10 reasons why good lighting can be more important than the camera itself

Probably the biggest name in film lighting

Probably the biggest name in film lighting

Anyone who has worked with me recently will know that I'm a bit of a geek when it comes to lighting. In fact, I rarely shut up about it. You might think it unusual that rather than playing with new cameras, steadicams and other gadgets I would rather be playing with bulbs, bounce and black wrap. The reason behind it is I believe that when composing an image, whether for a corporate video or a film, lighting is everything. Well, almost. You can't have a shoot without the other elements, but at least if you want your images to be memorable and perhaps even cinematic then you can't avoid the subject of lighting.

I have decided to unleash my inner lighting geek and channel my knowledge, experiments and discoveries into a series of lighting articles over the coming weeks and months and hopefully you and I will both learn something from this. Now I'm certainly no Roger Deakins and I don't have a physics degree, but over the last few years I've picked up some useful tricks about how to make footage look just that little bit better. If you want to increase production value in your projects then read on.

Why do we need to light for video and film productions?

The Sony A7S - A low light beast

The Sony A7S - A low light beast

In this digital age that we live in new cameras are being released on a weekly basis with higher ISO capabilities, greater dynamic range and lower noise. Cameras such as the Sony A7S are pushing the boundaries with their low light capabilities, allowing users to shoot in what was once 'impossible' conditions with extremely high ISOs (up to 409,600 for the A7S!) and low noise. Improvements in noise removal software such as Neat Video have also given shooters more flexibility and freedom, knowing that they can get their shot and save it in post. So the big question is why would anyone bother to light a shot when the camera can, in theory, do all the work?

1. The low light capability of a camera cannot hide unflattering light.

You can push the ISO all you like, but it won't make skin tone flattering. This is one reason why when I shoot corporate videos in offices with ugly green fluorescent lighting that I insist on turning the lights off and starting from scratch (if time allows) with tungsten or daylight balanced lighting, depending on the room. This helps me regain control.

2. Natural light can be a blessing..and a curse. 

There are times when natural light does all the work for you and for some reason (you may not always know why) your image just looks amazing. But the sun moves. Clouds move. Shadows change. And this can all happen in the space of one take - ruining your continuity, exposure and wasting yours and your clients time. Learning how you can use natural light to your advantage and how artificial lighting can save the day can also help you regain control.

The power of the sun..

The power of the sun..

..and an unwelcome cloud.

..and an unwelcome cloud.

3. Carefully (and sometimes easily) placed lighting can increase production values substantially.

The secret to making your image look cinematic could be as simple as taking out your reflector. No fancy camera movement and no expensive jib, yet your image is screaming professionalism. Adding a subtle back light in an interview could make your subject leap out from the background. Do you want to grab your audience's attention?

4. Lighting creates mood and atmosphere.

Positive and inspirational? Cold and unsettling? Whether it's video or film, effective lighting is designed to evoke an emotion.

The use of bright highlights and colour choice here meant that there was no question as to what kind of character this man was.  (From 'Jonny Boy' - Shattered Illusion Films)

The use of bright highlights and colour choice here meant that there was no question as to what kind of character this man was.  (From 'Jonny Boy' - Shattered Illusion Films)

Lower contrast and softer lighting helped set the tone for this commercial (Liquiproof Just Desserts - Substantial Films)

Lower contrast and softer lighting helped set the tone for this commercial (Liquiproof Just Desserts - Substantial Films)

Halogen work lights are readily available, cheap and can fill a decent space with tungsten light

Halogen work lights are readily available, cheap and can fill a decent space with tungsten light

5. Lighting doesn't always have to be expensive. Cameras usually are. 

You would be amazed at what you can do with some cheap work lights from your local hardware storeI will be going into more detail on this in a future post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

6. Lighting doesn't become obsolete. Cameras do (quickly).

Besides having to change bulbs and fuses, the running and maintenance costs for most lights is extremely low and they can in theory be used for many years. LED fixtures are proving to have an even longer lifespan. Your camera will probably only see professional use for 2 - 4 years.

7. Almost every light has a purpose.

Whether it be a Chinese lantern or a desk lamp, there is a use for any fixture that provides some sort of light (reliably and safely). For example, desk lamps can be used as effective 'practical' lights in a scene to give the image a more homely feel and a sense of depth. The chances are you probably own one too!

Paper chinese lanterns are inexpensive and give out a lovely soft light for close ups or as practicals in a scene

Paper chinese lanterns are inexpensive and give out a lovely soft light for close ups or as practicals in a scene

Turning on the lamps in this interview made our location feel warm and homely

Turning on the lamps in this interview made our location feel warm and homely

8. You may not always have access to a camera with low light capabilities.

The A7S and 5D are both great in low light. But what if you have to shoot on a smaller sensor camera such as the GH4 or an older DV camera? Learn some lighting tricks so that you can be prepared for all eventualities.

Green screen lighting can be tricky at the best of times. (At United Magic Studios)

Green screen lighting can be tricky at the best of times. (At United Magic Studios)

9. Sooner or later you could be faced with the task of lighting a green screen.

Lighting for green screen is an art in itself and there is high demand in the corporate world for people who can do it. Just knowing some lighting basics could save your production from an expensive re shoot.

 

10. AND FINALLY..Lighting helps you see in complete darkness. Which could save your life.

Duh!

OK, so being able to light is a good skill to have but what if you don't have much time or budget to do it?

This a problem that I regularly face and the reality is that in production (the corporate world especially) there often isn't time for lengthy set ups when working around other people and their businesses. Time is money after all. However, having the knowledge can be a powerful thing and it's better to have the knowledge and lack the means than vice versa. In some cases however, there can be effective solutions to lighting issues that are surprisingly simple. I won't lie, it's not always simple, but as soon as you start training your eye to notice lighting characteristics you'll start learning how to solve some of these problems and become more efficient at doing so, regardless of your time or budget. If you're prepared to learn and adapt then in time the results will speak for themselves.

Stay tuned for future posts where I'll be exploring various lighting techniques and equipment in further detail, including my upcoming post: 5 simple lighting solutions (when time is money) 

This set from You Only Live Twice (1967) was at the time one of the most challenging sets ever to be artificially lit simply due to its colossal size. DOP - Freddie Young.

This set from You Only Live Twice (1967) was at the time one of the most challenging sets ever to be artificially lit simply due to its colossal size. DOP - Freddie Young.

A challenge at the other end of the scale - Christopher Nolan's first feature 'Following' which he also DOP'd. This is an excellent example of a film that almost completely relied on natural lighting (and controlling it) to keep production costs to a minimum. There is no doubt that the results are cinematic.

A challenge at the other end of the scale - Christopher Nolan's first feature 'Following' which he also DOP'd. This is an excellent example of a film that almost completely relied on natural lighting (and controlling it) to keep production costs to a minimum. There is no doubt that the results are cinematic.