Steve Smith

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 PortaBrace bag.

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.

Electrically, 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.

Don't forget 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 separate case.

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 luminaire.

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 lighting setups.

Steve Smith