Everything you ever wanted to know about TV lighting Part 3


Back in time in the days of monochrome TV, portrait lighting was used to try and compensate for the lack of colour in those days of flickering 405 line pictures on tiny screens. The other consideration was to compensate for the lack of depth; the missing dimension from our TV screens.

When colour TV came along in the 1960’s, pictures looked more real, but the illusion of depth was (and currently still is) absent, so the lighting cameraman can still use light to indicate shape, form, tonal contrast and surface texture which all helps to overcome that shortcoming. Having said that, I was lucky enough to visit NAB at Las Vegas this year and saw for myself some absolutely stunning HD sequences in 3D. It’s on the way…

Careful lighting can even make a flat surface look as though it is three dimensional, so there is much scope here for a lighting person. Just as important is the ability to light a three dimensional shape (a head) so that it doesn’t look flat.

TV is an expensive business as we all know. Even when we have all the kit and we’ve travelled to our location, arranged parking, access, security and permissions for this and that, it’s the Artist or Presenter or a V.I.P. that the viewer is expecting to see. They are ‘the money’ and it’s down to us humble lighting people to do our best in making them look their best in circumstances that may be only partly under your control.

A colleague and friend of mine, when lecturing to groups of lighting trainees always used to say: “Light and SHADE!” the emphasis being on shade. It’s the shadowy areas that make the interest in most pictures. Without shade, pictures would be ‘flat’, uninteresting and downright boring!Illumination is easy, lighting is the craft that we are pursuing. The greater the shadow areas, the more solid and three-dimensional will the subject appear on our flat screens.

Choice of kit

What lamps do you have in your kit? Open faced lamps such as the ubiquitous ‘Redhead’ or ‘Blonde’ have the advantage of low weight and cost, but they do not produce a particularly even beam or have good barn door control. They are great
for lighting surfaces to provide soft light, but personally, I would never use one for lighting a face.
A fresnel lens gives a much better quality of light for the purpose of producing quality portraiture. When I run training workshops, I always demonstrate a fresnel lamp alongside an open faced lamp to show the differences in quality. I suggest you try it yourself; you will immediately see the differences.

On location, different parameters come into play, but I would still always want to light a face with a Fresnel lensed lamp or possibly a lamp such as the excellent Dedolight. It has clever optics which result in a very even field of light, a fantastic spot to flood ratio and barn doors that work really well. The low voltage versions run cool and are inherently more efficient than the 220 volt heads.

Modelling of the subject

At this stage, I think I ought to recite my own personal mantra: one lamp, one function. Which takes us on to the question: How many lamps do we need to light ‘the talent’? The answer is not writ in tablets of stone, but I would like three. Yes, you can get away with one lamp, but that’s going to be ‘illumination’ rather than ‘lighting’. The lighting will be ‘flat’ because inevitably your lamp will be quite frontal and I guess any reader who has stayed with me so far is going to want much more out of his/her lighting than that.

Ideally, that first lamp is used to light the face (and body). Commonly known as the ‘key’ light because in essence it’s rather like a key stone in a stone archway; without it your lighting will almost certainly fall down! So where to position that first lamp?

Communication between two human beings is largely through eye to eye contact. If in a conversation you can’t see somebody’s eyes, it is extremely difficult to communicate effectively. Think how difficult it is talking to someone who is wearing dark glasses. Television is in that respect, no different. A politician or any professional performer would not thank you for dark eye sockets. In fact, some of you may remember that just a couple of years ago, a senior government minister was interviewed on location for BBC Newsnight and the lighting was, in my humble opinion appalling. Not just my opinion, but when the leader of the opposition appeared on the same programme later in the week, the lighting was infinitely better. It actually made a news item in the Times: a different lighting person had been hired.

A long time ago, I read a book on lighting (still in print!) which talks of angles, clock faces and detail that was generally confusing to me at the time. With the benefit of experience and hindsight, I prefer to simplify things. You don’t need a protractor or theodolite to light someone well.

Not too steep!

Use your eyes and then the camera to determine the vertical angle of the key light, not a protractor! Remember that the key light should always get into both eyes. You’ll know this when you see a catch light in both eyes. People’s faces are all different, of course, and you will need to suss out subtle differences looking for crooked noses, asymmetric eyelines, deepset eyes, moles etc. If you have choice in key light position put it where it will minimise any of these ‘defects’ by lighting into them. In other words, be aware of how your lighting can minimise undesirable features whilst emphasising good features.

The easy way to set the height of a key light is to sit in and take the eye line that you expect toward camera or guest as appropriate. Then, without moving your head, flick your eyes up toward the key light. If you can sense light getting into both eyes, then there’s a fair chance that it will do the same with the artist in question. I like the light to be just coming below my eyebrows and the glazing bars of my spectacles.

Although I learnt this simple technique in a studio situation, it follows that it works just as well on location.

These are things that would not normally cause concern in a casual meeting or conversation, but your lighting can emphasise or reduce such defects.

Experience will tell you how much to allow for your guest. You will find that some people who are unaccustomed to appearing on television will sit in and consciously try to keep the light out of their eyes. They also have a tendency to adopt a position where their eyeline is a little more ‘downstage’ than a professional. That might need you to bring their key light downstage a little or maybe lower it slightly to make sure that you get those all important catch lights.

Ministers and VIP’s will often have been trained for just such a situation and will know that they have to take their position and look to their interviewer for the lighting to be best for them.

If you have any choice, avoid wheeled office chairs! If you give the talent the ability to move around at will, they certainly will and bang goes any chance of consistent lighting.

Not too sidey?


For instance, using the keylight to produce shadows on the wider side of an asymmetrical face will have a slimming effect on that face. Conversely, coming in with your key light on the wider side of the face will accentuate the asymmetry. Ladies in particular will be aware of the effect of lighting on their face. In fact, many leading actresses have stipulation in their contracts as to the lighting and even camera angles.

By now, you have chosen a position both horizontally and vertically to suit the artist. On camera, you have should have a well modelled face with catch lights in both eyes. Let’s now look at ‘what if’.

In a nutshell

If the lamp is too high, you may well have dark eye sockets, elongated nose and chin shadows. Always remember that we communicate with our eyes.

If the lamp is to low, there is likely to be a shadow of the artist on the set and it will probably be dazzling to the person concerned. Some presenters cope better than others but it can make it impossible to read Autocue screens. It’s a bit like trying to read a car number plate at night when the headlamps are full on to you!

If the light is too frontal, all modelling disappears and we are back to an ‘illumination’ scenario. However, in many news studios frontal lighting is fine and often necessary with multiple artist positions sat at a large desk.


In my next article, I’m going to build on what we have achieved with that all important key light. Back light, kicker, fill, contrast control and how they all interact with each other.



Tags: lighting | iss024 | redhead | blonde | fresnel lens | dedolight | key light | N/A
Contributing Author N/A

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