Video lighting considerations aren’t to be taken lightly when bride Snow White’s gown shows up black, that bratty ring bearer seems to possess a halo, and Aunt Violet’s visage looks…well, violet. Focus you reading light, videomaker.
It’s perhaps both the most important and the most exasperationg factor a videomaker must contend with. There’s always too much or too little, it’s in the wrong place, or of the wrong color. Light is rarely just right.
Professionals solve such problems by placing lots of lights in lots of cunning places. Some daylight location scenes are even shot at night using artificial light. I recall the first itme I watched a location shoot, many years ago. Here were these enormous great lights blazing away-in full daylight.
A good deal can be done without resorting to extra, artificial light. The low-budget videomaker can begin by utilizing a fundamental law of optics: the angle of reflection is equal to the angle of incidence.
While the sun is our single source of natural light, plenty of reflected light can usually be found shining about. reflected light bounces form walls, sidwalks, cars, even grass. It softens shadows and illuminates detail that would otherwise be lost in darkness.
How’s that? Let’s go out in a picnic to see.
Picnic tables are indeally placed under trees, in the shade. Sitting in the hot sun can cause curly sandwiches and limp picnickers. Life can be dark under those trees, through-too dark for proper videotaping. Thus we must resort to a simple subterfuge or two.
For facial closeups, convice an accomplice to position a plain white paper plate to cast some extra light. Don’t hold too close or your subjects will look like victoms of food poisoning. And use a clean plate-ketchup can cast a red sheen onto people.
Aluminum foil can also be used to spread the light around. Actually, there’s a surprising amount of white reflective material around your average picnic-wrapping paper, newspaper-and ever little bit helps.
Try to attach the material to something so it doesn’t jiggle, and make sure it’s position high so the extra light shines form just above the head. If this “fill” light comes from below, natural shadows will disappear, producing a very flat image.
Videotaping current events inside your waiting limo is no picnic, either. It’s dark in there. But casting a little reflected light with the odd piece of white paper lets us-and our camera-observe the snoring habits of a well-paid driver.
There’s no need to cast light the mile length of this stretch limousine. Just highlight the napping face: the point of interest. You’ll notice that in feature films the eye is drawn to the villain’s hand, the telltale bloodstain, the incriminating note-craftily lit so you’ll notice them.
In case you’re wondering: Assuming sufficient oxygen, you driver’s blue in the face due to “color cast” from the interior of the car. As for why his hair is blue, only his hairdresser knows for sure.
Many objects both natural and artificial can cast colors. Trees, for instance, cast very odd colors. In full leaf they turn everything green. In the fall they produce a healthy russet.
Clothes cause color cast difficulties, too. Elmira’s sweet-sixteen face is red not because the boy next door compromised her virtue, but because of her sweater.
People don’t normally notice the phenomenon of color cast. The eye and brain compensate, balancing the new shade against what we know to be “true.”
But a camcorder, however sophisticated, is a dumb device. It just sees what’s there. It’s no good jiggling with the color compensation feature-you’ll just discolor something else. The solution? Cast light of a compensating color, via a reflecting material, to balance things.
Finding the right sort of reflecting material involves experimentation (I’d bet on white for Elmira’s red). Colored “craft” paper, cheap and easy to carry around, is worth exploring.
Color casting isn’t always undesirable; you may opt to employ it for special effect. Some extra red cast onto Elmira’s face will make her “blush” even more. You write the script.
Days of Our Light
Weather can significantly affect the clarity of video scenes, especially those viewed on a small screen.
Bright sunny weather can yield increased contrast-the difference between light and darkness. It’s not such a problem on the beach, in the desert, or amid snow, each of which provides natural reflection.
If, however, you encounter a situalion where the landlord’s face looks like the mask of Darth Vader, use the reflection trick again. Or do your videotaping where the background light isn’t so bright-the shady side of a house, under a parasol or garden umbre
lla. Use the outlying branch of a tree to provide background and break up the brightness behind.
Once the contrast crisis is resolved, you’ll still have the problem of underlit faces where the light level’s the same all over; an underexposed scene is one that’s too dark all over.
Either way, same solution: Bring up the light level to a point where the scene in the viewfinder has definition and punch; whatever you wish to emphasize should be very clear. Refleclion from white material will help, as long as you don’t try to light too large an area.
In overcast conditions, use another trick: Move closer to the subject. To many rookie videomakers with camcorders boasting 8:1 or 12:1 zooms, moving closer means zooming in. Wrong. Zooming isn’t a substitute for getting closer.
The zoom lens was designed for those awkward situations where it’s impossible to get physically closer. Used with skill, the zoom is a dandy device. But nowadays the device is used as some sort of mechanical phallus, producing truly sickening results.
Moving in closer so the subject fills the scene naturally will make for better viewing-and solve some tricky problems with lighting at the same time.
Today, fast lenses are common and the CCD chip in modern camcorders is much more sensitive to light than the old video tubes. Even using an old Bolex H8 I’ve successfully shot in a snowstorm at night-and you should see some of these storms we get in Newfoundland.
Now there’s not much natural light at night (you’ve noticed?) and visibility in a snowstorm is pretty low anyway. Fortunately, there are such things as streetlamps, and against the light cast from these it’s possible to see swirling snowflakes. Notice, too, the headlights of cars slowly forging through the snow.
From either source, the short spread of light in the surrounding darkness creates a fine mood and interesting effects.
People videotaping in central England routinely encounter the horror of drizzle washing landscape features away. There isn’t much you can do in terms of extra lighting for landscapes. The human figure-well lit-becomes even more important, adding punch to the picture.
Videotaping indoors can pose tremendous problems. Contrast is high- sunlight streaming through windows will light only certain areas of a room, usually the lower levels. Dark furniture soaks up light. Light-colored carpets will reflect some light, but beware of color cast.
Same answer: Use reflected light wherever possible. Tape near a window, and bounce sunlight onto the ceiling or walls with paper or cards. Bouncing light off the ceiling has the added advantage of spreading the light from above, where it normally, naturally comes from.
Early morning and late-evening sunlight has its own peculiar, fetching qualities, leaning towards yellow shades rather than blue. Northern latitudes above 50 degrees have yellow light all year round, due to the thicker atmosphere. You can see the effect in Rembrandt and Vermeer paintings, particularly those depicting rooms with light streaming through windows.
Faces tend to take on odd qualifies in this light. The trick here is to reflect pale blue light from colored paper so that people don’t look jaundiced. The general color temperature of the background lighting will remain true, retaining the atmosphere and establishing the time of day.
The most extreme low-light condition I’ve ever seen was in the Snake Temple on the island of Penang off the northwest coast of Malaysia.
The inside temple is very dark; the eyes take some minutes to adapt before making out the pit vipers on every shelf, in every nook and cranny. I was able to show something of the scene using a small shaving mirror resting on a ledge in a doorway.
I wasn’t, however, able to tape successfully in the jungle. Like Muir Woods north of San Francisco, it’s too dark without some portable, electric lights. Lighting a match doesn’t cut it.
Ordinary incandescent light is orange, throwing an orange cast over everything. Some camcorders can partially compensate for this. Reflecting light from lamps will bring up the light level on specific objects; reflecting it from the ceiling will help spread the light more evenly.
Don’t forget that fill light from below head-level cuts contrast dramatically, diminishing essential, natural shadows. If the fill light is very strong, shadows will appear above the lip, chin, and eyebrows, creating a grotesque form of underlighting important in horror movies. Fine for special effects, it may not be appreciated by Great Aunt Esmerelda.
Fluorescent light tends to be bluer than incandescent light, though not as blue as natural daylight. “Daylight” tubes are close to natural daylight but still not absolutely true. Again, newer camcorders can compensate for the different color temperature.
The main advantage of fluorescent light is its traditional high-ceiling fixture arrangement, providing an even spread with few dark areas. Unfortunately, the spread’s often too uniform, resulting in a flat, uninteresting look. Use reflecting material to highlight the areas you wish to emphasize.
Those small lights that mount atop your camcorder are useful for placing the light exactly where you want it-on your subject. The problem is that fixing them directly in line with the lens results in a very flat picture. There are no side shadows that make for a full, three-dimensional image.
An extension bracket will allow the light fixture to sit to one side or the other some distance away from the camcorder. Anywhere from one to two feet will be fine. For best effect the bracket should also keep the light above the camcorder.
Using any floodlight can bring on the curse of the inverse square law. If yon hold a light two feet away from an object, the amount of light shed will be four times less than if you were one foot away. Move three feet back and eight times less light will fall. This law that works to our advantage for reflected light works against us here.
Small, camcorder-mounted floods should not get too close to objects. Here’s an opportunity to use your zoom for good purpose, presumably with a well-framed subject. Better yet, position the floodlight farther away for use as a fill.
Small floods project light in a small spread. The light can be moved from side to side slightly without affecting the amount of light falling. You can apply this to advantage by bouncing some of the sidelight onto your subject; in effect, creating two light sources. The reflected light won’t be as strong as the original source but will result in a more even sheen.
For larger scenes involving several people a single light is often not enough. Two alternatives: Place a small light on a stand for general lighting and use the camcorder’s to highlight specific areas. Or bounce either light from the ceiling.
Isn’t That Special
Many special effects are possible with astute use of light. Coloring, for example, can be accomplished with reflecting material or “gels” placed over lights.
Blue light creates a cold atmosphere; red produces a warm feeling. A touch of red light shining on the butler’s face will make him look like he’s been at the bottle. Green on the landlady’s face will make her look like the Witch of Endor-particularly if it comes from just below the chin.
Small mirrors, aluminum foil cake-stands, or silver trays can become spotlights, pointing up specific objects to make them more noticeable. It’s better to use fixed lights that don’t move. Light should be still and constant, like sunlight.
Finally, consider a photographer’s tool also appropriate in the world of video: the light meter.
There’s no need to set any specific value,just make sure you use the same one each time. Notice the way the needle moves for each part of the scene. Lower readings indicate need for fill light.
While the magic of camcorders has conditioned us to want instant video at the press of a button, there’s still a lot of work involved in quality videomaking. Good lighting can lighten the load.
John Heniott, a veteran film and video documentarian, book publisher, and freelance writer, was an ACTRA award (Canada’s Emmy equivalent) nominee in the early ’60s.