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Creating Video with Your DSLR: Playing with the Light: Bringing Your Subject to Life

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In this chapter, you’ll explore the power of light to evoke feelings. This begins your journey of playing with the light: Be prepared to change how you approach the subject.
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You walk into a location with a scene in mind. You’ve seen it on paper, talked about it in numerous discussions, and now you have the physical space in front of you. This is where your project comes alive.

The space will need some type of illumination. Whether it’s for artistic or technical reasons (or even a little of both) you’ll need to adjust the light in the space you’re shooting. Through your efforts, you will shape, focus, and direct the light to get the desired results.


From the perspective of a videographer, lighting is the most effective tool for telling a story photographically. An incredibly varied and versatile tool, light is the principal filter through which you’ll interpret your story.

Start your approach to a scene with the lighting in mind. Although it may seem intangible, we like to start from an emotive angle: Determine the mood and theme that needs to be created. Should it be sadness or joy? Fear or anger? Even though it may seem a little removed from the technical side of shaping light, you need to have an emotional response in mind.

Next, try to attach more tangible concepts to these emotions so you can bridge the gap between the story concepts and the physical world. You need to connect the emotions to your scene by deciding where they need to be staged in terms of light. Should the lighting be cool or warm? Soft or harsh? Industrial, gray, radiant, flat, directional, shadowed? Well, you get the idea. Make these decisions before you think about any practical lighting or technical approach. You can likely determine your lighting mood before you even see the location.

These days a lighting setup can be created from scratch. Lighting plans only need to follow one simple rule—make the subject look good. Consider this an opportunity to unleash your creative visions and draw on your knowledge of how light works.

In this chapter, you’ll explore the power of light to evoke feelings. This begins your journey of playing with the light: Be prepared to change how you approach the subject.

Think Fast and Go with Your Gut

You walk onto your set; now what? Welcome to the first physical manifestation of all the ideas and concepts you’ve been kicking around in your head. Truth be told, it’s very easy to become overwhelmed when trying to decide how to light a location. The natural tendency of most when presented with a blank canvas is to pause.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Let’s take a look at a practical approach to breaking down a location and lighting a scene. You’ll begin by making a few observations.

Analyze the Room

Before you start adding light, determine what you have to work with. What is the quality of the light in the room to begin with? Is it indirect? Harsh? Flat? Soft? What is the color temperature? Is it warm or cool?

Walk around the space and identify the current light sources in the room. Are there any practical light sources like lamps? Is the room plagued by mixed sources, such as fluorescent lighting with large windows?

The big decision you need to make is whether you want to completely create your lighting approach from scratch or if you want to augment the existing sources. Be sure to always analyze the light that already exists in your location. It is often a lot easier to work with what you have than to try to fight against it.

Consider the Action

You must consider the action that is being staged, or covered, when lighting. Where best can you play it out? Can you control the action of the scene, or is it unpredictable like a sporting event? Will it be static or moving? The events you are shooting will provide you with clues about a lighting plan. If subjects are moving, will they cast shadows? Does the action move from indoors to outdoors? The more you know about what’s happening in front of the lens, the better you can make the scene look through lighting.

Determine the Mood

You must consider the appropriate mood for the scene. Will the existing environment or an alternative time of day motivate it? Can it be manufactured or manipulated by the production? How long does the mood need to last? For short periods of time, you can use natural lighting sources without having to worry about continuity. Longer shooting times mean controlled lighting (the sun tends to move on you). Condensing hours of shooting into a few minutes of screen time where the lighting matches throughout is a true skill. This is a real departure from still photography and is the essence of great camera operators. Keep in mind that lighting should enhance performances without being overly noticed.

Establish a Schedule

Evaluate time and resources compared to the amount of lighting coverage needed. It’s all about relative equations: The more time and resources you have to expend, the more controllable the coverage. As allotted time and crew size decrease, compromises need to be made in either quality or quantity of lighting coverage.

There’s a balance between the two (but it might take a “polite” argument to find it). You’ll need to reach an agreement with your client or the director as to how much time can be spent lighting each angle within a scene. These decisions should be based on the evaluation of the space (it’s always a matter of negotiation).

Work the Room

Now it’s time to place your lighting sources to get the desired effect. Lights can be placed outside through the windows or get rigged in the ceiling. Lights can be set on stands or walked in and out on cue by crew members. They can be visible practicals (such as lamps) or even placed on the floor. They can be bounced, flickered, dimmed, colored, diffused, and so on. Your decisions are motivated simply by what works. Choices can be made for tangible reasons, like the camera needs to see 360 degrees, so you’ll have to hang your lights. Or your choices can be based on your observations of the natural movements of light bouncing around in a room that indicate the light is more pleasing coming off the warm hardwood floor than gray linoleum ceilings.

Where your lights go will determine how much time and how many resources you’ll need to light the scene. There are pros and cons to each scenario. Setting up a difficult, time-consuming lighting rig may enable you to cover a scene in a single shot that sees in multiple directions. As a result, the time spent setting the rig ultimately becomes a time-saver in terms of allowing you to light the room only once.

Making ’em Look Good

One important consideration when lighting is getting the optimum quality of light on your subject’s face. Decide how you want the light to wrap around your subject’s face: Should the subject’s face be broad or narrow? Hard and chiseled? Soft and shadowless?

The eyes are essential because they evoke all expression. So when you’re lighting the face, the eyes should be your starting point. The face provides you with clues to the placement of the key light. Here are a few lighting suggestions:

  • Broad sourcing (which leaves a large area of the frame open for motion) puts the key on the eye-line side of the camera. This works well for narrow, angular faces.
  • For a fuller face, try a narrow side key (the opposite side of the eye-line).
  • Look at the quality of the skin. Is it oily or reflective? What is the subject’s skin tone? Is it smooth or pockmarked? All these surface features have an impact on your lighting choices.
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