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Choosing the Best Lighting Equipment for Your Documentary

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    Good lighting defines the difference between great looking footage and poorly made home movies. Knowing the lighting technology and gear, such as fixture designs and lamp types as well as the best equipment for blocking, diffusing and reflecting light, can help your footage look like it belongs on the big screen.

    Video Transcript


    Light is very important. It gives objects depth, shape, and even emotion. That’s why choosing the right lights for your kit can go a long way in making your documentary look professional.

    More than anything, good lighting can make the difference between great looking footage and something shot on a home video recorder. So knowing what to look for in lighting technology such as fixture designs and lamp types as well as the best equipment for blocking, diffusing and reflecting light, can help you make your footage look like it belongs on the big screen.

    One of the most important factors to consider is fixture design. Fixture design refers to the instrument that a bulb or lamp is fixed to. There are two fixture types: Spots and Broads.
    The most common type of light fixture is the spot. Spot lights are directional lights that are aimed at the subject that you would like people to see. Often spotlights are paired with barn doors to allow the light beam from the instrument to be even more directional. By far, the most common type of spot is the Fresnel light. This fixture is designed with a lens that can gather light into a strong and directional beam. These fixtures usually have moving lamp elements that allow you to shorten or broaden the beam of light. This feature makes Fresnel lights an incredibly important fixture to have in any documentary lighting kit. Only needing to set up and carry only one light instead of two will save time, money, and a lot of headaches.
    On the other hand, a broad light is a fixture meant to throw light in every direction. One common type, a PAR light, is a simple can with a bulb inside. Usually these lights are used as backlights for interviews as their quality of light is often very harsh. PAR lights are some of the least expensive lighting sources to purchase and are very durable for on the go lighting. Another popular type of broad light is the V-light. V-lights are wide, rectangular shaped broad lights with a reflective housing that give off a very broad beam of light. These lights work great for wide scenes and backgrounds but are best used with barn doors in order to make sure the light doesn’t also hit your subject.

    Of all the factors to consider, lamp type is probably the most important. Different bulbs give off different qualities of light so knowing what each lamp type does can go a long way to getting you what you need.
    The most common and least expensive bulb is the incandescent lamp. These are the same kind of lights found in many home light fixtures. They come in many different shapes but their design is the same: a filament that burns inside of a vacuum tube. Though they give off plenty of light, their design has many drawbacks. First, an incandescent bulb loses most of its energy to heat rather than light which makes them the most inefficient lamp type available. This same heat also makes these light fixtures hot enough to give operators second degree burns so gloves are a necessity. Using a variable resistor, these lights can be dimmed, but become increasingly orange as less power is available. Almost all incandescent lamps have an orange, indoor color temperature of 3200 degrees Kelvin. On the positive side, incandescent bulbs are typically the least expensive and are easy to find. If you’re looking to save money on your shoot and want the most options for fixtures, these are the best light sources to get.
    If you are in need of lights that can compete with the intensity of the sun, your best option is an HMI light. HMI lights are arc lamps that use an electrical spark to make light. Since the spark in the lamp isn’t constant, a ballast must be used. This makes HMI fixtures larger and as a result, makes them harder to use in the field. However, since HMI lights can be found in wattages ranging from 10 to 20,000 and have a natural outdoor color temperature, they may still be the light of choice. Like incandescent lights, when handling these bulbs gloves are a good idea.
    Another popular lamp type is the fluorescent bulb. Fluorescents are gas filled tubes that fluoresce when an electrical current passes through them. These lamps are inexpensive, give off a very soft light, have long lives, and can run at either indoor or outdoor color temperatures. These lamps also produce very little heat which helps talent feel more relaxed. That’s why these lamps are often used for studio and interview shooting. Unfortunately, like HMI’s, fluorescent lamps require a ballast to keep the light even while dimming. This makes fluorescent fixtures somewhat bulky and lengthens setup time.
    The most exciting lamp technology is the LED bulb. Unlike all of the other lamp types, LEDs are simply light emitting diodes which mean LED bulbs stay very cool even after long periods of use. They have a long lasting bulb, are energy efficient, and have a fairly soft light quality. Many fixtures that use LED lamp arrays can also change color temperature from an indoor to outdoor and can be dimmed without a shift in color temperature. Due to the small size of LEDs, fixtures can also be very small and thin which makes them great for both studio and field shooting. However, of all the lamp types, LEDs are the most expensive. Even so, if you factor in a lifetime of more than 50,000 hours per bulb, the quick set up times, and the small sizes of the fixtures, the cost is easier to swallow. In fact, even with the price, many news crews and documentaries are now using these lamps to quickly light talent for interviews in the field. This is because LED lights are energy efficient and can last a long time on a standard set of batteries. Also, they ar small enough to fit an entire kit in a backpack for shoots where building access is limited.

    The name of the game for lighting is control, so no documentarian should be without flags, barn doors, and black wrap. Flags are attachments to fixtures that block light from hitting unwanted areas. Barn doors are similar to flags but have four flags that can be shaped to direct light more easily. Lastly, black wrap is a black aluminum foil that can be shaped around lights that don’t have flag attachments. All of these items should be a part of any documentary shooting kit as they are inexpensive and give you the control you need.

    Documentaries often involve a good amount of outdoor shooting. Since it is hard for any light fixture to compete with the sun, it is a good idea to have several reflectors and diffusers. Reflectors are great for bouncing sunlight onto a subject outdoors. They work best as key or fill lights when using a three point light setup. Even for indoor shoots reflectors can be an inexpensive replacement for a fill light. The best kinds of reflectors typically have gold and silver material on one side and white, and a mixed color on the other side of the material. If you want to soften the shadows in a scene, diffusers can make your light source wrap around your subject. This can make wrinkles and defects on talent less visible and can make the light in your scene seem happier and more pleasing.

    Lighting is an important part of video production. With a knowledge of what to look for when buying your kit, you will finally be able to get the kinds of beautiful shots you’ve always wanted.