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Preparing the Scene

As the Director of Photography, you’ll need to form a basic philosophy about location lighting. You’ll want to develop ways of lighting that work in all situations. The following three approaches are essential and will affect most other creative decisions.

Light the Space

When lighting the space, the goal is to make the location look its best. Subjects then move through the lit space and land in predetermined areas that are flattering or scene appropriate. With this approach, the space is the subject you need to light. You might consider this method when the existing light sources in the room are your motivation for the overall look.

You’ll want to block the scene by having the talent or stand-in act out the scene in a practice run. This will give you a picture of how big your set is—not only the performance space, but also the room you need for gear. You should put floor marks down for talent, camera, and sometimes lighting placement. You’ll want to light only what’s necessary to save time, and then develop a strategy for all camera angles and lighting adjustments to accommodate what you need to light.

Ideally, you performed a site survey during the preproduction stage. This should have given you some idea of what lights are needed for the space you are using.

Light the Subject

Lighting the subject is the right approach when you want to achieve the best look for a person. Although it’s not as flexible as lighting the space, it works well for individual portraits or small group shots. You build the portrait and then work in your backgrounds. Subjects have their own optimum lighting treatment, which is dictated by their appearance and the mood or story you are capturing.

Lighting a subject generally requires more lights to work together to create your desired images, so using a stand-in is a great idea. Ideally, you might want to find a person who somewhat resembles your principal talent in height, hair color, skin tone, and so on. But in a pinch anyone will do, and it beats lighting the air! Also, you can work the scene without testing the patience of your real talent. An added advantage is that everyone on the crew gets a rehearsal of the action to come.

A Balance of Both Approaches

Most shoots implement a combination of both philosophies: lighting the space and lighting the subject. Your experience and willingness to experiment will determine the balance. Lighting is all about creating an emotion.

Constantly ask questions that are relevant to your desired outcome. For example, how do I physically achieve certain emotions with all this electricity, metal, glass, and heat? Once you find the fundamental answers, it’ll just become a matter of good-old fashioned problem solving.

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