Light Source: Using a Camera-Mounted Light

You’ve seen it, the glaring spotlight shining into the face of a reporter as he talks about the latest accident or weather phenomenon. You also have seen the shiny little light sitting in your gear bag just begging you to put it on the camera and illuminate the noses of your talent. Retailers sell us on the fact that their cameras come equipped with their own lights, just pop it on and shoot. Well, if it were that easy, there would be little need for this column. You could simply go out and buy a small light that fits onto the shoe on top of your camcorder and be done with it. However, if you are a dedicated reader of this column and use lighting to enhance your video productions, you know this is far from the truth.

Camera-mounted lights do have a purpose and, with a few tips, you can learn to use them effectively. In this month’s column, we will take a look at the uses of these handy lights and talk about ways to make them more effective and less glaring.

Camera Light Uses

One of the primary uses for the camera-mounted light is to record interviews when the lack of time prevents you from setting up lighting. Reporters have used camera-mounted lights for years. Their jobs demand that they have a light source that is battery-powered, is mounted to their camera for quick shots and is bright enough to illuminate their subject, even in the darkest hours of the night.

On-camera light sources are lightweight, very intense and sturdy. This makes them ideal for many other uses. Primary amongst these is the ability to shoot anywhere and create well-lit video. Not long ago, I had the opportunity to produce and shoot a caving safety video for a colleague of mine. This shoot demanded that I have sturdy, lightweight equipment and a dependable light source besides my helmet light. Believe me, when you are walking through underground rivers to your waist and crawling through mud almost that high, in total darkness, you are definitely glad you have a light that shines everywhere you point your camera. Stalactites and stalagmites glisten with water and the interior of the cave comes alive with light. It’s a remarkable sight.

On-camera lighting can also be handy when shooting wildlife and other creatures that have a tendency to move where they feel like moving. Even during the day, the use of an on-camera light can enhance the video by decreasing the contrast between shadow and light.

If your subject has his back to the sun, you can light his face with the light from your camera. This will add a little sparkle in the eyes and will help make the video more appealing.

While the on-camera light has many uses, those who use it have devised a number of ways to avoid the hard, center-mounted light that makes the video look like amateur hour. However, to eliminate the problems, you have to understand them.

So, What’s the Problem?

The reason camera-mounted lights are not used more often for anything but remote location lighting, guerrilla lighting and television reporting has to do with their position on the camera and size. Small lights create a very harsh light with a very hard shadow edge. Their light has a very sharp shadow edge that enhances every nook and cranny in your talent’s face. This is exactly the opposite of what you want unless you are doing a highly dramatic horror movie.

Add to this hard light the fact that most camera-mounted lights are positioned exactly in the middle of the camera above the lens. With this positioning, you get a hard light glaring right into the eyes of your talent, causing him to squint, and also creating a flat two-dimensional space out of what should be a nice three-dimensional face. If you think back to the columns on three-point lighting, the primary concern for a light designer is to create a three dimensional look to your talent’s face by placing the lighting above and beside the camera at about the four-thirty or seven-thirty position on the lighting clock. Very seldom do you want the light to shine straight at your talent. This creates lighting that is flat and unflattering.


What to Do

Reporters and videographers have experimented with many ways to enhance their on-camera lights so that they are not the straight shot, hard lights we all know and hate. The primary concern is how to make a small, hard light bigger and softer. One technique used is called diapering. Yes, this is just like what you do to babies only you use a material called tough spun and you loosely attach it to the front of the light so that it softens and spreads light. You can either use gaffer’s tape, or on lights with small barn doors, clothespins or paper clips to attach the tough spun to the light. Because the tough spun material diffuses the light, the result is a softer, bigger light source that looks a lot better than the original.

If you do a lot of shooting with an on-camera light, you might want to look into a special light. You can attach soft diffusion banks on your camera lights. These light banks not only create a much larger light than you originally started with, their offset mounting apparatus may also move the light so that it is not in the center of the camera. This offset position enables the light to fall at a more flattering angle for your talent or subject.

Offsetting your on-camera light is an important way to minimize the deer-in-the-headlights look of a centered mounted light. To offset your light, you will have to create a rig that clamps to the handle of your camera or fits in the camera’s accessory shoe and moves the light off to the side and above the level of the lens (see the Build it Yourself sidebar).

Lights On

As you have seen from the tips in this column, using on-camera lights does not necessarily have to mean stark, harsh-looking video. You can diffuse the light, offset it from center and use it sparingly. There is one important thing to remember with on-camera lights, however – most of them have a color temperature of 3200 degrees, which is the equivalent of indoor light. If you are using the on-camera light to supplement the outdoor lighting, place a small piece of blue color-correction gel in front of the light to match it to daylight.

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