light (lit) n.,adj.,v., lighted or lit, lighting. -n. 1: that which makes things visible, or affords illumination: all colors depend on light. 2: an illuminating source: the sun, a lamp, or a beacon. 3: the light, radiance, or illumination from a particular source. 4: that which differentiates good and B.A.D. Video.

Long before the first consumer video camera floated ashore, the authors of my dog-eared college dictionary had it all figured out. Mr. Random and Ms. House somehow knew light would have a direct impact on future videography.

I think they probably knew Matthew Brady and must have witnessed the early gyrations he and other photographers went through trying to make still pictures.

The more things changed, the more they stayed the same. In other words, not much has changed. Today’s whiz-bag video camcorders don’t work any better in the dark than Brady’s glass plate camera worked without flash powder.


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On bright but cloudy days, when the sun was diffused, his black-and-white still pictures undoubtedly looked more pleasing than on the days he made his pictures under harsh direct sunlight.

No doubt his flash pictures all looked the same-contrasty, one-dimensional, and smoky!

Not to Be Taken Lightly

Indoor videography doesn’t necessarily have to be smoky. However, incorrectly lit home-style video movies still will be contrasty and one-dimensional. Quality indoor shooting often requires additional lighting.

Since modern video cameras capture moving color pictures with sound, it’s important to raise the level of light enough to allow them to do what they do best: record brilliant images.

No problem! There are a variety of ways to improve the ambient light level during indoor video sessions.

Since most consumer-type video shooters never consider lighting requirements before big bucks are dropped into their camcorder, it’s no wonder confusion and frustration raise their ugly heads after the purchase. This is backwards and dumb. Think of it as the majors cause of B.A.D. Video.

A nice way to approach video lighting is to apply two basic rules. One: Les is more. Two: Keep it simple. These rules are absolutely what “user friendly” video lighting is all about.

Okay, Okay . . . maybe three rules: Read, read, read! Shoot, shoot, shoot! Get good, good good!

Bright Idea

Owning and using a simple set of video-style quartz halogen lights is one of the best defenses against B.A.D. Video.

Various professional and nonprofessional 120-volt AC, 250- to 500-watt lights are out there begging to be bought-and used. The same goes for 12-volt DC, 100-watt battery-powered lights.

Modern video-style battery or plug-in-the-wall-style lights are balanced at 3200K, as opposed to daylight, which is about 5600K.

So be sure to correctly white-balance the video camera before taping any scene illuminated by artificial (or daylight) balanced light sources. Nothing looks worse than nicely lit blue or orange people, or cyan-tinted scenery.

In the spirit of rules one and two, a single quartz halogen light, properly placed and controlled, is the first step to improved video images. In many cases it’s the last step necessary to look good. One rule of thumb (Falk’ Thumb Rule No. 1) is to introduce up to 500 watts of tungsten-balanced 3200K light in the indoor video scene.

In the ceiling at the shooting location is white, simply aim the light at the ceiling to experience a gentle flood of soft bounce light falling on the subject from above. That’s where the sun comes from, so why not a video light source? A sturdy but small light and stand will help do the job.

Bounce Counts

Bounce light always looks better when it’s placed 30 to 45 degrees away from the camera position.

If the ceiling isn’t white, don’t bounce light from it. Off-color video is the result. A lively light-blue-colored ceiling will cause deadly blue-tinted video bounce light-good for funeral homes, but bad for video.

Ceilings less than 8 feet and more than 12 feet high also can create problems with bounce light techniques. Too much light is lost when bouncing from a tall ceiling, and too little light is dispersed when bouncing form a short ceiling. But fret not.

When faced with extreme ceiling distances and color obstacles, just look around. Chances are there’s a white wall close by. Bounce the auxiliary light off the wall and into the video scene.

An important bonus with simple bounce light situations is freedom of movement-for subject and camera. The foreground doesn’t “burn out” from too much light and backgrounds aren’t excessively dark because of too little.

Since video is a “reusable” medium, shoot a few tests-both with and without bounce lighting-to see if the difference on the television. TV doesn’t usually lie, you know.

Another form of soft bounce light comes form reflecting the light source into a small photographic lighting umbrella. Umbrellas come in very handy when all ceiling and wall bounce options go “toes up.”

Umbrella lighting is a common technique for professional still photographers. It’s generally soft, shadowless, and easy on the subject. These same professional factors apply to whiz-bang, home-style videography. As with ceiling-bounce lighting, most good umbrella lighting can be done with light sources up to 500 watts, usually less. We’re talking family rooms, baby rooms, vacation sites, and work environments here.

If it becomes necessary to light up more than these “normal places,” traditional one-light techniques may not do the job. (Take a deep breath and pay attention to the multiple light methods covered later.)

On Camera, Off Limits

A different but popular single-light approach involves mounting a battery-powered 12-volt, 100-watt to the camera. It may be popular, but that doesn’t make it right. In fact, this form of lighting should only be a last resort.

If the lighting equipment manufacturer illustrates its light mounted on a camcorder, that’s reason enough to immediately remove it and reposition it for better visual results. Direct on-camera lighting is an amateur’s approach to home-style video.

High contrast, hard shadows, squinty subject eyes, chalky skin tones, overexposed foregrounds, and dark background are a few reasons not to light directly from the camera.

Diffusing (softening) the hard light from a direct camera-mounted source is recommended.

This can be done easily by using a diffusion glass, available as an accessory for some portable video lights. Clipping a small piece of diffusion gel media to the barn-door wings of some portable lights also will diffuse and improve the direct light source.

However, if the aforementioned ugly lighting aberrations are just what are needed to create a certain mood, shoot it.

But, generally, unless a shot requires actual camera and subject movement, getting the light off the camera is the first step to better images. Experiment a bit. Break the rules.

Shooting video of a small child seated at a table drawing, having a bath, or blowing out birthday candles are typical situations illuminated easily by an off-camera light mounted on a light stand or with a small clamp.

Even better, many modern tube-type video cameras and CCD-style camcorders produce excellent images in existing low-light situations. Simply white-balance the camera for the existing light and shoot!

In other words, keep it simple. Don’t complicate a shooting session with unnecessary lighting.

Heat for the Meat

Direct, on-camera lighting is a bad habit held over form 8mm home moviemaking. Back in the old days, camera loaded with slow-speed color film required significant light to record images.

When the light wasn’t being used for making the classic home movie, it could be aimed directly at the Sunday pot roast. It seems the intensity of these “plug in the wall”-style movie lights was more than enough to keep the meat hot until the entire table set!

A modern, portable, 12-volt DC, rechargeable battery power pack and small 100-watt video light is recommended over the “Sunday pot roast” model.

Absolutely avoid using any type of video light that mounts on a camera but still needs to be plugged into the wall for power. This is a situation begging for trouble. And restricting camera movement is a surefire ticket to dull videos.

Probably more interesting will be the action, reaction, and sound effects recorded when someone trips over something.

Remember, the long wire is plugged into the wall and connected to the light. The light is firmly mounted on the camera. The expensive video camera is/was comfortably but loosely balanced on the shooter’s shoulder, usually held lighting by the the right hand.

I think you get the picture.

Light and Learn

Common sense has a lot to do with lighting home-style videos.

Unless you change addresses often, it’s relatively simple to keep track of the type and amount of existing light in various rooms during different times of the day and night.

A new baby room with nice daylight flooding through the windows in an invitation to shoot quick video scenes. Just white-balance the camera and push the button.

This same room at night might only require the addition of one or two cleverly placed bounce lights.

One on top of the dresser or one mounted on a wall will do wonders for improving video images of baby in the crib or on the changing table.

A single 500- or 250-watt light mounted on a stand reflected from an umbrella will create very pleasing lighting for these scene. Same goes for baby in the bathtub.

While extreme caution must be taken when using video lights during baby’s bath time, a low-powered battery unit probably is best for the occasion. One nice bounce light off the white ceiling can light up most bathrooms, with footcandles of light to spare.

Things get more complicated when multiple lights are necessary for video shooting in a large, dark place. Still, multiple lighting of subjects or activities that don’t move around in front of the camera can be a pleasant experience.

Light Up Her Life

An interview situation capturing the firsthand life experiences of great-grandmother is one situation that might lend itself to a basic two-light setup.

An umbrella set up about 30 degrees off-camera yields a simple key light. A 20- by 30-inch piece of white artists’ foam core taped to a light stand can act as a fill-light source.

Set the reflector up on the opposite side of the key light. Move it toward or away from the subject until a pleasant lighting ratio is achieved. Most great-grandmothers aren’t going to be jumping up and down, moving around the room, or crawling under the table-that’s the great-grandchild’s job.

One additional consideration is the background. Aiming a second light into the background will separate it from the subject. You guessed it: This second light is a background light.

Don’t confuse it with a back light, which is simply aimed at the back of the subject, usually from high up. A back light would cause a highlight rim to appear on great-grandmother’s hair and shoulders.

“As Seen On TV . . .”

There’s one substantial advantage video technology offers videographers determined to improve their images through lighting: instant testing, easy and fast.

Results can be viewed and analyzed quickly on most any TV or monitor. Your testing is inexpensive because it’s videotape, not film. And a video camera doesn’t even require a cassette in it for lighting practice.

First, simply feed the camcorder’s video output directly into the monitor and see what’s going on-good or bad. Fix the bad and apply the good. Second, load the camcorder with your favorite brand of rape and record a thing or three about bad, better, and best lighting.

Your experimental setups then can be altered and compared-on the spot. “Visual note taking” during these various test setups guarantees almost instant success. Think of it as what you see is what you get.

Adding the dimension of subject movement within a video scene will multiply lighting requirements. Additional requirements create additional problems.

For instance, every direct light source creates its own shadow and highlight area. Three nose shadows isn’t how great-grandmother wants to see herself on TV. Diffusion helps eliminate multiple nose shadows.

No Pot Roast Leftovers

Good video footage with multiple light setups also requires the understanding and correct use of various light control accessories.

For example, too much light on a background may require barn-door control. Cutting a portion off the background light by correct placement of a barn-door wing is a quick solution

Barn doors, scrims, gobos, snoots, and diffusion media are a few light controls that set quality video lighting apart from the Sunday pot roast variety. Keep in mind that quality lighting always requires the correct use of some additional light controls.

Falk’s second and final Thumb Rule says it doesn’t make sense to invest a considerable amount of money in a sophisticated video camera system and then not take advantage of its ability to render spectacular pictures.

Shop around, compare, attend seminars and trade show, contact manufacturers for equipment catalogs, and routinely read everything written about video lighting. Fight B.A.D.

Anyone can run around outside and do passable videotape. Those who can master the basics of controlled lighting in places where the sun doesn’t shine will be admired by those who can’t.

All it takes is a desire to do it right.

Jon Falk, serving his 22nd year as a newspaper photographer and picture editor, is the founder of Lights Ltd., which specializes in location lighting. The company’s workshops offer intensive encounters with still-photography lighting techniques, black-and-white as well as color.

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