Night scene lighting is one of the grandest of all illusions. Though getting good results seems easy, it only takes a few minutes on set to realize that it is one of the hardest setups to get right. That's why it's incredibly helpful to understand both the theory and practice behind good night scene lighting in any situation before you get the crew together. To help you, we'll show you how to light car interiors at night, and how to achieve great results at night in an outdoor setting. With this information, you'll not only be able to create more efficient lighting setups, you'll be able to create artistic images as well.
Of all night lighting situations, lighting car interiors is often the most challenging and fun. Of course, that's only if you have the right equipment and know what to expect. If you're new to lighting night scenes, the first thing you're likely to find is that any naturally occurring light is far too dim for camera sensors to pick up without producing a grainy image. As a result, you'll have to use your own lights to mimic the natural light in your scene. However, in order to power your lights and keep your talent safe, you may want to consider lighting your car while standing still. This way, you can draw power from outlets and have more room to maneuver your lighting gear. In our case, we decided to use a strong daylight-balanced light to mimic the moon hitting our subjects shoulders and head. This light helped us to separate our subject from the dark areas of the scene. Keep in mind that this light should be coming from a fairly small source. This way, it will cast very defined areas of light and shadow. Next, in order to see some details on our subject's face, we placed a daylight-balanced LED light inside the instrument panel. The reason for the LED light was to make sure the wattage was low enough plug into our car's power port without killing the battery or blowing a fuse. This light ended up being bright enough to serve as our key light. Lastly, we also set a large diffuser on the opposite side of our subject in order to bring out a bit of detail in the shadows of our subject's face. We used a dimmer to make sure this light was much darker than the key light coming from the instrument panel. This dimmer also allowed us to make the light flicker which added realism to our scene. At this point, we placed a hard, indoor-balanced light to the side and above our talent to mimic passing streetlights. By keeping the light balanced for indoor lighting we were able to make it appear orange in color when hitting our talent's face. We got a bit more creative by mounting two incandescent fixtures on a boom pole to represent car headlights. With a volunteer moving the lights behind and past our car, and another giving the car some movement, our scene was able to look even more realistic. Of course, the most realistic way to get light in your scene is to supplement some lighting inside of the car while driving it. Though it's impossible to completely control light in this scenario, it is possible to locate a section of road with plenty of streetlights. This can give your subject more light and make it appear as if the car is moving quickly. It's important have an instrument panel LED light and a daylight-balanced backlight in the scene so that there is some lighting to separate your subject when passing through darker sections of the road. If you don't have a big enough power inverter to have two lights, you can always replace the instrument panel light with a small, battery powered LED fixture found in most big box retail stores.
One of the toughest scenes to light at night is the outdoor scene. More so than any other lighting situation, outdoor scenes need to be planned carefully so that natural lights are close by. For example, instead of having your talent in the middle of a street or dark alley, it would be better to move them closer to a building with its lights on. This way, you can use the soft light coming from the building windows as a key light and a strong, daylight-balanced light far above and behind your subject to mimic light from the moon. Another idea is to place your subject facing a streetlight which can illuminate their face while placing a small amount of fill light on the dark side of your talent's face. In this scenario, you can still use a daylight-balanced light as a backlight. One important factor to consider during the planning stages is how wide your outdoor night scenes will be. The wider the shot, the higher and more intense your moonlight will have to be in order to shed enough light on the scene. This is why HMI lights are often used by professional lighting crews. These lamps can output up to 12,000 watts of power, covering any scene with plenty of light. However, these lights can break a budget rather quickly. As such, it might be a good idea to plan medium shots and close-ups for your outdoor scenes. Lastly, you'll want to think about your crews safety. It's very difficult to see cables and light stands in the dark so make sure to use sand bags and gaffer tape to secure them to the ground.
As difficult as it may sound, lighting night scenes doesn't have to be hard. With a knowledge of how to approach common lighting situations as well as a bit of practice, you'll soon be filming night scenes that look as good as those in the movies.