Light is the most essential element in videomaking. Here’s how to make the best use of it.
If you’ve arrived at videomaking by way of film photography, you probably glory in your new freedom from the tyranny of light. Adios, eight different kinds of film for different light conditions! Adieu to strobes that dot your subjects’ eyes with red Satanic disks! In any light from moonless night to blinding beach you grab your new camcorder and blast away, confident that it will capture images.
As indeed it will.
The trouble is that night shots often look like fringe reception on a 1951 Crosley TV. Those
colorful umbrellas at the beach can bloom and smear alarmingly. Birthday-party interiors seem filtered
through ginger ale. The bride and groom outside the church display the cold and pearly flesh of vampires
trapped by sunrise.
How come? Though camcorders do work in almost any light, pleasing images demand the right
light: the right amount, the right color, and the right mix of bright and dark.
All of which means lighting.
If you’re afraid that lighting demands the complexity and cost of studio techniques, rejoice; good
video lighting can be simple, inexpensive, and hassle-free. You see, there are just four types of lighting
problems, and all are fixable with quick and cheap solutions. These types of problems are:
- Too much light (blooming and smearing).
- Too much light and dark at once (contrasty images).
- Too much dark (muddy, grainy pictures).
- Wrong color light (metallic blue or pumpkin orange tints).
We can correct light with the wrong overall color (“white balance”) so easily that it needs scant attention here. To obtain pleasing hues, simply set your camcorder for the color of the light in which you’re shooting. In cool daylight or fluorescent light set the white balance control to “outdoor.” For warmer incandescent light (light bulbs) set it to “indoor.” If you’re not sure, or if you’re shooting quickly in a variety of light conditions, set white balance to automatic. (Less expensive camcorders may have only automatic mode.) End of story.
The other three kinds of lighting dilemmas need more explanation, so we’ll spread ’em out one at a
time, starting with the problem of too much light.
Too Much Light
For a refugee from film, the notion of “excessive light” may seem as ridiculous as “excessive money.”
Too much light? Get outta here!
But the fact is that overly bright illumination can seriously degrade picture quality. Colors
“bloom”–that is, they flare like white or red or yellow sunspots. They also “smear,” bleeding past their
boundaries to stain adjacent objects in the frame. These unpleasant effects occur most often in
spectacularly bright environments like ski slopes or beaches, but they can mess up your picture in any
place that sports strong sunshine.
How come? In your camcorder, the imaging chip and circuitry that turn light into pictures have an
amazing range of sensitivity. Working with the lens iris (a variable window that regulates the percentage of
available light admitted), your system can record excellent images in lighting that runs the gamut from
cheerful interiors to moderately bright exteriors. But though the flexibility of video far exceeds that of any
single photographic film, it still operates within a certain limited range. Camcorder designers have chosen
to position that range for optimal results in moderate light, and that excludes bright sunshine.
Fortunately, the cure for too much light is easy: it’s called a neutral-density filter and it’s
obtainable at video and camera stores for a relative pittance (typically under $25). Thread this gray glass
disk onto the front of your lens and voila! Your camera’s wearing sunglasses. It’s that simple. Some high-
end cameras are even simpler because they have built-in neutral-density filters that you enable with a
By blocking part of the incoming light, a neutral-density filter reduces it to a level within the
camcorder’s best imaging range. The picture improvement is instant and substantial. (If the store offers
filters in a range of densities, an “ND9” or “ND12” model usually works well.)
A neutral-density filter delivers two other benefits as well. For one thing, bright light increases
your lens’ depth of field (the distance, in front of the lens, through which objects appear sharp). At wide-
angle lens settings, this depth of field can be so extreme that it includes the front of the lens itself!
“So what?” you ask. Well, if the lens’ glass is in focus, the camcorder will record each fingerprint,
each smudge, each mite of dust or sand as a big fat pimple on your picture. And like any blemish, that’s
embarrassing. By reducing the light, the neutral-density filter also reduces the depth of field and moves it
out beyond the lens, rendering dirt invisible, or nearly so.
The second benefit of this filter also involves dirt. Lenses are coated with delicate chemicals to
improve picture quality, and restoring ruined coatings is expensive or even impossible. And the lens
surface itself is vulnerable to scratches. By placing a neutral-density filter in front of the lens, you protect
the delicate glass from contamination by dirt and fingerprint skin oil, and from scratches. In effect, the
cheap filter takes the flak for the expensive lens.
(A brief aside here: lens protection is so essential that even when you don’t need a neutral-density
filter, you should guard the lens with what you might call a transparent lens cap–a clear glass filter
designated “skylight,” “1A,” or “UV.)
Too Much Contrast
The next big lighting problem is too much contrast, meaning too great a difference in brightness
between the lightest and darkest parts of the picture. Your human vision can handle scenes in which the
brightest object is perhaps a hundred times as light as the darkest. With camcorders, however, the broadest
light-to-dark ratio is a piddling five to one.
The result? Recording high-contrast scenes, your camcorder’s auto-exposure system correctly
reads the dark majority of the picture and lets the lightest minority flare out to blazing white. Or much
more commonly, the exposure system correctly exposes the bright majority (the sky, the sea, the snow, the
light wall) and plunges the darkest parts of the image into Stygian gloom. That’s okay some of the time,
because opaque shadows irritate viewers less than blaring highlights.
Except when those opaque shadows contain the center of interest, usually the person you’re trying
to videotape. How many times have you seen a shot with the unimportant sky perfectly exposed while the
person in front of it is a featureless silhouette?
There are two ways of coping with excessive contrast:
- Lower the contrast to a range that the camcorder can handle or,
- Change the exposure to correctly record the important parts of the image.
To change the exposure you can enable the backlight switch on your camcorder (most models
have them in one form or another.) The backlight control increases overall exposure to lighten up the dark
The problem lies in that word “overall.” Because increasing exposure applies equally to
everything in the image, it lightens the bright parts even further. The result: a well-exposed foreground
subject against a sea or sky of ghastly, overexposed white. Backlight compensator controls are useful
where the shadowy foreground is important and where you have no way to lighten it up.
But if you can light the foreground instead, you can fill in the shadows, reducing the contrast ratio
enough so that your camcorder can correctly expose both the lightest and darkest parts of the picture.
Camera-mounted lights can achieve this for close shots, but your tool of choice here is a reflector.
A reflector is a card or a fabric-covered hoop, usually white or aluminum-colored, for bouncing
sunlight into shadowy areas to lighten them. Reflectors are such versatile videomaking tools that we’ve
covered their uses in detail (notably in “Upon Reflection,” February, 1996 and “Reflectors,” February,
1995). Here, we’ll confine ourselves to some basic applications that are quick and easy to master.
Step one, of course is, obtain reflector. Card reflectors are cheap and easy. At any art supply store,
buy a two-foot square of white cardboard or foamcore sandwich board. For more versatility, crinkle up
aluminum-foil sheets, straighten them out again, then glue them to one side of your board (3M Type 77
spray adhesive works great for this). The end product is a board with one diffused-light side (white) and
one bright side (foil).
Alternatively, buy silvered-plastic hoop-type windshield shades (under $10 a pair, with handy-
dandy carry pouch) or order white hoop-and-fabric reflectors. The latter do cost $15.95 a pair, but I can tell
you from lengthy field testing that they last much longer. (They also work as auto shades.) Either way, you
will have a pair of reflectors that instantly fold into small packets for storage.
Of the many techniques for using reflectors, the simplest are diagrammed in figures 1 and 2.
Figure 1b shows how a white reflector fills the shadowed face
for good exposure. Figure 1c reveals how to position the reflector. (For wider shots, an assistant can hold it
Don’t use a silver reflector this way. At this close range it will hurt the subject’s eyes. Instead,
position an aluminum reflector well back, as shown in figure 2b that the cross light
from the side reflector looks different from the light bounced upward from the white reflector.
One last hint: fabric reflectors move in the breeze, which makes their fill light waver as it plays
across the subject. Near water or under leafy boughs this can create a nice effect; but otherwise keep
reflectors as still as possible.
Too Much Dark
What if there’s not enough light to reflect? That’s when you turn on your own light to illuminate your
subjects. If instruction on reflector use is worth whole articles, video lighting has filled entire textbooks.
But don’t worry: you can do some nifty lighting tricks with less than 50 bucks worth of hardware and 25
minutes worth of practice.
But first, why do you need to light at all when your camcorder will capture an image in even the
poorest illumination? Because at low light levels the quality of that image will range from poor to just plain
awful: muddy, indistinct, and almost colorless.
And the images will crawl with grain, as if you’d stumbled into a locust plague or a caddis-fly
mating orgy. You see, a camcorder can’t do anything about too much light, but it can compensate for too
little: it magnifies whatever light it does get by electronically amplifying the signal. That is, it simply
cranks up the volume. The result is a picture full of distortion and electronic noise, just like an overly loud
To avoid this problem, you need to throw more light on underlit subjects by using a camera-
mounted light, a bounce light, or both. Each method works very well, and with both together, you can
achieve a gratifying improvement in image quality.
The simplest lighting solution is a battery-powered unit that mounts directly on your camcorder
and so aims at whatever you’re taping. It delivers a modest light increase that doesn’t overwhelm the natural
light, but does punch up your subjects (just a lighting jargon phrase, there; nobody really gets hit). The
effects of camera-mounted front-fill light are evident from figure 3b.
Battery lights that cost less than our advertised ceiling of $50 will be fairly simple, but you should
look for these features as you shop:
- Separate battery. Avoid units that suck power from the camcorder battery. They’re worse than
- Variable power. Some models in this range accept lamps (bulbs) of different wattages for
delivering different light levels to fit different shooting situations.
- Tilting head. In some circumstances, the more powerful camera-mounted lights can be
swiveled up or sideways to bounce fill light off of ceilings or walls.
But in the bounce-fill department, nothing beats a standalone halogen light. This is a separate,
AC-powered light on a stand with a tungsten-halogen lamp. Because these lamps were originally
developed for photography, their overall color cast is exactly right for your camcorder’s indoor white-
We say “originally developed” because halogen lights are no longer limited to expensive studio
lighting equipment. Nowadays you’ll see them sold as work lights in every big hardware store and discount
builders’-supply warehouse. You can find two-head models on telescoping floor stands and single-head
models that sit on low feet. Be sure to choose a unit with a 500 watt lamp, rather than 150 or 250. To my
personal taste, the most versatile version has a single head, a short shaft, and an industrial clamp instead of
feet. I found a model yesterday at my local depot/club/mart for under
Here’s how you can use this light to increase overall light levels:
- Mount the unit close to a wall (on the back of a chair) or the ceiling (perhaps on the edge of a
door). Make sure it is at least 24 to 30 inches from wall or ceiling surfaces, to avoid scorching.
- Find a wall outlet on a circuit that is not already loaded (500 watts is about 1/3 the power
consumption of a small heater).
- Angle the unit so that the light bounces off the wall or ceiling and into the area that you’re taping.
That’s all there is to it. Oh, two more things: Never put fingers on halogen lamps, even when cool, because skin acids ruin their quartz mantles. And turn them off when not needed because they create heat, and burnouts are expensive to replace.
Bounce lighting like this provides very flat, even illumination. To perk up your lighting design a
bit, try combining broad halogen fill light with more directional front lighting from an on-camera light.
The result has a professional feel to it that’s very satisfying.
Not so fast! you protest, I’m still at the reflector stage, learning to collapse those silly steel
You’re absolutely right: you don’t have to use all these lighting ideas at once. But I think you’ll
agree that they’re all cheap and simple enough to attract the attention of videomakers who are now getting