“Lighting for Film: Keep It Simple” by Michael Corbett

To improve your tennis game, play with better tennis players. I am not sure where I first heard this, but it was one of the most important things I’ve learned about improving “my game” as a director of photography. For me, the better tennis players are directors of photography I have had the opportunity to work with: Oliver Wood; Andrew Laszlo, ASC; Tony Richmond, ASC; Victor Kemper, ASC; Nick Allen-Wolf; Fred Goodich, ASC; Henry Lynk; Scott Mumford; Flip Minott; and many others. By working on set with them, I have been exposed to a vast resource of experience, technical ability and creative genius.

Oliver Wood told me that every day on set he tries something that he has never done before. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Tony Richmond, ASC drove home the notion that good lighting is all about taking light out of the scene. We are not really lighting the set but casting shadows. He taught me how to use hard light.

Flip Minott helped me understand in the clearest terms the four qualities of light that we control: brightness, position, softness and color.

Andrew Laszlo, ASC was the DP who told me to keep it simple. Don’t use any more lights than you have to. This is from a DP who arranged to have a large portion of a studio back lot covered with opaque material to make it possible to shoot large exterior setups day-for-night to save money and wear-and-tear on the talent, director and crew.

Simple Three Point Lighting

You can light almost any setup with simple three-point lighting – a backlight to separate the subject from the background, a key light that is the brightest light on the camera side of the subject, and a fill light to adjust the contrast created by the key light.

For me, the backlight is the most important light, and I often set it first. A properly set backlight is often the most obvious distinction between an amateur and a professional director of photography.

Find a place to put the backlight so that you get a nice rim of light on the subject edges. You will need to hide the light support and protect the lens from backlight flares.

The key light comes next. Adjust the key light’s position and brightness to give the subject the right light for the story in that scene.

If you are going for drama and suspense, you may not want to use a fill light at all. If you do use a fill light, adjust its position and brightness to control the contrast created by the key light.

Going beyond three point lighting, you may want to put light on the background so the audience knows what is there. You may also want to set “special” lights specifically to illuminate important story elements in the scene; for example, a gun on a table or a ransom note, etc.

Make the Sun Your Backlight

The simplest, easiest, fastest, least expensive and often most dramatic way to light is with just one light. The easiest way to shoot with only one light is to shoot day-exterior scenes. To many it seems counterintuitive, but you want to make the sun your backlight when shooting day exterior.

Position the camera and the subject so that the sun shines on the edges of the subject from behind. This is a very important element of location scouting and scheduling. In the northern hemisphere you want to seek locations that allow the camera to look southward. You want to schedule each scene so that the location is backlit by the sun when the scene is shot.

Consider the example of a setup in a public park on a sunny day. For the scenes early in the day, schedule them so the camera will be able to look in an east to southeasterly direction. As the day progresses and the sun appears to arc across the southern sky, position the camera so that it is looking in that direction. After noon, as the planet turns, you will want the camera to be looking in a more westerly direction.

Don’t Shoot Outside at Noon

Unless you are deliberately trying to make things look ugly, avoid shooting outside in open sunlight within two or three hours of local actual noon when the sun is at its highest point. If you must shoot at this time of day, it is the most important time to keep the sun in a backlight position. To overcome the extremely high contrast of the light near noon time use large white objects like 4’X8′ foam core or, even better a 12’x12′ or larger Griflon to fill in the shadows. A 12K or larger HMI instrument would work even better to overcome mid day high contrast. Another option is to shoot under trees or other shadow areas to avoid the contrast issue.

When you are shooting outside on a sunny day the entire canopy of the blue sky is your key and fill light source. You can use silver or gold reflectors or bounce materials like those mentioned above to brighten up the key side of the subject. The blue sky canopy will serve as an extremely soft fill light. If it is a cloudy day you will have to give up your backlight from the sun or replace it with an HMI instrument.

Use Natural Light and Practical Lights for Interiors

When shooting interiors, use as many practical lights that can be seen by the camera as possible. These include: wall sconces, table lamps, desk lamps, and floor lamps. Ask your art director to play as many of these items as makes sense in the scene. If you are shooting interior-day, use windows or other actual sources of light as your back light or key light if possible.

You will want to pay close attention to the color temperature of your light sources when shooting interior-day. The bluer color sunlight or light from an HMI instrument often makes a good contrast to the more orange light from interior practical lights and professional incandescent lights. Make sure your lighting does not end up looking like a mistake when shooting interior-day by keeping the brightness of the different color temperature lights as seen by the camera within a few ƒ stops of one another.

You Get Eye Candy at Night

It can be hard on the people working on the show, but shooting at night gives spectacular results. Shooting night, interior or exterior, is another opportunity to shoot with only one light. If the story you are telling is dramatic, one light may be all you need for the story goal in that setup. Start with one light in a backlight position. Watch the subject as the light is moved around to a front-lit key light position. For drama, you will often find that a side-light just slightly behind the subject on the right or left gives the perfect effect for the story in that scene.

If you are shooting night-exterior, wet down everything the camera sees as if there was a light rain shower just a few minutes before the scene takes place. There is almost nothing more visually stunning that an exterior scene shot night-for-night with wet down streets. Make sure the art department has several five-gallon buckets, water hoses, and enough crew members to keep the wet down going for all the takes.

Fluorescent Lights Are Green

If at all possible avoid using standard cool white fluorescent lights. If you must shoot under fluorescent light fixtures the best thing to do is rent or buy fluorescent tubes that are specifically made for the film industry and are color corrected. I often use Kino-Flo color-corrected fluorescent lights as a soft key light on interiors.

A time consuming approach: if you must shoot under fluorescent fixtures is to gel the fixtures with magenta colored minus-green gel.

A faster but less satisfactory approach is to white balance the camera to the fluorescent lights (or use an FLB filter in front of the lens if shooting film) and use plus-green gel on incandescent and HMI lights to get them to match the light quality of the fluorescent lights.

Use Simple Equipment.

As a beginner level student or beginner independent filmmaker with very limited resources, you may not have access to professional lighting equipment. It takes more time to set up, but you can get excellent lighting results using off-the-shelf consumer lights and construction materials for lighting and for bouncing the light. For $100 to $200 at any home improvement store, you can put together a kit of extension cords, household bulbs of various wattages, quartz fixtures, construction lights, work lights, clip-on lights and sheets of foam insulation for bouncing light.

But Wait, There’s More! 

This article barley scratches the surface of the art and science of lighting for film. There are lots of books, educational videos, and resources which can add to your knowledge of lighting.

Keep in mind that the simplest lighting is often the very best. And, when you can, play with better tennis players to improve your game.

Michael Corbett has worked on more than a thousand television commercials and a dozen feature films in roles as varied as grip-electric to producer/director. His honors include a Cine Eagle, three Silver Reels, four Addy awards, and three festival silver plaques. He was line producer of the feature film Captiva Island. Other feature film credits include Miami Hustle as first assistant director, and The Lay of the Land as director of lighting. His documentary credits include Zimbabwe, Miracle in Africa.

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