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Techniques for Controlling the Light

The environment surrounding a subject—the background and foreground—is the key element in creating a multidimensional space on the screen. If portraiture is the sculpture of the face with light, lighting the subject’s space is sculpture on a grander scale. Remember that digital image technology works best when you give it enough of a contrast range to work with. You’ll need to control your light to work with as broad a contrast range as possible without sacrificing details in the highlights and shadows. You can do this in several ways.

Create interest: It’s not always about lighting, especially if you’re short on time and resources. In your initial assessment of a space, try to find interesting features or apply a bit of art direction to create depth and contrast.

Identify physical elements: Color, shapes, and angles fill our world. Look for these elements so you can add lighting to augment, emphasize, or minimize them.

Strike a balance: Creating the right balance of highlights and shadows is the game. A well-placed hot window or shard of stray sunlight can start you off.

Use natural light sources: Look for natural light sources and attempt to use them. Just keep in mind the passage of time because those sources may change during the shoot and cause continuity errors.

Highlight shapes and textures: Try edging an interesting shape (like a plant, sculpture, or doorway) or up lighting a textured surface with dedicated lighting.

Remove lighting: Very often it’s about taking away light; white walls need darkening; stray sunlight needs shaping or even elimination if it’s not going to be consistent.

It is critical to keep the quality and shape of light consistent through your entire scene, which means you’ll need to use the right tools and the right techniques. We’ll continue to explore several lighting fixtures and options throughout this book. But here we explain some essential pieces of equipment and techniques you should use to place and control your lights in a scene. You don’t need all of them to get started, but over time your collection will likely grow.


A solid flag is one of several tools used to shape the light. Generally, a flag is a solid, black cloth in a metal frame that is used to literally cut the light to keep it from lighting anything you don’t want illuminated. Flags come in many sizes, and it’s not uncommon to see a virtual forest of them around a large fixture. A flag is the chisel that sculpts the lighting into the appropriate mood on your set.

You can also use barn door attachments on lights to shape them. These too can isolate the light into a narrower area.


You’ll generally bounce light when you want a soft, less directional source. The hardware used for bouncing comes in several varieties. The gear is typically defined by its surface color, texture, finish, and positioning.

There are a few industry standard tools for bouncing, such as flexfill discs, bead boards, foam core, and reflectors. But the best thing about bounce illumination is that almost anything can be used as a legitimate tool for bouncing light—bed sheets, wooden floors, clothing, newspaper; it all works! Bouncing doesn’t need to be just for soft light. Mirrors of all shapes and sizes are used every day to steer that big beautiful sun onto film sets.

What’s the easiest way to tell if light is bouncing? Just wave your hand in front of a reflector and see if a shadow appears on your background or subject. You should also know if the bouncing introduces any additional color cast on your subject. The color may be desirable, or you may need to adjust the white balance of your camera to compensate.


Softening a directional source is often done by putting some type of material in front of the light to disperse the beam. Broadening the source this way creates a more natural wrap on your subject. The larger diffuser you use, the less “lit” it’s going to look. It also prevents shifting the color of the light (which often happens with dimming).

A good number of fabric and gel materials have been designed and are available for diffusion. Some have sexy names like Opal Tough Frost, Bleached Muslin, or China Silk. Others just use a manufacturer’s number.

Whatever they are called, the name indicates the amount of light dispersal. You can experiment greatly with diffusion. Try combining multiple sources. You can also try diffusion in combination with other techniques, like a bounced source through diffusion. Just remember to keep the mood of the scene in mind.


Nets are another useful light subtraction tool. Although they are similar in appearance to flags, they are less powerful (allowing for greater flexibility). A net is not completely opaque, so it can let some light through. Think of a net as selective exposure control, only it’s being done outside the camera. The light can get through a net, although a lot of those pesky little photons get caught like fish in a drift net.

You can use a single, double, or even triple strength net to lessen the intensity of light on a subject. Add nets to your forest of flags to get more precise control. Nets work well, say, if your actor is wearing a white shirt and you need to reduce its brightness, or if you need to reduce the brightness of an overexposed background.

Color Correcting

Although current camera system menus often have very selective color controls, there is still something organic about manually manipulating your color balance while lighting a set. Sometimes it’s just easier to pin a color-correcting gel on a light and see the results immediately without any electronic middleman.

Color corrections can be done for purely technical reasons (the lamps available don’t match the existing light) or for mood reasons (to create depth and contrast through color layering). Sometimes color correcting is not about gelling but actually replacing a bulb source. This is a very common practice if you are using existing sources (or practicals) in a room but the bulb color temperatures conflict with your desired color palette. Again, you can color correct with the trusty white balance in your camera, but when you want selective, varied color within your scene, it can be a lot easier to make adjustments to the lighting.


The matching process works together with color correction. Very often different fixtures in the same family of lamps do not match in color temperature. Such is the world; however, in an effort to control the mood of a scene, you must decide how much you want variances in color to slide.

Cameras are less forgiving of such differences than the human eye, so you need to make them see like you do. Whatever the discrepancy, there are correction gels in fractured increments (⅛, ¼, ½, full) that bring the renegade lamps into line with their siblings. If conflict is what you desire, then don’t worry about matching the lights! Experience and preference will dictate the adjustments you need to make. But you still want to be technically aware of the impact of temperature. A color meter is a great investment for matching lighting.

You also need to be mindful of lighting changes as you move through a scene and move a camera. If the sources illuminating the scene shift in color, quality, or direction, they can jolt a viewer right out of a story, and that is not good!

The idea is to be invisible with your work, and consistent. You don’t want lighting to look artificial, nor do you want it to shift throughout the day or scene. This can be tricky, especially if you shoot scenes out of sequence by hours or even days. It’s possible that you will need to shoot a scene over the course of several days that lasts onscreen for a few minutes and have it all match as if it happened in moments.

How do you do this? You can use a great tool that you already have in your hand—a still camera! Shoot the setup, the overall set, and whatever you need to document to remember how you shot the earlier pieces. Then you use all the lighting tools at your disposal to shape, control, or duplicate the consistent, invisible lighting.


By controlling the electrical voltage to a light source, you can vary its intensity. Dimmers vary in size and scope, from little household boxes to multichannel computer-controlled boards. You might want to carry a few of the small dimmers (500W or less) to control any practical lamps you may encounter on a set.

For large lights, variable dimmers are available in all ranges to manage the job. Be aware that dimming an incandescent or quartz bulb will also change its color temperature. If that is not desirable, it might be better to control the light intensity by netting or scrimming (little metal nets that go into the fixture to partially block the light).

But be careful what you plug into a dimmer these days! Anything with a ballast will either fry or short out. Specialty dimmers are made for those family of lights and are often built into a ballast, like a Kino Flo or a Dedolight.

Dimmers are even made for neon lights, so you can use that cool beer sign in your background without using lots of messy color-correcting gel. Of course, another treat in motion picture shooting is to use a dimmer control for a variety of on-camera effects. For example, try doing a gradual illumination effect while rolling cameras as an interesting way to open a scene.

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