Misconceptions in Lighting

Wendell Scot Greene (Director of Photography) is a native of Los Angeles, California. He recently completed filming a Rock Corps PSA for acclaimed music video director Chris Robinson.

After working in the music industry and he enrolled in the Cinema program at Los Angeles City College where he studied Cinematography with Bill Dill, A.S.C., and later he served as Dill’s teaching assistant at the American Film Institute. Greene gained valuable set experience working as an electrician and assistant cameraman on various independent productions and which led to his working on crews for acclaimed Directors of Photography Daniel C. Pearl and Malik Hassan Sayeed, both of whom encouraged and supported him in pursuing his goal of becoming a cinematographer.

Greene’s second feature as a DP “Sweet Oranges,” is now available on DVD via Tri-Destined Media Entertainment.

“There is no more worthy, more glorious or more potent work, than to work with light.” – Omraam Mikhaël Aïvanhov

Similar to the problems one encounters when starting to learn a new language; our first attempts at expressing ourselves through light may seem quite awkward and fall far short of our initial expectations. In this article, we’ll discuss several of the mistakes people make when they begin lighting and how to avoid them on your next project.

This article is by no means meant to be comprehensive, nor should it be as the final word on the matter.

1) Failing to properly set the Key Light

The “key light” or ‘key” is the main or primary light on a subject. It is the most important light source affecting the exposure of the shot and it establishes the directionality and source motivation for the lighting and the placement of shadows. Where we place our key light affects the shape, form and definition of our subject’s face. In short, it establishes the overall mood of the scene. Because actors move in music videos, commercials and films a number of lights may be used to establish the key light source, but in order to maintain the overall motivation of our lighting we place them in such a way to make it appear as if they are all coming from a single direction.

The most natural key light position is viewed as 45 degrees above and to one side of a subject. This position throws the shadow of the nose across the opposite side of the face leaving a patch of light, commonly known as the “Rembrandt patch”, named after the famous Dutch painter who lived in the 17th Century. For the most part this angle places light in both of the actor’s eyes and gives nice shape to the nose, lips, chin and cheeks. On music videos, where the major concern is making the star look beautiful, the key is usually a very soft light, placed at camera level (or slightly above) in front of the actor, minimizing facial blemishes, lines or marks.

But are these the only two positions for setting your key for your subjects? Should you follow them blindly? What if the subject has a very wide face, or a chin that sags? How about if they have a larger than average nose, deep sunken eyes, or has a hairstyle that would make Bob Marley proud?

Different faces demand different lighting positions. You’ll have to study the face of the individual and test various lighting positions to determine where to set your key so it comes from the direction that will best serve the features of that person’s particular face and/or the mood you are trying to create. “If you can light a face, you can light anything” – Roger Deakins, A.S.C. B.S.C (“Shawshank Redemption”, “House of Sand and Fog”)

The final placement of the key might be from high overhead and high to the side, from three quarters back, behind them, or even from below.

Darius Khondji, A.S.C., A.F.C. (“Se7en,” “City of Lost Children”, Madonna’s “Frozen”) was quoted as saying, “the direction of the light counts more with me that its hardness or softness” This emphasizes how important the placement of the key and the angle of the light becomes in helping us to light the subject’s face, and how much of that face we chose to reveal.

2) Viewing three-point lighting as a rule, instead of a starting point.

In the glamour era of Hollywood, camera men adhered strictly to the rules of three-point lighting: a hard key light place 45 degrees above and to the side of an actor creating the “Rembrandt patch.” Opposite side of the key, and the from the direction of camera the Fill light, softer and diffused to reduce the shadow created by the key, and backlight which came from above and behind the actor shining upon their head and shoulders.

The three-point lighting style is still taught today in film schools and lighting workshops. Like many other aspects of filmmaking, it gives the beginner a starting point, a foundation of knowledge to build upon. But as you light for your videos, commercials and films you should realize that you are in no way chained to this technique. You don’t have to follow it blindly.

You can light a scene with a single lighting source. You can choose to expose a scene so you will need little or no fill light. You may use several different sources as fill, and place them in positions other than opposite the key. You can create separation in scene by use of not only by using color, but also by lighting the planes of the foreground, middle and background to different levels of brightness.

3) “ If you want it to look dark, you have to photograph it in the dark”

The common mistake that people make is thinking that a dark scene needs to be shot at low light levels. “It doesn’t have to look dark to photograph dark” – is a something Bill Dill, A.S.C used to say repeatedly to his students. Some cinematographers like to use very big lighting units and a great deal of light, and still others use small lighting units and a small amount of light. But here’s the thing. The light levels have little to do with it; more importantly its how they chose to EXPOSE the scene’s brightness range so that it would fit the curve of the film they were using that really matters. Understanding this concept will allow a cinematographer to expose a low light scene to look bright and over lit, and to make daylight look like moonlight.

If you’re using a digital camera to shoot, don’t believe the myth that you don’t need to use lights. You’ll need to raise the light levels in the scene so you’ll be able to shoot at 0 db at a wide aperture. What you don’t want to do is boost the gain on the camera, which results in added noise. Use a monitor on set and it’s WYSIWYG.

4) Using Soft light, but not cleaning up the spill

Soft light sources are used on music videos to create broad, even areas of light. They’re the commonly used to light faces. Let’s face it; most of us love soft light. It’s beautiful. And there are so many ways to make light soft. You can bounce it off a wall or piece of bead board, foam core, show card, griffolyn, or by sending the light through various forms of diffusion material like muslin, grid cloth. You can use bulbs of various wattages inside different size China Balls and attach them to dimmers. Commercially available units like Chimera can be placed on Fresnel, Par, and open face lights to give off soft light. You can even build your own homemade soft box. On the film, “Frida”, DP Rodrigo Prieto, A.S.C., A.M.C. had his gaffer Benito Aguilar make custom soft boxes they dubbed “Sputniks” to fit over their 2K juniors and open face lights.

The larger the source, and closer the source to the subject, the softer the light becomes. But the softer the light, the harder it is to control, you’ll need large flags to control the light at the source and keep it from spilling all over the place. We don’t want light all over the frame, we want to use it to direct the viewer’s eyes to what we feel is important.

The thing to remember when controlling these soft sources is that all flags and scrims used to control the light must be positioned in FRONT of the diffusion frames and NOT between the lamp and screen. This is because the frame of diffusion or bounce board becomes the source of light for the scene. Soft Egg Crates by Light Tools are very popular tools in controlling soft light. They come in various sizes and can be attach to the front of your existing lights, or rigged on butterfly and overhead frames. It’s amazing the number of ways that a talented grip can rig duvetyn to flag off the spill from lights

5) Being Afraid of “Hard Light”

Hard light from a source such as the noon Sun or a focused Fresnel gives light that is directional and casts a sharp, clearly defined shadow. When hard light is used to illuminate a face, imperfections in the skin can stand out.

This is not to say you should avoid using “hard light” on a face, because if you overexpose the hard light on a face the look can be quite unique and beautiful. Veteran music video and feature film Cinematographer Ericson Core (“The Fast and the Furious” and “Payback”) loves to light with hard light. He used it effectively to light the sets and buildings in the night exteriors of “Daredevil” and to bring out the texture of the character’s leather costume.

Hard light needs to be controlled and requires the use of multiple flags, nets and other light modifiers to control and shape the light falling on the scene. You’ll also need to place your lighting units the proper distance from your subject and use some form of light diffusion like Hampshire Frost to help take the edge off.

The late, great cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, A.S.C. combined soft frontal lighting with hard backlight to great effect in the film “Blade Runner” which has influenced dozens of cinematographers working in music videos, commercials and features.

6) Too Much Light on Night Exteriors

“…nothing can ruin the atmosphere as easily as too much light”- Sven Nykvist A.S.C.

Unless the story is set at the 50 yard line of a Monday Night Football Game, you won’t want it to light it to look like that. The question to consider is “what does night look like to you? How does it relate to the mood of story? It’s okay to allow let things go drop off by several stop down to complete blackness. For reference watch any night scene in a David Fincher movie.

7) Lighting with Super Saturated Color Gels

Another thing to watch out for is the using heavy saturated color gels on your lights. Red is probably the worst offender. It’s really an exciting color but on film it loses resolution and looks soft. Red is difficult for your meter to read and films are less sensitive to the color, so if it’s the only color you’re using in the scene you’ll need to overexpose it about by 2-3 stops.

On DV, red’s noisy frequency makes it hard to transmit cleanly and the color bleeds and smears when transferred. Try to avoid it.

8) Double Shadows

A double nose shadow on the actor’s face is unflattering and distracting. It comes as a result of the key and fill light being set at the same exact angle, (usually 45 degrees to the side of the actor) and at the same intensity.

It has been said that each time you add another light you create another problem. And yet no matter how many lights you use to light an actor, that actor should still only cast one shadow. The chance of even seeing the cast of a single shadow from an actor can be reduced by using soft light sources, or flagging hard sources and by avoiding staging scenes next to plain white walls.

9) Allowing a practical lamp to cast it’s own shadow

If the only light in the room is supposed to come from the practical lamps then what is casting the shadow of the lamps on the wall? Since a light in the real world shouldn’t cast it’s own shadow, this immediately tells the viewer that the source illuminating the scene is artificial. You’ll need to balance your lights to match the direction of the practical lamps and use flags and nets control the spill.

10) Forgetting that your lighting is affected by other variables

The art of lighting extends far beyond turning on a few lights. You have to understand the effect of set design, location, costume, time of day, placement of the action, filters, the film stock, the lab and the colorist contribute toward making the image.

One of my favorite cinematographers told me, “ I can light a set better with a bucket of black paint.” Now while he admitted to that being a slight exaggeration, his point was very clear. If the walls and backgrounds of your set or location are lighter than the skin tones of your actors then they will always seem darker by comparison.

Try to keep the walls down in value by at least 25% in relation to your actors or you spend too much time trying to take light off the wall. The same thing applies to doors, and dark skin toned actors in white t-shirts standing against walls.

Robert Richardson, A.S.C. (“Kill Bill” “J.F.K” “Snow Falling on Cedars”) observed “For me the [color] timer and the lab are two most important choices for a director of photography”. Only by shooting a variety of tests will you learn about the film negative’s ability to give you the results you want when you light.

11) Being Afraid to Mixing Color Temperatures

Another principle taught in film schools and lighting textbooks is correcting lights of various color temperatures within a scene so they match one source (or adjusting the white balance on your digital camera to the most dominant lighting source). Take a look around at what you see in real life and you realize this is another rule that begs to be broken. Mixing color temperatures when you’re shooting on film will actually give the colorist more to work with in post which can lead to some really stunning images.

12) Murky or Washed out Images

When you under expose all areas of a scene the results are images that are murky and flat from being placed too low on the toe of the negative. This image lack contrast and fails to give the eye comparative areas of highlights and shadows. If you overexpose all areas of a scene placing them too high on the shoulder of the negative, the result are images washed out, without contrast. Without shadow detail the eye is once again denied comparative areas of highlights and shadows.

13) Becoming a slave to your light meter.

When lighting a scene a common practice is to try and meter every thing in the scene. That’s a mistake because your meter can’t answer the most important questions, which is “How do I want this to look?” “How do I want to expose this? Put your meter away, take a look at the scene and then light it the way you think it should look. When you’re finished then read the meter. Learn to trust your eyes.

14) DV Lighting vs. Film Lighting

Good lighting is good lighting, regardless of the medium and that takes time. Granted it’s harder to light DV and make it look good than if you were shooting film. This is due to film’s greater exposure latitude and tonal range. The exposure tolerance is DV has a narrower exposure tolerance is unforgiving towards over-exposed highlights or crushed blacks. Of course, this is all the more reason for you to use a matte box, neutral density filters, and to light carefully.

15) Ignoring the rule: Block, Light, Rehearse, (Adjust) Shoot

DV shot films are especially guilty of ignoring this rule. Not following this on set will not only waste time but also it can completely demoralize your crew. If you set your lights before the scene is blocked you may discover that your lights are in the frame line. Or you learn that the blocking requires you to re light the entire scene. Watch as the director blocks the scene with the actors, light the set, watch the rehearsal, make any minor adjustments and then shoot.


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