Lighting Basics: Part I

Besides a camera, light is the most important tool you need to shoot good video/film. Sometimes the light you need is already there and sometimes, more often, you’ll have to bring equipment in to create or modify your light. Regardless of your light source, or your reasons for shooting, budget filmmakers should ask themselves these questions:

  1. How do I want to portray my subject? Your lighting strategy may be different for a supermodel than for a war veteran.
  2. What are my technical limitations? Do you have time/resources/permission to bring lights or reflectors? Are you capable of moving your shooting location into the best lighting conditions?

Available v. Artificial

As their names imply, one type of light source is ready for you to use and the other has to be fabricated; outdoor and indoor lighting conditions that already exist on site are called “available” light; the light kit you bring and set up is always “artificial.”

(Side note: “Natural” light is any available light that doesn’t require electricity, e.g. the sun, northern lights, a campfire, Chuck Norris, etc.)

Available Light

Working with available light is a skill equally crucial to the filmmaker as knowing how to set up a pricey light kit, especially for guerrilla/documentary filmmakers. Obviously there are myriad advantages to available light. After all, it’s: free, inconspicuous, doesn’t have to be loaded into your car, doesn’t require extension cords. But don’t be fooled by convenience; available light has to be utilized correctly.

Available light: Clouds are a natural diffuser, making soft shadows and even light.

Available light, modified: Without clouds, the light falling behind our subject was too bright. A reflector was used to bounce sunlight back onto his face; in this shot, the gold reflector made his face far too warm. A silver reflector would be better.

Artificial Lighting – Low Key; This quick scene was shot with clamp lights and a strong worklight outside for the window. Strong Shadows make for a more dramatic effect.

Artificial Lighting – Slight Low Key; This scene was lit with two strong hallogen lights, but the fill has a softbox on it to soften the shadows and reduce the intensity.


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