The Art of Single Source Lighting

Can a scene be lit with just one lamp? It certainly can, and in fact some of cinema’s most stunning and iconic images have been achieved this way. A single source image can be realistic or stylised, flattering or scary, but is almost always arresting. Even if you decide the look of a single source is too extreme, and add more lamps, building the lighting around that one key source can still be a very useful approach.

Let’s consider some of the ways in which a single source can be used.

 

Front Light

Front light is not very common in cinematography because – and this will be especially true without any other sources – it produces a flat image. Often we think of front light as being devoid of depth, though in fact it does reveal depth because things closer to the camera (and therefore also closer to the light) are brighter, while distant backgrounds are darker. An example is the sequence from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in which the frontal spotlight and the resultant dark surroundings represent the protagonist’s memories being erased.

“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” – DP: Ellen Kuras ASC
“Out of the Past” – DP: Nicholas Musuraca ASC. This one’s a bit of a cheat because there appears to be a second light on the background.

More common is three-quarter front light, which gives some modelling on the face, and is consequently seen a lot in portraiture, both modern and classical.

Photo by Shane Francescut, www.theweeklyminute.wordpress.com
“Portrait of Doge Leornardo Loredan” – Giovanni Bellini (1501)

 

Side Light

Light from the side can be the most informative, revealing shape, texture and detail. As a single source, it produces incredible chiaroscuro – contrast between light and shade. This shot from the The Godfather is a great example.

“The Godfather” – DP: Gordon Willis ASC

Here is a more complex example from classical art. I saw this painting at the Guildhall recently and it inspired me to write this post. I love the way that the soft light comes in through an unseen doorway to the right, illuminating the wall and modelling each of the people differently according to the angle it reaches them at.

“The Reading of the Bible by the Rabbis” – Jean Jules Antoine Lecomte du Noüy (1882)

 

Toplight

Perhaps the most famous use of toplight is in The Godfather‘s opening scene, where the characters’ eye sockets are rendered black and hollow by the steep angle of the single source.

“The Godfather” – DP: Gordon Willis ASC

A ceiling lamp hanging over a table is one of the most frequently seen examples of single source top-lighting.

“Mud” – DP: Adam Stone

Often the table or things on it – papers, white tablecloths – will reflect back some of the toplight, filling in the shadows. Film Riot investigates the many variations of this set-up in their episode on single source lighting.

 

Backlight

There are many examples of scenes lit only from the back. It’s a beautiful look, creating mood and mystery, revealing form without details, reducing people to simulacra. The optional addition of smoke helps the light to wrap a little and lift the shadows.

“Blade Runner” – DP: Jordan Cronenweth ASC
“Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince” – DP: Bruno Delbonnel AFC, ASC
“The Man from London” – DP: Fred Kelemen
“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” – DP: Roger Deakins CBE, ASC, BSC
“The Social Network” – DP: Jeff Cronenweth ASC

It’s not uncommon for a DP to begin lighting by setting a backlight to give form and depth to the scene, then seeing if and where other sources are necessary, to illuminate faces and other important details.

 

OMNIDIRECTIONAL

Most film fixtures shed their illumination in broadly one direction, but of course most light sources in day-to-day life aren’t that discriminating, throwing rays all around them. In the form of practicals, such omnidirectional lights can create very interesting images, particularly when they are handheld.

“O Brother, Where Art Thou?” – DP: Roger Deakins CBE, ASC, BSC

When people are grouped around an omnidirectional source, each one is modelled differently. Characters in the foreground, between the lamp and the camera, become silhouettes, while those to the sides are rendered in chiaroscuro, and those in the background are lit frontally. This creates a wonderful feeling of dark-to-light/near-to-far depth and dimensionality. 17th century Dutch masters like Gerrit Dou and Gerard van Honthorst painted such effects beautifully.

“The Match-maker” – Gerard van Honthorst (1625)
“The Denial of St Peter” – Gerard van Honthorst (circa 1618-1620)

Having recently re-equipped myself with a 35mm SLR, I’m planning a photography project inspired by some of these candlelit scenes. Watch this space!

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The Art of Single Source Lighting

Lighting I Like: “Preacher”

Preacher is the subject of this week’s episode of Lighting I Like. I discuss two scenes, from the second episode of the second season, “Mumbai Sky Tower”, which demonstrate the over-the-top, comic-book style of the show.

Both seasons of Preacher can be seen on Amazon Video in the UK.

New episodes of Lighting I Like are released at 8pm BST every Wednesday. Next week I’ll look at two scenes from BroadchurchClick here to see the playlist of all Lighting I Like episodes.

Lighting I Like: “Preacher”

Lighting I Like: “The Man in the High Castle”

The second episode in the latest run of Lighting I Like is now out, looking at some of the cinematography in The Man in the High Castle.

Based on the Philip K. Dick novel, The Man in the High Castle is set in an alternate reality where Japan and Nazi Germany won the Second World War. Both seasons of the show are available on Amazon in the UK.

The scenes I focus on use powerful light sources coming in through windows and bouncing off furnishings to softly uplight the talent. For more on this technique, see my article on 5 Ways to Use Hard Light Through a Window.

New episodes of Lighting I Like are released at 8pm BST every Wednesday. Next week I’ll look at a scene from 12 Monkeys the series. Click here to see the playlist of all Lighting I Like episodes.

Lighting I Like: “The Man in the High Castle”

5 Ways to Use Hard Light Through a Window

The first step in lighting a daytime interior scene is almost always to blast a light through the window. Sometimes soft light is the right choice for this, but unless you’re on a big production you simply may not have the huge units and generators necessary to bounce light and still have a reasonable amount of it coming through the window. So in low budget land, hard light is usually the way we have to go.

Now, I used to think that this hard window light had to hit the talent’s faces, otherwise what’s the point? But eventually I learnt that there are many things you can do with this light….

 

1. Light the talent directly.

This is what I always used to do. The problem is that the light will be very harsh. If there is a good amount of natural light coming in through the window too, that might soften the look enough. If not, slipping a diffusion frame in front of the light will take the edge off the hardness. And it depends which way the talent is facing. If the hard light is backlighting or edging them, the effect might well be beautiful.

prison2
Ren: The Girl with the Mark, S1 E4, director: Kate Madison, DP: Neil Oseman
Hard side light from an Arri M18 outside the window, combined with a 4x4 kino from a 3/4 angle inside the room
The Gong Fu Connection, director: Ted Duran, DP: Neil Oseman

 

2. Light part of the talent directly.

This is a nice way to get the best of both worlds. You hit their clothes with the hard light, maybe a bit of their chin too; it creates contrast, brings out the texture in the costume, and adds dynamics because as the talent moves, the edge of the hard light will move around on them. To light the parts which the hard source doesn’t hit you can use bounce, or a kinoflo Window Wrap.

ren4-commander-house
Ren: The Girl with the Mark, S1 E4, director: Kate Madison, DP: Neil Oseman
Ren: The Girl with the Mark (Mythica Entertainment, dir. Kate Madison)
Ren: The Girl with the Mark, S1 E2, director: Kate Madison, DP: Neil Oseman

 

3. Light the floor.

Arrange the light so it hits the floor, creating a skip bounce. Unless the floor’s a very dark colour, the light will bounce back up and light your talent softly from below. While some people are afraid of the “monster” look of lighting from below, it can often produce a very beautiful look. It’s well worth exploring. Alternatively, bounce the hard window light off a wall to create a soft side light.

Manure, director: Michael Polish, DP: M. David Mullen
Manure, director: Michael Polish, DP: M. David Mullen
This photo from the set of Above the Clouds (director: Leon Chambers) shows a white sheet which I laid on the floor to skip-bounce the HMI outside the window. Some of its effects can be seen on Rupert's face (right)!
This photo from the set of Above the Clouds (director: Leon Chambers) shows a white sheet which I laid on the floor to skip-bounce the HMI outside the window.

 

4. Light the background.

A hot splash of “sunlight” on the background is a common way to add interest to a wide shot. It can show off the production design and the textures in it, or help frame the talent or separate them from the background.

The Crown, S1 E10 "Gloriana", dir.
The Crown, S1 E10 “Gloriana”, director: Philip Martin, DP: Ole Bratt Birkeland
My Utopia, director: Patrick Moreau, DP: Joyce Tsang
My Utopia, director: Patrick Moreau, DP: Joyce Tsang

 

5. Light nothing.

Sometimes the most effective way to use a shaft of light through a window is simply as background interest. Volumize the light using smoke, and it creates a nice bit of contrast and production value in the scene. Silhouetting characters in front of the beam can be very effective too. 

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Ren: The Girl with the Mark, S1 E4, director: Kate Madison, DP: Neil Oseman
Big Sur, director: Michael Polish, DP: M. David Mullen
Big Sur, director: Michael Polish, DP: M. David Mullen

 

Any that I’ve missed? What are your techniques for lighting through windows?

5 Ways to Use Hard Light Through a Window

Lighting Micro-sets

From time to time I help out my friend Kate Madison shooting show reels for actors. The fun and the challenge is in creating and lighting little micro-sets to capture angles that look like they might be lifted out of a scene from a much larger production, all with limited equipment.

lawyer-grade-moresat
Here’s an interesting shot from a recent showreel for Dana Hajaj. This was intended to resemble a Good Wife style legal drama, though actually the first reference that the lawyer’s office setting brought to my mind was Ally McBeal. I remember how they often had hot sunlight coming in through their office windows which would hit the talent from the chest down, while softer, indirect daylight would illuminate the faces.

Clearly this technique wasn’t exactly going to work for an MCU, but it did get me thinking about windows as two-in-one sources: a hard source which adds interest and ‘sheen’ to the image but is too harsh to hit faces with, and a soft sources for faces. Often cinematographers will use two different lights through the same window to achieve these two distinct effects. (I sometimes employ what I call a “Window Wrap” to this end.)

Now, the set for this showreel shot was just a red wall and sconce. (We tried a plant in the corner but couldn’t get it to work.) I wanted to suggest what the rest of the set might be, beyond the borders of this MCU, and simulating a window seemed like a natural choice. Furthermore, a window with Venetian blinds would help sell what was really a living room as a place of business. But this was not film noir; I didn’t want stripes of light on Dana’s face. Instead I used them to add interest to the wall.

Kate had a slatted-top stool in the hall which threw convincing “blinds” shadows when clamped to a C-stand in front of an 800W Arrilite. Ideally the shadows would have been sharper, but without a Dedo or a par this was the best I could do.

To get the maximum richness from the practical, I put a topper (black wrap clipped to the stool!) on the 800 to keep it off the sconce, and placed CTO inside the lampshade to warm up the fluorescent bulb.

To key Dana, I fired a 1K Arrilite into a 4’x4′ polyboard which was positioned next to the stool. Tungsten bounced off poly gives a beautiful soft, matt quality of light, and is a great way to key talent.

The backlight comes from a 1’x1′ LED panel set to about 4500K. What is the motivation for this source? North light coming from another window maybe? The great thing about micro-sets is there’s no wide shot so I don’t have to worry about that if I don’t want to! The motivation is that cold backlight looks good on black hair, and that’s that.

img_1344

As we prepared to roll, I wondered if I should increase the contrast more. I could have done this by (a) flagging the poly bounce to prevent it filling in the “blinds” shadows on the wall and (b) bringing in negative fill on the talent’s camera right side to kill the ambience. But I decided that more contrast was not appropriate for this kind of piece.

For another scene for Dana’s reel, we mocked up a remote Arabian campsite on Kate’s patio! Kate used a piece of fabric hung from a post and two light stands to representing the tent.

campsite-grade-moresat

I wanted to give the impression that if we cut to a wide shot – which of course we never do, but if we did – that it would show a vast landscape, perhaps a desert, all backlit by moonlight. On this hypothetical production, I would generate that moonlight with 18Ks on condor cranes, gelled with Steel Blue.

But on this tight shot I was able to achieve the same effect with two far smaller sources, both gelled with Steel Blue. (This is a blue with more green in it than CTB. It’s prettier and has connotations of many 80s and 90s thrillers and action movies that seemed to use copious amounts of this gel.) In the deep background is an LED panel, 3/4 backlighting a couple of blurry apple trees that could maybe play as vegetation around an oasis. Immediately behind the “tent” is a 40″ C-stand, top floor, with a 1K Arrilite on it. So close to the talent, the 1K comes down at a steep enough angle to imply moonlight, or an 18K on a condor, depending on how you want to look at it.

The flames from the fire pit weren’t doing much to light Dana, so I bounced another 1K off a gold reflector on the floor next to the fire. During takes I wiggled the reflector to add dynamics to the light.

To add a final touch of production value, I suggested a foreground practical. Kate found a candle lantern which we hung from a flag arm just in front of camera. Every frame of a Blockbuster movie is packed with details, so things like this help a lot to sell the scale.

img_1308
The 1K “moon” backlight is at top left. The gold reflector for the fire source is in the bottom centre, with the 1K bouncing into it visible two-thirds of the way down the right-hand edge of this image. The camera is just out of the bottom right corner of this frame. Not pictured is the LED background light, way back off left of this frame.

For more on shooting micro-sets, check out my blog from Above the Clouds, a feature that had several of them. Visit actorsatworkproductions.co.uk for showreel info.

Lighting Micro-sets