Lesson 5: Lighting

Lights, camera, action! A short Lesson on lighting:

Photography is a play of light and shadow: the drama of light. Lighting a scene does not have to be complicated. In fact, all we use is a three point lighting system most of the time. Take a look at the quick sketch below to see all the elements of a three point lighting system.

We have the Key light, the Fill light, and the Back light. The Key light is the brightest, the Fill is weaker, and brings down the contrast, and is a necessary thing for DSLR cameras as they are essentially shooting video with a relatively low dynamic rage, so fill light is important.

And the Back light helps to separate the actor, or subject, from the back ground. This is also referred to as a hair light. Now back lights were invented for black and white photography at the time, because the separation was needed. With colour its not that important, and sometimes looks cheesy, and fake in my opinion.

Instead you could just turn that light around and simulate a light falling on the background, this will add maybe a more natural separation, it depends on the scene, and what you want to reveal.

For lighting actors the three point system works great.  After you set that up, and you have lights left over, you can light the background. The Fill light and Key light can be interchangeable, why? The Key and Fill are only differentiated through intensity and perhaps angle. The Fill light can be up to 4 stops under the Key, whereas the back light might be on par with the Key. If the Key is 5.6, the Back light will be close to that; but lighting is an intuitive art after you have achieved the correct exposure. There is no right or wrong after that. I worked once with an old experienced DOP and he would light the enitre set, and then start tuning lights off, one at a time.

I asked him how he achieved his LOOK, he said: I see it with the naked eye: what you see, is what you get, somtimes it helps to turn lights off, as less can be more. Wow! He was a very experienced DOP. Why? That was in the days of film when the DOP had a huge responsibility, because you could not see what was being recorded on the film until you got back the prints. So the DOP had to know what he was doing. I worked on a show once, and the DOP overexposed the whole day of shooting, and that was expensive special effect shots! Oh My God!

Nasty things like that could happen back then.

Today we shoot on DSLR cameras, which basically allows you to work like the old DOP, to shoot what you see, to sometimes go for less, as you can replay what you shot right away; and if need be, shoot it again.

That’s revolutionary!

This also means using a light meter is no longer necessary. Good or bad? Probably good in my opinion…

Now you can see exactly what you get in real time, and have on screen exposure data, and more, to get the perfect shot every time.

Yes, on the surface lighting is simple, in reality it is complex depending on the size of the production. The good news for the 60d and 5d is that you can install Magic Lantern, which is a third party firmware update that allows you to shoot with high dynamic range (HDR). This means you will not need to light a night street that might have lights in the shop windows that would normally be blown-out, (or too bright compared to the actors who are in the darker street setting) as the ML system shoots two exposures at once… Very Cool.

Also DSLR cameras can work in super low light depending on how fast your lens is. These cameras allow you to use very little lighting, or none at all. In some cases all you need to do is put someone beside a window, and just use available light. DSLR low light capabilities blow film out of the water…

For now, I’m only going to touch on two more things:

High Key, Low Key:

High Key and Low Key photography are basically posh terms for a shot that uses extremely high levels of white or black.

High Key images are generally associated with happiness and well-being, therefore a lot of High Key photography can be found in professional family and children portraits, as well as a lot of advertisements too. In general, you would find that High Key photographs do not contrast very much as the shadows are suppressed by lighting. As well as that, although High Key images focus on a lot of white, they are not generally supposed to be overexposed.

High Key:

In contrary, Low Key images are full of shadows and black, and used to create dramatic tension and suspense in the photograph’s atmosphere. Low Key images also sometimes pay attention to lines and shapes, and being so full of dark areas and black colour, light can be reflected easily off these lines and shapes to emphasize them among the darkness.


Low Key:

High Key and Low Key setups are two opposite directions to go in cinema. Normally even in high key shots the blacks get crushed, which is a typical look for cinema. Obviously a comedy or movie about angels will be High Key, and a zombie movie will be shot in Low Key, but there is an entire universe in between the two at your disposal.

A movie like Lord Of the Rings uses both High Key and Low Key, the realm of the Elves (HK), or the crypts of the Dwarfs (LK), and everything in between. Some films just use one or the other. Low Key tends to lean more toward the drama of light, and is generally used more as photography is the language of light and shadow, but it all depends on what is required to best describe the scene.

The hardest thing to do for an inexperienced DOP and Gaffer is to carry the LOOK of a film all the way through to the last shot. Normally a director, with vision, will work together with the DOP to create a film LOOK.

A LOOK is a stylized representation of color and mood that best dramatizes the light in order to create an emotional and aesthetic consistency throughout the film. An apocalyptic theme will probably look unsaturated and grey, or green, hard light, and in some cases high key, but with sharp black shadows. The realm of the Elves will look way more saturated, soft and dreamy, with glowing lights, and almost psychedelic purples and reds and yellows…

When you are just starting out, keep it simple. Try to shot short films with only one Key light. This will force you to look for available light to use as either fill or back light, or even your Key if this is the best way to go. This will give you some great experience.

On your next short you shot, try and get at least three lights together so you can practice your three point lighting systems, but try and keep your LOOK consistent.


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