Video Lighting: Guerilla Lighting

For the past few months we have discussed various ways to approach lighting, from using reflectors and three-point scenarios to dramatic lighting techniques. We have talked about the placement of lighting equipment and how to get the best lighting for any given situation. But, what do you do if you are shooting video in a real-world situation and don’t have the time to go get a video light? What if you just don’t have the money to buy professional quality lights? The answer is guerrilla lighting. In this month’s column we will look at various ways you can get professional-looking results using inexpensive materials. The only requirement you have to meet is that you approach every lighting situation with an open mind and a major dose of creativity.

Hit the Hardware Store

A quick visit to the hardware store will provide most of your guerrilla lighting needs. The clip-on lights with 12-inch reflectors commonly used in garages and basement hobby shops work well as inexpensive spotlights. With their soft rubber coated grips, you can clamp these lights to almost anything and they will provide enough light to highlight your talent in a medium close shot. You may also be able to find fairly inexpensive quartz worklights that provide great looking light when properly placed. If you decide to go in this direction, try to buy lights with the highest wattage bulbs available.

A bag of wooden spring-clamp clothespins will come in handy to clamp gels and other materials to your lights, but beware: these and other lamps can become very hot, so be sure not to clamp anything flammable to them. Also, do not use duct tape to attach materials to your lights. The glue from the tape is very hard to get off most surfaces and your lights will soon become a tacky, black mess.

A stop in the plumbing section will provide lightweight PVC pipe for reflectors and diffusers. A 4X5-foot frame will be large enough for most lighting situations and the frame can be taken apart for storage.

You can use a 4X4-foot sheet of flexible, flat black window screening for a variety of things, from controlling the intensity of reflectors to providing a neutral density filter through which you can shoot on bright days. If you shoot through the screening, make sure to place it close to the camcorder so that the lens will not focus on it.

Your local art store sells 3X4-foot sheets of white foamcore you can use as reflectors. You can also consider a couple of 3X4-foot sheets of posterboard, black on one side and white on the other, to use as flags to block light or as flexible soft reflectors to bounce it.

Household Treasures

Amazingly enough, your house is probably filled with lighting equipment and accessories. A thin, white bed sheet makes a wonderful reflector or diffusion filter. Bouncing a light off a sky-blue sheet works well to give your scene a soft, cool blue tint. White towels also make great reflectors.

If you dig deep into your closet, you may find an old Hula-Hoop, a perfect frame for a homemade reflector or diffuser. Just tack, hot glue or staple material to the plastic ring. And suspend it in front of your light source (but not so close as to create a fire hazard). The quality of light you can create with a few work lamps suspended behind this type of diffusion screen is amazing.

A trip to the kitchen will reveal a virtual treasure trove of lighting accessories. A box of aluminum foil is a must for those times when you need a hard reflective surface. You can use black garbage bags as flexible flags to control lighting and white garbage bags make great flexible soft reflectors or diffusion gels.


Take it Outside

Guerrilla lighting takes advantage of every possible light source available. Keep in mind that the sun is our greatest and least expensive light source.

It is best to shoot with the sun in front of your subjects so the light strikes their faces at about a 45-degree angle in relation to your camcorder. If it snows in your area, this will help you avoid a harsh glare in the background created by the sun reflecting off the snow-covered ground.

You can soften harsh sunlight and create a beautiful, soft, glare-free light by placing a homemade diffusor between the sun and your talent. Because the PVC pipe is so lightweight, it should be relatively easy to hold the diffuser in place. Keep in mind that these diffusers make great kites so take care to avoid windy conditions.

Light Up Inside

When lighting indoors, the sun can still be a great and inexpensive light source. Using your homemade reflector and natural light from a window you can create a bright light perfect for inside shots. Remember not to place your talent directly in front of the window. This will cause a silhouette shot. Instead, turn your subject so the light streaming from the window strikes the face at about 45 degrees. A bounce card can reflect light onto the shaded side of the face. Hard reflectors, such as a smooth piece of aluminum foil or a mirror, will reflect more light than a white card or cloth.

If the sun is not available, use the existing lights of an office or home and supplement them with your hardware store reflector lights. If you use the three-point lighting techniques discussed in previous columns, you will achieve the same lighting results as the professionals.

Makeshift Illumination

If you don’t have any lighting instruments available, look around your location. Anything flat and shiny can act as a reflector. You can use things such as glass-covered pictures to get light where you need it. You can always remove lampshades from lights to provide a stronger light source and your white T-shirt will make a great reflector if you are in a bind.

Don’t forget to take along your imagination when you enter a lighting situation. I remember one shoot in a corporate CEO’s office. I had no bounce card or lighting instrument for a fill light. In the corner of the office was a white flip chart. With a small joke at my expense and a chuckle from the CEO, I placed the flip chart on its side, taped the bottom of the first page so that it wouldn’t come open and bounced my key light to fill the shadows in my talent’s face. This spur-of-the-moment guerrilla lighting technique not only gave me the quality of light I needed but also created a less formal atmosphere for the interview and made the CEO more comfortable with the whole proceeding. Imagination, creativity and a trip to your local hardware store can be the answers to your lighting needs, either in the studio or out in the field.

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