Best Practices for Lighting with LEDs

Interview conducted by Jody Michelle Solis


StudentFilmmakers Magazine interviews Telly and multi-award winning Director of Photography Tom Robotham, who is an inventor of LED lighting.

What inspired you to invent the Blender® Light?

Tom Robotham: I invented the Blender® Light because I liked the efficiency and portability of battery operated LED lights, but was frustrated by the fact that filtering for color temperature balance was too slow for most run’n’gun situations, and even then, existing LED lights had too low output to permit filtration and still function well.

Could you give us three real world scenarios and best practices for using LED lighting?

Tom Robotham: I’ve been in hallways with a subject that had 3 minutes for an interview. There might be windows in the background, fluorescents overhead either leaving the subject in shadow or casting nasty eye shadows. It is really hard to control attention on the subject when you have 45 seconds to light. With a Blender light, you can hand hold it, dial in a color of light that is close to the flos, (white balance to the flos), and have a side lit or 3/4 frontal lit subject that holds attention.

Another scenario is with a subject with a window on the side. They might look nice in the daylight, but die against the background and have no snap. I’ll use a Blender light either on the opposite side or opposite kicker, or if the window is too backy, use it on the front window side of the subject to round out that daylight feel and make them both dimensional and feel natural.

Finally, in any kind of situation where I have a little time, I often use a Blender light at a slightly different color temperature than the key or ambient light. For example, I might use a Rifa key light, and there are office flos above. I’ll kill or knock down the one directly above the subject, but then come back with hairlight (armed out) or kicker, or soft fill that is more like the flos, slightly cooler than the Rifa. It makes a very naturalistic look, not like a television interview, more like the light “happens” to look good.

The main thing for me with the Blender light is that it is made to work with existing light. It is malleable. The vast majority of “real” situations involve mixed color temp sources. Even sun and shade are different, certainly every fluorescent ends up slightly different and certainly not on a camera preset, and incandescent sources vary as well, unless it is an all movie light situation. So I try to see what is the best situation that the world at large can deliver for me. I don’t fight it. Then I augment it or correct deficiencies with a Blender light or lights. That way it feels natural, since it’s based on what is naturally there, just better.

What are your thoughts on the LED lighting movement?

Tom Robotham: Great stuff, but nothing is absolute and no light is best for all circumstances. I think the newer generation of LEDs, like what’s used in Blender light and a few others, are better than the first generation, but even those can be really nice in the right situation. I like using less energy. I like cooler to the touch, and smaller and lighter in weight. But I’m not giving up the right to put up an 18K or two when you need the big guns!

One big trend in all motion picture is the movement away from absolute dependence on technical tools and more reliance on what we have for human perception. For example, when you shoot on film with an ISO of 25, it can seem like everything is overlit, because our visual system is more responsive. When film and video became more sensitive, we could rely more on monitors and our eyes to judge shadow and contrast. With devices like the Blender light, that same ability to trust the eye extends to color temperature. I still own light meters, and love them, and certainly can read a decamired nomograph, but it sure is fast and flexible to just dial in the color temp or slight warm or cool value I want, and just see it on the monitor.

That’s a big thing across the board, that ability to work just from a monitor, compared to the “old days”. But it is a double edged sword, because those with training will see the monitor in a different, more discerning way than those with no training. When everyone sees the monitor, people who can ruin the consistency of the imagery, or cost money in post, can have a say that seems as legit as those who are trained. That is dangerous to the production. Would you let a person who can’t balance a checkbook have control over your budget? You might ask their opinion on a payment, but it might be best if the person signing checks understood the account.

What big changes do you see in lighting?

Tom Robotham: My teenage kids have a high tolerance for and liking of very stylized lighting in movies, that wouldn’t be tolerated in “realistic” work of a decade ago. They like artifice, accept that it is all artifice, and if it’s cool, they’re good to go. I love stylized lighting, but tend to think of it as indicative of genre, and thus inhibiting of some kinds of stories. It could be that the control and care needed for a “naturalistic” lighting look, that corresponds to our human visual system, could go out of style. It might be something like lighting for black and white, that seems to younger people like an arcane and mysterious thing. I find that interesting,… I like all styles of lighting, just appropriate to the story.

I also think that low budget, money skimming television programming, where no production values are assumed to translate as “real” have a big and negative impact. They are really just a showcase of photographic artifacts, not “reality”. If you can’t control attention on the subject somehow, composition, lighting, blocking etc. you are making the audience work at the communication in a way that is lazy, even to the point where maybe you don’t really give a damn if they “get it”, or else there is nothing to “get”. So I’d like the next generation to take any photographic qualities that actually communicate and use those, and care enough to bring content to the audience, not just throw pictures on the ground like chicken feed.

What other big changes do you think are in store for filmmakers?

Tom Robotham: It’s all about distribution. The democratization claimed for DSLRs (or before that video, or before that Super8, etc.) does not exist at all if there is no way to get work seen. There are only different business models, and like all business, it is not set up for “art” or content.

Frankly, the time, trouble, cost and effort of producing worthwhile projects (any budget) mitigate against free online distribution of the best work, without any hope of return. You might do it a few times, but with the hope and intent of getting “picked up” or budgeted so you can do your best, and do what the content deserves. Distribution is the key. And I don’t see that changing for as long as filmmaking functions as a totally speculative business activity, outside of the established studios. In some countries, there is funding for the “minor leagues” of filmmaking, so filmmakers can make sincere and serious efforts without dumpster diving for food. That will likely never go over in America. For some reason, we promulgate myths of the heroic “deserving” talent making mega-millions and the rest are chumps. In reality it is a continuum. But the business structures do not disseminate the rewards in a way that mirrors that reality. As a market, it doesn’t have to, nor really should it. It’s all winners and losers, like a sport.

What advice would you give to new filmmakers seeking work in the industry?

Tom Robotham: Everything that pays money is a business. Don’t be thrown off by that. The more people want to be in a business, the easier it is for the unscrupulous to exploit them. This business has some severe exploiters. But it also has some of the nicest, smartest, most sincere and hardworking people I’ve met. So, understand that it is quite a gift to be able to make a buck doing something you might love, or at least find compelling or interesting. A lot of people go through life wondering how to combine their interests and their career. If you can, be happy. You may not get rich,… but you might have an interesting life.


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