"Bark, bark, bark." Slowly I lifted the pillow from my head and groped around for my glasses so I could read the clock on the nearby nightstand. "3:00 in the morning." The dog had been barking for nearly half an hour.
"Honey," my wife said sleepily, nudging me with her knee, "do something. That dog will wake up the whole neighborhood."
I tossed back the covers and made my way down the stairs. I was hurrying through the darkened house toward the back door when WHAM! Out of nowhere, my big toe met the leg of a heavy wooden chair. My toe throbbed as the pain shot up my leg.
If you’ve ever tripped, kicked, stubbed or smacked into something in the middle of the night, you know how important lights can be. What you can’t see CAN and often WILL hurt you. Like so many other things in life, we often take light for granted. Unfortunately, the tendency to not think about light often carries over into our home videos.
When is the last time you stopped to think about lighting as you grabbed for your camcorder in a rush to tape your Grandma’s birthday celebration or your son’s excited comments after a little league victory? We tend to shoot video as recklessly as the way I rushed through the darkness of my living room. The fact is, if I had slowed down for just half a second to turn on a light my toe wouldn’t be huge and purple from unplanned toe-furniture contact.
In much the same way, a little thought about light can save your videos from causing undue pain to those who will watch them. What follows is a step-by-step visual guide to lighting people for video. Best of all, we’ll do it using a single lamp and some everyday stuff you can find at your local department store. Who knows, you might already have most of what you need cluttering up the house.
What You See is What You Get
Your camcorder’s tiny viewfinder, especially if it’s black and white, makes it difficult to see how effectively your lighting is working. If you’re shooting in a room with a TV set, use it to monitor what you are doing. Hooking it up is easy: connect the video-out from your camcorder to the video-in on your VCR (these jacks are usually yellow), point your camcorder at your subject and watch the effect of your lighting, live, on your TV screen.
In the Dark
To show our progress, we’ll start with an example of what your videos might look like now. This picture illustrates the quality of a typical poorly-lit home video. Chances are, most of the things you shoot indoors look similar to this example. Without paying attention to lighting, the image is dark and grainy. Sure, we can see the expression on the person’s face. The lips move, and the eyes blink. The information is all there, but the picture is very unflattering. It certainly doesn’t look like a picture you’d see on television. Remember this picture and refer back to it through each stage of our lighting process to see your progress.
A Source is a Source of Course of Course
To begin to properly light your indoor video, you will need some sort of lamp to serve as your main light source. Light from a halogen lamp works best, because of its color and intensity. A standard halogen torch lamp found in many living rooms works just fine, but requires tilting to direct the light onto your subject. If you use one of these, be careful. They get very hot and it’s easy to set things on fire (trust me, I learned the hard way). A shop lamp, like the one we elected to use, works better. They come with a stand, so you don’t have to prop them up against anything. Lights like these are easy to find and are very inexpensive.
Regular incandescent lamps are effective too. To get the best results you’ll need to remove the lamp shade and insert a high wattage bulb (100 watts minimum) Be sure to check, and follow, the maximum wattage rating of the lamp. It is not safe to use a 150 watt bulb in a lamp rated for 100 watts. You might experiment with different style bulbs to see what works best (clear glass vs. frosted, flood bulb and so forth). In general, brighter is better.
Location, Location, Location
Now that we’ve selected a light, we’ll need to decide where to position it in relation to our camcorder and subject. Imagine a clock face on the floor of the room with the subject seated in the center. For the sake of our discussion, let’s position our camera at the 6:00 position. A lamp positioned next to the camera at 6:00 on the dial will shine flatly on the face of our subject, causing him to squint as he looks directly into the light. The result looks like something you’d see on the TV show COPS. Unless we want our subject to look guilty, this may not be our best choice. Moving the camera to the 3:00 position changes the look drastically. The result here is a dramatic look with strong shadows on the right side of the subject’s face. This might be appropriate for some videos, but this look is a bit too dramatic for most. For standard video applications, the best place to position a lamp is at the 4:30 position. From here, our lamp casts just enough shadow to make the shot interesting without making our subject look like a convict.
Comparing the partially lit image to our original unlit image, we see a drastic improvement. The light from the single lamp has added color and depth to the picture. Not bad, but we’re not done yet.
The Shadow Knows
The next step in our lighting process is to soften the shadows on the right side of our subject’s face cast by our lamp. This will lighten up some dark areas on the face, and add extra shape and dimension as well. If you’ve ever had the sun bounce off your watch and make a little circle of light on the wall, you know a neat thing about light, it can be reflected and bounced from place to place.
To bounce our light we’ll need a reflector of some kind. A good reflector for our purpose will need to be large enough (at least 3ft. by 3ft. in dimension) and either white or reflective silver in color. White poster board or foam core from a craft store works fine. I discovered that the reflective silver sun shade that I use in my car’s windshield on hot summer days works perfectly. But don’t stop there, get creative. A piece of cardboard covered with tinfoil, for example, will work just as well.
Position the reflector to bounce light from the lamp back onto the right side of your subject’s face. We’ve clipped it to an extra tripod. Reflected light on this side of the face will be slightly softer than the source light, creating a nice fill for the darkened shadows.
At this point, our video is almost lit well enough for broadcast television. A quick check back to our original image reveals just how far we’ve come.
Light Up Your Life
We’ve just scratched the surface
of lighting for video. Needless to say, we could continue for
page after page, discussing more advanced techniques like adding
light behind your subject to separate them from the background,
using colored light to create a mood or diffusing light for a
softer look. For now, take what you’ve learned, gather some supplies
from around the house and light up your life. When it comes to
video, a little light goes a long long way.