Good lighting can boost the production values of a film tremendously, making the difference between an amateur and a professional-looking piece. For filmmakers early in their careers, however, the equipment typically used to achieve these results can be prohibitively expensive. Far from the Hollywood productions attended by trucks full of lights, a micro-budget film may be unable to rent even a single HMI. Do not despair though, as there are ways to light scenes well without breaking the bank. Here are my top six tips for lighting on the cheap.
1. Make the most of natural light
The hardest shots to light without the proper equipment are wide shots. Where a fully-budgeted production would rig Maxi Brutes on cherry-pickers, or pound HMIs through windows, a filmmaker of limited means simply won’t have access to the raw power of such fixtures. Instead, plan your day carefully to capture the wide shots at the time when natural light gives you the most assistance. For a day interior, this means shooting when the sun is on the correct side of the building.
There are a plethora of LED fixtures on the market, designed for all kinds of applications, some of them very reasonably priced. It might be tempting to purchase some of these to provide your primary illumination, but I advise against it. Cheap LED units (and fluorescents) have a terrible Colour Rendering Index (CRI), making for unnatural and unappealing skintones. Such units are therefore best restricted to backgrounds, accent lighting and “specials”. For example, I purchased a little LED camping light from a charity shop for about £2, and I often use it to create the blue glow from computer screens or hang it from the ceiling to produce a hint of hair-light.
By far the best solution for a high output, high CRI, low cost key is a halogen floodlight; 500W models are available for as little as £5. Their chief disadvantage is the lack of barn doors, making the light hard to control, though if you can stretch to a roll of black wrap you can fashion a kind of snoot. Alternatively, consider investing in a secondhand tungsten movie fixture. With many people switching to LEDs, there are plenty of old tungsten units out there. Try to get a reputable brand like Arri or Ianiro, as some of the unbranded units available on Ebay are poorly wired and can be unsafe.
Flooding a halogen light onto a scene is never going to look good, but then the same is often true of dedicated movie fixtures. Instead it’s more how you modify the light that creates the nuanced, professional look. Improvise flags from pieces of cardboard to stop the light spilling into unwanted places – but be VERY careful how close you put them to a tungsten or halogen source, as these get extremely hot. For example, when shooting indoors, flag light off the background wall (especially if it’s white or cream) to help your subject stand out.
Almost all cinematographers today prefer the subtlety of soft light to the harshness of hard light. You can achieve this by bouncing your fixture off a wall or ceiling, or a sheet of polystyrene or card. Or you could hang a white bedsheet or a shower curtain in front of the light as diffusion, but again be sure to leave a safe distance between them. Professional collapsible reflectors are available very cheaply online, and can be used in multiple ways to diffuse or reflect light.
Finally, don’t be afraid to use existing practical lighting in your scene. Turning on the main overhead light usually kills the mood, but sometimes it can be useful. You can generate more contrast and shape by covering up the top of the lampshade, thus preventing ceiling bounce, or conversely use the ceiling bounce to give some ambient top-light and cover the bottom of the lampshade to prevent a harsh hotspot underneath it. Table lamps and under-cupboard kitchen lights can add a lot of interest and production value to your backgrounds. If possible, swap out LED or fluorescent bulbs for conventional tungsten ones for a more attractive colour and to eliminate potential flickering on camera.
One of the things which I believe separates a good director of photography from a bad one is preparation. On a big production you may have weeks of paid, full-time prep, but on a micro-budget movie you may be lucky to have a single meeting before the shoot. In the latter case you’ll have to use your initiative, put in the time for free, and use Skype a lot, but either way the quality of the prep can make or break the production.
Here are ten things a DP should do to set themselves up for success before the camera rolls. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, rather it’s a run-down of the things which I have found to bear most fruit later on in the production.
1. Get inside the director’s head.
Some directors will come to you with a beautiful set of storyboards, concept art and reference images, but many won’t. Many will simply have an idea in their head of how they want it to look, and it’s your job to find out what that vision is. Often this will happen before full-time prep begins. It will consist of watching movies together, pouring over books of photos, sharing Pinterest boards or Dropboxes full of images, all the while discussing what they do and don’t like. The aim is to get such a clear idea of their vision that when you set up a shot you’ll deliver the mood they’re looking for first time.
2. Work with the art department.
The next person to get in sync with is the production designer. This is an incredibly important and symbiotic relationship; you have the power to completely destroy each others’ work, or to make each other look like geniuses! Two things you should talk about early on with the designer are the colour palette of the film (and any palettes specific to certain locations, plot threads or characters) and the aspect ratio: does the shape of the sets being designed fit the shape of the frame you’re planning to compose? Next you’ll want to discuss each set and the position of windows and practicals within it, to ensure that you’ll be able to get the lighting angles you need. For their part, the designer will want to quiz you on where the key camera positions will be, and the rough lens lengths you’ll be using, so they know where to put in the most detail and the important bits of dressing.
3. Get to know the needs of the other H.o.D.s.
Although the production designer is the most important head of department for a DP to work with, they are by no means the only one. The visual effects supervisor is increasingly a key collaborator; you should discuss the look you’re going for and how that will integrate with the VFX, and whether plates need to be shot at a higher resolution, in RAW, or any other technical requirements. You should familiarise yourself with the costume designs and discuss how those will integrate with the overall look. Similarly the make-up department will want to talk about about lens filtration, coloured lighting and anything else that may affect how their work looks. The line producer is a crucial person to get on the good side of. Sooner or later you’ll have to ask them for something expensive and unexpected, and they’re much more likely to say yes if you have tried to help them earlier on, by reducing your equipment list for example, or by hiring local camera assistants to save on accommodation costs.
When you start to scout the locations, you’ll want to pay careful attention to the direction of the sun. Which windows will it come through as it moves around over the course of the day? Are those trees or buildings likely to shadow that park bench where the characters will be sitting? With a bit of experience – and a compass, if it’s cloudy – you can estimate this, or use apps like Sun Tracker and Helios which are designed for exactly this purpose. For interiors, windows that never get direct sunlight are most convenient, allowing you to light them artificially, and thus constantly, without having to flag the real sun. For exteriors, shooting into the sun is generally most desirable, for the beauty of the backlight and the softness of the reflected fill. Of course, there will always be compromises with the other demands of the production.
Each director has a different process, but often they will draft a shot list on their own before passing it to you for feedback. There are many things for a DP to consider when going through this list. Do the shots reflect the style and visual grammar you both discussed earlier? (If not, has the director had a change of heart, or have they simply forgotten? Directors have a lot to think about!) Do the shots provide enough coverage for the editor? Are there too many shots to realistically accomplish on schedule? (Very often there are!) What grip equipment will the camera movements require? Are any special lenses or filters required, e.g. a macro lens for an extreme close-up of an eye?
6. Shoot tests.
Testing is a crucial part of the prep for both technical and creative reasons. Usually you will want to test a few different cameras and lens sets, to see which best serve the story. For example, a period film lit with a lot of genuine candlelight may work best on a sensitive camera like the Panasonic Varicam combined with soft fall-off lenses like Cooke S4s, while a sci-fi thriller might be suited to a Red or Alexa and a set of anamorphics for those classic flares. Until you’ve tested them and compared the images side by side though, you can’t be sure, and neither can the director and producers. Often costume and make-up tests will be requested, which may be combined with the camera tests to see how the different sensors render them, or maybe done separately once the camera kit is locked down. These tests are also a great opportunity for the DP to demonstrate for the director the type of lighting you plan to use to, and to make sure you really are on the same page. Ideally a DIT (digital imaging technician) will be available to grade the test footage, developing LUTs (look-up tables) if required, and providing proof of concept for the finished look of the movie.
Once the 1st AD has drafted the shooting schedule, they will show it to the DP for feedback. When determining how much can be done in a day, the 1st AD is thinking of the script page count, and they may not have seen a shot list at this point. Along with the director, the DP must bring any concerns they have about the schedule to the 1st AD in prep, or forever hold your peace! Is there enough time to get those tricky camera moves you’ve planned? Has the re-light time for the reverse been factored in? Have things been arranged in a logical order for lighting, or will things have to be torn down and put back up again later? Does the schedule permit things to be shot at the best time of day for light? Are the night scenes actually scheduled at night or will the windows have to be blacked out? Are there critical close-ups towards the end of the schedule, when the cast will be tired and no longer look their best?
However good-looking the talent may be, they will always look better under certain types of lighting than others. Often you will figure out what suits each actor after a week or so of shooting, but ideally you want to find out before principal photography begins. You can do this during testing, if the cast are available and you have enough time – trying out different key angles, fill levels, backlight and lenses to see what works best for their individual faces. Apart from anything else, this is a great way to establish trust with the cast right from the start, assuring them that they are in safe hands. If testing isn’t possible, watch some of their previous work, looking carefully at how they have been photographed.
9. Mark up your script.
There’s no point in having lots of great ideas in preproduction if you forget them when you’re on set. Everyone has a different system, but you may wish to mark up your script and/or shot list. This could include using coloured highlighters to differentiate day and night scenes at a glance, underlining any references to mood or camera angles in the stage directions, or indicating beats in the development of the story or characters which need to be reflected in how things are lit or shot.
10. Plan your lighting.
Everyone likes to get rolling as soon as possible after call time, and a big factor in achieving this is how quickly you can light. Ideally you will have planned the broad strokes of the lighting in preproduction, and communicated that plan to the gaffer. Budget permitting, the lighting crew can even pre-rig the set so that only tweaking is required when the whole unit arrives. In this case you’ll need to have been very clear and specific about what you want set up and where, drawing diagrams or approving those which the gaffer has drawn up. Often you’ll need to know the rough blocking of the scene before you can plan the lighting, so you should make sure the director indicates their intentions for this during scouts.
Every film is different, but follow the steps above and you’ll be well on your way to an efficient and productive shoot in 2018. Happy new year!
The penultimate episode of Lighting I Like goes back to 2013 and the very first episode of the critically-acclaimed ITV crime drama Broadchurch. The scene features the parents of a murdered schoolboy trying to deal with their grief as the sun glares intrusively through the window.
Yesterday I took a trip to The Tate Britain to see what I could learn about light and composition from the world of traditional art. My background is more technical than fine art, so this world is quite new to me. Within quarter of an hour of arriving, I had fallen in love with the work of JMW Turner. The way this man captured the natural moods of light and weather is breathtaking.
Here are five of Turner’s techniques for creating beautiful images which we can apply to cinematography.
1. Negative space
One of the most powerful things you can do with an area of the frame is to let it go black. A great example is Bill Pope’s work on The Matrix. But 200 years before that, Turner was embracing the darkness, emphasising those areas in the light, and allowing the viewer’s imagination to fill in the gaps.
Any artist creating a 2D image strives to give the impression of depth and dimensionality. There are a number of techniques that can be used to achieve this, but one which Turner uses repeatedly is layering. See how the paintings below delineate foreground (light), midground (dark) and background (light again). The midgrounds sink into shadow, becoming negative space, reinforcing the link and relationship between the foregrounds and backgrounds. At the same time, the foreground figures stand out clearly and eye-catchingly against the shade behind them.
Although most images we see are framed, be it by a gilt picture frame or by the black edges of a phone screen, there is something aesthetically pleasing about adding a second frame within the image itself. An extreme example would be shooting through a window, framing the image on all four sides, but more commonly we frame two or three sides of the image. Turner frequently does this using trees, buildings and shadowy ground.
4. Dynamic Composition
The composition of the two paintings below fascinates me. Both seem to be two images in one: a deep view of a settlement on the left, and a tapering tunnel perspective on the right. As I studied them, I found my eyes “panning” from one side to the other. As cinematographers, we can use actual camera movement to create a dynamic shot, but we should not forget Turner’s lesson here, that there can also be dynamism in static frames.
5. Colour Contrast
Apart from stunningly demonstrating Turner’s power to create mood and atmosphere (a core skill for any DP), the two paintings below are great examples of warm/cool colour contrast. The yellows, oranges and reds of fire and sunset are juxtaposed with the blues of the sky. The result is pictures that really “pop”, arresting the viewer’s attention. A modern cinematographer can readily achieve a similar effect by playing natural daylight, and daylight sources like HMIs and Kinos, against practicals and other tungsten sources.
As I dig deeper into the craft of cinematography I feel the need to consume more references and inspiration than cinema itself can provide. To that end, I took a trip this week to the National Portrait Gallery in Trafalgar Square to see a little of how light has been used in painting and photography over the last few centuries.
The light in many of the portraits is strikingly similar, with the subjects positioned near an unseen window in such a way as to light their up-side, the side of their face closest to the artist or viewer. This is known as a broad key, and in modern cinematography you don’t see it very often; a short key (‘lighting the down-side’) is almost universally favoured. The only convincing explanation I can offer for this is changing fashions.
The paintings that caught my eye were the ones that try something a little different with their lighting. I found it an interesting exercise to work out where the natural light was coming from and how I would recreate it with modern equipment. Here are three of my favourites…
Frederick, Duke of York and Albany by Sir David Wilkie (1823)
Rather than using the daylight to illuminate his subject’s face, Wilkie seats the duke with his back to the window, which cross-lights his sword nicely. The paper in his hand acts as a bounce board, throwing light back onto his face and shirt buttons. It’s great fun doing this in cinematography – firing a hot source in through a window and then seeing it bounce unpredictably off the set and costumes. If I was recreating this painting, the source might be a 6K HMI through a diffusion frame.
Thomas Henry Huxley by John Collier (1883)
I love how the top-light in this painting throws Huxley’s eye sockets into shadow, making him resemble the skull he’s holding. I’m guessing Collier didn’t pitch the portrait that way though! I might recreate this using a lightly diffused Joker Bug rigged to the ceiling, or a Source 4 Leiko fired up into an overhead bounce board.
The Mission of Mercy: Florence Nightingale Receiving the Wounded at Scutari by Jerry Barrett (1857)
The key light here is coming from the left – perhaps a 12K through a 12×12 full grid – but there’s a hotter shaft picking out Flo in the centre. For that I might use a 2.5K just out of frame, flagged to hit only her. At her feet there would have to be a silver reflector to kick that up-light onto the face of the kneeling woman. The characters on the right of frame are edged quite strongly by the light from the archway. (We know from looking at the shadows on the background buildings that it can’t be direct sunlight, so there must be a window or a very bright wall which that edge light is bouncing off.) I would use an 8×4 matte silver bounce board or maybe even a mirror board to recreate that.
That’s all for now, but look out for more art posts in the near future.
Yesterday some of the crew started the long drive up to Skye, but for a lucky few – me, MUA Helen and actors Naomi and Andy – our journey starts today with a flight from Luton to Inverness. From there it’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive across the Highlands to the Kyle of Kochalsh, where Gary is waiting for us with his motorhome and the crafty table all set up. Soon afterwards the vans arrive, and the Yellow Peril. From 4pm we are shooting on a little ferry, big enough to hold three or four cars, as it pootles back and forth, back and forth between Skye and the mainland. It is, I think, the most stunning location I have ever shot in. The mountains tower over us from either side of the water, which sparkles in the sun. Although the light turns cloudy pretty quickly, the scene looks epic. All I do is add the usual dashboard LEDs in the picture car, and some sky bounce from Celotex, and darken the skies a little with an ND grad.
Day 19 / Wednesday
For some reason there’s no water at the cottage where many of us are staying, so it’s a slightly whiffy cast and crew that rocks up in another stunning location this morning. In common with the whole shoot to date, the weather – and therefore the light – is very changeable. We have to roll between the squalls that drift across the valley. An interesting continuity issue arises with the mountains in the background of shot: the light on them keeps changing as clouds move across them. The weather here really is something else; this morning we saw a rainbow so close and so low to the ground that it felt like we could have walked over and touched it.
In the afternoon we’re at yet another stunning location, a bench overlooking a bay. For once the light is fairly constant and sunny, which gives us lovely sparkles in the sea. Again I frame the master like the painting in the Turner, with the horizon bang on the vertical centre of frame: clouds above, landscape and characters below. When we flip around to shoot the singles, the light is hard on the actors’ faces, but frontal, which at least is the most flattering kind of hard light. And it fits well with the dialogue, which references it being sunny, so it wouldn’t make sense to put a diffusion frame up. All I do is have runner Jacob stand just out of frame with some poly, which lifts the shadows a little and makes sure we see into Naomi’s eyes when she looks away from the sun.
Day 20 / Thursday
Various small driving scenes to start with. Rupert and Max reconfigure the camera as per our test of week 2, and I climb into the Yellow Peril’s modest rear seat to capture the action. I black out the rear window to get a classic dark-to-light depth effect: underexposed backs of seats in the foreground, the actors (including Naomi’s reflection in the rear view mirror) correctly exposed in the midground, and the view through the windscreen slightly overexposed in the background.
We also shoot exterior up-and-pass shots of the car amidst the spectacular scenery, before crossing the Skye Bridge to record a scene in a mainland village. Here we’re shooting dusk-for-night, so I set the white balance to 3,200K and heavily grad the sky. For shots inside the car, I plaster multiple Litepads over the windscreen, gelled with half CTO. The intention was for these to represent the car’s courtesy light, but with a fair amount of daylight coming into the vehicle the effect is more subtle, serving only to warm up what would otherwise be very cold skin-tones at 3,200K.
On the final set-up, appropriately enough, a car with clouds painted on it happens to drive by. And with that, principal photography is wrapped. There is a fifth week to do at some point, perhaps September, when a certain critical role has been cast, but for now the shoot is over. Andy, Naomi, Helen and I will meander back to Inverness tomorrow, while the rest of the crew drive south. I’ve had a great time, and I look forward to seeing a rough cut and shooting the remaining scenes later in the year.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is the final instalment looking back at the whirlwind shoot I DPed in Japan at the start of this month. Part 1 looked at the equipment package, Part 2 covered an interior scene, and Part 3 covered night exteriors.
By the time we wrapped those night exteriors it was about 4:30am and starting to get light. After some well-earned sleep, we reconvened at 3pm to shoot the daylight exterior scene in front of Himeji Castle – featured in You Only Live Twice as a Ninja training school.
The first shot had to start with a picture postcard composition of the castle and a martial artist, then pan to reveal Daisy and a crowd watching her, while still keeping the castle in. This took some considerable time to set up, carefully placing all the extras. To balance the opening composition, I framed it with a tree in the foreground. This is the kind of thing you have to look out for as cinematographer, because simply shooting your cast in front of a landmark can result in a very flat image if there aren’t other elements in the frame to add depth.
After watching the initial blocking, I requested that everything be flopped in order to place Sydney in direct sunlight and Daisy in backlight. I knew that the backlight would look fantastic on Daisy’s hair – especially as the sun was very low by the time we got to her CU – and we could fill in her face with flattering bounce from a big white sign that the ever-resourceful Keisuke had brought along.
Masculine facial features tend to look better in harder, direct light, which is why I was happy to face Sydney into the sun. (There’s more to it than that though, and I’ll be debating the ethics of lighting men and women differently in an upcoming post.) However, for the first take of Sydney’s CU, worried about shine and squinting, I chickened out of the hardlight and put up a sheet of Full Frost to soften it. For the second take I got rid of it, which made for better lighting continuity with the wider shots, but left Sydney looking very shiny. There’s only so much powder can do when someone’s looking straight into the setting sun. I’ll be interested to see which one Devon prefers in the edit, although his decision will likely be based on performance rather than light and shine! A good colourist can probably reduce the shine anyway. If only I’d had 1/4 or 1/2 Frost to get the best of both worlds.
Judging when to shoot the various angles in your scene is an important part of a DP’s job for day exterior work, and especially so at Golden Hour. Devon wanted to shoot Sydney’s CU before Daisy’s, his logic being that if we lost the sun before we shot Daisy then it wouldn’t matter because her face was in shadow anyway. Knowing that I was probably going to diffuse Sydney’s light, I felt the greater priority was capturing the lovely backlight on Daisy, and so asked to shoot her first.
Anyway, when the sun went down, that was a wrap for the brief but intense Japan shoot. Many thanks to Devon and co for bringing me along, and to the people of Himeji for welcoming us so warmly.
Here’s a little video blog about the challenges of shooting on the amazing medieval village set that Chris Dane and others have built for Ren.
I’ve been using the Artemis app a lot to test out lens choices and compositions for “seeing off the set” issues. That way if I’m set up for a shot and we’re waiting on costume or an actor, I can preview the next shot on Artemis and warn Chris that he’ll need to move a wall to hide the car park.