Young girl lit by light from a window.

That sinking feeling when the client sees you drive up to the location and offers to help you carry in some equipment just as you realize “Oh [insert expletive of choice], I Forgot My Lights!” For a brief moment, you’re a blathering idiot, but somehow you recover, calm your nerves and say, “Nah I decided to travel light on this shoot.” Once inside you take a deep breath, scan the situation and a sudden calm rushes over you because you really do “have it together.” That’s because, as a professional videographer, nothing gets in the way of a great shoot — unless of course you forgot the camera but that’s another story.

The Moment of Panic

So when something like this really does happen — and believe me it will happen — the first thing to do is calm your panic because the client will sense your frustration and that vibe will kill the shoot. The second thing you do is switch gears and assess the situation with a different point of view. “Ok no lights. Now what?”

I’ve been on shoots where I brought carts loads of equipment only to here “You can’t bring that in, only your camera is allowed in.” Or, “Sorry, we need an electrician on site if that stuff needs to be plugged in.” Or you may have brought everything including the kitchen sink but somehow you forgot the cords and you really don’t want to compromise that professional appearance you walked in with by asking if anybody happens to have a power cord for an Arri light base.

Over the years, I have had enormous admiration for those who capture video or stills in places where not only is there no electricity but, even if there were places to plug in, it would probably not be very safe to use lights due to the circumstances of the situation, say, like a war zone.

Taking Stock

If I don’t have lights the first thing I do is ask myself “what they do?” Or to put it another way I enable “photojournalism mode” and look at what I do have rather than worry about what I don’t have. With that said, if you can see, then there is some light, and fortunately, with today’s technology, your camera should be able to see something as well. So there’s a start.

Now all you have to do is look around, find where the light is coming from and use that as your starting point. Hopefully things aren’t as dire as the “war zone” situation above and it’s a simple interview and there are a few sources of light which may allow you to strategically position your subject in such a way as to create solid, flattering light for your subject while revealing the surroundings.

If it’s daylight then you’re lucky because there probably is a window and you can use that as your main light.

If it’s daylight then you’re lucky because there probably is a window and you can use that as your main light. But that may actually be too bright which can cause your subject to squint. That’s not so bad because too much light can easily be tamed by moving you subject further away and have them facing another way. In this case, the window becomes the fill for the entire room and the ambient becomes the main light. This works well because the lighting is soft and flattering for both the room and the subject so the subject can relax without bright lights in their eyes and they can provide a great interview.

Woman lit by light from windows to the left and behind offers key and back lighting while a soft reflection from the light-colored wall on the right provides fill to even out the shadows.
Woman lit by light from windows to the left and behind offers key and back lighting while a soft reflection from the light-colored wall on the right provides fill to even out the shadows.

But what if you’re not so lucky and it’s nighttime and there is only overhead florescent lighting such as you may find in an office. This can be challenging because direct overhead lighting can be pretty ominous and unflattering. In a situation like this, the carpet is usually dark and provides little reflection so it provides little or no fill for the shadows. Try to find an area with lighter flooring or even take the interview into a hallway where the walls are closer and can provide some fill.

If you have reflectors then positioning them directly below your camera will help in filling in the shadows. If you don’t have any then try to find something such as a large foam core board or whiteboard laying around. Usually offices or conference rooms have things like this lying around and if you can’t find anything there try the lunch room, but by all means try to look professional while searching for “help.”

Remaining Composed

This is a great time to remember why you always arrive on the job on time or even better a bit early. If you are late and have forgot your lighting panic most likely will set in and your reputation could be compromised as well as the production. The main point here is to always retain your composure and figure out how to get the job done without letting any one know you were, for a brief moment, completely panicked.

Terry O’Rourke has 20+ years in studio and location lighting experience and specializes in still and video capture for advertising and editorial productions and has clients throughout the US as well as Europe and Australia.

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I have been working as a DP and editor in video production for over 10 years.

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