sheet down the
middle, fold it in half, then stick it in the back-flap compartment
most light cases come with. You'll find foamcore at lighting supply
houses or art stores.
A good reflector
is always handy to have. A 24" or 36" White/Silver collapsible unit,
like the FlexFill or BoFlex, will do the job.
you'll need an assortment of extensions and adapters. You should
have at least one 25-foot cable for each fixture. Don't scrimp.
Buy those heavy-duty orange or yellow cables, with '6 gauge wire.
Make sure the connectors are of the grounded three-prong style.
Get a couple of good quality three-way adapters. The molded ones
are the best. And have a handful of 3-to-2 adapters for those houses
that never got modern, grounded electrical systems (there are a
lot of them still out there). Also get a little circuit tester.
One of the neatest is a yellow plug-thingy with lights that show
a completed circuit, and whether or not it ‘s grounded.
the gaffer's tape! And don't just buy any old duct tape. Buy the
good stuff- the Permacel-type cloth gaffer's tape. It's expensive,
but well worth the extra price.
Put all this
neat gear into a nice case -- preferably of lightweight molded plastic.
Lowel has a fine range of lighting cases. I know some cameramen
who use Pelicans, but then they have to carry their stands in a
Now you're all
ready to go out and shoot. But wait! Take note that the kit we just
put together is most suitable for "hard" (direct) lighting. "Soft"
lighting requires a slightly different approach. You'll still need
the things described above, but you'll also need a larger wattage
As you know,
soft lighting implies diffuse light falling upon the subject. This
is achieved in two basic ways: bouncing light and shooting light
through a diffuser (frost gel or a special "softbox"). I use both
techniques, often on the same setup. Because both of these cut down
the intensity of light, they will require employing a larger fixture
for the key-light, something in the 500-750w range. My favorite
luminaire for this application is the Lowel Tota-Light, bulbed to
750w (frosted lamp), and mated to a Chimera Extra Small Video Pro
softbank. The Lowel costs only about $'20, and folds into a compact
unit. The Chimera and mount will cost in the $250 - 350 range. Some
folks I know put the Chimera together with a Lowel Omni Light or
an Arri 650w fresnel. It all boils down to personal choice. But
the light emanating from a Chimera is wonderfully soft and fairly
easy to control.
It can be cheaper
to bounce light off a white card or an umbrella. Lowel makes a lovely
brolly that mounts directly to their Tota and Omni fixtures. The
trouble with using bounce for key is the difficulty controlling
the spread of the beam -- in other words, difficulty keeping unwanted
spill light off the background. For fill, however, I often use one
of my small fresnels bounced off foamcore.
So now you've
got a nice little lighting kit, versatile enough to handle 80% of
your shooting needs. Next time we'll talk about some basic, great-looking