Lights, Reflectors, Diffusers: The Tools of the Trade

"Lights, camera, action!" is about as clichd as you can get, but there is a reason they say "lights" first. Video and films always look better if you light them well. This doesn’t mean the scene has to be awash in light. It does mean that there is a well designed plan behind the lighting and the resulting picture has rich blacks and bright whites. To achieve a well-lit scene, you need the right tools. A good light kit with plenty of accessories, as well as a variety of reflectors and diffusers will make designing the lighting in a scene easier. The video that you shoot with that good lighting will look great.

In this article, we will introduce a variety of lighting instruments and accessories, as well as some different reflectors and diffusers available. Use the accompanying buyer’s guides to help you in your search for the right lights, light kits, reflectors and diffusers.

Lighting Instruments

There are primarily four types of lighting instruments from which to choose: the broad or pan light, the reflector spot, the Fresnel and the soft light. We’ve defined these four categories by the way the light works, but each category has a variety of styles. For example, some manufacturers have three or four types of reflector spots that go by a variety of different names. Let’s take a closer look at these four categories.

Broad or Pan Light

The broad or pan light is an open-faced lighting instrument that is broader than it is tall. Its lamp is a long horizontal tube. The larger version of this rectangular light is a broad. Lighting designers use large powerful versions of this light in television and theatre for set lights and area lighting. The smaller versions used in video production are also used for lighting large areas and providing fill light in a scene. The Cool-Lux Broad Light ($270) is a good example. In this category Lowel has its Tota ($110) and V-Light ($100) and Desisti has its Cosmobroad ($210). These lighting instruments all vary in size, wattage and accessories, giving you different price points for the different models.

Reflector Spot

The reflector spot is an open-faced light that has a bulb surrounded by a highly reflective bowl. This light is a multi-purpose light that you use for key, back or fill lighting. These lights come in a variety of sizes and styles and every lighting manufacturer has many models from which to choose. Lowel lighting has a number of reflector spots including the tiny Pro-Light ($105), the Omni-Light ($130 – $154) and the workhorse DP-Light ($155). Mole Richardson, a standard on the film set, offers the 600W Teenie-Weenie Mole ($219), the 650W Teenie Mole ($240), the 1,000W Mickey Mole ($285) and the 2,000W Mighty Mole ($340).

Fresnel

The Fresnel is a light with a special glass lens (a Fresnel lens) in front. This lens features a specially designed series of steps that focuses the light forward. Whether it’s the Mole-Richardson 1,000W Baby Solarspot ($420), the Lowel Fren-L 650 ($360) or the LTM Pepper series ($180 – $350), the Fresnel provides an even, focusable light that is ideal for using as your key.


Soft

A soft light is a large, diffuse lighting instrument that provides perfect light for an interview or washing a large area in soft, shadowless light. The soft light comes in a wide variety of styles. It can be a one-piece unit such as the Lowel Caselight ($730 – $1,050) or might be made up of a reflector spot with a large diffusion softbox attached such as the Arri Softbank D1 Kit ($1,665). We’ll take a look at softboxes in more detail later on when we cover diffusers.

Types of Lamps

There are four major types of lamps (bulbs) used in lighting instruments: incandescent, halogen/quartz, fluorescent and Hydrargyrum Medium arc-length Iodide (HMI).

The incandescent light is like the lights most of us use at home in our living room. They give off a very soft, warm (orangish) light and primarily are too weak and colored for use in video production.

The halogen or quartz bulb is the most common lamp used in video lights. It burns very brightly, comes in a variety of wattages and is color rated for video, meaning that it is mostly white. However, halogen lamps also burn very hot, which can be a distinct and dangerous disadvantage.

The fluorescent lamp has been making inroads into video lighting quite a bit lately. This light tube provides a bright, steady light, yet gives off very little heat. It is used primarily in soft lights although Kinoflow offers the Kamio System ring light used in fashion shoots and Desisti offers a series of fluorescent Fresnels ($740-$873). Other advantages of fluorescents are their low power usage and the ability to change the tubes from indoor to daylight color temperatures easily.

Professionals use the HMI light because of its daylight color temperature and intense, even lighting. These lights are relatively expensive and require an external ballast for power control.

Accessories

As with everything in the video world, lights come with a variety of accessories. Here are some accessories that you will definitely want to include in your kit.

  • Accessory Mounts. If you find yourself in situations where you need to get your lights into places where you can’t use a normal light stand, you’ll need a variety of accessory mounts. Look for mounts such as c-clamps, scissors clamps (especially for drop ceilings) and flexible arms for maneuvering your reflectors and flags and door hangers.
  • Barndoors. Barndoors are the adjustable flaps in front of a light that give you the ability to block or shape the light beam and spill.
  • Carrying case. It’s no fun having all the toys if you can’t bring them with you, so a good case is a must. Keep in mind that you will be carrying these kits, so make sure they aren’t so heavy that you have to rent some elephants to move them.
  • Gels. Most light kits have a supply of gels. These gels help control the intensity of light (ND Filters), change indoor light to outdoor (color-temperature blue (CTB) gels) and change outdoor window light to indoor light (color temperature orange (CTO) gels). The kits may also include gel frames to mount the gels on the lights.
  • Scrims. A scrim is a metal mesh screen that you place over the light to decrease its intensity. Scrims come in full, half and a variety of densities. You might use a half scrim to change the intensity of only half of the light, for example.
  • Softboxes. These large diffusion boxes fit on the front of reflector spots and Fresnels to turn them into soft lights.
  • Adjustable. Most reflector spots and Fresnels have an adjustable bulb so that you can move it from the flood to spot position. This gives you greater flexibility in the type and intensity of your key light.
  • Stands and stand height. It is important to know what type of video you normally shoot. If you do a lot of work where your talent is standing, you will need a light stand that has a greater height than for seated interviews. Professionals often choose to position the key light at an angle of about 45-degrees above the talent. That’s pretty high and requires a stand that raises to at least eight feet.
  • Umbrellas. The umbrella is a great tool for changing a bright key light into a large soft fill light.

Reflectors and Diffusers

Reflectors and diffusers are essential in any lighting artist’s bag of tricks. These two lighting accessories come in a variety of styles, some of which we’ve already seen on the Accessories list.

Reflectors, naturally, reflect light onto your subject. They can be solid or flexible, round, oval, rectangular, square or an umbrella. They also come in cloth, metal, cardboard or foamcore mediums. Reflectors commonly come in a few colors: white, silver and gold. Since reflectors have two sides, you can often get a single reflector in two colors. The size and color of the reflector depends on the size of your shot and its mood or style. White (an excellent choice for weddings) reflects a soft diffused light without changing its color. Silver reflects a brighter, crisper light that adds a bit of sparkle to the image (excellent for product shots) and gold adds warmth and a soft glow to the image (great outdoors). For example, if you shoot models or warm interviews, you will want medium to large diffused reflector that is either gold or a combination of gold and silver such as Lastolite’s 48-inch Sunfire/Silver collapsible reflector ($64).

A diffuser is a large piece of translucent material that you place between the light and the subject to spread the light and make it softer. The size of the diffuser depends on your subject. Chimera makes a large selection of light box diffusers that range in size from the XX-Small 1 light diffuser with a 12 X 16 inch face ($147) to huge 15 X 40 foot monsters. Of course diffusers include softboxes and scrims as well.

Making Smart Choices

When searching for new lighting equipment, keep in mind the type of video that you shoot. Do you work mostly in a studio or on location? Do you have access to a crew? Does your talent move around or are they largely stationary? Are you shooting people or products? All of these questions will help you decide the size, quality and power of your lighting needs as well as the size and styles of reflectors and diffusion materials. There is a lot from which to choose. Take your time, weigh your options and go shopping knowing you have done your homework.

Dr. Robert G. Nulph is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies and an independent video/film director.

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