Do the Light Thing

An informational buyer's guide helping you choose and use the best type of lighting for your productions

You want your videos to look professional? Great camera work and awesome sound alone won't make your video all you want it to be. You can take a lesson from Hollywood's book. A motion picture's lighting director spends hours trying to get the lighting just right, because they know how important it is to the final product. Shouldn't it be a priority for you as well? The quality of your production's lighting will stamp you as either a seasoned professional or a budding wanna-be.

To Focus or Not to Focus

Video lights are divided into two main categories: bare bulb or fresnel (pronounced "fruh-NEL"). The bare bulb light is pretty straightforward — a light bulb surrounded by a reflector. Also referred to as open face, these lights use the reflector to focus the light's rays. All open face lights have uneven lighting, though higher-end versions mitigate the effect somewhat.

Fresnels, on the other hand, use a lens as the primary focus mechanism. They produce intense, focused light and usually have a longer reach than their open face cousins.

A Light is White? Right?

Your eye may perceive the light streaming in your window as similar to that of a Lowel DP, but to the video camera, all light sources are definitely not equal. The camera sees the distinction as a difference in light temperature. You measure light temperature using degrees Kelvin (i.e., 3200K). Lower numbers result in redder lights and higher numbers translate to bluer lights.

How does this apply to you? Many video lights are "warm" (3200K), and give off a reddish light. Daylight, on the other hand, is "cool" (5500K) and thus bluer. When you plan your lighting setup, you'll need to decide what the primary light source will be: daylight, tungsten or fluorescent. Then balance all the other lights to that temperature. You should avoid mixing light temperatures, unless that mixed light look is specifically called for!

Name That Bulb!

Video lights are usually known by the types of bulbs they use, and there are quite a few different types, so be forewarned! Here's a quick rundown:

Incandescent: Most household lamps contain this type of bulb. The home variety is usually very warm (around 2900K), but you can purchase professional incandescent bulbs at cooler temperatures. These types of bulbs are known as photoflood. When you use these lights, your initial investment is very low, but unfortunately, they rarely last very long.

Tungsten-Halogen: These little bulbs are smaller and more efficient than incandescent, but they're also more expensive! Sometimes referred to as quartz bulbs, they're normally rated at 3200K. Lights in this category include Arri's Arrilite 600-Watt Focusing Flood or Smith-Victor's 600-Watt Open Faced Tungsten.

Fluorescent: Regular fluorescent bulbs, such as those found in an office, produce greenish light and are hard to match with daylight or tungsten. But professional fluorescents do exist. Kino Flo, Photogenic and others make daylight and tungsten balanced lights. These fluorescents are available in various configurations, including banks (an array of bulbs) and single bulb fixtures. Fluorescents have a very long life, produce soft light and generate virtually no heat.

HMI (Hydrargyrum Medium-arc Iodide): If you're willing to shell out some dough, these lights are daylight-balanced and extremely efficient. HMIs produce almost three times the amount of light as Tungsten-Halogen for the same amount of power. You can look at the 1.2K Fresnel by Altman or the 400-Watt soft light by Dedolight for examples of lower cost HMI lighting fixture options.

Carbon Arc Lamps: You might best recognize these lights by their marketing application — spotlights outside a car dealership making light circles in the sky! Large productions often use them for simulating daylight or for lighting large areas. But inexperienced users need not apply! Carbon Arc lamps have unique power requirements and a trained electrician is usually required for operation.

Accessorize Yourself

You know your lighting options. Now you need to know how to leverage them like a true visual artist. Lighting accessories are your tools of the trade.

Barn doors, adjustable flaps that can be fastened to a light's rim, are used to control light rays and block unwanted spill. Scrims, also used for light control, are circular wire mesh screens that are placed in front of the light. They effectively cut down a light's intensity while retaining its color temperature.

A softbox is a white-faced box which fits over the front of your lights. You use a softbox to both diffuse and soften the light striking your subject. This "soft light" produces gentle shadows and smooths out wrinkles or textures. You can also use an umbrella to get that soft light look. The light shines into the umbrella, and the umbrella's white or silver interior reflects and diffuses the light rays back onto the subject you are shooting.

Gels are an indispensable part of any videographer's light kit. These dyed plastic sheets mount in front of a light or clip on to barn doors. You can change a light's intensity and/or color by the type of gel you use. Some of the most common gels include neutral density, which cut down a light's output; CT Blue, which balances your lights to daylight or HMIs; and CT Orange, which balances your light to tungsten.

Pre-packaged or A La Carte

Are you ready to make some light purchases? For those that like to pick, choose and customize, buying your lights, stands and accessories independently is the way to go. Lowel, Smith-Victor, Arri and LTM are a few of the various light manufacturers to check out.

If you know you need several lights, and want matching accessories, look at light kit options. Many lighting companies have prepared ready-made light kits, spanning from the simple to the complex. Altman's Swing Pac Tungsten kit is one such package. It includes 3 lights (including a fresnel), some great accessories (such as a Soft-Lite Jr., barndoors and scrims), light stands and a wheeled carrying case to haul it all around.

Another option is Lowel's DP Super Remote kit. This package is even more loaded (and more pricey)! It includes four lights and a ton of useful accessories, including a soft-box, umbrellas, gels, gel frames, clamps, reflectors and shafts, plus the ever-needed light stands and carrying case.

Next Steps

By reading this article, you are taking the first step toward harnessing the power of lighting and moving your production from average to artistic. You can read more about professional lighting by checking out the Videomaker Web site. Remember, learning the art of lighting is an investment you'll never regret.

Julia Camenisch is a freelance video producer and writer.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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