Better Video Through Lighting: Lights and Accessories you will need for the successful video shoot

One of the most obvious, yet overlooked facts concerning video is that you can’t shoot good video without good lighting.

Nothing affects the quality of your finished video as much as the quality of your lighting. It seems basic, but all too often, you see home and commercial videos that are as poorly lit as a vampire’s day room. Many videographers have botched an attempt at shooting video by trying to use the limited amount of ambient light that is present where they are shooting. Video played back on tape may look very different from the scene that you saw with your eyes. Video images recorded in low light can look weak and poorly defined. Other potential lighting pitfalls include lighting that is too bright, causing hot spots, and light that is the wrong color temperature, making the colors of your subject appear wrong on tape.

What can you do to avoid these lighting pitfalls? Survey the types of lighting equipment mentioned in this story, and gear up according to the type of shooting that you do. A simple on-camera light is the bare minimum requirement for shooting video indoors, unless you are willing to redirect the lighting in your house with a guerilla-style indoor lighting technique(See "Lite Lighting" July 1998). For better looking indoor video, use a studio-style light kit to give your videos a three-point lighting setup.

Reflectors, diffusers and colored gels are also important tools for lighting. By properly using reflectors, you can fill the dark spots of your video’s lighting design without using a lamp. Diffusers allow you to cut the brightness of a light source, and colored gels let you correct the color of your lighting to match that of sunlight. Remember; always reset your camcorder’s white balance whenever you are changing the color temperature of your lights.


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The Basics

You understand that you need additional lighting to shoot decent-quality video, but what exactly do you need? The answer would depend on what type of video you shoot. There are a lot of options for people who don’t want to setup and tear down a complete lighting kit every time they pull out the camcorder.

If you want to improve the lighting in your video, but don’t want to deal with an extensive lighting kit, you could get an on-camera light like the NRG Research Mite-Lite ($110 with cigarette lighter adapter, $125 with XLR connector). The Mite-Lite is a 30-watt quartz on-camera light which mounts to the camcorder’s hot shoe bracket, and has either a cigarette lighter connector or 4-pin XLR power adapter. With a light like the Mite-Lite, you could light subjects up to approximately 50-feet away.

Another on-camera light is the Smith-Victor Video Light M-75 ($250). The M-75 sports a 75-watt 12-volt quartz lamp, and can be used with either AC or battery power. It is a good idea to keep one of these on-camera lights handy, in case you find that the ambient light isn’t bright enough to make your video look good.

In addition to an on-camera light, consider investing in a reflector. The Photogeniic Chameleon CH-22 is a collapsible reflector that is 22-inches in diameter, comes in a variety of different materials for different types of reflected light, and retails for about $45.

For a Few Dollars More

A more advanced videographer who does a lot of indoor shooting may want to invest in a light kit. A light kit allows you to use a variety of light sources instead of relying on the on-camera light supplemented by whatever reflectors you have to illuminate your subject.

A typical light kit contains two or three lights, some diffusers, stands, clamps and color correction gels to allow you to create professional-style two- or three-point lighting for your videos. The Video Kit from Cool-Lux ($770) has two AC/DC 150-watt Mini-Cool lights, which can use barn doors and other standard studio lighting accessories, and a DC 75-watt Micro-Lux light. All of the lights in this package can be mounted to light stands using the clamps and accessories that come with the kit, or right on the camcorder’s hot shoe. It also includes diffusion lenses, a DC dimmer control and power adapters. Amazingly, all of this gear fits into an 18-by-15-inch hard plastic case, making it easy to transport into the field. All of the lights in the Video Kit are DC capable, which makes the Cool-Lux Video Kit easy to use in the field (where a 110-volt AC plug is often difficult to find).

In addition to a light kit, an on-camera light is still a necessity for the more advanced videographer. The Lowel-Light Manufacturing i-Light ($160) has a cigarette lighter plug (an XLR plug model is available for $165), and uses 55- or 100-watt bulbs. You can mount this light on a stand if you wish to use it separate from your camcorder. You can also buy a #3 reflector ($65) that attaches directly to the i-Light, for when you want softer lighting than the light straight from the bulb.

The final pieces of this more advanced lighting puzzle are the gels, reflectors and diffusers. The Rosco Color Effects Kit ($35) is a set of 10, 10-by-12-inch color correction filters that allows you to alter the color of your lights. If you want to use reflectors and diffusers without needing an army of assistants to hold them, you can get a Scrim Jim from Westcott. This medium-sized kit ($325) measures 42-by-72-inches and includes a frame, a reflective silver/soft white fabric and a 3/4-stop diffusive fabric. A large Scrim Jim kit that measures 72-by-72 inches can be purchased for $470, and you can use parts of the large frame to create a smaller frame if you wish. If you want to add a handheld reflector and diffuser to your lighting kit, consider a Flexfill collapsible lighting reflector. The 48-inch silver/white reversible reflector costs $120 and the 48-inch double black net diffuser costs $150. Handheld reflectors work best when you have an assistant, and are setting up your shots in a hurry–without having the luxury of time to setup the Scrim Jims.

The Big Enchilada

The Cool-Lux Video Kit is a handy mid-price portable lighting kit, but there are other kits that include more instruments and accessories. If you have the budget, you may want to acquire one of the several studio-style lighting packages available. When used properly, one of these kits will light the subjects in your videos softly and evenly every time.

The Lowel-light Solo Kit ($2,850) includes two tota-lights, which use 500- to 1000-watt lamps, and include umbrella reflectors. The tota-lights are designed for use as key lights. For fill lights, there are four omni-lights that use 420- to 650-watt lamps, and come with barn doors. These lights can be operated with DC-battery power when used with special 100-watt lamps (for 12-volt operation) and 250-watt lamps (for 30-volt operation). The Lowel-light Solo Kit also has five assorted reflectors. It includes: one #1 and two #3 superspots, a lightflector with tilter, a tota-flector, two glass diffusers, five assorted scrims and a cookie for throwing shadow patterns on a solid background. This never-ending kit also has five omni-stands, two tota-clamps, a large space clamp, a tota-mount, a lamppak for storing all of those interchangeable light bulbs and more. All of this fits into a case for 60 pounds of studio-style lighting madness.

If you’re in the field, the rigid reflectors included in the Lowel-light Solo Kit may be too bulky and difficult to use. Photoflex makes a variety of reflectors and diffusers for quick and easy field set-ups. The large 41-by-74-inch oval translucent fabric diffuser costs $108, while the smaller 52-inch round translucent diffuser costs $98. When it comes to reflectors, they make a large 41-by-74-inch soft gold/white reversible reflector that sells for $122, with the smaller 42-inch round reflector costs $87.

If you’re the type of videographer that uses a monster light kit like the Solo Kit, you are also serious about the on-camera light that you use when you have to leave the light kit behind. NRG Research’s Varalux Professional ($240 for the cigarette lighter model, $255 for one with an XLR connector) is one of these serious on-camera lights. It accepts bulbs from 20- to 100-watts for a variety of different lighting scenarios. The best part of the Varalux Pro though, is that you can adjust the light from 10% to 100%, giving you a bright light when you need it, and a not-so-bright light when your subject needs less illumination.

Lights Out

There is, of course, a whole world of professional lighting gear that is available too. K5600 makes the Joker 400 Kit, which includes a 400-watt HMI daylight balanced lamp, ballast, barn door, four lenses and a case all for the low low price of $4510. However, you would probably rather use that kind of money on a new three-CCD DV camcorder or one of those stand-alone nonlinear video editing machines.

Quick Lighting Tips

  • Use a bracket to mount your on-camera lights several inches above the camera to prevent your subjects from becoming flat and shadowless.
  • Re-white balance your camcorder after positioning your lights to make sure that your subject’s colors are true when you tape.
  • Examine your studio lighting through a monitor. Viewfinders and flip-out LCDs are notoriously bad for showing how the lighting will look on the tape.
  • Use extra light when shooting indoors, ambient light is rarely enough to properly light subjects.
  • If you are unable to acquire video lights, you can use normal household and shop halogen lights (See "Lite Lighting" July 1998).

Manufacturers of Lights and Accessories

NRG Research
(800) 753-0357

(805) 482-4820

(800) 486-2674

Lowel-light Manufacturing, Inc.
(718) 921-0600

(419) 243-7311

(213) 462-2233

Smith-Victor Corporation
(800) 348-9862

(818) 762-5756

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