So far in this series, I have stressed some of my own preferences for good portrait lighting; using Fresnel lamps for key lights to enable accurate barn dooring, minimum spill light and an even ‘field’ of light. Open faced lamps, whilst cheaper, do not give the same control of light, they give rise to double shadows and are also prone to bubble failure if jolted whilst hot.
I keep on emphasising how important it is to get light in the eyes; 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 judge someone’s reaction or mood. Think how difficult it is talking to someone who is wearing dark glasses. Television is in that respect, no different. In fact it’s even more important because as a viewer you are one step removed and only looking at an image.
I need to say something about coping with tricky high contrast situations such as an interviewee with his back to a window. But before you even lift a lamp out of your kit, ask yourselves the following questions.
Have you got the option to choose the window that’s good for your shots? If so, avoid windows facing south or ones through which sunshine gets in at the time of your shoot. North is generally best, in that you will have at least the light coming into the room will be of a reasonable contrast ratio and will be of a pretty uniform colour temperature. Not if there’s a big white building nearby, though.
Assuming it’s daytime is it: sunny, cloudy or a bit of both?
Maybe it’s an evening or winter shoot, if so is the light outside street light or moonlight?
What is the nature of the existing light within the room? Is it reflected daylight, tungsten, fluorescent or a combination of these? Of these options, it’s probably obvious that mixed colour light is going to be trickier than just daylight. Can you turn off the interior office lighting and just use your kit to produce a nice balance within the area of the shot? That is one instance when an open faced lap can be bounced off the ceiling to give a pseudo ‘office’ feel whilst being under your control. Colour corrected gel sleeves can be bought for sliding over the fluorescent tubes but of course there’s a cost and time implication.
A good first step is to get the camera on your tripod and look at the shot before you do anything else. The choice here is to either: expose for the “outside world” in which case the artist will need light on him/her? Or, expose for the artist, in which case the window will need “taking down” in brightness and adjusting for colour temperature. The advantage of the latter is that you may be able to avoid using lighting kit altogether, although the time saved will be spent on sorting the ND and possibly CTO correction on the windows.
I suggest that you set your iris for the scene outside of the window. I would favour bright, but still ‘readable’ as trees, buildings etc. That has set your ‘bottom line’ in effect. Now look at your subject area and start to assess just how much light you need to add. If that looks a bit beyond your tiny kit, can you ND the window? Not all of it, just the part that the camera sees. This technique applies to whichever solution you adopt. Always remember that you are applying ND filters to a window to adjust the brightness of what is seen, the rest of the window is a source of useful light for your shot. Indeed, if you correct the whole window you are almost back where you started!
I think there is nothing worse than seeing someone sat back to a window where there is no back light on his/her hair. It looks so artificial! OK, I think I’ve made my point but I can’t stress the importance of keeping the light on your subject looking as natural as possible.
I guess my experience working on location drama has influenced my approach to single camera lighting quite a lot. In that domain, if it looks ‘lit’ then it’s ‘wrong’. Or as in the case just described of no backlight even though backed by a large, obvious source of light, then that’s a ‘wrong’ too. So if that’s wrong, what’s right?
One of the first things you should be aware of in any room with windows in a single wall is that the darkest wall is invariably the window wall. A fairly simple observation but an important one in that it’s a good idea to try and keep it that way when you light your Mr Big at his desk. How many of you have had to be interviewed for a job when the interviewer(s) have craftily sat with their backs to the window leaving you to squint whilst they can see every nuance of your discomfort? The obvious conclusion you might come to (if you have read my previous articles) is that a fresnel lamp (or similar) with barn doors, will enable you to keep stray light off the walls whilst lighting the subject so that his/her eyes can clearly be seen. It will also minimise any reflection in the window.
Yes, but. The but being that you will end up with a neat, portraiture type of nose shadow which will shout: ‘lit’. There are a few options on what you can do to get you out of ‘wrong’ free. You could use one of the variations of ‘tough spun’ clipped on the barn doors, but then I wouldn’t speak to you again! It’s my least favourite filter material and for me, it has the worst characteristics of both worlds. It doesn’t really soften the light in an acceptable way in that the multiple shadows from your open faced lamp are still multiple shadows, with the additional disadvantage that the front of the spun will now have become a secondary source and will just cause it to go everywhere. Lost control, bad scenario. It’s only advantages are that it is soft, fire resistant and doesn’t ‘rattle’ in the wind.
Alternatively, you could put something like ‘brushed silk’ (LEE 226 or ROSCO 104) across the barn doors with the ‘lines’ vertical. This works a bit like the diffraction grating that I remember from ‘A’ level Physics in that it spreads the light sideways from a point source making, in effect, a wider source. Difficult to describe if you haven’t actually used it, but it should definitely be in your kit if it isn’t already. It will even make an open faced lamp such as a redhead useful in that it masks the multiple images that an un-filtered lamp produces. Having said earlier that I would not use open faced lamps as keylights, there is another exception to my ‘rule’ and that is when it is fitted with a chimera.
A chimera transforms an open faced lamp into one which gives a nice soft source which clearly can be used on location to light your Mr Big. It is oblong in shape and has some directional properties but it will inevitably ‘spill’ onto the wall behind. The secret to this is to position it as close to the face as possible whilst just being out of shot. The inverse square law will do the rest. To reduce the reflection problem, try coming in from the left if the window is on the right, and vice versa. If you do that, you will then have the shadow side of the face against the window. Then, if you have set up the shot as described earlier with only part of the window visible, you can either use the unfiltered part of the window to provide a ‘kicker’ or use a lamp just out of shot with some half CTB to give the same effect. That gives you a neat soft key and kicker. Two lamps at most and a believable result.
Which brings me neatly onto reflectors. I always have a few home made reflectors to hand. They have been around for many years in various shapes and sizes but for the lighting cameraman/woman you can do a lot worse than make your own out of easily obtainable and inexpensive materials.
If the window behind Mr Big is large enough, you can catch some of that light with a ‘mirror’ reflector. That is using typically LEE or ROSCO 271 glued (or using double sided tape) to a piece of lightweight model making board that you can buy from any craft type of shop. Assuming that the window is north(ish) facing, a mirror surface will ‘convert’ that soft source of light into diffused hard light which approximates to an open faced lamp firing through a Chimera type lamp. Just think about that, you now have the possibility of lighting Mr Big using inexpensive and low carbon techniques! The really important thing to remember about using reflectors is the way the light quality is converted. A mirror surface is most useful for a soft source whilst a ‘soft silver’ reflector is at its best when reflecting a hard source. Easiest to understand when seen in a practical situation.
The decisions you make will be partly on a practical basis and partially on a creative one. If you have very little time for whatever reason, you will have to do a ‘quick fix’. It might be a question of simply drawing curtains or blinds or maybe moving an interviewee to a position where the background is not a window. These are all ‘cheats’ but sometimes they have to be done!
If the shot of the interviewee has just a touch of window at the edge of frame, this will still tell the viewer that a window is there and will provide a nice ‘kick’ down the side of the face which reinforces the fact. If that is the only window and you don’t have a lamp readily available, all that is required is a ‘mirror’ reflector to catch the window light and reflect it onto the interviewees face.
Let’s take time now to analyse that ambient light a little more. If the room is lit by natural daylight through the window, several aspects of this light need to be noted that are usually taken for granted. Look around the room in which you are now and analyse the light distribution. Look at the different effects from different windows, the shading in the corners and towards the top of the walls. Get a feel for light and the way rooms are lit.
A cloudy day will produce a large soft source of even, highish colour temperature. The window wall will be the darkest wall in the room, and the other walls will be darker at the top than at the bottom. The intensity of illumination within the room will be quite low. As a result less correction on the window will be required.
A sunny day will produce a large soft source of high colour temperature (blue sky) as well as a very bright hardish source (the sun!) of lower colour temperature (5600K), which will produce fairly hard shadows in the room. The nature of the shadows will be further conditioned by the nature of the glass or any blinds or net curtains. The walls will be as in the cloudy day example above, except that the sun will, by virtue of its extreme brightness, create other effective light sources within the room, wherever it ‘lands’. For example a red carpet will cause some red ‘up lighting’; not ideal.
In a mixed light situation should I correct for any variations in colour between the different colours of light? If I do, should I correct “all the way” or partially? It depends. It depends on your chosen camera operating point for a start. Assuming that the dominant light (keylight) is under your control, you could white balance to a white card held near the face position. Any light of a different colour will probably be coming from behind and will probably be less objectionable in the form of a bluish backlight or kicker.
I now realise after writing these six articles that my title for this series of articles has been a bit of a misnomer. ‘All you need to know about lighting’ is a combination of the ground rules that have been covered so far and a mass of practice and experience. A ‘hands on’ Lighting workshop is the necessary next step from the theory. There is no substitute for actually doing the lighting yourself, placing lamps and reflectors, gaffer taping blackwrap, gelling windows and, most importantly seeing the results on a small colour monitor.
My own BBC experience has mostly been in lighting for multi camera work in studio and location. That’s probably beyond the interest and scope of this magazine so I reckon its time for me to wind things up. I do hope the forgoing articles have been interesting and useful as a kind of lighting aperitif. On a recent training course that I helped run, all the delegates soon came to realise just how useful a monitor (as opposed to a viewfinder) was in setting up and assessing a lighting set-up. Yes, they’re quite pricey, but if you want to improve your craft skills, it’s the way to go and they are for sale in these pages.