Strap yourself in, and get ready for a really dorky article on lighting. I promise to get only slightly technical and hopefully open your eyes to the amazing differences you get from the various options available to both motion and still photography.
In my previous article, I wrote about a series of projects I am directing for BOSE called "Better Sound Sessions." For the pilot episode, Seinabo Sey, I created a look using only Edison light bulbs as the key light. It produced a gorgeous amber color (almost candlelight feel) that the client loved and really set the stage for the genre of music we were filming.
For episode two, we were working with a more modern-sounding electronic band called Beat Connection. These guys were no strangers to vibrant colors, and in our initial creative call with them, they really wanted to do something different. My first thought was that not only did we need a bigger color palette for this one, but it would also be awesome if the images had a different quality of light.
What the hell is "quality of light?"
Take a moment, and walk up to a bright window, and examine how the sunlight looks on your skin. How does it flow over your pores? How hard is the shadow line? What does it do to your skin color? Is it harsh or soft? Now, go into a dark room and turn on a tungsten light bulb and look at how that light affects your skin. The light bulb tends to be a bit softer and more forgiving of imperfections, while the window light seems to leave hot, white highlights and picks up more details. There is also a big difference in color temperature between the natural amber color of 3600 K and the bright blue 5000 K of the sun.
Some folks obsess over making sure that all the light is properly balanced, or that all the sources are balanced white. I’m going to just say it: that is just plain boring. I love mixing color temperatures, because there are mixed colors in life. As I write this article, packed like a sardine on a tiny flight from Las Vegas, I have two different colors splashing over my hands as they peck away on my keyboard: a bright blue color coming from the windows and a warm light coming from the cabin. Next time a client asks you for a natural white light, speak up and let them know that is boring and played out. Attempt to be a bit more creative and use these distinct differences in the light sources to help create depth in your shots.
I always say that there is a perfect light for each scene and understanding what kind of light quality you can expect from each kind of light is key. Here is a breakdown of how I see the quality of light from some of the more popular light sources.
Daylight: 5500 K, Natural Blue Color
The sun is the brightest, clearest light source on the planet. Over the past four to five years, I have been seeing a trend towards what people call “natural” lighting. Do a Vimeo search for mini-docs, watch almost every beer ad on TV: they all look like a Whole Foods catalog. Most of the time, they are using the sun. Photographers place their subject as close to a bright window as possible, and use it as a large key. Clean sunlight can be harsh. It tends to be very contrasty without a bounce or fill, but sunlight blasting through a thin, white curtain is gorgeous. Watch it wrap around your subject and into your shadows, giving a nice soft edge on your subject's shadow line. Not all sunlight is the same color. What time of day are you shooting? Early in the morning or late in the afternoon tends to produce a warmer light, while mid-afternoon is the harshest and brightest light.
Fun fact: the sun looks different on both the east and west coast. California sun is a bit more diffused and a lot warmer most of the time. It might have something to do with all the pollution.
Tungsten Light: 3600 K, Natural Amber Color
Old-school tungsten lights have a gorgeously soft quality about them. The light is created by electricity heating up a metal filament inside the bulb (told you I wouldn’t get too technical). It glows orange, giving it its color. The type of glass on the bulb can affect the light as well. Is it a clear bulb giving you a harsher source or a frosted soft source? Tungsten is really helpful with cosmetics. Want to soften your actress' features? Try using a diffused tungsten source. They also look fantastic when bounced into walls or put through softboxes. The downside is that they get really hot and often need a bigger power source.
Fun fact: They are awesome for black and white videos.
HMI Light: 5600 K, Natural Blue Color
These lights are naturally balanced to be used with the sun or to recreate its look by triggering an electric spark between two contacts, giving off a bright, blue-colored, harsh light. They definitely require more power and are run using a ballast (although there are some amazing new units out that can run off a standard 15 amp house circuit). These are the lights you see on movie sets, blasting in through windows or strapped to a crane to supplement the sun. I highly suggest using diffusion, strapping on a Chimera Softbox, or bouncing them to give the light a softer quality. If done right, expect it to feel like a midday sun or look like the kind of light you expect from strobes. One popular look you can get from HMIs is accomplished by incorrectly color balancing to tungsten in camera. This will give you a metallic blue color from the HMIs, while making all your tungsten sources white. James Cameron loved this in the 1980s.
Go watch "Terminator" and "Aliens!"
LED Light: 3600 K through 5600 K (Some can run the full CMYK spectrum.)
The hottest new craze is using LED lights. They don’t draw much power (can be run on battery), they don’t get hot, and best of all, you can dial in specific color temperatures. Awesome, right? Well, not unless you get the really expensive models. The cheaper versions of these lights tend to run more pink than amber and more green than blue. (I'm looking forward to trying out the brand new LED 1x1s from IKAN. What I saw at NAB this year looked awesome!) Trying to match them to tungstens and HMIs can be a pain. Be ready to get out some corrective gels. The brightness output on a standard 1x1 LED is equivalent to a bounced 650w tungsten, so they definitely cannot compete with the sun. All that being said, there are a few reasons why I love to have a few of these in my kit.
One of the more interesting things is how it affects skin. It tends to give a very “metallic” look. It produces a very sharp shadow line and looks amazing on darker skin tones. These lights are extremely lightweight and flat. I love using them as edge lights, and with a twist of a dial, I can change their color.
Fluorescent Light: 3600 K and 5600 K (also specialty colored tubes)
These were the big craze before LED, and there are many different companies that utilize this type of light. Prices range from the affordable to high-end. The cheaper you go, the worse the color temperature. The inexpensive units tend to lean towards a green hue. I highly suggest spending the money or renting Kino Flo so you can get correctly balanced tubes for both 5600 K and 3600 K. They also make special colored tubes in reds, blues, golds, green screen green, and blue screen blue. Kinos are known for their fast falloff, meaning that the brightness dissipates quickly within a few feet. This comes in handy when you want to control the splash from your lights. Got an actor that is in a small room and you want to light him without filling the whole space? This light is the perfect choice. They also give off a beautifully soft quality of light that looks amazing when reflected in dark skin.
Early David Fincher films really made the most of these units: "Se7en," "Fight Club," and "Panic Room" especially!
I highly suggest you do some lighting tests with each of these options. Grab a model, and bring some beers down to your local lighting rental company. Convince them to let you set up some of these lights in their shop and examine the results. If possible, bring both a fair-skinned person and someone with a darker skin tone.
Here is the lighting test video we did for Bose to show how mixing light sources looked.
With all this in mind, it was time for me to tackle the job at hand. For the next episode of Better Sound Sessions, I knew that I needed to give the band an “electronic” look. The clients also requested to keep the Edisons as props (they really wanted to have them be the continuity for the first season). A big lesson that I learned from the first episode was that that using the Edisons as the key source would give me a lot of shadows. I needed a softer key light — something that would produce vivid colors. With a little research, I found the Gold and Blue Kino Tubes and asked my local lighting company, Red Sky Studios, if they could get them. Luckily, they were in stock (thanks to Boston’s booming film industry), and I scheduled some tests.
The trick was to see how the tungsten mixed with these two vivid florescent colors. The results were awesome, but required a lot of tweaking.
Being a "Blade Runner" fan, I thought it would be cool to see the fluorescent bulbs in the shots, and that required a lot of rigging. We were able to use special cabling and mounts that allowed us to rig each build on a c-stand arm. I worked closely with my gaffer, Jesse Hicks, on how to build a rig that would line the walls with each color and allow them to be turned on and off by color. The next big issue was exposure. The Kino bulbs couldn’t be dimmed. Sure, the ballasts have two power settings, but even on the lowest, the colored bulbs were blowing out to white.
In order to get the most vibrant color, we had to close down our apertures to at least a f/5.6, which killed the output on all the dimmed 60-watt Edisons. So, we cranked the dimmers up to 100% to get a decent exposure from them and faced our next hurdle. At that f-stop, there was barely any falloff from the fluorescents. If you walked two feet away from each bulb, the light dropped over three stops, plunging the rest of the room into shadow. Fixing this required getting even more bulbs (Kino and Edison) and placing them as close as possible to each musician.
The room ended up becoming a maze of cables and stands, but that actually worked really well for the aesthetic the band was going for — free production design! A full afternoon of lighting tests really allowed for us to iron out the look and tweak the colors. By the end of the day, we were amazed at the quality of image we were getting. The Edisons were gorgeously mixed in with our vividly colored fluorescent tubes, and one happy accident was seeing how the bare tubes would highlight the bulbs glass.
Here is a shot we filmed during the test that went on to be the title screen for the episode. It really summed up the look for the whole piece.
When we were filming the piece, we utilized the same shooting techniques as before. We shot with five Nikon D810 and changed every camera position with each take to get the most coverage. We placed both Kino tubes and Edison bulbs directly in front of the lens to shoot through and to create some gorgeous flares. We also timed out when the gold bulbs would be on and when the blue bulbs were on, putting the lighting team's skills in rhythm and music timing to the test. It was a lot of workm but the results were beautiful. Clients were happy!
Watch the final video here.
I hope this helps with thinking creatively when designing light. Hopefully, it gives you some insight (and curiosity) into understanding how different lights react on camera and inspires you to mix them together and produce wildly original results. So, next time you decide to shoot, instead of setting up in front of a window, I highly suggest you get off your butt and do some lighting tests.
Lighting Gear Used:
The final video was produced and edited by McFarland & Pecci.