Before You Light...
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Lighting in the Real World

Very often you will be required to walk into a location that you havent seen, to light & shoot video of a subject you've never met. Often you will have a limited time to set up & light before the subject comes in. Then you will have only a few moments to tweak the lighting to the particulars of the subject before starting to roll. Almost always, you will have less time to pack up & get out than you had to unpack and set up.

So the question becomes how to maximize efficiency in your ability to give the client what they are looking for, and how to minimize unforseen problems. The first thing to do is learn as much as possible before walking in the door, finding out what the 'givens' are - the things you can't, or aren't likely to, change.

Ask questions about the subject - he or she, age, complexion, hair color, bald, glasses, etc. Will they be seated for an interview or walking around the room while talking, etc.

In fact find out as much as you can about the intended shots and their context to any larger production they may be destined for.

Then ask questions about the physical location - the size of the room, how many AC sockets & their fuse or circuit breakdown, windows, curtains, sunlight in the room at the chosen time of the shoot, what is the electric light like in there now - tungsten or fluorescent, what furniture is in there, color & reflectiveness of walls, how high are ceilings, etc.

From this you can begin to develop a mental plan for the shoot. Plans are made to be changed, so dont pour them in concrete, but at least you will have a starting point. With experience, you can show up with 75% of your decisions already made, and adapt quickly for the other 25%.

Considerations in Assessing a Location:

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If possible spread your lights among several circuits, and find out what you can about what else is on those circuits. Blowing the wrong circuit breaker could mean someone (your client) losing a lot of work when their personal computer or their entire network suddenly goes down. Always bring plenty of heavy duty extension cords.

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Things about AC that will Catch You

-Unless you know otherwise, assume all the outlets on a wall are on the same circuit.

-An inviting empty outlet in your room might be connected to a fully loaded outlet on the other side of the wall.

-A series of office cubicles may all be daisy-chained into a single circuit that might already be very near its capacity.

-Things that run intermittently. Everything will be running fine for awhile and then a refrigerator kicks in applying the final straw to the fully loaded circuit breaker.

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Overhead Lighting

Beside leaving them on and working with the ambient light, options are; switching them off in whole or in part, unscrewing the bulbs, replacing them with smaller bulbs, or treating them by gelling or completely blocking them. Time and budget will likely determine your approach.

Tip: If you have no control over overhead lighting (ex - a large office with a full ceiling of fluorescents on a timer), try over lighting your subject a little more wattage than usual. You will then need to compensate by closing down your lens exposure, but when you have adjusted it for your subject the background of the shot will look dimmed & de-emphasized. Like most lighting trickery, this is usually best done with a delicate touch but is also helpful when you want the 'working at the desk late at night look.'

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The Shooting Space

-Rearrange or remove furniture if it will help improve the shot. There is often an extra chair or two that can be taken out.

-Don't place your subject flat against a wall. At least try to move them away from it as much as possible. Also try to position the camera to have the wall angle away from your subject. You have a better chance of the light falling off in intensity and giving a little more room for the shadows to drop out of the image frame.

-Bring the person out from behind the desk or table. Moving them forward can help minimize shadows on the walls and give a small room the appearance of more depth. (You, however, may not be very comfortable jammed tight in the opposite corner with your camera).

-In combination with this; try placing the Key light on the short side (the side of the subject angled away from the camera), if they are facing off camera. Besides having a slimming effect on your subject, it can allow the strongest shadow (from the Key) to fall away from the wall.

- Place the camera outside the room, or even across the hall if you have to and shoot thru the door. This also allows you to use a more telephoto part of your zoom lens, giving a more formal portrait style look to the image.

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When on a low budget with a time crunch, we usually end up just closing off windows because of daylights higher levels and color mismatch. Consider leaving blinds just a bit open to show a little depth and life in the window. Sometimes fully reversing them by pointing the inner edges up helps. Depending on the type of sky or time of day, you can think about converting your tungsten lights to daylight, but remember that you will lose much of the light's output in the process of adding correction filters. Your portable light will be weak against raw sunlight streaming in a window, however it may still be useful as an edge or hair light if you use the light from the window as your main source. Using raw daylight is dangerous because you can set up your shot with the sunlight in perfect position, and by the time you shoot, the sunlight may have moved to an unusable position, or that stray cloud has blocked it & your room has gone dark.

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Shot Design

Ask about other areas to shoot in. See what your options are. Explore several angles in each setting. Often simply adding an interesting item in the background can make a difference. Advise your subjects against wearing pure white clothing. Explain that you are not disparaging their fashion sense, but dealing with the limited contrast range of your camera to help them look better.

© 2008 Lowel-Light Mfg. All Rights Reserved.