How to Light a Church

Roger Harding (left) and Jeremy Heynes in The Deaths of John Smith.
Roger Harding (left) and Jeremy Heynes in The Deaths of John Smith. A 1.2K HMI punches through the window on the right, while a fluorescent softbox illuiminates the arches on the left. Background light comes from two 500W halogen work-lights rigged to a dimmer, while fill (given that it was getting dark outside at this point) comes from a blue-gelled 1K Arrilite behind and to the left of camera.

This weekend shooting began on Roger Harding and Darren Scott’s feature-length comedy The Deaths of John Smith. As director of photography I was called on to light a beautiful rural church on a limited budget. Here are some tips for ecclesial cinematography:

  • Hire HMIs – powerful, daylight-balanced lamps. Without at least one you will never have enough light to illuminate anything but the tiniest of churches. As a backlight on a mezzanine level, a 2.5K HMI will illuminate most churches. Better still, put them outside the windows and create artificial sunbeams. (A blue-gelled blonde or redhead outside a stained glass window is pretty much useless; those windows cut out so much light.)
  • Use smoke. A £50 disco smoke machine is perfectly sufficient – use it to volumize the light and emphasise the depth and scale of the building. If you’re struggling to expose a bright enough image, smoke helps there too – because it catches the backlight and lightens up the shadows.
  • Candlelight is a good way to introduce colour contrast into your scene. Dedos are the best lamps to fake candelight with, as they can produce a small circular pool of light. Failing that, any tungsten source will do, ideally rigged to a dimmer board for a bit of flickering.
  • Assuming you’ve got your HMIs punching directly in through all the windows on one side of your church (that’s the side the “sun” is on), you now need soft light coming in through the opposite windows. Ideally these would be larger HMIs playing off bounce boards, but you might get away with soft boxes or bounced tungsten sources (gelled blue, of course) hidden behind pillars inside the building.
  • Sellotape together some old bits of coloured gel and rig them in front of a fresnel to simulate daylight through a stained glass window. Note that this doesn’t really work with unfocused lamps like redheads.
Left to right: David Draper, Bryan Ferriman and Adrian Moore.
Left to right: David Draper, Bryan Ferriman and Adrian Moore. Our single HMI shines through the lefthand window, suitably volumized with smoke, leaving natural light to deal with the other two. A blue-gelled 1K Arrilite off to the right of frame creates the edge-light on the righthand side of each character. An existing halogen spotlight over the organ was gelled with half CTB to cool it down a little. I chose to leave the nearside of the characters dark to contrast the foreground with the brighter background.

On The Deaths of John Smith I only had access to one HMI, so for every shot I needed to carefully choose which window to put it outside of for the maximum impact. I relied on natural light as well as blue-gelled redheads and fluorescent softboxes just out of frame for fill light. Nonetheless, I’m very pleased with the results. Next weekend we have to repeat the performance with a large congregation….

All images copyright 2013 Two Hats Films. Visit the Facebook page or the official website for more info on The Deaths of John Smith.

Here the "sun" (HMI) is outside of the lefthand background window.
Here the “sun” (HMI) is outside of the lefthand background window, but I couldn’t resist cheating a little and pushing a 1K Arrilite through a nice yellow stained glass window in the top centre background. Additional backlight comes from a blue-gelled Arrilite off frame right, while a softbox behind and to the left of camera illuminates the actor’s face.
How to Light a Church