A small LED light on top of a DSLR camera
Whether it’s emanating from a lamp (incident light) or light reflecting off your subject (reflective light) doesn’t matter, because all your camera sees is light. Too little light and your camera adapts, increasing the gain or ISO and gives you too much noise. Too much light and you get blown-out highlights with too few details in the shadows. Just the right amount of light such as you might find in a well-lit office or in complete shade outside can net you good results.  
What if your subject is indoors in an area with good light but the background is blown out? This is a common backlight situation for which your camera has a solution. You could rely on your camera’s ability to adapt and hope the “backlight” feature works or you can switch to manual and set it yourself. Either way the background still gets over-exposed. 
Fortunately there is an easy solution. You can bring out your on-camera light, set the camera exposure for the background and rely on the on-camera light to fill in the foreground. It may look amateur but at least the exposure is acceptable and you finish the assignment. Everybody’s happy and you go on the next job. You could look at it that way but in today’s world there is always someone willing to take that extra step and make sure the video is more interesting than “acceptable” so why not be that somebody and take advantage of a difficult situation and make it as interesting and creative as possible?

The LED is perfect when you need a small amount of light, the tungsten is perfect for warm lighting accents and the HID for when you need more power.



Good news!

The good news is that many on-camera light kits today are nothing short of spectacular, even some of the cheap ones. Compared to the old days when you needed two complete battery setups, one for your camera and one for your little bitty tungsten light these new lights are a breeze so there’s no excuse not to have at least one if not two very portable battery powered lights. We mention two because one light can be on your camera and the other can be a back-up light in case something breaks. Additionally, you can mount the second light to a compact light stand so you can quickly set the second one up as a rim light, fill light or just a kicker to add interest to your otherwise boring on-camera lighting.  
Today’s on-camera lights are so compact they can also be fitted to clamp brackets which attach to just about anything including chair backs, car handles or door frames and the cool thing is, they can often be powered by the extra back-up batteries that run your camera! And they are so versatile they can be adapted to use universal industry standard batteries such as Anton/Bauer kits (http://www.antonbauer.com) or even AA batteries.
Portable lights come in several flavors such as tungsten, LED and High Intensity Discharge (HID). My personal favorites are LED and HID because they won’t set the house on fire and they get pretty good battery mileage. Tungsten lights have their place but are somewhat out of fashion due to their never-ending need for juice (batteries) and their tendency to be very hot.However, one of the biggest reasons, you’ll consider them is because they are inexpensive. 

So Let’s Start With LEDs

LED lights
LED lights
LEDs are very efficient, daylight balanced and lightweight and best of all, they are very cost effective. They can either be configured in a small bank of many individual lights or mounted as four more powerful bulbs in a compact fixture. (Varizoom VZ S2010 On-camera LED Light Review | Videomaker.com).
The bulbs have an amazing life expectancy and are almost balanced for daylight but can be easily gelled to match indoor lights such as you would find in residential environments or small offices. Some LEDs, such as the Lowel Blender which has two sets of LEDs. (The Future of Lighting: LED vs. Fluorescent vs … – Videomaker.com) This allows you to infinitely adjust the output of each LED to get color output from about 3000K to about 5000K. This flexibility is perfect for conventional lighting effects or even better if you want to add some quick special effects to your shoot. 
When shooting indoors in warm color color temperatures try setting the Blender to daylight and also white balance your camera to daylight. The warm ambient color of the indoor lighting will complement your daylight balanced subject and make for an interesting overall look. Or set the Blender for tungsten and white balance the camera to that while shooting outdoors in the shade and you’ll get a very blue background. 
Manually set your camcorder to underexpose the background while the on-camera light properly exposes your subject and instantly you get a blue moon-lit night scene. Mix this day-for-night effect with the color balance tricks mentioned above and you get some very dramatic results.
Even if you can’t afford the Blender, you can afford some generic LEDs lights and the beauty of LEDs is that you can gel them without worrying about melting the gels because LEDs don’t generate heat like tungstens do. 

Tungsten Light

Tungsten light
Tungsten lights however, might have a place in your kit. Besides the low price, one nice quality they have is a very specular pinpoint quality of light which is great for projecting greater distances. LED banks, with several small individual LED lights, are, by nature, quite diffused giving them much greater light fall-off, whereby tungsten lights are constructed of one very powerful lamp which is mounted in a parabolic reflector or even a fresnel enclosure. This gives their light a spotlight quality and they can “shoot” across greater distances. This “throw” makes them perfect for news gathering because you may find yourself further from your subject than you would like.(Lighten Up Your World with LEDs | Videomaker.com) But be careful because tungstens get very hot and can melt your gels, but don’t let that deter you from considering them because they can be used creatively. 
Since tungstens are naturally balanced at 3200K they must be gelled to achieve a daylight balance but if you balance your camera to 3200K and shoot outdoors then the background becomes very blue and if you underexpose the background you get a great night scene. Remember though, If you want to use your tungsten outdoors and match the color of daylight you must gel it and that reduces the light output by a considerable amount. 
Take your tungsten indoors and it will be pretty close to the ambient color so you get a nice natural color balance to match the environment and your on-camera light. Bring a second tungsten on a small light stand and bounce it into the ceiling and you can get a very nice fill to make the on-camera light less obvious. 


HID light
Tungstens are a bit fussy (hot headed) and they do have an appetite (battery hogs) so if you like all the power of a tungsten but relish the daylight balance of LEDs, then HIDs are for you. They are the standard of the industry for several reasons, not the least of which is relative to the power – they have exceptional battery life and are daylight balanced. The lamps aren't too expensive to replace and they have the pinpoint single light lamp quality of tungstens, and watt for watt they are several times more efficient than tungstens. 
This efficiency lends itself to the use of gels because gels reduce a lot of light output and since HIDs don’t generate nearly as much heat as tungstens your gels are safe as well as your fingers! So like LEDs, HIDs are pretty easy to get along with but as with all great relationships, things can be challenging and your relationship with HIDs could become quite challenging to your wallet because they are quite expensive. But you do get what you pay for and HIDs have a certain quality that is quite hard to describe. (Shine On, Videographer: Lighting Buyer's Guide | Videomaker.com) They are very accurate, consistent, reliable and versatile, much like studio strobes used in still photography – there is really no substitute unless of course you include the sun in that comparison. 
On-camera lighting is the best place to start learning about supplementing your ambient light because it’s simple and requires nothing more than a simple light and batteries, so start there and let your experience and creativity decide how you build up and become a 
better videographer. 

Side Bar 

Mix And Match For Best Results
A collection of various batteries
As you build your kit you will always have a use for battery-powered lights so the best place to start researching is with these lights. You can mix and match them and build a great location kit by starting out with a cost effective LED lights. As you become familiar with that and learn how to quickly adapt your shooting style to on-camera lighting you can then add a tungsten light for a lot more “throw” when shooting events and use the two as a duet where the stand mounted tungsten becomes a warm accent light for your daylight balanced on-camera LED. 
Eventually you will get so good that you take the plunge and get an HID light. With these three lights you now have a complete three light set-up where the LED is on-camera, the tungsten is used for a warm rim light or hair light and the HID has power enough for an umbrella and can be used as your fill light. And the best thing is that each one can be used in so many different ways because they are all battery powered. 
This strategy of mixing LEDs, tungstens and HIDs gives you flexibility on location because you always have a light that’s color balanced to your needs at your fingertips without the need to add gels and you have a variety of power. The LED is perfect when you need a small amount of light, the tungsten is perfect for warm lighting accents and the HID for when you need more power. 
Contributing editor Terry O'Rourke specializes in retail advertising photography and videography for clients worldwide.


How to Make a

DIY Green Screen

Free eBook


How to Make a

DIY Green Screen


Thanks! We will email your free eBook.

Did you find this content helpful?


  1. in this article (#15690) you include a photo of a lighting head with barndoors, etc. right next to your sub-heading "Tungsten Light" (on page 55 of my hardcopy of your magazine). I've scoured the article several times to identify the source of this product. And, checked your "Buyers Guide pdf to no avail. Can you identify it for me please? Thanks.

Comments are closed.