Light Source: Lighting for the Internet

By now, it’s old news that video for the Internet should be simple in order to conserve bandwidth and constrain file size. Complicated images and frequent movement produce artifacts, dropped frames, and an overall quality that almost equals the first attempts of Thomas A. Edison. (This used to somewhat be the case with home DVD as well, but DVD-burning software is improving dramatically.) Lest we forget, video is nothing but recorded light, so the simpler the light patterns, the simpler the images, moving or still.

What if you don’t share your vacations with an eager world, at 15 fps in 1/8-screen windows? Simple lighting is still desirable because it takes less equipment and power, it looks more natural, it’s kinder to performers, and it’s easier to create. So let’s run through these advantages and then see how to finesse great images out of simple setups.

Cut Down on Hardware

Priced a professional lighting kit lately? Wrestled six halogen work lights into your car trunk? Tried to light a 12 x 12 room with four lights on one electrical circuit? The fewer the lights, the milder the hassle and the lower the power drain. A big lighting outfit may make you feel like the big guys on your first time out, but it soon feels like swimming with an anvil.

What do you really, really need? First of all, reflectors: cheap, light, and compact because they’re skinny or they fold up. Start with, say, three 3 x 3 sheets of one-inch white foam core board (thinner than one-inch sheets are less robust). Add a big roll of oven-broiler-grade aluminum foil and some masking tape (easier than duct tape to remove) and you can make hard, medium hard, medium soft, or soft reflectors as needed (see our Buyer’s Guide on Lights and Reflectors in this issue for details). You can also buy collapsible cloth reflectors that are even more convenient.


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Now add just one light. I prefer an ultra-compact, focusable 1000-watt halogen spotlight with 4-way barn doors, a half-ring to receive screens and filters, a power switch on the cord, and (natch) a light stand. Add either an umbrella or a softbox (again, see our Buyer’s Guide for details). I happen to prefer umbrellas because I can quickly change reflectivity and light quality by using different fabrics, or get an extremely diffuse light by shooting through a translucent silk type.

If you’re on a thrift store budget, a stand with a pair of 500-watt halogen work lights can be very versatile. I often bounce one head off a white or pale ceiling and aim the other at the subject. The wire-cage heat protectors will cast shadows, so remove them if you’re the Gaffer, but not if the light will be managed by young students or other inexperienced helpers.

Add a 20-foot extension cable with ten-gauge wiring, industrial plugs, and safety-orange color. (In school environments, check local codes regarding extension cords in classrooms.) Working without an assistant, I absolutely must have a century stand to hold, well, whatever needs holding; but on our puritanical equipment list, this is a frill.

What about on-camera lights? Except for slightly punching up an available light clasp, these are not lighting equipment; they’re just necessary evils.

Do What Comes Naturally

Before deploying this bare-bones kit, size up the light that’s already there.

Big windows may provide nearly all the light you need, especially if they’re to one side of your subjects. If you’re lucky, they’ll be fitted with sliding draperies that soften direct sunlight without making the room too dark. But even without that extra control, you can make good use of them.

If direct sunlight streams through the window, use it as a key light on the subject. For fill, bounce the sunlight back from off-camera reflectors on the opposite side.

If the window delivers indirect light, it can make a wonderfully soft illumination all by itself. If you do want to use reflectors for fill, select hard aluminum to concentrate this softer light and place them close to the subject. TIP: watch your color temperature carefully, as indirect daylight can be as much as 2,000K cooler than direct sun.

True, fluorescents can look yucky, but an overhead grid of well-maintained office or school room tubes often works fine (again: set your white balance with care). By themselves, ceiling grids tend to give a dull, flat look, so you may want to perk up your subjects by using the fluorescents as overall fill, while keying with a light gelled to the same color temperature.

How about incandescent lights (bulbs, to civilians)? Brightly lit rooms often deliver quite enough ambient light for shooting. Here’s where that on-camera light does come in handy, to jazz up the foreground subject. To balance it, start close to the subject and then move back, watching your external view screen, until the camera light doesn’t look crude and obvious. Then shoot from that distance, using your zoom to frame in if you like.

For grab shots in rooms lit by their own lights, I bring my own $30 halogen torchère lamp, which stands six feet high and bounces light off the ceiling. It often adds all the light you need to reduce contrast and prevent the dreaded GAIN UP camera circuits from firing up and degrading your images.

No matter which of these schemes you use, the result will look more natural than "movie" lighting with a lot of spotlights. For interviews, documentaries, and training programs especially, this is generally desirable.

Keep Your Talent Happy

Professionals are used to glaring lights and heat, but amateurs (including clients, CEOs, and others you need to pamper) are not. That’s why available light, with maybe a skosh of touch-up is desirable. Also, lights and reflectors have to be adjusted and generally fiddled with, while civilian performers wax impatient.

But if available light won’t provide most of your illumination, add movie lighting sparingly until you get the image you’re after. Reflectors are the obvious first step, and even here, reduce discomfort by using only white foamcore unless more efficient aluminum foil is really essential.

With lights, see if you can do the job by adding bounce fill, which generally aims the light and heat away from the subject. If you do need to aim lights directly at subjects, keep them as far away as practical. Also, the farther around to the side they are, the less they shine in people’s eyes (though a 90-degree key light can turn a plump face into a moon).

If your performer is: a) fairly comfortable, and b) framed in a medium clasp or tighter, you can often have her/him hold a white reflector below the frame line for soft, glareless fill. But be careful here too. If your subject has a fat neck or turkey wattles, the last thing you want to do is highlight the neck area.

And don’t forget the gaffer’s cry, "Save ’em!" Turn off your lights when you’re not setting up, rehearsing, or taping shots. This will reduce heat and glare, conserve electricity, and extend the lives of those expensive lamps in your lights.

Remember the Background

The danger in using natural light (or a single key light) plus reflector fill is that the background can be neglected, so that the subjects appear in a sort of muddy limbo. Since our ground rules deny us extra lights for the walls, we’ll need other strategies.

One approach is to use those other two pieces of foamcore in your inventory. Build aluminum reflectors with them, position then near the talent-filling reflector, and rake their light across the background. Often, this is all you’ll need.

If that doesn’t work (and if the window or other key light position permits), move everything closer to the background. Many times, you will increase spill light on the BG enough to do the job.

And if that won’t work, go the opposite way by moving the background closer to the subjects. In an office environment, you can often liberate pieces of Dilbert cube walls and prop them up behind the subject. In a classroom, a rolling chalk or bulleting board can be wheeled into place. Or if the environment is not that important, a strategic drape behind the talent will often do the job.

Good shooting!

Contributing Editor Jim Stinson is the author of the book Video Communication and Production.

Sidebar: A Super-Dooper Reflector

You can now buy those familiar blue plastic tarpaulins with one side colored soft silver. In 5×8 to maybe 8×12-foot sizes, these make very soft, ultra-large reflectors.

Hang them from grid ceilings by their grommet edges or mount them on pairs of century stands to create entire walls of soft bounce light. Often, this will let you key directly with your spotlight, rather than by combining it with a soft box or umbrella. Hung opposite the key, the huge silver wall can bounce back a wonderful "window light" fill.

A word of caution: because these reflectors are clumsy and hard to adjust, use them when you have plenty of setup time to experiment with your key and reflector positions.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.