Camcorders are sensitive enough to operate in almost any illumination, so many videomakers don’t bother with lighting. They’re content to shoot in what one wag dubbed “available darkness.”
Then they wonder why the results look so, well, amateurish.
The reason is that “enough light to shoot” is not at all the same as “good lighting,” and you could argue that available light comes in only two crude forms:
- Uniform, overall lighting, which is too bland, or
- Every other kind of lighting, which is too contrasty.
Does that mean you have to lug a studio light kit and stay dependent on shore power? Not if you master the simple craft of controlling light with reflectors, nets, and other inexpensive hardware.
How inexpensive? As with any other aspect of videomaking, the answer depends on the kinds of programs you make, the methods you use to shoot them, and your future plans for developing your craft. Like camcorders and editing systems, reflectors and their relatives can be selected and used at several levels of sophistication.
And that’s our topic du jour. Our charge here is to sketch a hierarchy of lighting control devices, so that you can match equipment to your particular needs. When we’ve finished, you should be able to select a hardware kit that fits your present applications and anticipates your plans for growth. (For a roundup of commercially available lighting control products, consult Reflectors, by Robert Borgatti in the February ’95 Videomaker; and to learn how to use these tools effectively, see Outside Lighting by Michael Loehr in the October ’94 issue.)
To organize our survey, we’ll identify four levels of videomakers: casual users, serious amateurs, prosumers, and mid-level professionals. For each level, we’ll suggest lighting control equipment in four categories: reflection, diffusion/deflection, support, and accessory. All this is summarized in the accompanying matrix.
As you inspect this grid keep one important fact in mind: many of the items at the more sophisticated levels do not replace those listed at the simpler levels. Instead, they are added to the working kit. For instance, videomakers at the prosumer, industrial, and studio levels continue to use the foamcore board that first appears at the serious amateur level, even though they’ve added other products.
Another thing: reflectors are usually thought of as outdoor equipment, employed when using actual lights is impractical. But because they provide softer lighting and because they increase the efficiency of movie lights, reflectors are as commonly found indoors as out.
With these two points in mind, we’re ready to start our survey by seeing what weekend video warriors need in their lighting control kits.
The Casual User
Even the most inexperienced point-and-shooter can benefit from reflectors -and have fun playing with them too.
To obtain a simple reflector, there’s nothing cheaper than aluminum foil stretched over a piece of cardboard. And if that cardboard has a white surface, you can take your choice of four different intensities.
For a very hard, “specular” reflection, use the shiny side of the foil. For a slightly softer light, use the dull side instead. (Because the light bounced from smooth aluminum reflectors can hurt people’s eyes, position them well away from your subjects, or else use them for back-lighting.) To diffuse the bounced light still further, ball up the foil and then spread it flat again, to create thousands of tiny, wrinkled facets that break up the light. And for the softest, most flattering fill light, forget the foil and use the white cardboard surface.
Whichever version you use, aluminum foil reflectors cost a few pennies, take a few seconds to build, and can be discarded when you wrap the shoot.
The casual videomaker can also use diffusion to create a soft, even light, and there’s nothing quicker and easier than an old bed sheet. Just string a piece of line between the subject and the sun and clothespin the sheet to it. The result is a wonderfully soft even light that’s great for projects such as documenting valuables for insurance purposes.
A clothes line holds up the sheet, but what supports the reflector? The casual user doesn’t want to be burdened with stands or other supports, so a friend or family member can often be pressed into service. Setup time: one minute. Cost: zilch.
In the accessory department, spring-loaded clothespins are great. They’ll hold the foil on the cardboard or the sheet on the line. And like the foil itself, you don’t have to make them official members of your shooting kit -just dig ’em out of a kitchen or laundry room drawer when needed.
So if you’re just getting started in videomaking, try out these ultra-simple, ultra-cheapo tools. You’ll be amazed at the instant improvement in your video lighting.
The Serious Amateur
If you’ve reached the level of enthusiastic video hobbyist, you already know about foil reflectors (though at this level, you may want to add some gold foil gift wrap, to make reflectors that cast a warm and flattering light). Now you want lighting control sophisticated enough for more subtle effects but still portable and inexpensive.
For reflectors, try flexible hoop-and-fabric types. Hoop reflectors consist of a cloth surface stretched on a ring of spring steel. They weigh very little, and by twisting the hoop to coil it, you can reduce the reflector to a fraction of its open size.
The aluminized cloth version sold widely as auto sunshades is a terrific bargain. For $10 or less, you can get not one but two reflectors (plus handy-dandy carrying case) with a shiny surface on one side and a softer surface on the other.
(WARNING: shameless product plug ahead!) For an even softer look, Videomaker sells white fabric hoop reflectors for $14.95 a pair that double as auto sun shades. They cast an excellent fill light, especially for medium shots and closeups. They also work well as light diffusers, but before jumping over to that column in our matrix, we need to mention two other types of reflectors: insulation rolls and movie screens.
Yes, movie screens, especially for shooting indoors. If you’ve used economical halogen work lights you know that they throw a rather harsh and unflattering light pattern. Bouncing them off the ceiling softens them, but throws away a lot of intensity.
Instead, try placing a home movie screen in the position of a key or fill light and bouncing the work light’s beam off it. You’ll get a much larger, softer light source but still use more of the work light’s output.
As for insulation, Reflectix (TM) sells rolls of thin bubble pack material, with aluminized plastic sheeting bonded to both surfaces. The mottled surface created by the bubbles breaks up the light and the material is stiff enough to hand-hold without a cardboard backing. When you wrap the shoot, you can roll a two-foot wide piece into a cylinder three inches thick. The two-foot-square reflectors weighs about five ounces.
This material is very good for creating large surfaces because it’s quite inexpensive, it comes in widths up to 48 inches, and it withstands relatively high temperatures (though you should never bring hot lights too close to any type of reflector surface).
And when it’s not bouncing light for you, this versatile stuff can do all sorts of other things, from acting as a space blanket underneath your sleeping bag to cushioning the bottom of your camcorder bag. Reflectix is widely available in hardware and building supply stores.
At the serious amateur level, another important reflector product is foamcore board. As its name suggests, foamcore consists of a thin sheet of styrofoam with a sheet of heavy paper bonded to each surface. The resulting sandwich is extremely light and stiff.
You can use white-faced foamcore alone for soft fill light, or use it to back foil or hoop-and-fabric reflectors, which otherwise wave in the slightest breeze. (That makes the fill light waver too, an unacceptable side effect.)
Foam core is available in several sizes up to four by eight feet, and in several thicknesses. The half-inch thick variety will withstand rougher, longer use, but it is pricier than thinner versions (up to $15 for a 2×2 sheet). It comes in many colors, but most of them are not useful for videomakers. For example, in the very large, professional, urban art supply store where I researched foamcore for this piece, I couldn’t find cream paper or gold foil surfaces to use in warming up the reflected light or pale blue ones for cooling it.
Foamcore is a double-duty product, so let’s follow it over to the diffusion/deflection column of our matrix. Being quite opaque, this material is worthless for diffusing the light, but terrific for blocking it. If you want to shade off some part of your image, just position a piece of this board to cast a shadow on it. You can even get custom shadows by cutting foamcore with a sharp knife.
To use foamcore as a light blocker, of course, you have to hold it in place, and that means support. At the video hobbyist level, you probably want neither the bulk nor the expense of dedicated accessory stands, so here are two less expensive ideas.
First, use a second tripod as a stand. Most units can be raised to at least six feet high with the center column fully extended. Perhaps you have a lightweight model around that is okay for still photography but too stiff in the head and too wobbly in the legs for video work. It’ll do fine as a stand.
And how do you secure things to it? To the casual user’s clothespins, the serious amateur might add a few spring clamps of the type sold in hardware stores. The better ones have arms coated with vinyl, so they won’t mar surfaces. Use them to clamp cardboard or foamcore to the tripod -or to any other suitable support.
In the accessory column of our matrix, duct tape now makes its appearance. Unless you’ve been living in a cave (or a billionaire’s penthouse) you know all about duct tape already, and how much of the world it holds together. It is indispensable in any serious videomaking as well (but don’t use it to tape up reflectors and sheets because it does disagreeable things to paint).
For the entry-level professional, lighting control products grow more versatile and (of course!) more expensive.
In the reflector box, we find hoop and fabric models like the units made by Flexfill (TM). In concept, Flexfill reflectors are absolutely identical to five-dollar car shades. The difference is in details like these: XX They come in four sizes (up to five feet in diameter) and eight different surfaces. o The steel perimeters are much sturdier and, unlike cheap units, are almost an inch wide, for much greater stability in the open position. o The fabric covers are much tougher physically, and more heat resistant as well. The storage bags are the same extra heavy canvas that’s often used for camera gadget bags.
In each size, you can get three models with different colors on each surface (white/silver, white/gold, black/silver) as well as plain white. Though prices vary from one vendor to the next, the prices for the 20 inch, 38 inch, 48 inch, and 60 inch models average around $60, $100, $120, and $170. For under $60 you can get an adjustable holder for attaching any size Flexfill to any standard light stand.
Though a varied complement of these units could easily cost $1,000 or more, a prosumer-level outfit might include a 60 inch silver/white reversible, a holder arm, and a medium duty light stand like the Pro-9 model from Stanrite. The package cost: around $300.
Flexfill also makes units for diffusion and deflection, in all four hoop sizes. Models include a translucent fabric diffuser, black nets in single and double fabric layers, and an opaque black unit. Prices are comparable (though the 60 inch double black net runs $50 more).
But in the diffusion department, there is a more economical way to go: garden netting. In any large garden or greenhouse supply outlet you can buy black nylon screening intended to reduce the sunlight hitting tender plants. Some netting is sold by the yard, unhemmed. You can also obtain units hemmed and grommetted in various sizes, like plastic tarps.
The good news, of course, is that the cost per square foot is markedly lower. The bad news is that you must design and build the diffusion screen yourself. (For suggestions on how to do this, see the accompanying sidebar.)
In the department of support for your reflectors, we’ve already mentioned the Flexfill adjustable arm, mated to a standard light stand. In addition, you may also want to consider water weights. A water weight is an elegantly simple idea: a collapsible plastic bag that weighs next to nothing until you fill it with water. Then you can use it to hold down reflector stands.
Why go to the trouble? If you think about it, you’ll see that a reflector is basically a sail: a large, light surface held up enticingly before the wind. Outdoors especially, you’d better weight your reflector stands down, unless you want to see your investment heading for the county line at treetop altitude.
The Lowel company, long a leader in lightweight lighting instruments and accessories, offers a water weight for under $20. For the cash-impaired, the Reliance Company of Canada makes similar bottles of excellent quality for half that cost or less. (They’re widely available in the U.S. in sporting goods stores and camping departments.) Like the professional model from Lowel, the Reliance bottle has a built-in provision for attaching it to the base of a light stand. Beware of cheaper collapsible water bottles, which lack this essential feature.
Finally, how does the prosumer videomaker accessorize? With gaffer’s tape, wonderful gaffer’s tape, introduced by Mr. Lowel of Lowel Light fame, in 1959. Gaffer’s tape looks just like duct tape; but Gaffer is to duct as Ferrari is to Fiat. The stuff is so sticky that you can actually use it to tape a movie light to a wall, and it will stay securely all day. But when you remove the light, a patient touch will let you pull up the tape without a speck of wall paint on it.
Professional production studios go through gaffer’s tape by the furlong because you can apply it anywhere you’d normally use duct tape. Don’t try that at home though, because at $22.50 for a 30-yard roll, the original Lowel brand gaffer’s tape is not cost-effective for fixing old sneakers.
The Mid-Level Pro
Industrial video production houses can invest in sturdier, more versatile lighting control equipment. In the reflection column, you’ll see rigid, stand-mounted reflectors. These stiff, heavy models are less affected by wind, and once set up, they can be left unattended -at least until the sun has moved appreciably.
My personal favorite is the Variflector II from Lowel. Because its panel is made of vertical strips like barrel staves that are hinged together, you can narrow or widen the reflection beam by changing the panel’s curvature. This same flexible design allows the reflector to be rolled into a tight cylinder and stored in a compact case. At $345 list, the Variflector II is not inexpensive, but anyone who has tried to cope with bulky, rigid, heavy reflectors is too grateful for its convenience to haggle about price.
At the industrial level, the lighting umbrella also makes its appearance. Lowel, Bogen, and several other companies make umbrella reflectors in a variety of surfaces, along with the hardware to mount lights directly on their shafts. An umbrella reflector turns a small, hard light source into a large, soft one.
In the diffusion column, umbrellas are also supplied in white or cream translucent versions. With these umbrellas, you aim the light through the fabric instead of bouncing it off.
In this column you also find a much wider repertory of materials for diffusing and deflecting light, including sheets of translucent plastic vellum, spun fiberglass, and a variety of nets and opaque flags.
How do you support all this stuff? Thought you’d never ask. At the mid industrial level we see the appearance of that wonderful appliance, the century stand, usually called a “C stand.” A C stand is a three-legged beast similar to a studio light stand, though with a different leg design. But instead of a light, its top carries a patent clamp. Though this clamp will hold anything, it’s optimized for a rod called an arm, that can be clamped to stick out at any angle you choose.
On the end of that arm is another copy of the clamp, and it’s this magic device that will grip cardboard, foamcore, small lights, or anything else you choose. The C stand is as elegant as duct tape and just as indispensable.
You can get one from a number of suppliers. The Bogen company’s Avenger line is versatile and attractively priced. Their model A256b lists for about $150, including an arm, and you can find it at discounts of up to 30 percent.
And what about accessories? At the mid-professional level they grow too numerous to cover; but one item stands above the rest: a light meter. Though you can evaluate lighting designs by eyeballing the effect on a monitor, a meter offers much more precise information. The classic Sekonic incident meter lists for $159 and you can find it for $30 less -a great bargain for what it gives you.
So there’s a quick survey of lighting control devices. As you study the different levels of sophistication, keep in mind that you needn’t abandon simpler solutions as your productions grow more complex. You can be sure that even in that fifty million dollar Hollywood extravaganza, at some point, they probably bounced light into a scene with a piece of aluminum foil!
A Simple Net Frame
Often it makes sense to reduce lighting contrast by diffusing the direct sunlight. To achieve this, here’s an extremely simple do-it-yourself screen and frame.
The frame is one-inch pvc schedule 40 plastic pipe (or equivalent), assembled using plastic elbows for the corners and pipe connectors to, well, connect the pipes.
The screen is plant shade mesh, obtainable from nursery supply houses. If you can’t find a fully finished (hemmed and grommetted) shade, you’ll find that this nylon cloth can be sewed on a regular-weight sewing machine. Grommet kits are sold for a couple of dollars at most hardware stores.
The dimensions? Whatever you like, or, more probably, whatever the length and width of your finished screen turn out to be. A couple of suggestions, though:
- Don’t make the frame bigger than eight by twelve feet. The plastic pipe is too flexible to remain stiff for a run longer than twelve feet. I recommend a six by nine proportion.
- Cut all your pipe pieces the same length, so that any piece will fit anywhere in the frame. For an eight by twelve frame, make each piece four feet long. For six by nine, cut them three feet long. (This pipe is sold in standard twelve- foot lengths, evenly devisable by either four or three.)
If you do make the six-by-nine version, here’s an alternate idea: make the six-foot sides of single lengths of pipe. To store the net, put these two sides together and roll the net around them.
Reflections on a Marriage in Malibu
A while back, a wedding videomaker faced a formidable lighting problem. The happy couple were getting spliced in an outdoor extravaganza on an open field that ended at a cliff above Malibu, California, facing the Pacific ocean.
Facing the sun as well, for this 4 p.m. ceremony.
And with no electrical power in sight.
On top of which, the videomaker was required to place his main camera on the shady side of the action, and over 40 feet away from it, as you can see from figure 2a. His second camera was also in big trouble, since it would be shooting directly at the blinding ocean. Even on manual iris, good exposure would be nearly impossible. (The view from camera 2 is shown in figure 2b.)
Our hero solved both problems with just one reflector and one piece of diffusion netting. Learning that the ceremony would take place in front of a lattice bower garlanded with flowers, he obtained permission to staple two layers of black diffusion netting across the back of this structure. The result, invisible to both the camera and the wedding guests, solved the second camera’s exposure problem. (The sun behind the wedding party painted a romantic rim-light for this camera too.)
To solve the problem of shooting the shady side of the ceremony with camera 1, he positioned a hard-surface, stand- mounted reflector beside the camera and trained it on bride, groom, and minister. Because the reflector was so far away and so far to the side, its normally blinding light beam was broadened and softened to the level of diffuse fill. From this angle as well, the western sun back-lit the party with a warm, romantic rim light.
Needless to say the results were spectacular – and they were achieved with the simplest possible lighting control equipment.
Aluminum foil, white cardboard
friend, clothes line
car sunshades, foamcore board, foil/bubble insulation, projection screen
translucent hoops, foamcore
prof. hoops, 2-color reflectors, colored card stock
hoop stands, water weights
Rigid reflectors, focusable reflectors, umbrellas
translucent umbrellas, vellum, spun glass, flags, nets, scrims
integrated reflector stands, c-stands