With recent advances in video technology, even casual shooters have come to expect broadcast quality video from their inexpensive cameras, as long as the lighting conditions are reasonable.
The good news is, with today's camcorders, broadcast quality is within your reach, so you can rely less on your camcorder's low-light function and more on your lighting kit. In our Lighting column, we've discussed how the quality of light significantly affects the quality of the video and we've learned that modern camcorders are quite capable of delivering acceptable results, even in less than ideal lighting conditions. Today, we are going to discuss what it takes to go beyond acceptable and achieve exceptional results by helping you understand how to create an appropriate lighting kit.
We'll start with portability because unless you have a dedicated studio for your lights it's always best to have equipment that travels well. The good news is, lights that travel well are also cost effective and that's where tungsten comes in. They are reasonably efficient, light-weight, readily available, easy to maintain and reliable.
Smith Victor offers a basic two-light kit (KT-500U) based on screw-in fixtures. It comes with reflectors, stands and photo floods that will get you started for about $100 Photo floods, which are tungsten, are economical to purchase, but their limited life span can become frustrating and eventually cost you more than a slightly more expensive quartz kit would. Smith Victor also offers a neat little kit that includes two quartz light heads that can be used bare or can be fitted with the supplied umbrellas. (Quartz - which are tungsten, once the standard of the industry because of their economical cost, reliability, consistent color and ease of maintenance - are still popular with many professionals as well as budding videographers.) The kit also comes with two stands and a nifty rolling case, At 1200 total watts the kit weighs 28 pounds and cost about $300 (Smith Victor KQ82 1200W).
28 pounds is a good starting point for a basic two-light kit, but for a little more control than is possible with only two umbrellas, you might consider three point lighting. Supplied with gels, stands and scrims, and for a little more money, ($950) Lowel offers a lightweight, (24 pounds) three light kit with two Tota-lights and two umbrellas (TO-973Z). An Omni-light with barn-doors is included to use for a hair light. Use the two Totas with the umbrellas for your key and fill lights or remove an umbrella from one of the Totas and point it into the ceiling for a nice room fill. Pair those with the very portable Omni-light for your hair light and you're nicely equipped for most interviews. The barn-doors on your hair light, which should be positioned above the set pointing down, are absolutely necessary to prevent light from spilling all over your set.
Umbrellas in a kit like this are wonderful on location because the are easy to set up and weigh very little. Umbrellas, while certainly nicer than bare lights, are not quite as pleasing as soft-boxes, particularly when lighting people. An alternative to soft-boxes though, is a simple sheet of fabric diffusers (scrims) such as taffeta or nylon obtained from your local fabric store. Just clip them to boom stands in front of your bare lights. Although simple to use and quite versatile because you can vary the degree of diffusion by changing their distance from the light source and your subject, they require another stand and boom to set up. If you use several hanging scrims on a shoot you suddenly need several more stands, booms, clips and time to put it all up. That's where soft-boxes come in.
Softboxes mount to the light head so there is no need for additional stands plus they contain spill that you might get with bare lights and scrims. Soft boxes are great but they can really be a pain to set up, especially when you are pressed for time. Anyone who has worked with soft boxes knows just how difficult they can be. The Lowel Rifa (Rifa eX 44), with its built-in, folding soft-box solves all these problems while offering a very neat feature which allows you to remove the front scrim, thereby giving you access to the bulb for quick replacement. They also offer an effective built-in method for attaching gels. Additionally, with a simple flip of a switch, they fold up, completely covering the bulb for safe keeping.
So far we have considered a quartz modular lighting kit with bare light heads, barn-doors, umbrellas and soft-boxes which is good for basic interview lighting. The flexibility of this "modular" design offers huge advantages over specialized light heads such as fresnel lights because you can create a variety of lighting styles with just a few accessories. If you need a beautiful, controllable beam of light you can expect excellent results with a fresnel light from companies like Altman and Arri. The large glass lens in these fixtures can be easily adjusted to project a narrow beam of light or a fairly wide beam, all while maintaining a beautiful "Hollywood" quality of light you can only get from fresnels. Altman offers a 650 watt quartz unit for about $335.00 (650L-HM) or you can buy a basic Arri 200 watt HMI fresnel (HF125EDCK) for about $3,000 which brings us to the difference between HMI and tungsten quartz lights. (HMI =Hydrargyrum Medium-Arc Iodide).
The quality of light between HMI and tungsten quartz is similar because the bulb is very small (pinpoint) and therefore very flexible in how their characteristics can be modified. They both work well bare, with reflectors and barn doors or in fresnel light heads. The bulb is easy to replace and they both explode if handled incorrectly, but that's where the similarities end. Unlike tungsten quartz bulbs that cost just a few bucks, HMI bulbs which are also quartz, cost about $200 each. Unlike tungsten quartz, which is powered with a simple cord you plug into the wall, HMI needs a ballast to supply exact current to the bulb or they flicker. Tungstens can get hot enough to start fires but HMI bulbs require much less power to make the same amount of light. They stay much cooler and that's their value; you don't cook the set. HMIs emit nearly perfect daylight balanced light, unlike tungsten, which needs a daylight gel to make it daylight, and this filter reduces the output considerably.
Keep Your Cool
So, if you want a cool, daylight balanced pinpoint light source, HMI is the way to go. If you can ditch the "pinpoint light source" part then there are cheaper alternatives but they won't give you as much power or that crisp shadow of an HMI or tungsten bulb.
Fluorescents are a nice alternative because they are economical, run cool and the replacement bulbs last a long time, plus they aren't too expensive. The Lowel Rifa mentioned above can be converted to a fluorescent light with an adapter (FLO-X1) for about $53.00 which allows you to install a standard department store bulb. Not quite the power of the usual quartz bulb but perfect for using the soft-box in very close quarters such as you might do during an intimate close-up. Interfit (INT116) makes a nifty little lamp base for $159.00. It uses 5 standard fluorescent bulbs for a total of 120 watts. Again, great for intimate lighting because it comes with its own soft-box and it can also be used bare.
For a little more money ($432) in a larger, rigid fixture, the Kino Flo Vista Single Fixture (CFX-V100) uses a single 96-watt tube. This 38" long fixture is pretty slim, too. At just over 7" wide it's a perfect little strip-light for creating a rim light around your subjects. Set it vertically just behind them and turn down the key and fill lights and you get a dramatic night scene!
Fluorescents are great, but if you need to light a larger set such as an interview with several people, these lights can become a bit unwieldy because you need a lot of light to cover a large space and that means larger and heavier fixtures, which require larger and heavier stands along with sand bags. A Mole-Richardson Biax-4 Fixture (7361C220) is perfect for a smaller set and at 220 watts it has plenty of power. At $970 and about 10 pounds and measuring just over 24" x 11" it isn't cheap nor it is light weight, especially of you need several. However, not only can you create wonderful light with them but you can move them right into the scene without fear of overheating your set, (or talent!) Three of these and one HMI fresnel for a touch of drama and you can shoot some fantastic footage!
Long Live the King!
While fluorescence and HMI lights may be the king of cool there's a new kid on the block so it might be time for the old timers to make room. LEDs are fast becoming the favorite ring light system of many videographers because the are extremely consistent, very light weight, which is critical when mounted to the camera, and they run cool. Can you imagine how ridiculous a ring light fashioned from fluorescents or tungsten would be? It wasn't until LED technology (light emitting diodes) came along that ring-lights became practical for video, especially for hand held shooting. LEDs can be powered from batteries so the videographer has all the mobility one could ever need. For about $2,500 you can buy a wonderful ringlite system by Litepanels (RM-FT).
LED technology isn't just for on-camera lighting. Litepanels offers a standard system fixture, the 1X1 Lite for about $2,500. The 1X1 isn't cheap but since it's modular it's a system that can grow with you.
If you're are on a tight budget then tungsten quartz is a great place to start because the drawbacks of the intense heat is offset by the variety of light head available which gives you flexibility. As your budget grows, HMIs and fluorescents are easy to integrate into your tungsten kit because they have lots of power, so you can use 3200K gels on them to match the 3200K on your tungsten lights and color balance the camcorder to match both. Soon you'll find a need for LEDs, and many of them - with the flip of a switch - can be balanced to whatever color temp you need.
The final thought... don't be afraid to mix and match your light heads because each bulb technology offers compelling reasons to own them and combining each technology into one integrated system is easier and more practical than ever. And the more you know how each one works, the more efficient and confident you'll be when setting up your scene quickly.
Sidebar: Mount Up!
Don't forget mounting a light on your camcorder. There are plenty of battery powered options ranging from inexpensive units available online to very sophisticated units designed and built for "boots on the ground" professionals.
For about 40 bucks you can get a Sima hot shoe light with one xenon bulb. Xenon light bulbs are similar to photo strobes in that they rely on xenon gas technology to provide an extremely compact package with a daylight balanced light output, and they are very powerful. Sima also makes the SL-20LX ($30) which is based on LED technology. Not only are they incredibly efficient they are modular, interlocking units which means you can interlock several units together for even more output.
For a lot more money, Litepanels offers a variety of solutions for advanced amateurs and seasoned pros. Litepanels Micros ($275) are derived from their considerable research and development budget and they deliver on all counts. They are durable, well designed LED based units with the flexibility one would expect from best-of-breed products. Dimmable output is only one of their features. They also provide flicker free light for 7-8 hours on E2 lithium batteries. Talk about professional solutions, they also offer a replacement hot shoe mount for those times (frequently) you break one as well as on-board battery adapters that allow you to use your camcorder battery to power it up.
Click here to download a PDF of Videomaker's Lighting Buyer's Guide
Terry O'Rourke specializes in retail advertising photography and videography for clients worldwide.