Regardless of whether you’re shooting a scene for your short film, capturing interior footage for a documentary, or conducting a corporate interview, location lighting can be both challenging and rewarding. It’s a rare occasion when you can point a light directly at someone and have it look good.
One of the most important aspects of location lighting is to make a scene look natural—unless, of course, you are shooting something abstract, like a sci-fi piece. The process I’ve outlined here is a guide for independent, corporate, and documentary filmmakers working on a small or nonexistent budget. It will take the mystery and guesswork out of the process, allowing you to work faster and achieve better results.
As you’ll see, the evaluation steps are the same. The main difference will be the design of your final lighting plan. Bigger budgets will afford you more options but not always better results. I’ll be working hard to balance the technical side with plain language, real obstacles, and real solutions. I’ll also provide links to previous posts that include more technical information and will create additional blog posts and videos on the subject in the future.
Let me take this moment to acknowledge that exposure is both a science and an art. What some people find acceptable or even artistic, others deem unacceptable. If the subject or objects are too bright or too dark, you won’t be able to see detail, which usually is not what you want. I’ve worked for cinematographers who even say it’s wrong to compose a shot with a large window overexposed. My feeling is that it depends on the objective of your shot. Perhaps your objective is to create a sense of vulnerability, as though there is nowhere to escape. If so, you could create a scene of a blazingly hot summer day and the male main character can’t escape the heat or the inner demons he is hiding from.
With this objective, you design a shot sequence that stays within the high end of the exposure range—meaning there are virtually no shadows, no shade, and nowhere to hide. Your main character comes in from the street; both he and the audience hope for relief, but instead, he enters a sunlit room with a large window so overexposed that it’s white. He can’t escape! The window is not properly exposed, but it creates tension and thus serves a purpose. At some point, you could cut away, have him pull the curtain, or enter a side room that is exposed more in the middle or lower end of the exposure range. This would allow him to escape and relieve the tension created by the previous sequence.
This knowledge is necessary for the one shooting, but even directors and producers will benefit from a basic understanding of the tools and skills needed to control windows and other practical light sources already existent in the room (a.k.a. “practicals”). Window light is free; so learning to control the levels and color temperature from these sources will save you time and money.
Evaluate the “Story Needs” of Your Shot
You’ll need to determine how much of the environment is needed to tell your story. This will determine how wide your widest shot needs to be. This is a directorial decision that I’m not going to get into here, except to say that if the environment is an important character or gives the audience specific insight, it should be worked in to your film’s equation. How you work this in will have a huge impact on your lighting plan. Let’s say you have a man walking into a room to talk with his wife.
How much of that room does the audience need to see? Do you need to have a shot wide enough to cover the entire walk-in? Depending on many factors, including how stylized you want the shot to be, the set-up may take longer than your available time or may simply be impossible to accomplish with the lighting package at your disposal. In such a case, you could get creative and find a solution in the way you frame your shot. By framing something large in the foreground or shooting through a doorway, you’ll be able to minimize the width of the shot while still showing the man’s entrance and the room. You would be staging your actors deep and shooting coverage of mostly medium shots. This solution would provide you with the opportunity to show only parts of the room, rather than the entire area. This would also give you more opportunity to hide lights and to crop out problem areas.
If you’re shooting a sit-down interview, ask yourself how important it is to see the environment around the interviewee. Is it just background? If this were an artist surrounded by his or her paintings, a wide-shot would be ideal, but beware. Depending on the space, lighting an interview’s wide-shot with style means lighting the entire room; the objects and the subjects. Conversely, if the location has little or nothing to do with what the interview is about, the close-up shot is fine. It’s the person and what he or she may be emoting that is important. Shooting close-ups requires fewer lighting instruments and makes your lighting job a whole lot easier.
Evaluate Existing Practicals and Windows
A large room soaks up a lot of light, so windows and practicals such as ceiling lights can be your best friend. If the furniture, curtains, or walls are dark, you will need multiple large lighting instruments to bring the light level up to an acceptable exposure.
One of the most important decisions you’ll need to make is how you will use these existing light sources. Do you have aesthetic or practical reasons for incorporating a window in the shot? Will you incorporate existing ceiling lights, table and floor lamps, or other practicals into the frame while shooting?
Measure the brightest and darkest areas in the room. You can measure the light with a light meter, a calibrated monitor, a waveform monitor, and/or your camera’s viewfinder. Don’t worry about this right now. For now, it’s enough to know that light is measured. If you plan to do this a lot, I strongly suggest that you learn to read a light meter. It’s a valuable time-saver! I deal with reading a light meter in workshops, and I’ll eventually create a video. For now, it’s enough to know that cameras deal with f-stops, and if the f-stop of your dark areas and bright areas are too far apart, your exposure range is too wide, and many shots will be either underexposed and black or overexposed and white.
The window reads f-32 on a sunny day, and the shadow areas read f-2; that’s an exposure ratio of 8:1. The bright areas are 128 times brighter than the darkest areas and too wide to be within the acceptable exposure range of our camera. The exposure range refers to the range of light levels from brightest to darkest that our camera can capture, while maintaining texture details in the areas we want to see. This range has also been referred to as “zones”; most notably by famed-photographer Ansel Adams.
As a director of photography or gaffer, you’ll need to be able to read these measuring tools and evaluate your lighting options. The alternative is a whole lot of trial and error, which takes precious time away from shooting and usually leads to inferior results.
What you’re looking to accomplish, in its simplest form, is to narrow the exposure range so that the highest and lowest light level readings are no further apart than what your camera can handle, usually no higher than a 4:1 ratio; everything else is art and at your discretion.
Evaluate Your Tools and Your Crew
No-budget and low-budget filmmaking is not only about being creative, going guerrilla, or thinking out-of-the-box. It’s also about recognizing that there are limitations to what you and your crew can accomplish. Working with friends and volunteers can be fun for your first couple of productions, but when “been there and done that” gets old, your expectations will rise, and you’ll want to spend more time shooting quality footage and less time solving lighting problems. This is where a professional gaffer and grip come in. With very little direction, a skilled gaffer and grip team can quickly rough in a lighting plan and solve basic lighting problems while you concentrate on performance. If you haven’t been on a set with this level of skill, I recommend talking to a director who has had the pleasure of this kind of crew support. You’ll be surprised at how much more you can accomplish.
Here are some of the questions you should ask yourself before you start shooting:
“How deep is my grip and electric department?”
Deep is the term the industry uses to describe how many people there are within a specific department. Are you a “no-budget indie” with the same person performing the tasks of both the gaffer and the grip? Or are you a “low-budget indie” with a separate gaffer, best boy, and key grip? Maybe you even have a production assistant for each department? I know that a handful of you are thinking this sounds more like a big-budget film, but in reality, it isn’t. I’ve worked as a gaffer and/or grip on many low-budget independent films that have had at least two-deep in each department. With a reasonable amount of locations and equipment, this was just enough personnel — although not enough on the jobs with plenty of equipment and an overambitious director.
How many setups do you need to accomplish per day?
Making good decisions about what can be reasonably achieved in a day comes with experience. I’ll be posting more on this in a future post, but I urge you to always overestimate how much you’re planning to accomplish on any given day.
You’ll most likely have a better movie, and your crew will most likely help you again on a future shoot. At some point, you’re doing a disservice to your crew, your movie, and the independent filmmaking industry by underestimating the job requirements and continually asking your crew to work 14 to 16 hours each day. It’s not safe nor sustainable. Learn from your mistakes and make the necessary changes. For more on this topic, see my post on working with both an experienced and inexperienced crew.
Do you have the right amount of grip and lighting gear for your set-ups?
Without going into detail on how to match this up, the basic idea is that you don’t want a full lighting truck but only two crew-members to set it up, adjust, break down, and carry the equipment back to the truck. Conversely, it doesn’t make sense to have a large department if you only have three lights. If you’ve done the location scouting, you know what your challenges are. You need enough gear to tackle your most complicated lighting setup. This can be predetermined with basic lighting and light-meter reading knowledge. Will you need gels or screens to control or color the light coming through the windows? Do you have stands and flags to help you control this light? Do you have a bead board or foam core to help you bounce any light or diffusion to help you soften any light? How about a ladder, sandbags, or apple boxes? These are just a few of the things that when combined with people who know how to use them, will help you create a beautiful scene.
What is the lighting plan?
You’ve had the opportunity to evaluate the needs of your shot, physical characteristics of the location, existing practicals and windows, lighting gear and the ability of your crew. It’s time to create a lighting plan. For our purposes, we’ll assume that this is a no-budget film or documentary-style shoot and that you only have one person working as both the gaffer and the grip.
In our example, our brightest area is f32, which is 128 times brighter than our darkest area, an f2. This yields an exposure ratio of an 8:1 light ratio. This means that if we expose our subject using the brightest area, a large portion of the shot will be extremely dark; conversely, if we expose our person at the levels based on the darkest area, the shot will be too bright and the window will be severely overexposed. We’re working with a small lighting package and don’t have the time to gel the windows neatly enough for the gel to look like it’s the windowpane. Thus, we’ll have to exclude the window from the shot.
What can we do?
We can tape a full orange (full CTO) as well as a neutral density gel (ND9) over the window, not worrying about hiding it. This is a quick fix, but because the gels will be draped over the window, we’ll be unable to frame a wide shot that includes the window. This will reduce the light by four stops (F11) and change the light color from daylight to tungsten, more closely matching the lights in our kit. We’re now working with a 5:1 lighting ratio. Next, we’ll place some white foam core on the floor, letting the window light reflect off of it. We’ll turn on our existing practicals and aim our largest light at the white ceiling. With our base exposure range up from an F2 to an F 2.8, our ratio is reduced to 4:1. This is larger than we wanted, but it’s at a level that our light kit can work with. At this level, we can accent the back wall, diffuse the key light, and create a bounced edge. The area the actors are in is large enough to fit three characters, staged deep instead of wide, and reads an f4, f5.6, and f8 within the area of motion. This puts the exposure for our actors right in the middle of our exposure range. The trick in this situation was framing our shot to contain the action, but not the window, by staging the actors deep. We also recognized that we had a small crew and very few lights, so we worked with the light coming into the room from the window and adapted our setup to work with the lights we had.
If you want to become better at lighting, pay attention to the lighting around you and the way it changes throughout the day. Begin to notice whether the light in the room makes you feel gloomy or happy. Create a frame in your mind or with your hands, and note the bright spots and shadow areas. Pay attention to people’s faces and the way they look next to windows, next to table lamps, under overhead fluorescent lights and in the numerous other scenarios that exist. Find reality lighting designs that you’ll want to replicate or be influenced by. However, keep in mind that the human eye has a larger exposure range than a photographed image has. Humans can deal with a 10:1 exposure ratio; most cameras cannot.
It’s possible to light with purpose. But like everything else, it starts with intention.