Today's video cameras are able to record useable images with unbelievably
small amounts of available light. Some videographers interpret the outstanding
low-light performance of their equipment to mean that supplemental lighting
is unnecessary. Sadly, this interpretation views lighting only as a
source of illumination, and so overlooks the true value of light: its
The most basic use of lighting is to raise the overall light level to
an intensity compatible with equipment and depth of field requirements.
But the real usefulness of lighting lies in its ability to give images
depth and dimension. Light is a powerful creative tool that affects
mood, style and ambience. It can distinguish subjects from their background,
and help to focus a viewer's attention. Light can fill in harsh shadows,
accent highlights and brighten colors. Lighting used improperly can
be offensive but light mastered and correctly applied is an indispensable
and personalized tool of the skilled videographer.
This tutorial attempts to give the reader an appreciation for the creative
power of lighting as well as the information necessary to select lighting
equipment for their application. For purposes of simplicity we will
focus on the two main lighting styles employed for video production,
On-Camera lighting and Studio/Location lighting.
The term "Studio" generally indicates a light fixture which,
because of its physical characteristics such as size and weight, is
best used in a permanent environment. The term "Location"
indicates lights which are suitable for transport to a project site.
In reality, many lighting systems cross between these categories. Often
the strength of a videographer and the size of their vehicle will determine
whether a light remains in the studio or finds itself on location. In
any event, the rest of this section refers to both styles simply as
- Lamp Types for Video
Looking like a household light bulb on steroids, this inexpensive brute
produces a remarkably smooth and pleasant light. Lamp life is relatively
short but is offset by the low cost of lamps. Fixtures using photoflood
lamps provide excellent results in basic, beginning light setups.
Quartz Lamps: Quartz
lamps are by far the most common lamps used in video production. Their
small size and high efficiency allow the light fixture to be considerably
smaller than fixtures using the photoflood above. Fixtures using quartz
lamps run the gamut from consumer to broadcast applications.
Fluorescent Lamps: Although ambient light from conventional fluorescents
has long been the bane of videographers, fixtures using special ballasts
and tubes are now able to yield soft light and impressive color rendering.
Fluorescent fixtures are finding increased use in television studios
where their efficiency and low heat are advantageous.
HMI Lights: HMI lights emit intense light at daylight color temperature.
They are far more efficient than tungsten lamps and they generate less
heat. Their main disadvantage is the cost of the lamp and high-voltage
supply. HMI lamps are used mainly in fixtures designed for film and
television production especially in daylight environments.
- Feature Styles
Floodlights / "SCOOP" Fixtures: The simplest and least expensive
of all fixtures is the open face floodlight, sometimes called a "Scoop".
Its metal reflector provides smooth, even lighting over a large area.
These fixtures are typically not focusable although barndoors give some
control over the spill of light. More sophisticated variations feature
a focusing mechanism which allows adjustment of the light spread from
a flood to a spot. This greatly enhances the versatility of the fixture.
PAR Fixtures: PAR fixtures consist of a sealed beam lamp which is mounted
into a metal housing. Because the lamp is a sealed optical module, the
beam spread is a function of the lamp and not of the light fixture.
PAR lamps are typically installed on a light truss, tree or pipe and
used in theater, stage, display and architectural lighting. They are
particularly well-suited to wash and backlighting.
The Fresnel (pronounced fre-nell) derives its name from its highly-efficient
lens. Their smooth, focusable light has for decades made Fresnel lights
a favorite source of illumination. The weight of many Fresnels has typically
limited their use to studio or fixed applications; however, newer lightweight
fixtures such as NRG's FS-Series can be practically employed both on
location and in a studio. Fresnel fixtures are at home in any application
where smooth, evenly controllable soft-edged lighting is required.
- Choosing Studio / Location Lighting
Choosing lights or lighting systems for studio or location use involves
many user-specific choices that are impossible to explore in this short
space. If you are just getting started, select a basic kit from a reputable
manufacturer. As your experience grows, add some accessories and perhaps
some additional lighting fixtures to allow added creative potential.
If you are already an advanced videographer, feel free to exit this
tutorial and start ordering!
In many settings, such as weddings or news gathering, the location of
the action changes rapidly. This often prevents the practical use of
multi-point location lighting. Lighting is still often needed to fill
shadows, distinguish subjects from their backgrounds and give the overall
shot depth and dimension. Solving this dilemma is the primary purpose
of on-camera lighting. As the name suggests, on-camera lighting is intended
to be attached to the camera or a bracket directly adjacent to the camera.
It is important not to expect a single on-camera light to provide illumination
comparable to a multi-point location-lighting system. Within the limitations
of a single point-source, however, a quality on-camera light can provide
an admirable balance between convenience and lighting quality. Let's
take a brief look at common considerations for the selection of an on-camera
- Power Source
While some consumer lights have batteries on-board, their limited light
output and short runtimes make them inappropriate for professional use.
For this reason most professional on-camera lights are powered from
an external battery source. Carefully select your power source to make
sure that it can properly power the light without shutdown or damage.
Some on-camera lights also allow operation from AC. In most cases, however,
the intensity of AC lamps is overpowering and the high heat forces periodic
shut-down of the light to prevent fixture damage. Thus, AC capability
in a small on-camera light is, at best, reserved for emergencies or
when the light is mounted on a separate stand.
- Physical Size
The downsizing trend that started years ago in consumer camcorders is
now reaching professional equipment. It is easy to become infatuated
with the features of a light and miss the fact that it is an inappropriate
size for the camera on which it will be mounted. Bear in mind, it is
not just a matter of funny looks; the equipment's accessory mount may
not be designed to support larger professional lighting equipment. Thankfully,
if you have a compact camera and do find your heart set on a larger
light, after-market manufacturers, including NRG, offer auxiliary brackets
which both improve camera stability and give a secure mounting point
for larger lighting fixtures.
- Lamp Type and Selection
When choosing an on-camera light, give significant consideration to
the type of lamps the fixture uses. The lamp is the heart of any lighting
system. In the end the lamp's characteristics are major factors in determining
the smoothness, intensity and coloration of the captured image, not
to mention the runtime of a battery. First, it is important to make
sure that the light uses lamps which are available in the wattages,
voltages, and color temperatures required for your application. Be sure
that the lamp style is widely available. If you will be traveling abroad,
consider the lamp's international availability. Finally, consider the
lamp's cost and remember to bear in mind the lamp's life expectancy.
- Lamp Efficiency
Many videographers perceive a light's maximum wattage as the supreme
measure of the light's value and usefulness. It is important to understand
that wattage is nothing more than the amount of power the light consumes.
Just because a light uses a lot of power doesn't mean it produces light
efficiently. Many brands of lighting have an inefficient matte silver
or pebbled finish on their reflectors which fails to transmit the lamp's
light output effectively. Other brands use low-efficiency lamps not
designed for video applications and available only in limited wattage
ranges. one of the reasons for buying a professional light unit such
as those made by NRG is that the lamps and reflectors have been designed
for optimum efficiency. A high-efficiency light allows a 20% to 30%
lower-wattage lamp to achieve the same light levels produced by a less-efficient
light fixture. When a light is being powered from a battery this efficiency
results in dramatic improvements in runtime and battery life.
- Quality of Construction
On-camera lights have a tendency to get stepped on, smashed into door
frames or suffer any similar number of abuses. Even if you are careful
with your equipment, choose a light that has a chance of surviving the
one day that something goes wrong. Look for a strong external casing
and be sure that the primary load-bearing components such as the camera
shoe and support arm are made from metal. Check to see that any protrusions
are designed to resist breaking. Look for high-quality cabling of the
appropriate gauge to support the current draw of the largest lamp you
intend to use. Consider the warranty terms and ease of part replacement
in the event of damage or failure.
Many lighting manufacturers use the same lamp types, so it is often
the features of the light that define its versatility and usefulness.
For example, here at NRG, tool-less lamp changes, ratcheting tilt mechanisms,
light-dispersion grids, electronic intensity control and many other
thoughtful features have endeared NRG lights to our users. The availability
of accessories is another important point to consider. Accessories can
tailor the light to your shooting style and to various shooting situations
and increase your enjoyment and productivity.
Unfortunately, there is no such thing. If you will be shooting in a
fixed location with access to AC power, a multi-light studio/location
system will deliver the most evenly lit and natural-looking shots. A
multi-point lighting setup also allows great creativity in achieving
different lighting effects. Where convenience and rapid mobility are
needed, however, nothing beats an on-camera light. In some cases it
may be practical for you to combine both on-camera and stand-mounted
location lighting. By using multi-point location lighting to create
an adequate overall light level and an on-camera light to fill and highlight,
the best strengths of each lighting style are combined to create the
ultimate in light coverage. Most videographers will want to invest in
both a good on-camera light and studio/location-style light fixtures.
Even to veteran pros the vast selection of lighting products and accessories
has become quite staggering. Lighting kits can be found for as little
as $100 or as much as $20,000 while on-camera lights go from $19-$5,000.
Within these ranges fall hundreds of products. How much should you spend
and what can you expect to gain if you choose to spend more? The first
thing to remember is that "there is no free lunch". If you
spend too little you will get a poorly-made product with limited features
that will most likely fail under the demands of semi-professional or
broadcast use. If you overspend you may be buying the prestige of a
particular brand instead of tangible product features. Purchase the
product that offers the features you need, is built to perform reliably
under your use requirements, and comes from a manufacturer respected
for quality and service. A product with these characteristics will be
a joy to use for years to come and be more likely to have a solid resale
value if your needs change.
Lighting accessories can greatly enhance the versatility of a light
and allow you to tailor the look of the light to your specific needs.
For example: A color-effect grid to match the amber glow of sunset,
an interview grid for natural, inoffensive light at close range, barndoors
to control the area covered, a lower-wattage lamp for longer runtimes.
Lets take a closer look at some of these accessories and how they can
enhance the usefulness of on-camera and studio/location light fixtures.
Barndoors are black metal flaps which prevent light from spilling into
unwanted areas. Barndoors are also often used as clip filter and effect
Flags: Flags consist of any opaque material that can block or shape
light. They can be cut to a desired shape from thin metal or layers
of aluminum foil. Flags are often clipped to barndoors, a lightstand
or a boom-arm.
Filter Frames: Filter
frames are sometimes built into the front of a lighting fixture but
can also be a separate stand-mounted accessory. Filter frames typically
hold scrims or diffusers to soften light or colored gels to alter the
Effect Grids: Generally used
with on-camera lights, effect grids are made of glass and designed to
insert into the front of the light fixture. NRG has one of the most
comprehensive grid selections available with complete options for softening
light, changing its color or temperature and creating special effects.
Softboxes: A softbox is a structure of translucent material into which
a light is placed. It results in maximum diffusion creating a pleasing
and natural appearance. Since many softboxes are intended for photographic
applications it is important to be sure the softbox can tolerate the
heat generated by your lighting fixtures.
Optional Lamps: Changing
a lamp can tailor the light fixture to a particular application. For
example, changing to a low-wattage high-efficiency lamp in a battery-powered
on-camera light will yield longer runtimes. Changing to a daylight lamp
will better accommodate outdoor fill situations. As useful as accessories
like these can be, when purchasing a light you may want to select only
the basic accessories you know you'll need, such as a spare lamp and
perhaps basic light-control or diffusion accessories. NRG's lights are
extremely versatile right out of the box. Become familiar with a light's
performance before investing in accessories that may not be of use in
Video footage often looks flat and lifeless in comparison to film footage.
Because of this many people conclude that film is a superior medium.
In actuality, many of the differences are a result of lighting. In most
cases film revolves around a single camera; therefore, lighting can
be highly optimized for a single point-of-view. In video, particularly
television footage, multiple camera positions are utilized, thus necessitating
a flatter, fuller light coverage. If film-style lighting is employed
with a single video camera the effect can be comparably dramatic.
The basic qualities of light as it applies to video production are Color,
Intensity, Form, and Direction. By understanding both the physical and
psychological characteristics of these qualities, the experienced lighting
designer can employ the lighting tools he has purchased to maximum effect.
Shooting with a single on-camera light limits creativity somewhat; however,
with accessories and experimentation it is possible to achieve pleasing
results. In studio or location settings where multiple fixtures can
be utilized the possibilities become endless.
Most videographers will want to start with a classic three-point lighting
setup. There are many varying opinions on the placement of these lights
but the adjoining illustration shows a typical setup. The first light
in this setup is the main apparent source of light, known as the Key
Light. It establishes the dimension, form and texture of the subject
as well as a hard or soft light quality. Next is the fill light whose
purpose is to partially fill in the shadows created by the key light.
Ideally, the fill is a more diffused source which will not create opposing
shadows. Finally a back light can be used to add highlights and distinguish
the subject from the background. Of course, additional lights such as
kickers, separators, and background lights can be added as your experience
and needs dictate.
As a general rule, simple lighting setups will yield the best effect.
Putting lights everywhere makes it difficult to manage the resulting
light interactions and can yield a flat, confusing image.
In many cases it is advantageous to follow, not fight, existing ambient
light sources. By building on the natural sources of illumination, a
pleasing and logical effect can be obtained. In settings where no ambient
light is present, try to create a logical substitute. For example if
a window on a set suggests a direction for ambient light, don't fight
It is important always to remain aware that while your eye views a scene
in three dimensions, video is a two-dimensional plane. Just as a painter
strives to create a 3-dimensional image on a 2-dimensional canvas, so
the lighting artist must strive to create the dimension of depth through
These tips are intended only to give the reader an enthusiasm and respect
for the science and art of professional lighting. If you found them
to be useful and informative, buy one of the many excellent books available
on film and video lighting which will be filled with similar concepts.
While some videographers underestimate the importance of light, others
go overboard in its use. Many times in an effort to capture the scene
in the best light "technically" possible, subject comfort
is forgotten. Excessive light levels can result in over-saturation and
fringing of color, washout of white and shadow detail, not to mention
violent verbal abuse from human subjects. While each shoot has unique
requirements, a good general rule of light is to use it in a way that
creates a natural and balanced light level with subtle creative highlights.
Are you shooting a staged shot or shooting consistently in similar environments?
If so, try standing in the place you anticipate your subject will be
and see if the light level and placement are tolerable. If you are blinded
or your hair catches on fire, subtle changes in light placement may
be needed. Many times compromises between technically optimum lighting
and what is practical for your equipment and location will have to be
made. Explaining these limitations to a client will help to eliminate
unrealistic expectations and ensure satisfaction with the final production.
This tutorial has attempted to cover a range of subjects so broad that
it has done little justice to any of them. In the end, the most important
point to be grasped is that lighting is an infinitely creative art form.
Purchasing quality lighting tools is a great starting point, but a serious
videographer should not stop there. Instead, the user of lighting should
attempt to better the quality of their productions by becoming ever
more proficient as an artist of light.