Night Lighting

What do you do about lighting, if the only time you get to shoot is at night? What about shooting night scenes – how do you light them to look realistic yet still be able to record a good image? Night lighting can be tricky, but when you get it right, the end result can be awesome! In this column, we will look at the basics of f-stops and lighting and how you can use that knowledge to create realistic and very dramatic lighting at night. We will also talk about shooting interiors and making it look like it is a gorgeous moonlit night.

The Secrets of F-stops

Most camera lenses have a mechanical way to control the amount of light that passes through the lens. The opening in the lens is the aperture, and the iris is the mechanical device that opens and closes to let in more or less light. This works much the same way as your eye. The aperture is the pupil and the iris controls the size of the pupil/aperture. The f-stop is the number that designates the ratio of the overall size of the lens to the size of the aperture or opening, or, in mathematical terms, the focal length of the lens divided by the diameter of the lens opening or aperture: f=F/D. The really interesting thing about the f-stop is that, if you increase or decrease the f-stop by 1 stop, you double the amount of light or cut it in half respectively. Therefore, an f-stop of 5.6 allows in twice as much light as an f-stop of 8 and one-half as much light as an f-stop of 4.

Why is this important? It also affects the depth of field, or the depth of the area that is in focus in front of the camera. If you want to be able to see everything in sharp focus, you need to be able to shoot at a higher f-stop, which means you need a lot more light.

Just having more light does not mean the scene will be brighter. By closing the aperture, you are increasing the depth of field and decreasing the amount of light getting through the lens, thus making it seem darker. When you are shooting a well-lit night scene, it may seem really bright to your eye, but to the camera that is shooting with a high f-stop, there will be beautiful contrast between the bright spots and the dark spots in the scene – the ultimate goal of night shooting.

A way to test your ability to do this is to shoot a scene in a room with white walls. When you set your lights up, place them 60 degrees above your subject and make sure that no light spills on the background. This is called cameo lighting. Close the iris on your camera, so that the skin tones on your talent’s face are natural. Use an extra monitor to check your shot. You should end up with a well-lit face and nothing in the background but black. Even in a white walled room! To your eye, the room will seem bright, but, to the camera set to the right exposure for your talent’s skin tones, the background will disappear! Ahhh, the power of the f-stop.

Setting Up the Night Shot

As with any kind of lighting setup, especially when doing narrative productions, you have to analyze the scene and determine the look you want. Are you shooting in an alley or a brightly-lit street? Are you shooting in a dark room at night with only street light dribbling through the windows? One thing to remember about light at night: it always has a hard edge. This means you need to use intense smaller lights that create the shadows that make a night scene so compelling. Put away the silks and diffusers. Hard is the only way to go at night, unless you want to add a touch of fill reflected from diffused surfaces.

Once you have identified the setting, then you work to recreate the look of that setting. Some may think that all you need to do with today’s equipment is just go out and shoot in the natural available light. While there is nothing stopping you from doing so, the end result will be a real disappointment. Even today’s very light-sensitive cameras will produce an image that has a shallow depth of field and a gray, grainy look, if the lighting is not right.

Begin your setup by determining the primary light source and the size of the shot you will need. If you are shooting primarily closeups and medium shots, your lights can be small and close to your subject. However, if you are shooting long or wide shots, you will need to place your lighting instruments in such a way that you do not see them or cannot tell that they are supplementing the light sources you can see. A streetlight, while very bright to our eyes in a dark night, really doesn’t produce much light, so you will need to supplement it to create the look you need. Let’s take a look at a close and distant setup.

Intimate Night Lighting

For the close and medium shot setups, you need to duplicate the source of the light in the natural world with smaller lights that are set fairly close to your subject. If duplicating a scene under a streetlight, place your main light so that it is at a very high angle above the talent. Use a bounce card just out of camera shot in front of the talent, to add a bit of fill light in the talent’s face. This will give the idea that there are other light sources around; they are just not very bright. In the distance, place some small plain and colored light sources to imitate city lights or stop lights. Use your imagination. Go out on a street, look at a similar situation and duplicate it, keeping in mind that you will have to control the fall of your lights to keep them from lighting anything you don’t want to see.

If you are shooting “under the moonlight,” you can place two color-temperature-blue or CTB gels on your light and place it at a 45-degree angle at the two o’clock position in front of your talent. Add some slowly-moving leafy branches in front of the light, and you have a woodsy moonlit night. Don’t white-balance with the gel on the light; if you do, the camera will think that it is white light and will eliminate the color totally.

You can use the same setup indoors. Place a light outside a window and shine it through a set of blinds. The resulting light will look like moonlight through blinds and will create a very convincing night scene.

Night Lighting and the Long Shot

The long or wide shot at night is a lot more problematic and takes much more powerful lights to pull it off. The best lights to use for long shots at night are powerful 12K HMIs. These are usually way off the budget mark for smaller productions. However, to accomplish the type of stark, hard lighting you see in the movies or in reality, you need a lot of light. If you can get your hands on a brighter light, set it up just out of camera shot, approximating the position of the natural light source. Add tree branches or walls to provide deep shadows. If you are shooting on a street, wet it down to create a harsh, reflective surface to give the light some bounce. The idea is to create a bright background to silhouette your talent. If, however, you shoot with the light behind you so that you can see your talent’s face, be very aware of your own shadow. Remember, it may seem like there is a whole lot of light flying around, but, if you check in your monitor, you will see that with the right exposure (read f-stop), you will have crisp blacks and stark whites.

Fog Lighting

Adding a touch of fog can really punch up any exterior night scene. You can rent a fog machine from a theatre supply house. Set the machine for a light mist, making sure that the light source is behind the fog and shining through it, not on it. Wait for the fog to dissipate a little bit and create a fairly even cover without obscuring your talent. This will take some experimenting to get right, but, with a little patience and luck, you should be able to create a very dramatic scene.

A Night Lighting Final Note

While lighting scenes at night can be fun and a great creative challenge, it can also be frustratingly slow to set up and shoot. Any time you set up a shoot at night, remember to add at least another half hour to every hour it might take you to do something during the day. Crews work more slowly at night, it is harder to find things by flashlight and we just don’t function as quickly at night. That said, grab a flashlight, kick in the creative juices and get ready for a nighttime of lighting fun!

Contributing editor Dr. Robert G. Nulph teaches college-level video and film production and is an independent video/film producer/director.

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