A Shot in the Dark: Simple Solutions for Nighttime Shooting

Shooting video in the dark is always a challenge and it can be different every time. Creativity is the key to a successful outcome.

"Widen out a little, camera two. That’s good–hold there. Cue credits and… roll credits. OK–that’s a wrap! Good work, people."

Even as the director was pronouncing his final blessing, Wendy stood up from the video prompter and began to gather her scattered script. As Wendy headed for the machine room to dub some tapes before the 11:00 newscast, she nearly bumped into news director Jim Philbee. "Hey, Wendy," he said, "just who I was looking for. Can I talk with you in the newsroom?" With a nod, she followed him into the newsroom. Normally buzzing with activity, the room was empty except for one maintenance tech searching for a stapler.

"I just got three calls about that motorcycle gang vandalizing the south side of town," he said. "They re at it again, and I need a reporter to go talk to some witnesses." Wendy suddenly realized that all the station’s reporters and photographers were either out working on stories or on break. Her mouth went dry. "Can you get some footage for a follow-up story for the 11:00 show?" he said. Wendy took a deep breath and said, "You bet!"

After a flurry of note-taking and quick phone calls, Wendy headed for the equipment closet. All that was left was a Hi8 camcorder used as a backup, an on-camera light with a nearly dead battery belt, a collapsible 36-inch reflector and a badly dented (but still functional) tripod. She quickly verified that everything was working, gathered up her notes and heading for the parking lot. She was on assignment!

Into the Night

Wendy’s first stop was a trailer park the bikers had roared through at high speeds earlier that evening. After locating the trailer of the woman that had called, Wendy attached the light to the camcorder. The stairs leading up to the trailer would make using a tripod impossible, so Wendy decided to hand-hold the camcorder.

The elderly woman agreed to be interviewed, but seemed reluctant to invite Wendy into the trailer. Instead, Wendy asked the woman to step out onto her porch and close the door behind her. A single lightbulb mounted to the trailer reflected off the white surface of the home, creating a bright background behind the woman. Wendy pushed the backlight button on the camcorder, which helped a bit, but the woman’s face was still nearly indistinguishable.

Wendy clicked on the on-camera light, which instantly brought the woman’s face out of the darkness. Now, the light bulb above the woman’s head created a nice glow in her hair and helped separate her from the background. Wendy spotted a flare of light in the viewfinder. She stepped to her right a little and the slightly different angle made the distracting ring of light disappear. Satisfied, Wendy rolled tape and began asking questions.

The woman was articulate and kept her answers brief. By the third question, Wendy could see the light level dropping from the on-camera light. By the fourth question, the battery belt was spent. She shut off the camcorder and thanked the woman for her willingness to talk.

Walking back to her car, Wendy’s chest tightened as she realized she had forgotten to white balance before the interview. She checked the camcorder, and saw that its white balance switch was set to "auto." There was a good chance the camcorder adjusted automatically for the tricky lighting, and it may have even compensated for the changing color temperature, as the dying on-camera light grew more and more ruddy. Relieved, she put the camcorder in the passenger seat and tossed the battery belt into the back seat. From here on out, she d have to shoot without the benefit of an on-camera light. And she d be more careful to white balance before every shot.

Car Light, Car Bright

Wendy’s next stop was a strip mall, where an evening security guard witnessed the bikers shooting out the park’s sodium vapor lights with a rifle. As she pulled into the parking lot, Wendy saw that her job was going to be a tough one–there were no working lights in the area, and her battery belt was completely zapped. Her mind raced for a moment, then she had an idea. With the guard looking somewhat bewildered, Wendy inched her car forward until its front wheels were up on top of a parking block. She killed the engine, but left the car’s high beams on.

Grabbing the tripod and reflector, she set up the camcorder about 20 feet in front of the car. After white-balancing on the white side of the reflector, she pointed the camcorder perpendicular to the car’s lights and asked the guard to stand a few feet beyond the edge of the beam. With the little bit of light spilling onto the side of his face, she set up a tight head-and-shoulders shot. Then, holding the reflector just above her head, she bounced light from the car onto the guard’s face. She flipped the reflector from the white side to the silvered side several times, then viewed the results in the viewfinder.

On tape, the guard was glowing brightly in front of a jet-black background and his face was slightly overexposed. Since the camcorder didn t have a "spotlight" mode to set the exposure based on the brightest part of the image, Wendy used the manual exposure control to close down the iris a few f/stops. The white side of the reflector made for softer looking light, so she used it instead of the silver side. The end result wasn t studio lighting by any stretch, but it wasn t bad considering the conditions.


Happy Hour

Next stop: Denny’s Tavern. Here, a bartender had served a rowdy bunch of bikers he suspected might be involved in the disturbances. Walking into the tavern, Wendy found herself in a dark, smoky room lit with small table lamps and neon beer signs. The bartender was friendly enough, and seemed excited about being on television. She set up the camcorder some distance from the bar, planning to zoom in with the lens to get an artsy "compressed" look to the shot.

Wendy asked permission to move a pair of table lamps onto the bar, a request the bartender happily granted. She took the lamps glass shades off to reveal small 20-watt bulbs. They wouldn t provide much light, but they d have to do. Wendy spaced the two lamps about six feet apart, and asked the bartender to stand directly between them about a foot behind the bar. Glancing in the viewfinder, Wendy grimaced at the unflattering light that seemed to be coming from below the man’s face.

Looking around, she spotted a cardboard box roughly 18-inches high. She placed the box under one of the lights, which put the bulb about six inches above the barkeep’s head. Sliding the higher lamp in closer to the lens made it the dominant light source, and as a result the lower-angle fill light from the other lamp was less objectionable.

The viewfinder showed a greatly improved shot, but Wendy noticed that the overall light level was still a bit on the low side. With just a few customers in the bar, the bartender agreed to turn up all the lights. This improved the shot quite a bit, but the camcorder’s gain-up circuit was still causing the shot to crawl with video noise.

Just then, Wendy remembered something she had learned in a photography class. Zoom lenses, especially inexpensive ones (like those found in camcorders), usually pass less light the more they re zoomed in. On a still camera, this meant you had to use a slower shutter speed at higher zoom settings. On a camcorder, it translated to lower sensitivity and more noise. Figuring it was worth a try, Wendy moved the camcorder in much closer to the bar and zoomed out to a wider shot. The improvement was marked–the video noise was gone, and colors were much more vibrant. She didn t even have to move her lights.

Handing the bartender the reflector, Wendy white-balanced the camcorder. Then she checked her focus very carefully, as the low light levels made for an extremely shallow depth of field. This turned the wall behind the bar into a soft-focus collage of colored bottles, a nice background for the shot. Finally satisfied, Wendy conducted the interview.

Story at 11:00

Arriving back at the station by 9:15pm, Wendy found the news director and handed him the tape. As they watched the tape together, Wendy recounted the lighting challenges she had tackled on each shoot.

"This is great stuff, Wendy," he said. "It’s perfect for the story I ve got Don working on right now." He took her hand and gave it a firm shake. "Great work!"

Walking back to get the equipment from her car, Wendy felt a twinge of pride at how she d turned three lousy night-time lighting situations into usable footage.

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