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Lighting for Narrative

  • “Light the set, then turn off half the lights and shoot.”
  • —John S. Bartley, ASC, CSC

In the beginning—the beginning of film, anyway—cinematography, or the lighting of the set, was done by the director, the creative boss of the project. Over time, this role split into the director and the camera operator, and the latter job evolved as new lights and lighting gear were developed into the job of the cinematographer.

To this day, the cinematographer, also called the director of photography (DP, or DoP in Europe), is the closest partner to the director in terms of creating a look for the film and visualizing the script. The cinematographer is not just the head of the camera department; they also head up the grip and electric departments. This overall design is supported by thousands of decisions of what to shoot with and how. All these decisions follow from two related questions: Given the goals of this particular project, what do we want to see (or not see), and how should it look—bright or dark, colorful or washed-out, sharp or soft? This is the plan the DP constructs with the director and then executes.

Control the Image

In the previous chapter we focused (pun intended) on using the camera controls of focus, aperture, white balance, shutter speed, gain, and ISO to control and refine your image to be exactly as you want it. To craft the look of a particular media project, the cinematographer makes a number of choices, including the following:

  • Which camera to use depending on cost, ease of use, durability, image quality, and workflow desired
  • What aperture or exposure level, white balance, and shutter speed to set the camera at to record the scene
  • What length of lens to use to record the scene and whether to use one fixed focal length (prime) lens or a zoom lens
  • What lights to use and where to place them
  • What sort of filters, gels, and scrims to place in front of the lights to control the amount of light falling on the scene as well as the color of it

Masters of Darkness

The cinematographer is the boss of the camera, grip, and electric departments and needs to be clear about how a shot or a scene should look at a particular moment in the story. If your lighting is supposed to be realistic and natural, then you have to ask yourself, where is the light that is illuminating this scene supposed to be coming from? Is it coming from a lamp or the fluorescent lights on the ceiling or from the sun?

The chief lighting technician (CLT) or head electrician of a production is known as the gaffer. The gaffer’s responsibilities include the following:

  • Implementing the lighting design of the DP and the director (and sometimes contributing to that design)
  • Managing and coordinating the lighting crew and gear on set to create whatever lighting effect (lightning, projector flicker, sunset) the DP has called for
  • Delegating some of the responsibility for the proper setting up of lights to their assistant, known as the best boy, who will then oversee the electricians

As a new media creator or as a student, you may not have access to a full range of advanced lighting gear, including light kits, c-stands, flags, and so on. But you’re still going to want to control the lighting to whatever degree you can, both to create the image you have visualized and to match the tone or feeling of the piece.

This can be done in a variety of ways. You might be surprised at the degree to which, with just the lighting options available to you in a typical room, you can create a wide range of lighting conditions that may serve your project well.

Here’s an experiment you can do. Sit your subject (actor) at a table. Plug in a desk lamp or other open bulb light source so that you’re able to move it around the head of your subject. Light sources, like lamps for home use, are called practical light sources, or practicals for short.

First, place the light directly in front of the subject so that the subject is lit from the front and observe the lighting pattern and shadows across the face of your subject. Observe the effect you get from front-lighting your character with single-source lighting (see FIGURE 4.17).


FIGURE 4.17 Single-source lighting from the front

Now, place the lamp on the side of your actor and see what that does to the light level on the near and far side of their face and the shadows that this directional light creates (see FIGURE 4.18). Notice that any motion of the lamp up or down, rotating around the head of your subject, or moving closer or farther away from their face will change the quality of the light falling on them from hard to soft, as well altering as the shape and contrast of the shadows under their chin, nose, and so on.


FIGURE 4.18 Single-source lighting from the side

Now lift your light up above the head of your subject so that it shines directly down onto the subject (see FIGURE 4.19). (If you begin to smell smoke, move it further away from their hair!) See what that does to the brightness levels on the top and bottom of the character’s face as well as the contrast levels of the shadows under their eyes, nose, and mouth.


FIGURE 4.19 Single-source lighting from above

Place the light on the other side of your character’s face and see what that does to the brightness levels on the left and right sides of your character’s face as well as on the shadows.

See whether you can notice any difference when you place the light on one side of the actor’s face as opposed to the other side in terms of creating a more suitable look for your project. Look carefully. Most actors, it is said, have a “good side” of their face, which is preferable to film them on.

Finally, try placing the light under the chin of your actor to get that spooky horror movie look (see FIGURE 4.20).


FIGURE 4.20 Single-source lighting from underneath

By placing the light closer to your actor, you should achieve a softer quality of light on the subject’s face. By placing the light farther away, you should create a harder shadow and a higher contrast or contrast ratio (the ratio between the lightest and darkest portions of their face) across the face of the actor.

Now repeat your experiment if you can with a small work light from a home improvement store and a China ball (aka paper lantern) by placing that on top of your light (see FIGURE 4.21). This creates a nice, omnidirectional soft light that is pleasing for low-light shooting that will really give your work a professional look (see FIGURE 4.22).


FIGURE 4.21 A China ball with a light inside


FIGURE 4.22 Low soft light with a China ball

As you can see, when shooting with digital video cameras, there is a lot you can do to control the lighting design of your scene simply by controlling the light that you have access to by positioning the subject relative to the light sources you cannot move. You can also exert greater lighting control on certain types of shots such as close-ups (CUs) and medium close-ups (MCUs) than you can on wide shots (WSs) in this way.

Your key light in these situations is the main light on your subject. Any other lights that you use to fill in from another direction are naturally called your fill lights.

In the following photos, the actors have been staged and lit as if they are in three different genres or styles of film project: comedy, film noir, and drama. All three shots were staged with available light or one stage light and transformed by simply changing the position of the actors and turning the available lights on or off.

The styles of lighting have different names. Studio lighting has a moderate contrast without domination by dark or light areas of the frame and is used most often in dramas (see FIGURE 4.23).


FIGURE 4.23 Studio lighting—bright and shadowy areas

High key lighting, where the overall lighting of a shot is very bright without a lot of contrast, is mainly used for comedies like Bring It On (2000) or Austin Powers (1997) and most sitcoms (see FIGURE 4.24).


FIGURE 4.24 High key lighting for comedy

Low key lighting frequently uses mainly shadow areas and low light to dominate the frame (see FIGURE 4.25).


FIGURE 4.25 Low key lighting for film noir

All of these philosophies of lighting originated with cinema but remain in use because digital cameras have a dynamic range of up to of 16+ f-stops between the brightest and darkest parts of your frame, allowing high-definition video to be lit like film.

This sensitivity to light lets you see more of your frame without having to light everything. If you’re using lights, you can light your subject more softly without losing picture detail. Best of all, the viewfinder and external monitor will show you immediately what your shot will look like.

How Do We Measure Light? It Moves So Fast!

Lighting professionals on a set will use a variety of light meters to measure the amount of light around their subject, including reflectance meters, which measure the light coming off the subject, and incident meters, which measure the light falling on it (see FIGURE 4.26).


FIGURE 4.26 A digital light meter capable of incident and reflected light metering

Since digital video cameras show you the exact quality of the image that you are going to record on your viewfinder or external monitor, you can rely on what your eyes are showing you as to whether you are recording the quality of light that suits your piece.

If you do find a reason to use a light meter on your media project, once you plug in your ISO and shutter speed, they will show you what aperture to set your lens at by measuring light in footcandles. One footcandle is the amount of light that one candle would throw on an object 1 foot away from it. There are apps for your phone or tablet that are useful light meters we will recommend to you in the appendix (see FIGURE 4.27).


FIGURE 4.27 A screenshot from the Pocket Light Meter iOS app

Just as we discussed using a white card directly in front of the camera lens to set the white balance, you may also want to meter light using an 18% gray card to guarantee accurate and consistent exposure from shot to shot.

Doing a Lot with a Little

Just as with production design, you have a lot of opportunities to control your lighting, even if you’re restricted to using available light. Consider positioning your actor in such a way as to take advantage of the quality and the direction of the light that is available. For instance, the strongest lighting source available to you when shooting outdoors is the sun.

Depending on where your action is staged, your actors might wind up with an exposure problem if the bright light of the sun is behind them. This is called being backlit. The contrast of the brightly lit background and your subjects in the shadowy foreground is too high to get a balance of both areas in the shot (see FIGURE 4.28). Either you bring the exposure up to expose the foreground correctly, thus making the background blown out or overexposed, or you expose for the overall image, leaving your foreground subject in silhouette. If your goal is to show that your character is mysterious and shady (another intended pun), then you’re good to go. If that’s not your intention, by repositioning your actors at a different angle relative to the position of the sun and adding a simple tool to your arsenal, you can light them more successfully, depending on the feeling and tone of your scene.


FIGURE 4.28 An underexposed scene outdoors

Additionally, one of the simplest pieces of lighting equipment to acquire is a bounce board (see FIGURE 4.29), which is either a white, silver, or gold reflective board you can get in a camera store or a foam board or foamcore you can get at an art or office-supply store. You can use it to reflect sunlight in order to add or fill in light to your subject when you’re filming outside or to fill in the shadow so as to provide a pleasing contrast of light on your subject (see FIGURE 4.30).


FIGURE 4.29 Using a bounce board


FIGURE 4.30 More light on the subject

What Color Is Your Light? Using the Kelvin Scale

In the previous chapter we covered the Kelvin scale in regard to setting your white balance on your camera. You may remember that the following values correspond to the most common lighting scenarios:

  • 1,850° K: Candle light (warmer, redder)
  • 3,200° K: Studio lights and flood lights
  • 4,000° K: Late-afternoon sunlight
  • 5,000° K: Fluorescent light
  • 5,600° K: Daylight
  • 6,500° K: Overcast daylight or shadow area on sunny day (cooler, bluer)

Professional film crews have various ways of making the colors of light match when shooting with different types of light sources. They may gel the windows to make the light coming in match the color of the practicals in the room. If you have access to gels, you can do this. Alternately, you can make one of the following accommodations:

  • Choose to restage your actions in an area lit by only one lighting source
  • Use the custom white balance setting and balance on a white card that has a blend of both light sources on it so that neither will appear too far from what the eye would perceive
  • Set your white balance for the area where most of your action plays in the shot and then color correct the other portion during editing (fix it in post!)

If you follow the latter plan or find when watching your footage that the color of the lighting does not match, Apple Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere Elements, and Adobe After Effects, among other editing software, have color correction panels that should enable you to match your footage pretty closely.

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