The control and quality of light is the point in video production where science gives way to art. Manipulation of light and shadow can create magnificent images from a modest camera, while shoddy lighting can cripple the priciest digital cinema camera.
Light can transform the video image into a three-dimensional illusion which can stimulate the imagination of the audience.
The late lighting innovator Ross Lowell, founder of Lowel-Light Manufacturing, perhaps put it best when he wrote that the goal of lighting is “to enhance mood, atmosphere and drama; separate planes; suggest depth; reveal character and texture; enrich and, occasionally, bedazzle.”
Creative lighting is learned through years of study, experimentation and imagination. One learns to do it well, not through formulas, but through trial and error.
Each production is unique and requires a combination of basic knowledge, good tools and common sense. Luckily, video production has entered a new golden age of lighting. The old problems of having to carry long, heavy electrical cables and checking the capacity of circuit breakers are history. Huge quartz fixtures generating searing heat have been replaced by tiny battery-operated LED lights that can run on batteries.
Today, LED lights are not only very bright, compact, battery-operated and cool enough to be easily handled by a single person, but the prices have come down — way down.
Over the past few years, it seems like the technology behind LED lights has improved almost by the day. Low-cost LED fixtures obsoleted Edison’s incandescent and fluorescent light bulbs for homes and offices. This, in turn, drove down the cost of more precise LED lights for video production. Now, there is a huge choice of low-cost LED lighting suitable for image makers.
Beyond small size, the greatest benefit of LED lights is their low power consumption. Most professional LED lights can be battery-powered — a dramatic shift that allows video production to take place far away from power grids.
With lower power consumption, LEDs are also cool to the human touch. No more burning flesh or the need for gloves when handling light fixtures. Along with the cool operating temperatures, there is a decrease in the cost in air conditioning in studios, a major consideration in warm climates.
On location, LED light sources can be a valuable aid to natural light. If an interview subject sits next to a sunlit window, a small LED fixture can be used as a kick light without killing the overall soft effect from the outdoor illumination. Most LEDs can dial in the intensity of the light.
When considering the purchase of LED fixtures for video production, several factors should be considered in trying to navigate the wide range of choices.
One consideration is beam angle — meaning the amount of area to be covered by the light. Do you want a spotlight effect or general scene illumination? Wider beam angles cover a larger area, while lower-degree beam angles create a more concentrated and targeted stream of light. This is determined by the type of fixture purchased.
Next is light output. With modern video cameras, there is no need for powerful lights to create high quality images. Smaller is better, especially with controls over intensity of the light.
Then there is color temperature. Lights in the lower ranges of color temperatures are going to have a warm, almost orange, hue. Lights on the high end of the spectrum will produce a sharper, bluish hue. Color temperature is what determines the color of lighting and it usually ranges from about 1000 – 10,000-degrees, Kelvin. Again, this is adjustable on many fixtures.
For video production, acoustic noise is also an important consideration. Avoid the sound of a cooling fan from a light fixture when the camera is rolling. It is best to stay away from noise-generating lights altogether. In most conditions, you don’t need that large a size anyway.
Color Rendering Index, or CRI, determines the quality of an LED light. Pick fixtures with a CRI of 90-95 to assure good light quality. This spec often separates cheap LED fixtures from more professional models.
Finally, the portability of lighting gear is an important factor in today’s video creation. LED light kits can be compact or large in size. Determine what you need by the size of your crew and the capacity of the vehicle used to carry the gear. It is good to have spare lighting gear for larger jobs, but this is normally not needed on a day-to-day basis.
The good news is LED lighting is very cost-effective. Small three-light kits with stands and basic lighting accessories are adequate for many small crews. Major jobs may require more lights, but that can easily be determined by scouting the location in advance and renting extra fixtures as needed.
Light and shadows have always been the key to good video images. Always include a key light, a fill light and a backlight in a minimum, basic lighting package. Gels, scrims and umbrellas can also be useful lighting control tools in small kits.
Avoid glare, a common problem for on-camera subjects wearing glasses. Moving the fill and key lights further back and away from the camera can help diminish this type of problem.
Using specific type of fixtures can help with lighting issues. A ring light is excellent for interview subjects or video calls. This round fixture creates a soft halo of light around a subject and offers a way to combat the flattening effects common with other studio lights. Ring lights typically eliminate shadows.
Soft lights are also useful for video crews. Set them up, point them down and harsh lighting disappears. Most hard light fixtures can be turned into soft lights with accessories.
Finally, always have a reflector on location. Reflectors help a videographer manipulate existing light by providing another surface to bounce the light. Reflectors are inexpensive and can make a big impact on images.
Though the tools for modern lighting are smaller and cheaper than ever before, the art of shaping light and shadow for high quality video production never changes.
It’s the way the lighting tools are used that matters in the end. Placing the correct kind of light in the right place is and forever will be the key to making great video images.