When you wander on down to the movie show you expect the images on the screen to look pretty good. After all, those big moving pictures are assembled by a team of professionals, not least among them the lighting technicians.

These men and women scurry about placing fixtures, barndoors, scrims, halfscrims, gels, diffusion material, fog machines, nets, color-correcting material and the various other tools of their trade. They persist until an assistant director tells them it’s time to get the shot, or the union shop boss tells them it’s time to get coffee.

Can you hope to make the pictures moving through your camcorder look as good as those on the silver screen? Hollywood directors of photography would laugh at the mere suggestion, but with a bit of extra effort you can achieve some of the same effects you see in the movies.

Light Speak

Let’s start with some lighting basics.


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Light radiates from its source-be it the sun, tungsten fixtures or noisy fluorescent tubes-and continues till it hits an object. The light bounces off the object and moves through a lens-in our eyeball, or on a camcorder-and stamps an image on a pickup device. In an eye this is the retina; in the camcorder the CCD.

Simple. Obvious. Yet what we forget is this the reflection of the hght and the kind of shadow it throws tell us everything we know about an object. It tells us of the light source; whether we’re inside or out if the object is glass cotton, wood or steel.

When I peer at something I make a judgment. That thing over there looks like a rock. I pick it up. It’s light; made of foam. It’s not a rock.

If I shoot that thing with a camcorder, my viewers receive only visual information. For them the object remains a rock.

Time for some experiments with the rock and a large metal ball bearing-or maybe it only looks like a ball bearing. Like, if a tree falls in the forest and there is no one is there to see it, does it make a picture?

Anyway, the room in which the experiment occurs is totally dark but for a single tungsten light on a stand. I turn on the light and observe what happens to the rock and ball.

There seems to be a highlight on each object. On the rock it’s not too apparent; but the ball bears a clear reflection of the source. If the source were a window rather than a fixture, the ball would reflect the square of the window; if a candle, the ball would reflect the flickering. The point is this: the way an object reflects a light gives us a good idea of the source.

By adjusting light sources, you can convince viewers they’re seeing things that don’t really exist.

Because the ball is metal, the light bounces off in a way that says, ‘hey, this ball is smooth and shiny-it must be made of metal.” After hitting the rock, the light says, “this object reflects more light where the surface is lightest; because the surface is irregular, shadows are created in the places where there are humps. Ergo, it must be a rock.”

Light talks a lot.

We just need to listen.

The Shadow Shows

Shadows are also full of information. In our example, we know only one light source hits the rock and ball because each object casts but one shadow. With shadow edges sharply defined, we know the light is hard; edges fuzzy, the light is soft.

The most important piece of information the shadows contain is that the ball and rock are three-dimensional objects. If you look at a picture in a book or on TV, what are you really looking at? A flat, two-dimensional object.

If you’re shooting the ball with a camcorder with the light fixture placed right next to the lens, the ball would not throw a shadow. This lighting scheme is called flat, and that’s the way the ball would look. No clue that the ball boasts dimensions; it could easily be but a shiny circle two or three microns thick. By moving the light to one side, the shadows on the surface next to the object tell us the ball is spherical, not flat.

Shadows also reveal texture. If the light source lies above the object and to the right, the ball will be brighter on the top right and less bright on the bottom left. The line upon the ball where the light moves from bright to dim is sharp because the ball is metal. If the ball were cotton the line would appear bumpy; the shadow would show us.

Hard Day’s Light

I now remove the rock and the ball and place in their place Bruno, a young man desirous of a career as an actor.

As he assumes a manly position, I notice the light is not flattering. It throws a hard shadow on one side of his nose, makes his skin appear a bit bumpy. This won’t do. I take the light and back it away from him, hoping to ease the intensity. The light level indeed falls off, but the shadow remalns hard. “Phooey,” says I.

Then I remember the secret of hard and soft lighting. It’s a simple secret. A small light source throws a hard shadow. A large light source throws a soft shadow. That’s it.

I leave Bruno putting the finishing touches on his hair and take a walk outside. It’s a beautiful day, the sun is shining bright. As usual the sun is rather large, but it behaves like a small light source. Look at that tree’s shadow-every leaf can be seen.

With a wave of my omnipotent hand, I cause the sky tofill up with fluffy white clouds. The clouds roll in just like they did when the aliens snatched the kid in Close Encounters. The sun’s still out there beaming lots of light, but that light now hits the back of the clouds.

The result: a light source the size of the sky itself.

Look at the tree’s shadow now: the leaves are blurry little blobs.

I step back into the studio where Bruno patiently waits. I set a large white card on a stand placed just outside the frame, then bounce the light off it and onto him. This produces a much larger light source than the fixture alone. A softer light, more flattering, with fewer annoying shadows.

To create a soft light on location you can bounce the light off the ceiling or a nearby wall. Just don’t move your fixtures too close to any flammable objects.


But Bruno still doesn’t look quite right. The soft light from one side gives an interesting effect-Rembrandt thought so, anyway-but his dark hair blends in with the background.

We need three-point lighting to bring out his best. We already have the key light our main light. Moving to the other side of the camera we erect a second, less intense fixture. This is the fill light; it does what it’s named, filling with light the darkened side of Bruno’s face. Finishing our triumvirate of lights is the backlight, above and behind the subject to add a lovely sheen around his hair and shoulders. The backlight also separates him from the background and thus helps him appear three-dimensional.

But as I look through the viewfinder at big Bruno I’m still a tad disappointed. Yes, the lighting is acceptable. But even with the backlight Bruno’s head seems to float in a sea of darkness.

This is due no doubt to his black sweater: with the camera iris auto-adjusting for his face, the black top gets lost. I set up yet another light and aim it at his sweater, hoping itwill reflect enough to give some details.

I could also diminish the light reflecting off his face by placing a screen, or scrim, over that portion of the light.

Or I could ask him to change into a lighter sweater.

Clothes pure black or white limit lighting options. This is because the contrast range video can detect is nowhere near as great as film. Blacks lose detail, whites can cause the camera to close the iris.

Not that you’ll always have a choice. Someday you may step into a corporate video shoot, facing an endless array of executives clad in white shirts and dark suits. In such a situation it is permissible to cry softly into your light kit.

The Color of Light

Because the human brain is so clever, it automatically accepts whatever light reflects off an object and processes it so it appears “correct.” If you’re at a theater and the actors on stage are alternately bathed in red and blue light, your eyes will continue to see them in flesh tones. Shoot these same people with a camcorder and they’ll come out looking red and blue.

Different types of light come in different colors. Sunlight shines at around 5600 degrees Kelvin, lending it a cool, bluish tint Tungsten lights glow at about 3200 degrees with a warm light. These numbers and the light they describe constitute the color temperature scale.

If you’re preparing to shoot an interview with some dignitary and the sun begins to set, you might set up a tungsten light to brighten things a bit. But if your camcorder white balance is set for daylight, the subject may glow redder than you’d like.

Gels placed between the light source and the subject will alter the color temperature. With the proper gels you can change tungsten light to the color of daylight. On the other hand, you can place a gel over a window to change daylight to the color temperature of tungsten light. Or you can close the drapes.

Light Realistic

Now that you understand some of the fundamentals of light you’ll no doubt wish to make a major motion picture. Most people see that as the next logical step.

Let’s say your epic concerns a prospector and his dog. We’ll even give you a budget; these are hypothetical dollars and quite tax deductible.

Remember that dramatic lighting is fundamentally different from the kind of lighting you’d use for a news report or documentary. For these non-fiction situations you’d use a three-point setup, plus a background light to throw shadows on the wall behind the subject.

But when lighting for drama, you have to simulate reality in a way that can trick the audience into believing what they see. You have to convince them to suspend disbelief.

A light on either side of the camera is not the way to go.

It does not look real; it’s flat, two-dimensional and boring. A different lighting scheme should accompany each location, matching the mood the director seeks to establish.

The light that illuminates a dramatic production should come from somewhere that makes sense for the scene-a scheme known as motivated lighting.

If Barney the prospector is down in the mine lacking all illumination but a kerosene lantern, the light should come from the direction of the lantern, flickering a bit to simulate firelight. You can accomplish this with a Jive stick, a contraption consisting of a stick with several strips of cloth hanging down. Wave it in front of a light source and it looks like firelight.

For a scene back in the cabin, light comes in the windows. No matter where Barney moves, the light should always come from the direction of the windows. If the windows possess frames, the light should throw a shadow that looks like a frame.

If one night Fido the dog becomes lost in the woods, the scene light should simulate moonlight. Moonlight offers a bluish tint, as it’s sunlight reflected off the surface of the moon. Always use a blue gel on a light standing in for the moon, If there’s another light in the shot, such as candlelight from inside Barney’s cabin it will look white compared with the blue moonlight.

Back to Fido in the woods. Don’ t hit him directly with your “moon” light. Always aim the light through leaves of trees, or a cutout pattern that looks like leaves. This will break up the light; it will appear more natural.

Harnessing the Sun

Whenever possible, do not place your main light directly above or right next to the camera. From the subject’s point of view the light should lie on an arc at least 15 degrees from the camera.

In drama, shadows are your friends. They add dimension by displaying depth. Light can even shine from the other side of the subjects, placing them in partial silhouette.

When lighting for drama don’t be afraid to break the rules. Actually, there aren’t any. Not when it’s your show. Also, don’t worry if your actors move from light to shadow and back again. That’s natural.

Shooting in sunlight is both easy and difficult. It’s easy when the shot looks the way you want. But if the shot isn’t up to your exacting standards, it becomes tough to compensate for sunlight, the most intense light source you are likely to run across.

Say Barney stands in direct sunlight, the brim of his hat throwing his eyes into shadow. It’s important here to see his eyes, as he’s mourning the loss of Fido’s favorite bone. You have a couple of choices. You can use the sun and bounce the light off a white card into Barney’s face. Or you can use a reflector, a shiny board that really fries talent.

Use reflectors sparingly, they don’t always look natural, and tend to make talent squint.

Finally, you can place a ceiling of scrim material or netting above Barney to knock down the light level. This instant cloud cover looks best, but requires some effort to rig. It can also get noisy when the wind hits.

Altered Rays

Even if you follow all this lighting advice, your video still won’t look like film. Video is an electronic process; film is chemical. But there are ways to alter the video look so the viewer will be confused. Confused viewers won’t know what format they’re seeing, but if you do your job right they’ll like what they see.

Certain filters will soften the video look. Known as diffusion filters, they come in various intensities. If you want to see a diffusion filter in action, catch a rerun of Moonlighting. Watch the shots between Dave and Maddie. Dave is kept sharp, Maddie diffused. You see the uses.

Another way to alter video is the sock technique. If you can remove your lens, do it. Stretch a pair of black pantyhose over the back of the lens; then reattach the lens.

If your lens doesn’t come off, stretch the hose over the front of the lens. Attach with a rubber band. Cut off the excess. This will result in video with a soft, unreal feel.

Back in the cabin we’re preparing a scene where Barney will suffer from the combined effects of a wolf attack, broken leg and self-amputation. Look at the windows. Light is streaming through, the rays of sunlight casting three-dimensional shafts onto Barney’s shabby cot.

Now wait a minute, you say. Why doesn’t the light shine through your windows as it shines through Barney’s? Why no shafts on your bed?

Because you haven’t filled your home with a smoke-like fog substance from a professional fog machine. You don’t really see the light coming in Barney’s windows, you see the light reflecting off little particles floating in the air. A similar effect results from pounding on old pillows.

A fog machine uses a liquid it warms and then spits out in clouds. According to the label the stuffs non-toxic; talent can inhale it day in, day out with no visible side effects. This is good, because if you pay attention to dramatic programs on TV or at the movies you’ll often see the fog machine in action.

Sometimes the fog looks like fog, rolling around on the floor as vampires and such go about their evil deeds. But often the fog is unnoticeable. Many times sets are filled with a thin haze of fog visible only when a light shines through. This allows lighting directors to achieve interesting effects with venetian blinds.

When planning to shoot drama, always obtain a fog machine. Don’t leave home without it.

The main lesson to learn if you wish to harness the power of light is control. If you’re the one deciding where the light comes from and what it adds to a scene, then through trial, error and experimentation you’ll achieve some good-looking lighting. Buy a light kit. Learn to aim the fixtures. Play with scrims and barndoors and gels. Then let your imagination get the best of you.

Your light kit is your palette. Go paint a masterpiece.

William Ronat, a Videomaker contributing editor, is an accomplished director.

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