Douglas Miller, MFA, is the Associate Professor of Cinematic Arts at the Zaki Gordon Center at Liberty University. His resume includes film and network television with productions ranging from soap operas and commercials to PBS documentaries and special events. Professor Miller has worked his way up in the industry since the 1980âs. He graduated from City College of Buffalo, NY and started in production. âI worked my way up as a gaffer, key grip and as an electric grip. I was first and second AC in the camera department, and ultimately became a director of photography.â
Miller says that heâs learned a lot about lighting in his career, because heâs made a lot of mistakes. We asked him to give us a list of his top five problem lighting situations and solutions. His responses are in no particular order:
1. Night Shoots
Whether itâs interior or exterior Miller says, âPeople think, âweâll just turn off the lights and keep things under-exposedâ. That doesn’t work because our eyes see things so differently than a camera does. You have to light.â He points out that modern digital cameras handle low light much better, but under-exposure can mean a noisy or grainy image.
The solution is knowing what you want the final image to look like. He says it pays to watch a lot of film and television and study the scenes for good and bad lighting. He says that, even at night, your goal is to shape the scene with proper light and shadows. He recommends careful planning. âWhere are the shadows? Is it a harsh light? Is it a soft light? Asking those questions can get you to a place where youâre tackling the difficult situations successfully.â
2. Rooms With Lots of Glass
The next head-scratcher is the opposite situation: locations that have lots of light. âAnything with windows and glass and chrome or any surface that can be reflective,â can be difficult to light Miller explains. He uses the example of modern office buildings. They are often filled with glass and chrome.
Professor Millerâs solution is, again to ask the right questions. âWhere can I put instruments? Where will the glare hit the surface? It becomes three-dimensional puzzle making. Youâve got to be very aware of the details, but you canât sacrifice the actorâs look.â He says that often a lot of trial and error will help get the right light, but taking into account camera placement is critical.
3. Chroma Key (Blue or Green Screen)
Most people are aware that green screen lighting needs to be even, but Miller says, âItâs important that you put it in the right place on the waveform monitor, and you get it in the right place in terms of exposure.â Itâs not a matter of simply blasting light on the screen.
His solution is have a good reference monitor that shows the color spectrum. âIf itâs over exposed, you lose chroma.â A hotspot could mean the frame is no longer the same green (or blue) and will therefore be harder to key.
4. Product Shot (Objects instead of People)
Miller has done a lot of commercials in his time. He says that, it may not seem obvious, but there is a difference between lighting a thing rather than a person. He says that in object shots, âPeople have a tendency to put the instruments too close to the camera and it flattens everything out.â
Pulling the lights farther away and at different angles will give objects the proper edges. Miller says that shadow and fill are essential: âItâs the nature of the object that matters. Does the object have sharp or rounded edges?â Let the edges be edges.
5. Large Outdoor Venues
Whenever you are working outdoors, you have a single light source that is always moving and changing â the sun. As it moves across the sky, the shadow and color temperature will shift. The bigger the venue, the more difficult the challenge. Professor Miller points out his days working on PBSâs âA Capitol Fourthâ were challenging. âThe show is live and it would start in daylight and end in darkness. We go through that whole sunset time period.â
Ultimately, you have to know where the light will end.
Miller say that it’s good idea to bring a compass on a site survey so you know where the sun is going to be. âYou have to think through camera positions and where the light is going to fall.â Ultimately, you have to know where the light will end. For that production, it was making regular but subtle lighting shifts. He says, again, planning ahead is the solution.
Professor Miller tells all of his students that, âLighting is not a formula, itâs an art. Think about the chip as being your canvas, and youâre painting with the light. Youâre looking to get the feel for the kind of scene that you want, and make it believable. Youâre telling the story. If you can do that, youâre going to end up being successful.â
Jeff Chaves is the Chief Creative Officer of Grace Pictures Inc., which he co-owns with his wife, Peggy. He got his start as an Army Broadcaster in the 1980s and spent 12 plus years working on broadcasting. Jeff left broadcast television to pursue full-time ministry.