What You See Is What You Get

Light surrounds us all the time and we rarely think about it. Our brains are continuously adjusting to the illumination of each scene that makes up a day. Our eyesight is capable of compensating for a wide range of darks, brights and colors. The camcorder, on the other hand, needs to be told how to record incoming light to match common perceptions.

Point-and-shoot technology, found in most camcorders, takes a lot of the lighting guesswork out of videography. This technology also makes us lazy. Automatic control of exposure and white balance often encourages you to take what you get. And what you get is many times vastly different from what you see. How can you eliminate this difference between real life and reel life? By thinking about light. Question not only if there is enough light, but also consider the source, direction and color of it as well.

Our eyes usually see light as white, whether it’s coming from the sun, a table lamp, the overhead fluorescent in an office or a combination of all three. Our eyes detect little difference in the color of light coming from these various sources.


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Similarly, when we view colored objects under almost any lighting condition, we are able to tell the difference between blues, reds and yellows. Even more important, we can tell the difference between shades of each of these colors.

Camcorders have a limited ability to see true colors. When proper lighting is not present, this limitation becomes even more evident. Things get even worse when light sources are mixed. Therefore, you have to learn how to control, manipulate, add and subtract light to get your camcorder seeing the scene the way you want it to.

But before you start playing with light to correct problems, it’s important to understand the role of white balance in videotape production.

Seeing White

White balance is the adjustment of your camcorder for the color temperature of the dominant light source. Color temperature simply refers to the dominant color of a light source, measured in degrees Kelvin. In simplest terms, as the color temperature of the light source increases, the general color of the light changes from warm reds to cool blues in the eyes of the video camera. Sunlight, for example, has a different color temperature than lamp light, and different kinds of indoor lights each have their own color temperature. An open flame registering at 1800 degrees Kelvin (or K, the unit of measure to describe color temperature) appears redder than a 4800-degree fluorescent lamp. Balanced studio lighting has a temperature of 3200 degrees. White balance allows the camera to adjust for different light sources so that skin tones and other colors appear normal when played back on a monitor.

Many consumer camcorders have only automatic white balance available. Automatic white balance samples the color of the light reflected from the objects the camera sees, compares it to the standard 3200 degrees Kelvin and makes adjustments. Others feature a simple indoor-outdoor, two-position switch for white balance adjustment. More sophisticated cameras have manual white balance adjustments that accommodate a wider variety of lighting circumstances. White balance is not a miracle cure for bad lighting. But understanding and setting this control correctly will help you get good results.

Reflecting Light

Shooting outdoors presents unique challenges. Often, it forces you to work with available light. Available light is the natural light in our environment. This can range from a gloomy overcast morning to a blinding mid-day sun to a golden, late afternoon sunset.

Each of these settings will create a different look on video. The absence of light in the morning can make for a dull image. But the hot noon sun can work against you by providing too much light and an image with too much contrast. What can you do? Try a reflector.

A reflector is a simple tool that can re-direct light in outdoor shooting situations. Commercial reflectors are widely available, but you can make one very simply and cheaply at home. Start with a piece of cardboard or Styrofoam measuring at least two feet by three feet. Attach aluminum foil to one side of your base material. Avoid wrinkles and tears, making the surface very flat and shiny. On the other side of the board, glue crinkled foil. If you are using Styrofoam (white foamcore used for framing is another good base), you can use it by itself.

The shiny foil side will reflect hard light from the sun. This is useful for filling dark areas behind people and objects. The reverse side reflects a softer, more diffused light that is ideal for lighting faces and cutting harsh reflections.

Colored reflectors made with metallic spray paints are good for special effects and mood setting. A gold-hued board can help create that late afternoon look. Reflecting reddish light onto a person can add some menace to a scene. And a green board is a simple way to project an otherworldly glow.

An even simpler reflector is a white bed sheet. Easily transported, a sheet also effectively reflects and diffuses outdoor light. Videotaping through a hole cut in the center of a supported sheet (or board for that matter) allows for effective close-up lighting needs.

When trying to eliminate unwanted hot spots, be aware of objects in your camera’s field that may be acting as unintentional reflectors – windows, glossy painted surfaces or metallic objects. Professionals carry dulling spray for these problems. The aerosol-based spray reduces reflections from glass and chrome surfaces. It goes on easy and cleans up quickly.

If you have the time, experiment with reflectors while videotaping under different available light conditions. You’ll begin to develop a sense for what works best in each specific situation and wonder how you survived without this simple tool.

Though reflectors are a quick and easy fix for outdoor shoots, supplementing nature with electronic illumination is a good way to get what you need.

Using the On-camera Light

On-camera lighting is one of the most affordable methods for boosting light. These small, and usually powerful units attach directly onto the camcorder and produce a strong (though sometimes short-lasting) beam of light. Advanced units come with separate power packs worn by the videographer.

The benefits of such units are obvious. Less cumbersome than a reflector and highly directable, on-camera lights let the user aim light exactly where needed. Many camcorder-mounted lights also give the option of varying beam width. For shooting one or two people, a small, tight beam works well for filling distracting facial shadows. With a larger group of people or framing area, widening the light beam to resemble a flood gives more overall illumination.

On-camera lights also work great off the camera. When you need light in a tight area, where the sun can’t reach and a reflector is too large, a portable light boosts illumination, making videography possible. Though camcorder-mounted lights offer quick and easy-to-use solutions to simple lighting needs, situations sometimes demand more involved solutions.

Lighting With a Kit

Three-light kits are the standard for video shoots. Three-light kits provide for classic lighting set-up needs, mimicking a controlled studio environment. Lights in these packages can be incandescent or quartz and emit video-correct 3200 degrees Kelvin color temperature. Available in a wide range of styles and prices, these kits give videographers the ability to shoot a scene or subject using three-point lighting.

In three-point lighting, videographers use a key light, fill light and back light to illuminate a scene. Of these, the key light is the most important light in your scene. It’s usually aimed directly at the subject at roughly a 30-45 degree angle from the lens axis. The key light sets the mood and tells the audience what the focal point of the video is.

Less bright than the key light is the fill light. The fill light does exactly what its name says – it fills in shadows and dark areas in a scene. This light provides illumination from the side of the camera opposite the key light.

The back light separates the subjects from the background, adding depth to a video image. This is usually the hardest light to position. Ideally, a back light should hang from above the subjects.

If a full three-light kit is too much for your budget, try halogen shop lights, which are available at home repair stores and large hardware mass merchandisers. They are often sold in pairs on a small stand and make excellent video lights. They are a low-cost alternative to the commercial three-light kits. The color from the halogens, though not perfect, is very near that of expensive professional lights and looks great on-camera.

Dealing with Mixed Light

Interior mixed light sources play havoc with video. Suppose you want to shoot some footage of your son’s karate program. The set is the Kung-fu Academy, featuring a window behind the mats, overhead fluorescent fixtures and several floor lamps with incandescent bulbs. Numerous potential lighting disasters exist in this environment. The natural light streaming in from the window can silhouette students. Fluorescents tend to turn everything green. And the incandescent bulbs will clash with the other light sources by giving a warm glow to objects near them.

With a problem such as the above, it’s best to eliminate all the existing sources of light, opting to restore illumination with your own kit. Close curtains over the windows and turn off the fluorescents. Incandescent bulbs sometimes work fine with balanced video lighting. But if possible, replace the bulbs with 3200-degree photofloods. Often simply turning off one offending light will correct a difficult color balance problem. Experiment if time permits. Approach such a situation by running some on-site test video prior to the event. Identify light problems early and prepare for them accordingly.

Gels and Diffusion

The use of gels is another advantage of working with light kits. These thin sheets of colored plastic hang between the light source and the subject to change the color and quality of light. Diffusion material (something that resembles a household window screen) softens and flattens light passing through it.

While expensive gel and diffusion materials are available at film and theatrical supply houses, changes in light color and diffusion are possible with some pretty low tech and affordable tools and techniques.

Hang a sheet in front of a window to diffuse the natural light coming through it. A colored sheet of cellophane, like the kind used to cover Easter baskets, works great on windows for mood-altered lighting. Tracing paper and stretched pantyhose make good diffusers.

These alternative materials, though perfectly safe on windows, can be dangerous with lights. High intensity light sources such as halogen or quartz bulbs generate a great deal of heat and it is very easy to start a fire with a cloth or paper diffusion medium placed too close to the bulb. Commercial video gel and diffusion materials are flame-proofed. Be careful when working with home-made lighting instruments.

Lighting Accessories

Another way to alter the look of an electronic light source is by using barn doors. Two or four metal flaps on the side of the lighting device control the way light projects onto a scene. In the open position, barn doors allow light to pass unobstructed. Partially closing the barn restricts light from hitting certain areas. Barndoors are fairly expensive. A cut up aluminum pie pan and duct tape makes for a cheap homemade option. Simple aluminum foil also works. Wrap it tightly around the lamp, shaping the extruding foil to direct light. Umbrellas, common at still photo shoots for softening the effect of harsh spots, also work well in harnessing video lighting. Though professional lighting umbrellas are a high-ticket accessory for the hobbyist, a standard rain umbrella and some foil can work just as well.

Fit the aluminum foil, dull side down, into the underside of the umbrella and tape the pieces of foil securely in place. Mount the umbrella handle to the light stand (using standard duct tape) and bounce the light off the inside of the umbrella to soften it. Closing the contraption for travel becomes difficult, but the cost savings are substantial.

For many videographers, lighting appears to be a small concern. Yet hours of poorly lit footage are testament that this part of the shooting process needs closer attention. Videographers must experiment with new lighting sources and tools to bring more video out of the dark.

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