Budget and creative lighting are just a couple reasons why you'd want to shoot with only one lighting instrument.
Recently, we showed how to get the most from a single on-camera light [August 2005], so now we'll move the illumination onto a light stand and see what you can accomplish if you bring along just one illumination source. Why work with only a single instrument, when a classic single-subject setup needs key, fill, and back lights — not to mention something for the background?
Poverty, portability, and power. You may not have the budget for a full light kit, or the need to do much interior lighting. You may be working out of your trusty Prius, with no room to store a bunch of lights and stands and cables, and no assistant to schlep all that stuff around. Or you may have to light a room with a single household circuit that may also have outlets in other rooms (Oh, how many times I've found this in older buildings). Plug in a second light and… BLOOEY!
Lights that Do It All
You can do one-head lighting with a spotlight, a flood, a soft light, or a fluorescent bank — but with varying degrees of success. I would forget about fluorescents, if only because they tend to be heavy and cumbersome, not to mention expensive to rent or buy. Softlights will do the same job, with much less weight and bulk. I like the kind from Photoflex with internal baffles and removable diffusion, for greater flexibility.
Floodlights, usually meaning broads, are a compromise. They're directional enough to be barn-doored (sorta) or provide the light source for an umbrella.
Spotlights, as always, are my darlings, especially the small units with true Fresnel lenses, barn doors, filter rings, and focusable lamps. First, they will deliver more light where you want it than any other instrument of comparable wattage. That's important when you have to hit a reflector as well as a subject, as we'll see in a moment.
Secondly, they are flexible. Used naked, they deliver 3,200K color temperature. Slip in a blue filter and they match daylight, with relatively little output loss. Clothespin spun glass to the barn doors for some diffusion; or to smooth them even more, cocoon them in a soft box frame or clamp them into an umbrella. In fact, if I had only one light to work with, I'd team a spotlight with two umbrellas: one silver and one translucent white. That way, I'd have every degree of light from hard-edged to wraparound soft.
The One and Only Light
When the ambient light at a location is feeble — or just when you want to control the lighting perfectly — you can work with your single light exclusively. How you do it depends on your instrument of choice.
If you use a spotlight, you'll need something to bounce its light back from the other side of the subject. For head and shoulder shots, a standard reflector may work fine. Place the spotlight at about eight o'clock (on our standard clock face ground plan) and the reflector at about four (of course, the opposite setup is just as good). Keep the spot relatively high and the reflector at or slightly below eye level. Now check two things. First, look at the effect on the subject, moving the spot around to find the most flattering position. Then position the fill to take care of shadows on the eyes, nose, and throat.
Next, eyeball the contrast between the key and fill sides of your shot. You can't do much with the reflector, but you can flood out the spot or move it away from the subject, in order to reduce its brightness. This doesn’t always work because the light on the reflector will dim in proportion to the light on the subject. To fix that, rotate the key light forward so that the subject is lit by its edge, rather than its center; then relocate the reflector in the center of the spot beam. That will increase the fill side as it decreases the key side.
For wider shots, I like a reflector panel: a big, soft reflector that works as a very large light source. You can make a four by six-foot frame out of plastic pipe, hem an old sheet to fit it, and assemble the unit at the location. (See Videomaker's February 2005 issue for steps to make this unit. We used screening material because we were making diffusion, but in this case you would use an old sheet for reflecting.) Also, we have found a wide selection of reflectors online. Be extra careful with your key-to-fill ratio because the larger panel reflects less light per square foot than a silver reflector.
It's often easier to work with a softlight — whether box or umbrella — because its light seems to wrap around the subject to create key and fill at once. The trick is to start the light at six o'clock and move it slowly around toward one side, watching the contrast between the near and far sides of the face. Stop before that face turns into a half moon.
Collaborating with the Location
When the location has a substantial amount of ambient light, your single unit can cooperate with it, once you've figured out how to do it.
Maybe you just need to pump up the overall fill light by bouncing a light off the ceiling. In this case, a spot with spun glass diffusion is ideal, or you can sometimes use a soft light by removing its frame and fabric and placing the open light source near the ceiling.
More often, though, you'll want to key with your unit and fill with ambient light, or vice versa — but which way should you go?
That depends on both the light source and its strength. If the light is overhead (often a fluorescent ceiling), it is the fill light by default. In this case, keep your key light fairly low (gelled blue if the fluorescent is daylight balanced, and many today are,) because ceiling lights create raccoon eyes and shadow mustaches. If you want that extra oomph, use a reflector to bounce back fill from the side, leaving the ceiling lights to provide separation and pump up the background. If the location source is window light, decide whether you can place your subject close enough to it to create a key light. If not, use it for soft natural fill and key with your single instrument (again blue gelled). When that unit is a softlight, avoid placing it dead opposite the window.
What to do with Backgrounds
Backgrounds may not be a problem when you have ambient light on location, but when your lonely unit is the sole source, you have to light carefully.
With a spotlight, reposition both light and reflector so that the bounce light hits the rear wall as well as the subject. With a softlight, about all you can do is move the subject closer to the wall, move the light farther from the subject (to hit more of the wall), or a bit of both. Be careful moving the subject closer, it may flatten the look of the shot.
If you have any choice in the matter, always use a light-colored background wall when working without ambient light. That way, the bounce light will have a fighting chance of illuminating your subject.
Another trick is to use a second reflector (assuming your spotlight is hot enough to move back and flood out). Position the second reflector immediately above or beside the first and aim it and the background wall. Works like a treat.
Contributing Editor Jim Stinson's book Video: Digital Communication and Production is out in a 2nd revised edition.