Before calling for camera and action, the director calls first for lights.

Let there be light.

The first known utterance of Yahweh applies equally to videomaking. Without light the camcorder is an expensive hunk of junk.

Of course, it’s possible to record without light. If you’re planning adocumentary on life during power failures in coal mines you can get by with total ignorance of lighting technique. If your ambitions lie elsewhere, step this way….


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Before calling for camera and action, the director calls first for lights. In filmmaking lighting is the responsibility of the camera operator, who can be the director of photography, director of lighting, or gaffer. As videomaker you’ll most likely be all of the above, and director as well.

When you don your lighting guy hat, your first priority is to secure enough light for the video camera to record an acceptable image (unless you’re still stuck on that coal mine idea). This often means placement of additional lights, so you’ll need to know what lights to put where.

Your lighting also must be consistent with the context of the shot (time of day, location, whereabouts of subjects) and should underscore the “mood” of the scene.

Not an easy job, this one.

Do Not Go Ignorant Into All That Light

There are really only two kinds of light: natural and artificial. Natural light comes courtesy of the sun; electricity generates the artificial. Neither are static.

Sunlight is dominated by red tones at dawn and dusk; high noons are flat and colorless. Late afternoon sun casts long shadows-appropriate (chasing Harry Lime) or inappropriate (prancing down the Yellow Brick Road).

Changes in and effects of artificial lighting are even more startling.

Grab a flashlight and go into a semi-dark bathroom. Standing before the mirror, turn the flashlight on and shine it directly on your face from about nose level. This is frontlighting. Your face is mostly unshadowed, and looks pretty good.

Move the light directly behind your head. This is backlighting. There’s a rim of light around your hair and the sides of yourface-saints be praised; you’ve a halo!

With the flashlight on one side, your sidelit face is half light and half dark; you’re ready to ponder the nature of dualism.

When tht flashlight shines from above you’re toplit. Your hair is brightly illuminated but only part of your face is visible. Prominent features receive some spillover light, but most of the face is deeply shadowed, like a hood slouched against a streetlamp at midnight.

Finally, shine the light upward from beneath your chin for underlighting.

Pretty grim, huh? This angle is useful ,for turning your grandmother into a werewolf.

High, Low, Back, Fill, Key

Three-point lighting, involving a key light, fill light, and back light , is the conventional method of illuminating a scene.

The key light, the main light source, should have the brightest bulb and/or be closest to the subject. It’s often placed high and to the right of the camera, shining down at a 45-degree angle.

Make sure the key isn’t so bright it causes the subject to squint (unless that’s the effect you want). If it’s a spotlight, shadows will be quite distinct. Using a floodlight for your key results in flat illumination.

A key light from one direction will cast part of the subject in shadow. If you’re Vittorio Storaro filming Marlon Brando in Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, you may want those shadows to symbolize the dark aspects of Kurtz’s crumbling psyche.

Storaro, whose cinematic credits also include Reds and The Last Emperor, speaks of light and color in near-mystical terms (“green, the color of conservation, and the blue of the night have a regenerative effect…”); he’s a fascinating subject for any serious student of light.

If you don’t want shadowed subjects, a fill light, dimmer than the key, can be positioned to cast light on areas shadowed by the key light.

The backlight is placed behind the subject, high and to one side (out of the camera’s view). The fill light, it should be less intense than the key, highlighting the head and shoulders of your subjects and separating them from the background for more of a three-dimensional look.

Highs, Lows, and Close Calls

Decide if you desire an overall lighting scheme that’s low-key or high-key. When most of the set’s in shadow, and just a few highlights define the subject, the lighting is low-key, heightening suspense or creating a somber mood. Ingmar Bergman is renowned for bleak, low-key lighting lending an uncomfortable and at times downright stifling look to his films.

The bright and bouncy Singing In the Rain showcases typical high-key lighting, with few shadows, characteristic of light, comic films.

Good lighting directors try to create a believable source for the key light (and, when possible, other lights). Convince the audience the light’s actually there. Be creative.

In Blade Runner, Ridley Scott and director of photography Jordan Cronenweth used a shaft-lighting motif, with blinking neon ads on floating dirigibles as the implied source.

A word about closeups: Three-point lighting often casts too much harsh, unflattering light on a subject’s face. This is fine if you’re filming Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend, where you want to
expose imperfections to show the physical ravages of alcoholism-puffy eyebags, cavernous pockmarks, beads of sweat, huge dripping pores.

Insecure cast members will prefer the George Cukor approach-a large diffused light from one side of the camera and plenty of gauze. With this setup almost anyone looks beautiful.

At the height of her powers, Bette Davis insisted on dragging her personal cameraman from film to film, insisting only he could light and frame her face with the care it deserved.

John Seitz’s frank treatment of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard illustrates what happens when aging faces aren’t pampered with soft focus and gauze filters.

For the truly grotesque, recall the merciless hag-lighting inflicted on Davis and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Rolling In the Great Outdoors

The videomaker shooting outdoors during the day will generally enjoy adequate lighting.

Of course, the light’s quality may not be to your liking. You can convince the producer to move the location to Spain-or go into the lab and invent your own film stock, as Stanley Kubrick did for Barry Lyndon.

If you’re not that picky, you may still run into problems. Say you’re shooting at midday with the sun shining high overhead. The sun is your key light, so naturally the subject’s face may be partially shadowed.

One solution is to move your subject out of direct sun to a place of diffused, even light. Or diffuse the light yourself by suspending silk, tracing paper, or other thin, gauzy material over the scene. Another option is to use a reflector (a flat white board or sheet of crumpled aluminum will do) to provide fill by directing sunlight to the shadowed area.

Too much light can also be a problem, especially in a beach, desert, or snow setting. If your camcorder has a manual iris you can overcome this problem by closing down the lens. If your lens is automatic, use the backlight switch (which closes down the lens) or a neutral-density filter.

In scenes with insufficient contrast, subjects tend to merge with the background. If you’re tackling a horror project, maybe that’s exactly what you want your monster to do.

If not, use your imagination to bring the subject out. When shooting a child playing against background hues close to flesh tones, a few toys or other objects will cut down on the back-ground’s expanse. Or change the background. Or the child.

This is as good a place as any to broach the subject of filters. Light isn’t white, you know. It’s a mixture of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. You can bring out or suppress these colors with filters (in simple form, a piece of dyed glass placed in front of the lens).

A red filter will darken a sunny sky, rendering it ominous and threatening. The inspired use of filters makes the world in Michael Radford’s 1984 a dehumanizing, washed-out blue-gray.

You Light Up My Room

Shooting indoors almost always requires artificial light. At the most basic level you can put brighter bulbs in your household lamps, placed to correctly light the center of interest.

Natural light is brighter and bluer than incandescent indoor lighting, which is amber-tinted. If you’re using an indoor filter and natural light is streaming through your windows, your images will look blue. Block out the outdoor light. Or put blue bulbs in household lamps or blue gels (glorified cellophane) over your video lights and use an outdoor filter.

If your camcorder has automatic continuous white balance, it may compensate for a mix of indoor and outdoor light. Before shooting the real thing, check for color problems by recording samples on a color monitor. Experiment with different lighting setups. Put a man and a woman at a table and light them variously: low light and gauze for a romantic look; merciless glare for that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? gastronomic disaster effect.

Try colored bulbs. With a fog filter on your lens, fill a room with green light and shoot someone shimmering out of a ghostly green mist, like Alfred Hitchcock did with Kim Novak in Vertigo.

Now you’re ready for the big one-the “Nuremberg light,” closely associated with Orson Welles and visitations from God.

This vast shaft of light, resembling sunlight streaking through a break in the clouds after a rain, can make a room look like a region of the underworld or a chamber of the divine. In Citizen Kane, Welles accomplishes both, occasionally simultaneously.

Now it’s your turn.

Carl Zoltanski is a Tennessee-based freelance writer, independent film and video producer, and multimedia consultant.

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