One Light Wonder

Sometimes you only have one available light. Other times, you chose to use one light for effect. It’s not what, but how you use it that makes your video shine.

Lighting is about finesse, control, and knowing how to use the tools at hand to create beautiful, well-lit images. But what if you have only one light – or maybe no lights? How do you design good-looking images? How can you create three-point lighting with only one light? All you have to do is run around the house, grab a few mirrors, dig in to your lighting kit for some reflectors and you are on your way! In this column, we will look at different ways you can use one or no lights to create beautifully lit scenes using mirrors, reflectors and solid lighting techniques.

Back to the Basics

There are a couple of things about light you need to remember when trying to create beautiful lighting using one or no lights. They are: 1. Light moves in a straight line and 2. The bigger the light source, the softer the light will appear on screen.

Using the fact that light moves in a straight line is easy. All you need is a reflector or mirror. If you use a smooth surface silver reflector or mirror, you will get an exact duplicate of the light minus a bit of intensity, depending on how far the reflector is from the subject. Keep in mind that the smooth reflector or mirror is reflecting the light and will be quite bright. Treat it just like any other light. Using a silver reflector with a bumpy surface will decrease and soften the light by spreading it out directionally. A pebbled gold reflector will add a soft warm color to the light.


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Keeping in mind that the bigger the light, the softer the effect enables you to decide what kinds of light or reflectors you will need. To create a soft-edged light for interviews and single shots of your talent, you will want to use large lights and textured surface reflectors. If you want your lighting to be very dramatic and hard-edged, use a small, intense light or a selection of smooth-surfaced reflectors or mirrors.

Setups – The Sun

Let’s start with the easiest setups and take advantage of the beautiful spring or summer sun. First of all, think of the sun as a very small, very intense light. The sun is best used during the morning and late afternoon hours to take advantage of its color, as well as the angle of the light. But, believe it or not, you can also use the sun at high noon!

If you do have to shoot at noon, place your talent in the shade of a tree with a shaded background. Place a smooth surface reflector in the sun at the 3 o’clock position and reflect the sun towards another smooth surface reflector or mirror positioned above and at the 11 o’clock position behind your talent. Focus this reflector onto the back of the talent’s head and shoulders. Use another soft gold reflector slightly above and at the 5 o’clock position and bounce the light from the back reflector into your talent’s face for a very nice soft warm light. There will be a very nice back rim effect on the talent, with a great soft light on the face and a nice glint in the eye (see Figure 1).

If you are able to shoot during the early morning or late afternoon hours, place the sun over your talent’s right shoulder and use a large white card just above and to the right of the camera to bounce the sunlight into your talent’s face. The result will be a soft white light filling your talent’s face and the sun, providing a very pleasing hair and shoulder rim light. Using a white card maintains the color of the light it reflects and gives you a beautiful light (see Figure 2).

Indoor Setups Using the Sun

Just because you are inside doesn’t mean you have to forget about using the sun. A few mirrors or smooth reflectors can bounce the sunlight wherever you need it. The most effective way to use the sun is to bounce it toward the back of your subject and use a big soft light with a blue color correction gel to light your talent’s face. You can also reflect the light from the sun by using a white card as your third light – the fill light, to even out the lighting on your talent. Make sure for this setup that you white balance as if you are outside (see Figure 3).

If you want to do dramatic lighting, need a hard light source and want to use the sun, set up a mirror in the sunlight and reflect it towards your shooting location. Carefully place a hard reflector above and to the right of the camera at about the 4 o’clock position. Focus the reflected sunlight on your talent’s face. Make sure your talent does not look towards the reflector, because you are reflecting the full force of the sun! Place another hard reflector or mirror behind and at the 10 o’clock position and reflect the sunlight from the first reflector towards the back of your talent (see Figure 4).

One-light Setups

To use one light to create a three-point lighting setup, you have to decide what kind of lighting you need – hard or soft, dramatic or even? With a variety of mirrors, reflectors and bounce cards, you can create a number of different looks.
Using mirrors and hard smooth-surface reflectors, you can duplicate the effect of small, hard light sources. Large pebble-surfaced or other textured reflectors and white bounce cards can easily substitute for large soft lights.

If you want a dramatic, shadow-filled look, set up a small intense light at the 4 o’clock position. Set up a mirror behind the right shoulder of the talent and use it to reflect the light towards the back of your talent. A white bounce card set up at the 8 o’clock position will provide a bit of fill light depending on how dramatic you want your scene to be (see Figure 5).

For an even lighting setup with a soft, glamorous look, set up a very intense light behind and slightly above your talent to provide a sharp rim light. Use large gold reflectors or large white bounce cards on each side of the talent to reflect the spill light into the talent’s face. Carefully check the lens of your camera and make sure the light from the back light is not hitting the lens. If it is, place a black piece of foamcore in front of and above the camera, just out of the shot, to flag the light from the camera lens (see Figure 6).

Final Setup

Having only one light or just the sun creates a challenge for the lighting designer, but, as you can see, it is not the end of good three-point lighting. By carefully controlling the size and types of reflectors and placement of the single light, reflectors and mirrors, you can design a lighting scheme that fits your needs. If using the sun, make sure you control the color temperature of any other light sources. Have fun, be creative and enjoy the wonders of single source lighting.

Contributing editor Robert G. Nulph, Ph.D. is an independent video/film producer/director and teaches film and video courses at the university level.

Sidebar: Reflecting Thoughts

When using reflectors, mirrors and bounce cards, you have to treat them just like lighting instruments. This includes the distance they are from the talent. To increase the intensity of the light coming off of a reflector, you need only to move it closer to the talent. To decrease the intensity, move it further away. As in lighting, the way it works is double the distance from the subject and it reduces the intensity of the light four times. Cut the distance in half and the light becomes 4 times more intense.

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