5 Lighting Tips from Classic Art

A few weeks ago I discussed compositional techniques which we can learn from the work of JMW Turner. This time I’m looking at the use of light, and I’m broadening the scope to cover a few other classical artists whose works have caught my eye at galleries lately.

Without artificial illumination, these old masters had to make the most of the light God gave them. Here are five examples of their techniques which we can trace directly forward to cinematographic techniques of today.

 

Cross-light

“Mornington Crescent Nude” (circa 1907) – Walter Richard Sickert

Decades before DPs started encouraging directors to shoot interior scenes towards windows to achieve the most interesting modelling, Sickert had the same idea. See how the light from the window in the background throws the model’s body into relief, giving it form and dimension? Cross-light is commonly used today in commercials for sport and fitness products, to emphasise muscle tone.

See also: Lighting Techniques #6: Cross-light

 

Background strokes

“Tancred’s Servant Presenting the Heart of Guiscard in a Golden Cup to Guismond” (circa 1675) – Adriaen van der Werff

What caught my eye about this painting was the slash of light on the background wall in the top left corner. It may seem trivial, but a little stroke of background light like this can really elevate the quality of a shot. Here it anchors the corner of the composition and gives us a hint of the room’s decor, adding interest to what would otherwise be a black void behind Guismond.

While lighting the subject of the shot is clearly a DP’s priority, it’s important to find time to paint in the surroundings even if they’re in the deep background or extreme foreground.

“Drive” (DP: Newton Thomas Sigel)

See also: 5 Ways to Use Hard Light Through a Window

 

Haze

“Chloe Idille” (1811) – Salomon Gessner & Carl Wilhelm Kolbe

This monochrome etching has a tremendous feeling of depth, and it is achieved purely through contrast. The further away an object is, the more air there is between that object and your eye. Since air isn’t 100% transparent, that distant object appears lighter and lower-contrast than closer objects. Gessner and Kolbe capture this effect beautifully here.

Many cinematographers today use hazers to create or enhance this atmospheric effect, even for interiors. In the days of miniature effects, smoke was often used to create atmospheric haze and increase the feeling of scale. On Blade Runner, for example, Douglas Trumbull’s VFX crew sealed the motion control stage and used infra-red sensors linked to hazers to automatically keep the smoke level constant during the long-exposure passes over the futuristic cityscape.

“Blade Runner” (DP: Jordan Cronenweth)

See also: Depth Cues in Cinematography

 

Golden hour

“Abingdon” (1806) – Joseph Mallord William Turner

Painters figured out centuries ago that the most beautiful light is found at the beginning and end of the day. It’s partly due to the cross-light effect (see above) of the lower sun, and partly due to the beautiful orange colour caused by the greater amount of atmosphere the sun’s rays must pass through. To shoot the perfect sunset, you’ll need patience, and a sun-tracker app or at least a compass. Ensure the schedule permits you to try again another day if clouds spoil the view.

“Raiders of the Lost Ark” (DP: Douglas Slocombe)

See also: Sun Paths

 

Wet-Downs

“The Boulevard Montmartre” (1897) – Camille Pissarro

This is the only night image in a series of impressionist oil paintings which Pissarro executed from a hotel window overlooking the Boulevard Montmartre. What makes it particularly beautiful is the wet street, turning what might otherwise have been a dull grey central swathe of the image into an arena of alternately shadowy and glittering reflections.

Cinematographers shooting night exteriors on streets will often have the tarmac hosed down for four reasons: (1) as already noted, the beauty of the reflections; (2) the deeper blacks and increased contrast; (3) the extra exposure gained by the light sources bouncing off the water; and (4) avoidance of continuity problems if it rains.

A scene from “Terminator 2” (DP: Adam Greenberg) on a street that’s been wetted down

See also: 7 Considerations for Night Shooting

5 Lighting Tips from Classic Art

Crossing Paths: Day Exterior

Michelle Darkin Price and Phil Molloy in Crossing Paths (C) 2015 B Squared Productions
Michelle Darkin Price and Phil Molloy in Crossing Paths (C) 2015 B Squared Productions

The sun is an awesome light source, but you’re not alone as a DP if you sometimes feel it’s the enemy. Shooting Ben Bloore’s Crossing Paths at the weekend, I was very lucky to be met with a perfect blue sky, but even so there was work to do in maintaining and sculpting the light.

The first step on the road to succesfully photographing day exterior scenes is choosing the right location. Crossing Paths is mostly about two characters sitting on a park bench. It needed to look serene and beautiful – which means backlight.

The initial location had an east-facing bench, so I asked for the scene to be scheduled in the evening. That way the characters would be backlit by the sun as it set in the west.

Hard reflector
Hard reflector

The location was later changed to Belper River Gardens (where, three years earlier, I had shot scenes from Stop/Eject). The new bench faced west, which meant shooting in the morning so it would be backlit from the east.

In a rare instance of nature co-operating, the sun blazed out over the trees at about 8am and perfectly backlit the actors as we set up for the master shot. I used an 8’x4′ poly to bounce the light back and fill in their faces.

As we moved into the coverage, a very tall tree started to block some of the sunlight. This was where our hard reflector came in. This is a 3’x3′ silver board mounted in a yoke so that it can easily be panned and tilted.

Col set up this reflector in a patch of sunlight, ricocheting it onto the back of the actors’ heads, maintaining the look of the master shot.

Col adjusts the hard reflector to backlight the talent.
Col adjust the hard reflector to backlight the talent.

Later one of the characters stands up and looks down on the bench. We needed to shoot his CU for this moment without him squinting into the sun, and without harsh shadows on his face. Cue the next tool in our sun control arsenal: the silk. Stretched across a 6’x6′ butterfly frame, the silk acted like a cloud and softened the sunlight passing through it.

Col and production assistant Andrew position the silk.
Col and production assistant Andrew position the silk.
The silk in action on Phil
The silk in action on Phil. (C) 2015 B Squared Productions

You need to think carefully about what order to do your coverage in with natural light, particularly if the day is as sunny as this one was. I asked to leave the shots looking south last, so that the sun would have moved round to backlight this angle.

This south-facing shot was left until around midday in order to have it backlit. (C) 2015 B Squared Productions
This south-facing shot was left until around midday in order to have it backlit. (C) 2015 B Squared Productions

What if it had been an overcast day? Well, it wouldn’t have looked as good, but we were tooled up for that eventuality too. We had an ArriMax M18 which could have backlit the actors in all but the widest shots (for which we would have had to wait for a break in the clouds) and a 4’x4′ floppy for negative fill if the light was too flat. More on those some other time.

Related posts:
Lighting ‘3 Blind Mice’ – using positive and negative fill and artificial backlight for day exterior scenes
Sun Paths – choosing the right locations for The Gong Fu Conection
Moulding Natural Light – shooting towards the sun and modifying sunlight

Crossing Paths is a B Squared production (C) 2015. Find out more at facebook.com/Crossing-Paths-Short-Film-697385557065699/timeline/

Crossing Paths: Day Exterior