Video Lighting for Producers & Directors

– Posted in: Cinematography & Lighting

This post is for directors and producers who want to get better at communicating vision and managing on set resources with video lighting. 

The above image is an overhead view of a lighting plan. It’s a little more complicated than what I would sketch for field work, but that’s because I’m going to use this and a series of photos to help you understand lighting. If you want your production to have style, convey emotion and be completed on-time and on-budget you need to understand the basics of lighting.

Each of the red numbers in the overhead represent where a light is placed. The black circle P’s represent where the talent is at different times during the scene. I’ll be walking through what I did and why I did it. If you’re a beginning cinematographer or someone who’s shooting by default, this tutorial will be incredibly valuable. Copy my structure or make up your own, but don’t go into lighting scenes without some sort of a plan.

  • If you’re a director, use this tutorial to learn some of the concepts and the vocabulary.
  • If you’re a producer, pay attention to the different layers of complexity and have an opinion on how it was handled. You will need to sharpen your assessment skills if you’re going to support your director.
  • If you’re a director/producer, then go through this in detail. Once with the artist’s hat on and once with the time management hat on. What did you like? What would you have done differently? This project could have been easier if the camera blocking was different.
  • If you’re a cinematographer/director/producer, find some friends 🙂

Skilled cinematographers can light on paper with few major changes once on set. While this is not an realistic expectation for every filmmaker, I believe a lighting plan serves at least two objectives:

      1. It moves you from guessing to predicting.  Even if you predict wrong, you will have engaged the process and will remember the results a particular light set up had, and how this was different from what you wanted. There will be a time when that particular lighting effect will come in handy, and you’ll be able to replicate it, if you’ve made this a conscious process. You learn very little if you just turn lights on and off in a haphazard way.



    • It saves you time on set – guaranteed!  If you spend a minimum of 30 minutes making an overhead sketch, you will save a minimum of 2 hours on set. Yes, that’s the minimum! Here’s why.


    Creating this overhead allows you  to determine camera setups, or make compromises prior to arriving on set. This forces you to pre-visualize, so you’re not starting from scratch. The lighting plan may need to change or the camera blocking may need to change, but you’ll have already thought through some of these change ramifications. Do the math.  If this happens on set and you spend a minimum of 30 minutes working through different scenarios and you multiply that 30 minutes by the four people unable to begin “real” lighting, you see where this is going. By the way, thirty minutes isn’t enough if you’re serious about creating intent and mood in your scene. Work through decisions prior to arriving onset. Believe me, there are a thousand reasons why and if you keep reading these blog posts I’ll eventually share them all. Your “on set” goal is to keep the camera rolling as much as possible! This post is about sharing a lighting setup I used for an interactive horror project. This was shot as a self promotion for the Manhattan Ad Agency – Luxurious Animals. A link to the final product will be at the end of the post. The binaural audio is especially cool, so listen to it with head phones to get the full effect. * Disclaimer – Every monitor is different and your viewing environment also effects how a image looks. If you have trouble seeing detail in the shadow areas try viewing in a darker space or adjust your screen. 

Bunkhouse pre-light for director

The above image was taken prior to filming. The actual scene is lit slightly differently. I’ve included f-stop readings to give those familiar with reading stops a guide for engaging in the math. For those of you who don’t know how to read stops, don’t worry. Main take away for directors and producers is this:

      • This is a low-key image  – In laymen terms, more then 60% of the image is exposed on the dark side.



    • Excluding the window, the dynamic range of this image is very small. The majority of the shot is dark and within f/0.5 and f/1.4. That’s not quite two stops. To give you a reference, most DSLR’s can record 11 stops of dynamic range and retain detail in the highlights and the shadow areas. We set “proper” exposure for f/2.8. S0, the majority of this shot is underexposed about 2 stops.



    • The full dynamic range of this image exceeds the 13 stop dynamic range recording abilities of this Canon, 5d miii. Thus, the center of the window is too bright to retain any detail. If you look just off the side of the window you’ll see slight texture from the lace curtain covering the window. Also notice there are areas, especially along the edge of the frame, that are completely black. These areas are too dark to retain detail.



    • If you were looking at this with human eyes you would be able to see detail in both the darkest shadows and the window areas.



Bunkhouse prior to lighting

The above image is shot with a GoPro 3 and automatically exposed for the floor to be “properly” exposed. This is what the bunkhouse looked like before we began lighting.

Setup 1- The spirit is coming

This is a screen grab from the shoot. Our talent Bella is in position #1 and being lit from:

      • light #1 – A Mole Richardson 200 watt fresnel on a dimmer. The light has a snoot to help control the illumination pattern and make it seem like her face is being lit by the candle.



    • light #3 – A Litepanel Micro with full CTO (full color correction orange gel) and white diffusion. The gel colors the otherwise blue light and the diffusion softens the shadows cast from the light.


    Both lights illuminating Bella are manually dimmed up from, off to about 40%  full. The doors behind Bella are lit from lights 2a & 2b – Rosco 3×12 LED pads wrapped in full CTO. These gave the doors a very soft wash bringing them just out of pure black and into exposure range. Closed, the doors were between f/1 and f/0.5, about two stops underexposed. Notice the floor behind her is brighter then the the door. It reads an f/1.4 +-

Looking South

The “looking south” image shows the lights used behind the doors to light for talent in position #1. It’s important to orient your communications with a reference mark. A few examples are:

      • “As if looking toward the kitchen”



    • “Facing north”



    • Camera right = stage, set and the talent’s left



Looking North

The “looking north”  this image includes most of the lights used to light from talent positions #2 and #3. It doesn’t show the lights illuminating the south wall or the south west corner. Here’s a list of the lights you see.

      • #1 – Mole Richardson 200 watt fresnel



    • #4 – Arri 300 Watt fresnel



    • #5 – Cheap scoop light with 100watt 3200 kelvin photo bulb through a 2×3 frame with diffusion



    • #6 – 500 watt open face through a 4×4 frame with white diffusion



    • #7 – 4 bank kino flo (you can barely see it)



    • #8 – 150 watt Mole Richardson fresnel with white diffusion



    • #10 – 650 watt Arri fresnel



Looking north from light #4 POV

Light #4 is providing the hard light that rakes the match book. Notice the barn doors are diagonal. You can see the effect below. The effect is much softer in the image above with Bella in it. I would have preferred the softer version. I think we went too hard and slightly too bright. A little opal frost diffusion on the barn doors would have softened the shadow lines very slightly. Just my personal taste, in hind sight

Screen capture of light raking candle and match book

The above image shows what the effect light #4 was doing when the door cracked open. The candle has a nice edge. This and the box of matches will be important elements at the very beginning of this interactive experience, so it was important to light them with a “special”.

Looking west from talent position 2

Light #5 – Cheap scoop light with 100 watt, 3200 kelvin photo bulb, through a 2×3 frame with diffusion.

Looking east from behind light 6

Light #6 – 500 watt open face through a 4×4 frame with white diffusion.

Looking west at 4×4 frame with diffusion and a bottom flag

Light #6 –  4×4 frame with white diffusion and a bottom flag. This frame is fairly large compared Bella’s head, so it illuminates her with a somewhat soft wrap-around light when she is in position two. The black object along the bottom is a flag, and it’s placed there to keep light from hitting the floor. Without this flag the floor would be bright, as if a door to a very bright room was open. I could have lit this in a more “film noir” style and used hard lights. These hard lights would have created small pools of light making it more difficult for Bella to hit an exact mark on each and every take. It would have also made rotoscoping the dolly move close to impossible, because she would have temporarily gone in pools of black. This would make it impossible to find where the edge of her ended and the wall behind her began.

Bella at talent position #2  looking south

The above image is Bella at position #2

From talent position 2 looking east

Light #7 – 4 bank kino flo. This gave her top light and was tilted back slightly to throw light along her dolly move south. Notice the doors of this light are pinched into a narrow opening and I’ve turned two bulbs off. This is just one of many examples of how professional gear can help you more easily sculpt and carve light.

4 bank Kino Flo – 2 bulbs off

Light #7 – 4 bank kino flo. Two bulbs are disconnected because the ballast connected to this light doesn’t have a switch for each light. I was using a two foot version of this light to illuminate the doors and had the four switch ballast connected to it. We abandoned the 2ft kino flo in favor of the rosco lights 2a and 2b. They allowed us to more easily light the swinging doors while not spilling light on the top of Bella’s head. Light #8 – Mole Richardson 200 watt fresnel. Light #8 – This light kept Bella illuminated as the spirit was pulling her into the bright room. You’ll notice from the photo above that I used black wrap which is a black tin foil. This was done to keep some light off the wall. The wall is light in tone and it’s close to the light, so any light hitting it would make the wall instantly bright. I was fighting with the black wrap, trying to extend it down further, so even less light would spill onto the wall. Some light is ok, but I wanted even less. This was another battle that time won. I could have had complete control if I’d had another fifteen minutes. I would have screwed a wall plate into the beam and with a grip arm I would have extended  a small flag between the light and the wall. This would have allowed me to dial in the amount of light I wanted. Take a look and see what you think. The good thing is the brighter wall helps separate Bella from the background and helps the black spirit stand out.

Bella being pulled on dolly, at talent position #3. The dolly track will be rotoscoped out in the final product

In middle room looking south from light 9 POV

Light #9 – 150 watt Arri fresnel. This light was used to add depth to this two dimensional image by illuminating a mid-ground area. (Look at the photo above with Bella on the dolly.)  The illusion of depth was enhanced even further because the old radio and candle were beyond the door frame. Without this light the room would have been black and the perception of depth would have stopped at the door frame. It’s very slight, but I think it helps the shot.

From light 10 POV looking south

Light # 10 – A 650 watt Arri fresnel was used to throw a narrow pool of light onto the stove on the south wall. I hung this light from behind an area in the room where the ceiling dropped down, because I knew I could light the back wall and easily hide the light from this location. It’s also nice to clutter the set with yet another stand. This was ultimately a problem, in that I wanted to try to illuminate the darker part of the stove while not making the white too bright. This can be done by placing a black object or a net (finger) over the part of the light that you want darker, while leaving the other area clear and free to illuminate that portion of the object. This is impossible to do with this light, from this distance, because light rays do not stay focused over a long distance. I would have needed an ellipsoidal style light to keep that kind of control.  Had I set the light on a stand and placed it where the blue box is, I could have achieved my desired result. But, time was running out and we needed to shoot. You know how that goes.

From inside south west corner looking north

Light # 11 – Is actually two lights for two different times in the scene. When Bella is behind the door, this south west room was lit with an old 1k fresnel. The flag on the top carved the light diagonally along the top making the shot a little more realistic. It broke the wall up a little. The other light is a Wescott Spider Light. It consists of five florescent bulbs and was used to brightly light the entire south wall of this room when the spirit was coming out of it. This room really needed smoke, but again we were running out of time and we were short on manpower. Some people will look at the shot and the idea “we need smoke” will never occur to them. There’s a lot happening in the scene and it doesn’t kill the gag, but because this site is about learning I will share that I think I dropped the ball on this one. I should have stayed up the night before and got a smoke machine working. I’m the cinematographer and I should have made it happen. It would have taken us longer to shoot the shot and would have had to turn a fan on in between the many takes, but I think it would have been worth it – just sayin.

From light 12 POV looking west

Light # 12 – This was how we simulated a window light. It barely worked. We didn’t have a choice. We had no more lights, no time to get more lights, and no way to power a bigger light. The original plan was to shoot this during the day and use the window light, but after some discussion the risks of that proved to out weigh the benefits. We would have had to have add a shooting day or at least a half day to the schedule and there was no budget for that. The other big factor is that it’s incredibly difficult to control the sun’s effect on a room you want to be mostly dark. The sun changes intensity and it changes its angle. This means you would never get the same pattern on the wall or on the floor for two takes. This would have been doable if the entire scene was not a lock down shot, but because the gag was designed to be a lock down shot we needed to shoot this at night. Here’s something for you to ponder and comment on. We could have pulled this off using daylight if we changed camera angles. How would you block it if using the window light was a major desire? Please let me know if you found the tutorial helpful and if you have any questions. I’ll be checking back and happy to clarify any confusion. This will eventually be a video tutorial, so your comments will be taken very seriously. Here’s a link to the final product.

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