Finding the Light

Night lighting is one of the trickiest aspects of lighting to master. You need a new lighting technique to make video look good when you’re essentially shooting in the dark. We’re going to explore a whole new realm of videography that’s sure to get you excited about night lighting. So pack your camcorder, leave your lights behind and get ready for some challenging new locations… oh and you might stop for some coffee along the way ’cause you’re going to need it.

Paint the Night Like Rembrandt

Our first stop is the coffee shop just before dusk; but not just any coffee shop we need one in a large shopping center with a large parking lot where there are lots of lights. It’s dusk now and you have your coffee so it’s time to try shooting with night lighting in this parking lot.

By placing your subject underneath a light source and to the side you can get a great looking “Rembrandt” style lighting set up. Use a reflector to fill in the shadows as needed.

With your subject standing directly under a light you’ll get a dramatic, ghostly effect. The deep shadows will be completely dark and the highlights will be the only thing with details and since it’s dusk you’ll get that wonderful deep blue sky. But if you want a more natural look, have them stand farther away and off to one side. Correctly place your subject and you get a nice “Rembrandt” style lighting where most of the light falls on one side of your subject and just a bit of light skims across to the other side of his face. The shadows will most likely be completely dark but if you bring in a white card or silver reflector you can fill in the shadows for a really nice night shot that looks completely professional. While your subject stays in that perfect spot, try having her rotate just slightly to one side then the other and you will see a dramatic difference in how she looks. When you do this you create what is known as “broad” lighting where the light comes from just behind where your subject is facing and “short” lighting comes from just in front of where your subject is facing.

Shoot the Butterfly Lighting Technique

Learn a new lighting technique that’s popular with the glamor magazines. If you carefully place your subject with the light source slightly above and in front of them you will get an old school “butterfly” lighting, so called because the shadow cast from that one light source forms a butterfly shaped shadow just under the subject’s nose. This lighting demands a near perfect face along with a near perfect complexion but the results can be spectacular. Just look through any fashion magazine and you see this lighting technique in many of the beauty shots.

Beauty in the Headlights

Now you’re off to an urban location looking for that perfect street scene. Once you find it, try shining your car lights from behind and slightly to the side of your subject to create a nice rim light and use a large bounce card or silver reflector to reflect back some of that light to fill in the shadows.

Try using car headlights behind your subject and slightly to the side to create a ice rim light. Use a selector to bounce back light to fill in the shadows.

If you do this at dusk just after a rainfall you will get a nice deep blue sky. Find a location with lots of ambient night lighting and you get wonderful reflections from all those wet surfaces. This is how those beautiful night scenes are created, you know, the ones where the girl runs up the street, stops, looks around and suddenly sees her lover running towards her. (Except the big guys use a bit more than car lights and they do it in daylight, but that’s another story!)

For a different look, try standing with the car lights directly behind you shining straight at your subject for a dramatic “deer in headlights” look. Do this in an open field with some farm stuff in the shot and you might get an Alfred Hitchcock look! Or spend a little time with this, test a few angles and you can get some of that nice “ring light” effect so commonly found in today’s New York fashion shoots.

For a different look, try standing with the car lights directly behind you shining straight at your subject for a dramatic “deer in headlights” look.

Using the car lights again, stand your subject against a wall to get some great shadows and if you have him move towards the camera while you step backwards away from him, the shadows become a major part of the scene. Move the car around and get some long dramatic shadows for a cool “Dick Tracy” scene.

Convenient Lighting

Some of my favorite places to shoot at night are gas stations and convenience stores. You won’t get a lot of shadows because they are almost always well lit and the night lighting from them can be powerful enough to reflect off adjacent walls for a nice even fill that looks like full-on studio lighting. Plus there usually are so many lights in these parking lots and under the building overhangs that you have a plethora of angles to choose from. You probably won’t need any hand held reflectors but if you bring some along you can expect some pretty nice results. Try this lighting technique: Use some gold fill for a nice warm look or experiment with your white balance and get some dramatic color shifts. Be sure to frame away from anything that tells the audience you’re in a gas-station parking lot and you have sold the illusion.

Gas stations and 24-hour convenience stores already have the perfect night lighting set up for you, all you have to do is throw in a reflector or scrim, and you’ve got some good dramatic light for a nice night scene. Frame will, and no one will know you’re at a gas station.

Use Your Imagination

Just imagine all those possibilities! But be aware because you can’t just shoot your video at every location you may come across, especially private property. But with a little diplomacy you can usually talk your way onto any location. And if you are finding a bit of resistance try contacting your local film commission and let them point you in the right direction.

These techniques are used every day by many well trained professional videographers and cinematographers. The only difference is they bring in tons of equipment. But as an up and coming Indie producer, you want to maintain a foot-loose and fancy-free shooting style so all you need is a bit of creativity, your tripod, a few fill cards, reflectors and your camcorder. With a little practice you will be looking at every parking lot and every light fixture as if each situation is a fresh new lighting style.

Terry O’Rourke specializes in retail advertising photography and videography for clients worldwide.

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