Here are some tips on choosing lights because that's where all the action is and that's where you spend lots of money.
When you watch videos made by large production companies, do you yearn to produce that same vibrant quality but somehow feel constrained by your kit? Do you notice how the people seem to pop out of the screen and wonder just how much equipment the grips brought along? Do you say to yourself "Yea, anybody can do that with enough lighting equipment"? And then say "I do the best I can but I only have so many arms to carry it all around"?
You've been reading Videomaker and you are aware of how necessary it is to bring your own lights along. You've found lots of resources on lighting techniques, grip equipment and lighting kits. You've even found some nice DIY articles on how to make your own booms and modify your existing kit to accommodate special situations, but somehow it all still seems overwhelming; there's so much to think about. How do I transport it all? How do I carry it once I arrive on location and how can I do all this without breaking the bank?
You have probably struggled while trying to gather stands, lights and tripods feeling like a frustrated mother chasing a two-year-old through a shopping center! Nothing really cooperates. The extension cords slip out and trip you. One of the stands comes loose, extends out and hangs up on a doorway. And the client shows up just in time to watch the show!
There are several types of lights to fit any budget, ranging from low cost quartz to high cost arc lamps, e.g. HMI.
There's also fluorescents available and now, the new kid on the block, LEDs, are finding their way into the lighting toolkit. Each one has its advantages and disadvantages and just like the rest of the world "you get what you..." well, you know.
I know what you're thinking; "Well I haven't got a lot of money so I'll get the quartz and make due". That's actually not a bad idea, because you get a lot of bang for the buck, they are easy to maintain, lightweight and you can find them just about everywhere. They put out a bunch of light and you can get inexpensive umbrellas, gels, soft-boxes, spots and Fresnels especially designed for them.
But keep in mind that the quartz lights can get very hot, so much so that they can easily set your studio ablaze if you don't exercise proper electrical procedures.
Quartz lights also produce color temperatures that are considerably warmer than daylight, so mixing them with existing daylight can be challenging but also quite rewarding, because mixing that warm color temp with daylight can produce some very dramatic results. And it's nothing a few gels and some creative ideas can't handle. Lowel offers a huge selection of professional quartz equipment that won't break your budget but still offer you vast flexibility in how you modify your light output. And you won't have to worry about attachments because their lights are designed to accept hundreds of accessories.
You might have noticed I mentioned gels. That's because it's absolutely necessary to have them along when lighting with quartz, and that means you must have a safe way of attaching them to your lights as they are likely to burn up when placed too close to the quartz tube. It's probably smart to keep this in mind when considering those "shop lights" at your favorite box store because they don't have systems for mounting gels or other accessories. It's tempting to want them, but they can introduce a collection of problems because every mod you make to them invites a new set of problems and opportunities for failure. The thing about quartz lights is "they can be quite dangerous" if not properly set up and if left unattended such as you might do when lighting a room in the distance. They can be like that two-year-old I mentioned in the beginning of this article; they can really get into trouble! You can find a tremendous assortment of gels, diffusion and other modifiers from Rosco.com.
Quartz lights make great heaters too, heating up your set in a matter of minutes and consuming a lot of energy while doing so. Something to think about when shooting inside a home or small office. Oh, and don't forget to bring plenty of extension cords because they draw a lot of amps which can trip circuit breakers and burn up extension cords. For this reason, I would only assign one extension cord per light and one setup per each electrical socket. (Remind me to tell you about the time my partner set the drapes on fire with our lights in a nice home that we were showcasing for a big production...)
OK, so you've considered quartz and they are great in many situations and provide a cost effective lighting solution. But sometimes you may want a kinder, gentler light; something that isn't such a pain to use but still reasonably affordable. That's where fluorescents come in. They don't heat up the environment or draw a lot of current, and they can match the color temperature you need; choose 5500K or 3200K or both and be ready for anything. No gels, no fires, no problems... well, maybe just one problem!
Fluorescents are much larger than quartz and that means heavier and with that comes a whole new set of problems, such as requiring large light stands. And if you're like me, obsessed with safety, that means you must have some pretty sturdy grip equipment with fluorescents. Nothing bothers me more than flimsy little light stands under big bulky lights! And what bothers me even more is seeing big bulky lights that aren't sand bagged, especially out doors. But don't let their size stop you from considering them because the advantages provided by fluorescents really make them worth the extra effort. You can put them right next to your subject and leave them on all day and not worry about heat; try that with quartz and you'll have an angry, sweaty group of people during your shoot.
Besides keeping their cool under pressure, flourescents are reliable. Yep, they put out a nice soft light which comes in handy when shooting interviews and they don't suddenly burn out or worse, blow up like quartz bubls can. But that soft, fuzzy feeling comes at a cost because it's pretty hard to create a classic "Hollywood Look" with hard, dramatic shadows and spectacular highlights.
You can't use a lot of neat light modifiers like spots and Fresnels but for subjects like people and food where a soft wrap-around light is preferable, fluorescents are the way to go. Kino-flo and Videssence has been making these systems for a while and can point you in the right direction.
These lamps are often known in the trade as HMIs. (Hydrargyrum medium-arc iodide lamp), however, this is actually a registered trademark name for the generic lamp we call arc lamps or discharge lamps. Unlike fluorescents where there aren't a lot of accessories like snoots, spots and fresnels, Discharge lamps can be fitted with lots of stuff and unlike quartz, discharge lamps don't put out a lot of heat. You get the best of both worlds: a compact design like quartz and lots of output with a nice cool operating temperature like fluorescents. And you have access to tons of really great light mods where you can create shadows on your subject with spots or streams of light shooting across your set with cookies and you don't have to have a trained gorilla to lift them into place! Pricier than both fluorescents and quartz, discharge lamps offer a viable solution in just about every situation and as the saying goes: "You get what..." well, you know.
I guess this would be a good time to bring in the bad news and that would be "consumables". Consumables! I'm not eating these things I'm lighting my videos. Well that's the one main drawback with discharge lamps. Unlike quartz where carrying extra lamps really doesn't matter because they cost so little and fluorescent lamps have such a long life that you needn't worry, discharge lamps are expensive and have a specific life span (and it's pretty short!) So short, in fact that you can calculate their usage in "cost per hour per job". But they can have a place in your kit because of their enormous light output, which can be handy if you only carry a few lights.
Wow, what a compromise! If you use quartz, you need to be aware of the heat issues, especially if you need a nice soft light and if you use fluorescents you can't easily modify them to make dramatic lighting effects and they can quite unwieldy on location. If you use discharge lamps you just about break the bank but you get the best of both worlds. Where's it all end?
Enter the Future!
Yep, you are here, at the right time and place, especially if you are a budding videographer because lighting for video and cinema is undergoing a transition that, thanks to technology, will make your life so, so much easier. Much like the transition from film to video that changed the way "live news" was captured, advances in technology are revolutionizing the way video and film studios light their sets. Imagine everything you like about quartz, like compact size and light weight along with the qualities of fluorescents like cool operation and long bulb life. Imagine the qualities of discharge lamps, but without the high cost of replacement bulbs. Imagine having, at the flip of a switch, the ability to infinitely dim the light output or change the color balance from day-light to tungsten. Imagine a bulb life expectancy rated in tens of thousands of hours and operating temperatures rated at room temperature and leaving it on for extended hours or even days.
Enter LED lighting from companies like Litepanels, and you have a budding technology that, while still quite expensive, offers most of the qualities you need without all the compromises that come with each solution. While still in its infancy, LED technology is fast becoming a favorite of studios around the world. LEDs offer very low operating temperatures at extremely low operating voltages. High light output for their physical size, weight and low power consumption and the ability to change, literally at the flip of a switch, the color temperature output. They offer extremely consistent output and are about as reliable as a hammer! What else could you ask for? Well, they aren't perfect but they come pretty close. For one thing, in their current form they don't lend themselves well to spot attachments, and the light output is quite directional, meaning that they put light where you point them with very little fall off so they must be pointed exactly where you want light; not good for bounce lighting. That means you need a lot of them for a large set but "a lot of them" doesn't heat up the whole place either! Working with them is quite different than traditional lighting and did I mention they are still quite expensive, but for smaller jobs where you need to be in close with your subject, these are ideal.
With all these lighting technologies available, you can mix and match anything to come up with a comprehensive lighting kit that will suit your needs for today and remain flexible enough to grow with you as you grow as an artist.
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Terry O'Rourke specializes in retail advertising photography and videography for clients world wide.