High Definition Lighting

We are entering a new era of video production. Our hard work will show in all its HD glory and our sloppy mistakes will glare in HD horror. But light can help us.

Now is a great time to be a video producer! It can also be a bit scary. Investing in a new high definition video (HDV) camcorder suddenly gives you the ability to shoot some truly amazing images. But what about your other gear? Now that you have this wonderful camera, does that mean you will also have to shell out even more money to buy special HDV lights? Fortunately, the answer is no. Lighting for HDV just takes a little more finesse and perhaps a brush-up on lighting techniques. In this column, we will explain how you can light for HDV using the lights you now own to handle HDV’s greater image detail (resolution), contrast range and color temperature sensitivity.

Seeing Clearly

The one thing that people say when they see HDV for the first time is "Wow, I can’t believe how clear the picture is. You can see everything!" This reaction attests to the dramatic increase in resolution you will find with HDV. However, this increase in image detail can create major problems if you don’t light your scenes properly.

Because the camera sees more clearly, you will have to be more careful controlling your key and fill lights. With HDV, you have to determine precisely where you want your light and shadows and the type of fall-off between the two. Because HDV sees everything, you will be able to see every imperfection in your background on the finished video. You can no longer depend on the lower resolution of your video camera to hide the fact that you made your set with spray-painted plywood and Styrofoam. You can still use your makeshift sets, you just have to make sure you light the set with soft diffused light to eliminate shadows, soften the surface and hide any imperfections. You must be more selective when lighting the background. Remember that larger diffused light gives surfaces a softer look while small, hard lights bring out the surface texture and all of its imperfections.

Your subjects will also need a little help. With standard video, you can get away with lighting your subject with small hard lights. However, with HDV cameras if you did this, you would see every nook and cranny, bump and rough spot on your subject’s face. With HDV, it is important to use a large diffused light as your key to give your subject’s face a softer smoother look. You can create this look by setting up your key light and shooting through a silk. Use flags to control the spill created by the diffusion of the light (see Figure 1). Use a backlight to separate the subject from the background. Look through the viewfinder and make sure your subject is brighter than the background and that there is a small sparkle of light in their eye from the key light. If you see it, HDV will see it!

Black and White

HDV is prone to the same contrast issues as DV, although you can see more detail in the shadows than you’re used to seeing through your video camera. With HDV, you have to work harder to control your light.

Diffused lights can create problems because their spill covers a wider area and is harder to control with flags and barndoors. Hard light sources are more controllable but emphasize the texture of your background and subject. That said, if it is important to see your background and you are not trying to create dramatic shadows, use a soft, diffused light. If, however, you want to emphasize your subject even more and want the background to be a mix of deep shadow and light, use small hard lights and control their spill with flags.

You can still light your subject with a soft diffused light as long as you control the spill from the light so that it does not reach the background. You can do this by moving your subject further from the background, using a less intense light closer to your subject and setting your light at a higher angle.

If you are looking for drama, however, go ahead and light your subject with a small, hard light. To make the light as dramatic as possible, control its edge with a barn door or flag and set it at a higher angle and more to the side of the subject. This will create a very dramatic look with no spill on the background. Because HDV sees more detail in the light areas as well as dark, you will be able to see more detail in the brightly-lit face against a dark background. Add another subject lit by a small, hard light in the distance and you have the makings of a film noir look (see Figure 2.)


Not only does HDV see more clearly and into the shadows, it also sees color more distinctly. While this is a designer’s dream, it can be a nightmare when it comes to lighting.

Every kind of light has a specific color and HDV is very sensitive to those colors. Mixing fluorescent light with indoor light can leave your subjects with a greenish cast. The blonde-haired actress you hired as your talent will suddenly have greenish hair! While this is a problem, it is one easily solved. When setting up your lighting, always make sure all of your lights have the same color temperature. One solution is to turn off the fluorescent lights in the office and close the blinds to the outside light. If you can’t turn off the lights or keep out the outdoor light, use color-correction filters to change the color temperature of the most easily changed source. If you do a lot of shooting in offices and cannot turn off the lights, you can either use color correction filters to change your regular video lights to match the fluorescents, or invest in small fluorescent lights made for shooting video. If you are shooting in a room with a lot of outdoor light that you can’t control, place color-temperature-blue (CTB) gels in front of your video lights and white balance for outdoor lighting.

Can You See Clearly Now?

The keys to lighting for HDV are controlling the falloff of your light, making sure you choose hard and soft lights wisely and always design for both shadow and light. Finally, you must remember, especially with HDV, it is very important that you white balance every time you change lighting situations.

Contributing Editor Dr. Robert G. Nulph is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies and an independent video/film director.

[Sidebar: It’s No Longer a Box]

One of the most challenging and artistically pleasing aspects of HDV is its 16:9 aspect ratio. Because there is more horizontal screen space, it is important that you use lighting to draw attention to your subject and light the background in a way that enhances your subject and helps tell the story. Always light your subject so that they are brighter than the background. Control spill light with flags. Use light to help tell the story. Focus small, diffused light on objects that give your viewers an inside look at the personality of your subject.

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


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