Preview, Chapter 8 Lighting, from ‘Run ‘N Gun’ Videography

Ok,  I can’t stand it anymore.

My broadband has been down for a month (now fixed) and I’d been wanting to publish another preview to ‘Run ‘N Gun Videography–the Sole Shooters Survival Guide’, but I’m hung up on the one I wanted to publish as I can’t yet publish the video that goes along with it.

Thanks all for the great feedback on the chapters I’ve released so far. There will be over 25 chapters, so no worries yet about pre-publishing the entire book on this blog like this. But I will do at least two more.

This one is in its entirety (minus illustrations which is what I have to work on next along with the design, cover, etc.). I did however drop in one picture here that will be in the book.

I’ve been being asked how to order the book. There will be a link here, of course, but that will come once it’s actually published to Amazon as an eBook for about £20 (or should it be £19.95?). I believe you will be able to order it as a hardcopy as well, but I’ll know more once I get into that part of the process.

Anyway, here’s a chapter that can be put to immediate effective use in your run ‘n gun corporate videos (or whatever else you do!)

 

Chapter 8  Lighting

Lighting is considered the lifeblood of cinematography.

In Hollywood, the ‘Director of Photography’ or ‘Cinematographer’ is primarily concerned with the lighting and exposure of the scene, not the camerawork.

To be fair, the two are practically inseparable. But then, so are all the other departments. Yet there is a very personal relationship between camera and lighting.

You’ve all seen dramatizations of the stereotypical Director of Photography walking around a set or through life holding his fingers in front of his eyes in such a way as to frame the world that he sees.

On the set, as far as camera goes, the frame that is arrived at is vital. It tells everyone in every other department, what will be seen and from what perspective. It also tells them what will not be seen.  How it will be seen or perceived is largely due to lighting.

The screen upon which the film or video will eventually be viewed (and probably for a long time to come, despite the rapid advance of technology) is FLAT.  Ok, there are curved screens now to further the illusion of depth, but they are still 2 dimensional. For all intent and purposes, it’s a flat screen.

You are all familiar with types of art in the world of painting that are essentially two-dimensional line-art. While there are many examples, possibly the most familiar is what you would see on the walls in your favorite oriental restaurant.

On the other hand there is art that specializes in great depth and perspective, lending a very convincing 3 dimensional effect to what is clearly a 2 dimensional plane.

Rembrandt was one of the first to truly popularize this illusion of 3 dimensionality achieved through the simulation of light and shadow, and indeed, one of the most enduring types of portrait lighting used in cinematography, videography and photography today is called “Rembrandt Lighting”.

It is lighting, possibly more than anything else, that creates atmosphere, mood and depth in photography, cinematography and videography. That is to say, it has the potential of doing so.

To be sure, there is “bad lighting” and “good lighting”. You know it’s good when you see it. And when it’s bad, you might not realize it’s the lighting at fault, but you’ll probably be unimpressed by the film.

In the early days of TV, video cameras required a relatively high light level for proper exposure and weren’t very good at rendering contrast either. TV studios were typically flooded by light from all directions and this became known as “TV lighting” which is not a flattering term.  There was little or no lighting direction, little or no shadows, and little or no separation of subject to background. It also made it easy to shoot from multiple cameras all over the set at the same time. It was the “MacDonalds” of film production, also not a flattering description when it comes to good cuisine.

Motion pictures, on the other hand, were done (and are still done) shot by shot, each shot a completely different set-up with everything tailored to the particular camera angle.

If you recall some of the early Hollywood black and white classics, you would at once notice a dramatic difference in the lighting compared with “TV lighting”. Next time you see one, take a moment to study the complexities of light and shadow in any given scene and compare that with any modern TV sit com.

It was more than that though. Because they were shooting in Black and White, tonal separation was achieved solely through a total command of the subject of reflectance.  A theoretical ‘total white’ would reflect back 100% of the light hitting it. Conversely, a theoretical ‘total black’ would reflect back no light. In between there is a theoretical infinite range of different reflectances of all colors as rendered in black and white film. Therefore the masters of black and white films did extensive testing of all fabrics and paints before committing anything to film. It was at that point that lighting took over to complete the look that we all recognize as classic black and white.

Interestingly, when color film came into being, lighting suffered somewhat as now it was easy to achieve tonal separation of subject from background with color alone.

So some of the early color films were pretty crappy, technically speaking.

Crap quality, however, does not endure, and it was not long before great lighting was married up with color film. Most of the good films of the last three decades have a great director of photography on board whose principle job—as mentioned earlier—is lighting design.

It wasn’t until some Hollywood film crews brought the discipline of cinematography to television that the bad habit of TV lighting began to change.

I think in the U.S. one of the first televisions shows to do this was “Hill Street Blues” in 1981, an award winning and long running series following daily life in a New York police precinct. That was a Hollywood film crew. Not only was the lighting good, but they introduced a choreography of moving camerawork within the busy police precinct that was truly impressive—all the more so because moving cameras following moving actors put great strain on the lighting crews. But they pulled it off so successfully that it’s become the norm for television police dramas throughout the world ever since.

In my opinion, the Danish series “The Killing” is the pinnacle of filming excellence in all departments, but many other similar shows in the UK,  Europe and the US have attained similar cinematic excellence, and ALL of them have great lighting.

Ok, let’s get down to earth. I know what you’re thinking. What does this have to do with run ’n gun videography? You’re obviously not going to be running around with a huge lighting crew with 85,000 watts at their disposal.

I used to and now I travel with three fluoro lights totaling a whopping 375 watts. So what’s the point?

First of all, there will be no attempt in this chapter to cover the intricacies of lighting. There is a massive text on the subject called “Techniques of Lighting for Television and Film” by Gerald Millerson, whose book on lighting is probably the original lighting bible for Hollywood.

Interestingly it was not written by a person who had ever lit a set in his life. It was written, however, by a consummate researcher who studied the subject of film lighting over several decades and codified the subject. If ever there was a definitive book on the history and technology of cinematic lighting, this book was it.  While I would encourage any serious film maker or corporate videographer to read it, what I want to accomplish in this chapter for the run ’n gun shooter is two things:

  1. A realization and appreciation of the fact that lighting is a vitally important element of any production.
  2. What you can and should do to with minimal kit and resources to maximize the potential of lighting in any given run ’n gun circumstance.

So let’s draw out two important elements of lighting that can be applied no matter the circumstances:

  1. It is the relationship between light and shade in a two dimensional plane that creates the illusion of 3 dimensionality;
  2. Lighting contrast ratio from subject to background is as important a factor in the creation of depth and 3 dimensionality as the modeling and contrast ratio of the subject.

Practically speaking, in most corporate shoots, with the exception of interview lighting, most of the B roll that you will shoot will be with existing lighting whether it’s overhead fluorescent lighting, skylights, windows, open loading dock doors or a combination of any of these.

Sometimes when shooting a plant or office interiors, it’s helpful to have at least a single light that can be used to give some lighting direction or effect to a foreground subject. It’s not too difficult to have a single lightweight lamp at hand. But in truth, most of the time, due to the speed you will be shooting at and due to the fact that most of what you will be shooting will have little screen time, you’ll deal with existing lighting conditions.

Most modern cameras are sensitive enough to make just about any scene look good.

Furthermore, the sole shooter simply won’t have enough horsepower, in terms of lighting, to create any advantage with supplemental lighting in a medium or long shot. You can’t really compete with sun coming through windows or skylights in a medium or long shot with anything less than a set of 5 or 10 thousand watt lamps and those are not things you’re going to be carrying around.

But as most corporate shoots involve some sort of interview shots, be it representatives of the company or testimonials of customers that give you your narrative content, this is the one area you do have control over in terms of lighting because you’re dealing with a relatively small frame size. And this is the one area you can make look much more polished and professional than those who don’t even bother with lighting interview shots.

In my opinion, it is the lighting of interview shots that separates the professionals from amateurs in any corporate video I have ever seen.

Amateurs use whatever is there, and often don’t even use what’s there to the best advantage. The results are rather drab looking shots where the featured talent is not separated from the background, has no facial modeling, no lighting direction, no mood and no pizzaz at best. At worst, steep overhead lighting from existing fluoros create dark eye sockets or other ambient lighting sources create distracting shadow patterns on the subject or a host of other problems that result in an unattractive looking image or even a revolting one.

But that doesn’t mean any lighting is better than no lighting, because lighting can also be done so poorly that it creates the same effect as no lighting.

The point is, with knowledge of basic lighting, there are things a lone shooter can do easily and quickly make a scene look better with correctly and judiciously place lights or by turning off, blocking or changing the character of existing light.

“Lighting” is as much placing lights to create an effect as it is preventing unwanted light from hitting the subject or background.

So let’s look a little closer at the fundamentals of lighting.

Contrast Ratio

This is something I’ve rarely seen covered in lighting tutorials, yet it is a fundamental building block of all lighting, so it’s worth knowing. It’s also fun.

Please bear with me on this. I’m not a mathematician and I’m not trying to impress you with numbers. This is simply the language of lighting exposure. It’s not hard to understand, but it is important that you do understand it. Once you do, a lot of things make sense and you’ll find it very easy to create just about any effect or mood you want to.  So if in what follows you feel at any time that you’re starting to lose the plot, slow down, read it over again, think of real examples or whatever you need to do to realize the simplicity of what I’m talking about here. Deal? (And those of you already familiar with these principles, there still may be a trick or two following that may be helpful).

For simplicity, let’s first consider a single, focused halogen light hitting a human face from the side in an otherwise dark room.

“Contrast ratio” refers to the ratio between the lit part of the face and the shadowed part.

For purposes of example, let’s consider that we’re shooting in a black room. Because there is no ambient light from any other source, the only light that will hit the shadowed area would some light bouncing off the walls from the main light source which would be very little as there will be very little bounce light in a black room. Therefore the ratio between light and shadow is likely to be 32:1 or greater.  The bright portion will be at least 32 times brighter than the shadowed portion. The shadowed portion will be at least 1/32nd the brightness of the lit portion.

This would be a very dramatic looking scene.

In actual fact, at a ratio of 32:1, the shadows would render totally black on both film and video. No detail in the shadow at all.

Film and video cannot render detail in a contrast range much beyond 8:1. At least that was the case in the 1990s when I was shooting film and just starting to shoot video. It may be better now, but not much compared with the human eye.

The human eye is capable of detecting detail in a contrast range as great as 1,000,000:1.

In other words, if the shadowed area is 1/1,000,000 the brightness of the lit portion, the human eye is still capable of detecting details in the shadows. Not so with film and video.

Here’s a real example anyone can relate to as it has nothing to do with film, video, or artificial light sources.

Outside on a clear day (clear blue sky) with bright sun, the contrast between light and shade is between 16:1 and 32:1 depending on altitude and other environmental factors. Yes, the sun is BRIGHT, but that big bowl of clear blue sky acts as a shadowless fill, so the contrast won’t be much greater than 16:1.

Anyway, that is why “fill lights” are used to fill the shadows cast by the main light.  Without “fill”, facial shadows would always be inky black on film or video.

So how come on exterior shots in film or video with a 16:1 contrast ratio the shadows cast by the sun on the actors faces are not inky black?  Ah ha!  That’s what the lighting people and director of photography are doing with their lights and other equipment on exterior shoots, and it’s all quite variable.

In Westerns (Cowboy and Indian movies) shot under clear blue sky, those actors had a hell of a lot of light being pumped onto their faces by multiple 12,000 watt arc lamps and or “sunny boards” (which are large boards covered with shiny tin foil that reflect the full intensity of the sun back onto the scene).

This is probably why John Wayne had a permanent squint.

Other methods to reduce that contrast involve flying huge white translucent screen above the actors to cut the intensity of the sun by 50% or so, reducing the contrast ratio to maybe 8:1, then using lights to reduce it down to 4:1 to give a better approximation of what the human eye would see.

I mentioned other variables. They include hazy skies whereby the sun is diffused by a thin layer of clouds—which reduces the contrast ratio. Etc.

Of course most of the time they just put the sun behind the subject and exposed the shadowed faces to appear as it would to the human eye resulting in a slight, but acceptable over-exposure of the background. If that background was a low reflectant one (a forest, the shadowed side of a mountain, dark storm clouds or house, etc.) you’d have a pretty good looking scene. And that bright sun on the hair and shoulders of the subject would separate him nicely from that darkened background.

Next point: The degree with which you fill the shadows determines the mood of the shot. That applies whether it’s an exterior shot or an artificially lit interior shot.

You video guys instantly see the contrast when you look at the LCD screen of your video camera.

Film people won’t see it until the film is developed. So they have to use light meters to determine and set the contrast ratio with their fill lights in order to control the eventual effect they will see once the film is developed and screened. (I know, they use ‘video assists’ these days, but they also still use light meters to expose film)

How much fill they add depends on the mood they want. It goes roughly like this:

Low Key Lighting (High Contrast)

For a dramatic look they’ll go for a contrast ratio of 4:1-6:1.  Night scenes would generally have such a contrast ratio as it’s what the human eye expects. There is no big blue bowl of sky to fill the shadows.  Remember, once you go to about 8:1, neither film or video will see much detail in the shadows. So if an even more dramatic look is wanted, the director of photography may set the contrast to 8:1 or even 12:1 to make the shadowed areas deliberately black.

On most interior night scenes, contrast ranges will probably by set to about 4:1 or 6:1 because, unlike a daylight interior scene where light may also be coming in through windows to fill those shadows, a night interior scene will normally be more contrasty. Lighting is set to create the appropriate illusion or mood. High contrast scenes like these are called “high contrast”.

Don’t worry about these numbers.

High Key Lighting (Low Contrast)

At the opposite extreme, however, there’s something called “high key” (low contrast), where the relationship between light and shade is very little.

An upbeat or “happy” scene would generally be shot with low contrast; very little difference between light and shade.

“Flat lighting”, as discussed early in relation to early “TV lighting” would have little or no shadows at all.

In any case, the deliberate use of varying degrees of contrast is for creating specific “moods” for any given scene.

Now let’s get back to how this relates to “run ’n gun” videography mainly for people shooting corporate videos, and most specifically to the shooting of interviews.

Subject to Background Contrast

If you think about it, the whole idea of a posh looking interview close-up comes from the Hollywood close up.

Most people assume the main difference between a video shot and a film shot is depth of field. In other words, the film shot has that nice out-of-focus background.  While that is a factor, it is less important than the lighting of the film shot.

The director of photography not only ensures nice modeling and contrast on the actor’s face (suitable to the message of what’s being shot), but also the contrast of the actor to the background.

In a typical daytime scene, for a nice looking shot with good depth, the contrast ratio is set to around 3:1. That means the main light is 3 times brighter than the wall behind the actor. You could also look at it as the wall  being 1/3 the brightness of the main light on the actor, but the first way is the correct way to define 3:1..

For a night scene, that contrast will increase to 4:1 or greater.

Now let’s leave Hollywood and move on over into a typical corporate interview.

You’re in an office. What color are the walls?  That’s right, white (more often than not).

What’s the light source? Overhead fluorescent lamps, most likely. And what do they do?  —The give a pretty much overall even illumination to the entire room, but since they’re directly overhead, they tend to cast eye socket shadows on your talent.

If you were to use the overhead fluorescents to light the interviewee (god forbid), guess what the contrast ratio from interviewee to the background is going to be.  That’s right, about 1:1 which is no difference. The background is the same brightness as the subject. Worse, the subject’s facial tone will be less reflective than the white wall, so the background will appear to be brighter.

And right there is a typical scenario that any corporate videographer runs into routinely.

What can you do about it?

You can do more or less the same thing that the Hollywood crew would do on location. You reduce the light hitting that back wall. That’s the first thing they’ll do, because it is the brightness of that background that will determine the brightness of the main light hitting the actor.

Sure, you could leave the wall and just pump up the light on the actor and create your desired contrast ratio that way. But two things are wrong with that. a) you’ll fry the actor (and he’ll sweat), b), you’ll increase the f stop (iris) on the lens and increase your depth of field.

There’s an advantage to shooting at low light levels. The set is cooler (in terms of ambient temperature) and the iris of the camera lens is wide open or close to it which means your depth of field will be shallow (which is what you want in a close up).

Ok, let’s go back to the corporate shoot scenario with our videographer.  If you’re like me, you travel light with fluoro soft boxes (or LEDs) rather than halogens. Not a lot of horsepower there, even with the biggest ones. So you can’t compete with sunlight coming in through the windows very well.

A sequence of actions for lighting a corporate interview

1) Frame the interview shot including composing the background (which normally involves moving a few things around)

2) Now reduce the light hitting the background by any of or a combination of the following:   a) turn off the overheads, or a portion of them, even if it means unscrewing the bulbs or taping some black foil over an offending lamp, b) close the blinds wholly or partly, c) cover the windows wholly or partially with black cloth.

This is not a robotic exercise. Perhaps there is a light pattern created from a window source you’d like to have in there for a little background modeling. The point is not to simply cut out all or most of the light. The point is to bring down the light level while retaining as much as possible of any directional lighting pattern that may be there that will enhance the overall shot.

If you want to use some of the sun effect, you can put some neutral density gels on the offending window which will knock down the intensity without changing the pattern.

3) Now you’re ready to light the subject, preferably with some nice modeling by proper placement of the main light (called the “key light), but certainly brighter than the background.

4) Add a backlight, and now you will have a corporate interview that has a nice “filmic” look by lighting alone because you will have a nice contrast ratio from subject to background with a nice backlight that further separates subject from background and a nice contrast ratio on the subject’s facial lighting.

If you also happen to be shooting with a DSLR or a full sensor shallow depth-of-field video camera, you will have that nice filmic look everyone wants.

Remember, it’s not just depth of field that makes up the “filmic look”. The better part of that filmic look is lighting and contrast.

Here’s a video frame from a recent video I did that illustrates my point.

Jennie's Journey interview lighting

Let’s evaluate it:

1. We have some nice facial modeling from the main light which was placed above and to the right of the person.

2. We have a nice backlight on her hair and the plants behind her which separate both from the background and give the scene a rather polished look.

3. We have good separation of subject to background (approximately 3:1 contrast ratio).

Note: There is a “romantic filter” on the scene which caused the outer edges to appear as a slightly blurred vignette; something I don’t normally do, but in this particular case the interview was with a cancer survivor and I felt it added to the spirit of the interview which was very upbeat.

Here’s the good news for the lone shooter:

That scene was lit with a single softbox fluoro!

How did I do it?

Exactly as I outlined in 1-4 above.

In this case, the one thing I did not and could not change was the brightness of the sunlight coming through the window. Instead I limited it by the amount I closed the curtains.

So I set exposure to make the backlight that hit the subject (created by the sun) appear correct.

That left me with a near silhouette of the person.

Next I added a main light (key light) and positioned it for best modeling. I had to get it really close to achieve enough brightness (which wasn’t enough), so I compromised and opened up the aperture to get my exposure which made the backlight (the sun) brighter than it should have been, but acceptable.

As the “softbox” fluorescent lamp has a broad source, it tends to cast soft shadows. Nevertheless, with no other light source in the room I would have needed a fill light to fill in those shadows a bit or they would have appeared too “dark” or “dramatic”. And this was an upbeat interview, so fill was required.

Fortunately the ambient sunlight bouncing off the walls in the small white room gave me sufficient fill light on her face for the modeling I wanted.

But the key light (though it was deliberately positioned at an angle to minimize background spill,_ being a diffuse source was still lighting the wall behind her to a degree causing the subject to background contrast to be nearly 1:1 (probably about 1 ½:1).  Flat looking, no depth.

To handle that I suspended black foil from a light stand just above her head to order to block most of the spill light that was hitting the back wall. But I allowed a little of the light to escape around the right side of the foil so it would still  hit the edge of the bookshelf in the right background, thus cheating on the atmospheric lighting. If I had blocked all the light the background would have appear flat and dull back there.

Result: By utilizing and controlling existing ambient light, and adding a single key light I was able to produce a scene that looked like a portrait shot or a “Hollywood close up” lit by a director of photography and team of gaffers using anywhere from 3 to 6 lights or more.

To be fair, they probably would have made it look better, but remember, I’m addressing the lone shooter or small production company in this book and the point I will continue to make is that if you minimally understand the basics of what I’ve described in this chapter, and take that little bit of effort to deal with basic lighting and contrast, your shots will definitely look better than most of your competitors. I know because I have looked. And that’s why I am writing this book.

Lighting basics

To be fair, I haven’t at all covered the basics of lighting which are aptly covered in great detail in Gerald Millerson’s ‘The Techniques of Lighting for Film and Television’, and which can also be found in one form or another in many internet tutorials on lighting.

I really do think it’s wise for any videographer to study and understand these basics so that he or she can then use the tools he has to hand (actual lighting kit plus extant ambient lighting conditions at the site) to optimize lighting. While a thorough study of the subject is beyond the scope of this book, I want to cover the rock bottom basics in brief so that anyone unfamiliar with the subject will have some idea of its make-up.

If one were to light a Hollywood set inside a studio somewhere, there are 5 types of lights which are used to create the illusion of atmospheric lighting.

  1. Key lights (the main lights that hit the actors or subject)
  2. Fill lights (the soft light used to fill the shadows cast by the key lights to the desired contrast ratio)
  3. Set lights (which independently light the set, including walls, furniture, etc without hitting the actors or subject.)
  4. Effect lights (supplemental to set lights to create effects such as sunlight or moonlight streaming through a window, off-scene lightning flashes, car headlights, etc. and even lights used to bring out detail on surfaces, fill dark shadows or simulate the effects of off-scene lamps from adjacent rooms)
  5. Practical lights (which are actual lamps visible in the scene, such as table lamps, wall lamps, chandeliers, etc.

There are typically multiples of each of these types of lights to light any given scene. Indeed, a seemingly simply lit scene may have dozens of lights totalling 80,000 watts or more creating that illusion.

Obviously, that’s a bit out of the league of the run ‘n gunner.

But if you understand the basics of how these illusions are created, you’d be surprised how well you can adapt to make the best of what you have and what is otherwise available to create lighting illusions far better than the amateur who just comes into the room and turns on his camera with no understanding or regard for lighting.

Remember, lighting is considered the “lifeblood” of cinematography. It deserves some attention.

#               #                 #

If you’d like to watch the video that the still frame above is from, here it is. This is one of those rare cases where all I had to do was turn on the camera. She talked non-stop for 14 minutes.

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6 responses

  1. Excellent discussion on the basics of lighting, you covered the why and how. Consider adding a section of type of lighting that a single shooter can use. In my work the amount of equipment I use is determined by what I can pack in one bag that is under 50 pounds. I carry two LCD lights with small very lightweight tripods. With a bit of previsualization and creativity I can light an interview that achieves the purposes you define, set up quickly and not kill my back. Hope this helps.
    Be good
    R

    Like

    • Thanks Ronald,

      You didn’t feel that was covered in the last part starting with ‘Sequence of lighting a corporate interview’?

      By the way, along with the book will be a website that offers supplemental information in the way of tutorials and sample videos that give meaning to the various subjects I will offer. I have the site already, but need to concentrate on designing and illustrating the book.

      Like

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