Using Practicals

Your script calls for a scene that includes a table lamp illuminating a beautiful woman as she glances admiringly at her newly-acquired engagement ring. Sounds simple, right? Then disaster strikes. The lamp is too bright, and, when you turn down your iris to compensate for this glowing beacon, you can no longer see anything except a faint glimmer from the ring. You have just entered the exasperating world of lighting with practicals. A practical is a lighting fixture or source that you can see in the shot. The light on your subject seems to be coming from the lamp or other light fixtures that you can see. This is seldom the case. In this column, we will show you how to use practicals so that they seem natural and effective. We will show you how to create a very natural-looking scene while including the light sources that give the scene its illumination. By the end of this column, both the woman in your scene and you as the light designer will be very happy.

Practical Matters

Any time you have a working light source visible in a scene, you must consider it to be a practical. As such, you need to treat it as a primary light source in terms of where the light is coming from, but not in terms of what is actually lighting the room or your subjects. Practicals seldom actually light anything. While the lamp or window (yes, a window is a practical!) usually is much too bright for your camera, it is much too dim to actually light the scene to the level that the camera needs for a good clear image. If you want to use a practical in your scene, you must carefully control it. Once you have controlled it, you will supplement the practical with other lighting that is specifically set up to imitate the type of lighting the practical would provide.

The first step in the use of practicals is to determine which practicals you will use and the type of light they provide in a natural setting. Then you must control the practical. Finally, you must set up the lighting that will actually light the scene. Always try to make your scene look as natural as possible. If you do this carefully, the audience will be convinced that the light for the scene comes from the practical.

Controlling the Practical

There are a couple of items you should always keep in your lighting supply kit: a couple of 25-watt bulbs and a six-foot roll of black organza, a very sheer black material used to make widow's veils. These inexpensive items will enable you to control the practicals in your scene.

The 25-watt bulb will provide enough glow to make it look like the light is working, without overpowering the iris on your camera. If the lamp you are using already has a three-in-one bulb, you probably will be able to get away with using the original bulb set at its lowest wattage. Do not forget to reinstall the original bulb when you are finished with your shoot.

A lamp and a candle, with the associated video light to create their same light cast
side-by-side shots of a woman standing indoors with the outside over blown in the first shot and in better control in the second shot.
If you are shooting with a window in the shot, you can place the organza either on the outside of the window, if you have access to the outside, or on the inside, making sure that the material is wrinkle-free and does not blow around. Gaffer-tape the material below and above the shot lines, so that the material is very smooth. Although this will look very bad to your eye, it is practically invisible to the camera. A more expensive and truly invisible way to do this is to cover the windows with professional neutral density filters. With this plastic gel material made by Gam or Rosco, you can cover the glass in the windows, and the material is invisible to the camera. Again, it will look like the windows are an ugly gray-brown color, but the camera will see only clear glass. Be careful not to allow any bubbles behind the gel, and be sure to fasten the material to the window so that the camera cannot see the tape.

Supplementing the Practical

Now for the real lighting challenge: recreating the light that supposedly is coming from the practical. For this, you have to consider a few lighting choices.

A lamp and a candle, with the associated video light to create their same light cast
A lamp and a candle, with the associated video light to create their same light cast
Ask yourself if the lighting created by the practical is soft or hard. If the practical is a lamp with a shade, then it is a soft diffused light, and you would want to use a large soft light to duplicate it. If the light is coming from a bare bulb or candle flame, you would then want to use a small hard light to recreate the illumination. If the practical you are dealing with is a window, look at the quality of the light coming through it and use a hard or soft light as indicated.

Once you have determined the type of light needed, you need to set up your supplemental lighting to duplicate the effect of the practical. Always make sure you set the supplemental light at the same vertical angle as the practical. Also be careful that the light from your lighting instruments does not illuminate the exterior of the practical or throw a shadow of the practical into the scene. To avoid illuminating the outside of your practical, carefully flag your light so that a shadow falls on the practical and nowhere else. There is nothing worse than seeing a lamp shade with light shining on it from the outside! You can avoid the shadow of the practical by placing your lighting so that it is angled a bit forward of the practical. This will cause any shadow from the practical to be cast off-camera in a distance beyond your talent.

Now that you have the basics, let's take a look at our opening setup.

The Living Room Lamp at Night

This setup includes a table lamp sitting beside a sofa in front of a moonlit picture window. Our subject, the beautiful woman looking at her engagement ring, is lit by the warm glow of the lamp on one side of her face, and the blue haze of moonlight provides a soft backlight. The fill side of her face is softly lit by the ambient room light reflected by the light walls of the living room.

side-by-side shots of a woman standing indoors with the outside over blown in the first shot and in better control in the second shot.
For this setup, you will need a softbox with a flag to supplement the table lamp, a large blue-gelled Fresnel or reflector spot such as a Lowel Omni to recreate the light from the moon and another softbox set up at a distance to provide a bit of fill light on your subject's face.

Set the softbox up just outside the camera shot, slightly toward the front of the table lamp. Place a flag in front of the light, so that its shadow covers the lamp and table but does not shade the couch or talent. Place your Fresnel or Omni at a 50-degree vertical angle above and to the opposite side of your talent, so that the bluish light falls on her shoulders and the back of her head. You will want to place this light outside the window if at all possible. If not, make sure you mount it so that you can still see part of the window and that you flag any spill light from the back wall. The light has to look like it is coming through the window, so be very picky about spillage. Finally, place a softbox on the other side of your talent towards the front to softly illuminate without overpowering the soft shadows created by the "lamp light" on her face (see Diagram). The end result should be a beautifully romantic scene.

Practical Advice

As you can see from the above setup, as long as you select, control and supplement your practicals carefully, you can recreate any lighting setup so that it looks as natural as possible. Always remember to add a supplemental base light to the scene, so that your video comes out clear and sharp. Too little light always leads to video that is dull and grainy. All too often with today's technology, beginning videographers feel that their cameras can work well in the lowest of light and that real, natural light is all they need to make real, natural-looking shots. Don't kid yourself. You always need to supplement the lighting. By using what you have learned here, you can recreate scenes so that they look like you shot them using natural light, but the video will be much higher in quality and look a lot more professional.

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

Side Bar: Dimming Your Practical

You can easily dim any practical, using a portable dimmer that you can easily make from a standard lighting dimmer pack. Assemble the dimmer pack into an electrical outlet box with a ten-foot grounded cable attached at one end and a grounded socket at the other. Plug the box into an outlet in the room and the practical into the box, and you have the ability to dim the practical. The only problem with this is that, when you dim a light source, it changes the color temperature for the source and may cause it to look a little too yellow or orange.

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

Related Content