Listening to light...then talking back. 4 steps for adding light to your film. / by Justin DeMers

Last week, in part 2 of our 4-part series on making the most out of light in your visual stories, we played the cute card and brought in the adorable might of our S&H furry friend, Emery the Husky-Corgi mix, to help us demonstrate 4 tips on modifying natural light.

These 4 tips of course build upon our tips from part 1, wherein we covered 4 simple things you can do to work with unmodified natural light.

Even though recaps are by now par for the course, we don’t want to belabor you with them or anything. It’s just important this week that we build upon the progress we’ve made so far because now we’re going from putt-putt to the full 9: it’s time to start bringing your own clubs.

(Sorry, it’s Summer: we’re going to be mixing a lot of metaphors. We promise this whole post won’t be tangentially about golf.)


Before we get into the real good stuff, we want to cover a few basic terms and categorizations that we hope will help clarify a lot of what’s to follow. Up until this point we’ve tried to keep things as casual and universal as possible, but in order to help you start to make truly considered decisions with each of your shots, we’re just going to have to pull off the band-aid and lean more toward the technical this time out.

Meet Jude. 

Meet Jude. 

She builds bicycle wheels by hand!

She builds bicycle wheels by hand!

But we're not totally going to throw you into the deep end! Recently we joined our friends at Stillmotion for a shoot at Sugar Wheel Works in Portland. The custom shop, which sells hand-built bicycle wheels with a focus on locally sourced materials, is run by owner Jude Kirstein, and her workshop turned out to be the perfect place for us to run through the process of adding light to any shoot.

So, before we get to the nitty-gritty, let's first fill you in on some helpful tidbits in understanding the basics of temperature.

Temperature

When we talk about temperature we’re really talking about the color of your light—and all of this is most commonly measured in Kelvin.

Here at Story & Heart we advocate working in manual or Kelvin white balance so that you, the storyteller, can decide how you want your shot to feel as opposed to letting the camera try to set the white balance based on some robot’s idea of what looks “proper”.

Robots! Right?!

When it comes to Kelvin, interior tungsten lights operate at a lower temperature (more on kinds of light, of which tungsten is a basic category, in the next section, so hold tight!), in the 2800-3200 K range, which makes for that orange-ish glow that we often associate with a lamp. Daylight is 5600 K, and light in the shade is at an even higher Kelvin, in the 6000-6500 range.

This may help: just remember the phrase “Sky High”.

What we’re really trying to do in most shots is avoid what is commonly called “mixed lighting”: light from two different sources that are different temperatures. Which is fine for our eyes: our sophisticated organic bodies can look at, and resolve, light of different temperatures mixing together. But our cameras, what with all their codecs and compression, have a much harder time making mixed lighting look less than weird or uber-stylized.

Yet, perhaps an easier way to get a grasp on color is through knowing what temperatures typically correspond to which types of light.

Types of Light

The best way to think about types of light—just like your options when working with light—is practically: by temperature and price. Because, frankly, when it comes to light, your options as a visual storyteller can be unfortunately limited by your accessibility to various equipment.

Not that such a consideration should ever limit your desire to tell a certain story—only the ways in which you approach it.

Just as any story can be told remarkably, so any storyteller can be remarkable—what matters is never the filmmaker’s equipment, but the heart behind it all.

So we’ll just start from the most common and work our way “up”:

The Lowel Pro-light Flood Light's a recommended source of tungsten light: versatile, affordable, and replete with a whole bunch of accessories. 

The Lowel Pro-light Flood Light's a recommended source of tungsten light: versatile, affordable, and replete with a whole bunch of accessories. 

1. Tungsten 

Tungsten is a type of incandescent lighting which uses a bulb with a filament made of the tungsten...so, y’know, that’s where the name comes from. In fact, most of the lights in your home are probably tungsten, unless you’ve gone the more energy-efficient route, which we totally recommend, but tungsten’s always cheapest, so we don’t blame you if you’re still a bit behind on that account.

Tungsten typically falls around the 3200 Kelvin range, which means it’s got that desk-lamp-y orange-ish light, as opposed to the high-blue of daylight. It also has a maximum temperature, because tungsten melts, and that’s around 3600 K.

Modifying this kind of light is usually only possible through gels, but we’ll get more to that in a bit.

Want to give tungsten a try? Click here to rent from LensProToGo.
With the Kino Flo Diva-Lite fluorescent get-up, you can switch out lamps, dim lights remotely, and easily set up gels. even better, it's balanced against tungsten and daylighting to help with accuracy. 

With the Kino Flo Diva-Lite fluorescent get-up, you can switch out lamps, dim lights remotely, and easily set up gels. even better, it's balanced against tungsten and daylighting to help with accuracy. 

2. Fluorescent  

Fluorescent light is created by running an electrical current through a tube filled with low-pressure mercury vapor. As opposed to incandescent light, energy is converted to emitted light much more efficiently, which is why everyone is telling you how much better for your electrical bill and carbon footprint Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL) bulbs are, but, accordingly, this type of light will cost you more initially.

What’s great about fluorescent lights is that, depending on the tube, you can achieve a huge range of colors—and so modification is usually a matter of changing up specific tubes. But, the accuracy of Kelvin, well...isn’t accurate. So it can be a crap shoot when it comes to using tubes to find very specific colors.

Though, generally warm whites tubes range from 3000 to 3500 K, while cool whites range from 4100 to 4200 K…if that helps.

When it comes to price, durability, color faithfulness, and whatever else you may need on your typical shoot, you really can't go wrong with an LED like the Kino Flo Celeb.

When it comes to price, durability, color faithfulness, and whatever else you may need on your typical shoot, you really can't go wrong with an LED like the Kino Flo Celeb.

3. LED  

This stands for “light-emitting diode” which—very generally—means that it gives off light through “electroluminescence”, or the process by which a high electrical current causes a certain material to discharge photons (which, compared to the fluorescent light, undergoes “chemiluminescence” due to the mercury inside). You pretty much see LEDs everywhere: from headlights on cars, to lights on billboards, to traffic signals, to camera flashes.

Like fluorescent lights, LEDs trump incandescent light sources when it comes to energy consumption, a longer lifetime, a smaller and more compact size, and faster ability to to modify the temperature of the light.

Also like fluorescent lights, LEDs can cover a huge range of color, from 2700 K warm pumpkin colors to 6500 K daylighting, but they are more versatile (accurate) than fluorescent lighting, which, of course, means they’re slightly more expensive.

This is because you can literally “dial in” temperature on LED fixtures. Like calling up both your beloved grandparent or a cable service provider on a rotary telephone, both super-warm and super-cool lighting are relatively available with only a few clicks of one another.

Looking to see what LED can do? Click here to rent from LensProToGo.
So, yeah, the Profoto Daylight Air is pretty much a beast: with a high-Kelvin daylighting temperature, the ability to dial in intensity, and remote controlling capability, you are getting everything you're paying for.

So, yeah, the Profoto Daylight Air is pretty much a beast: with a high-Kelvin daylighting temperature, the ability to dial in intensity, and remote controlling capability, you are getting everything you're paying for.

4. HMI  

This last type is another acronym, but this one we won’t blame you for not remembering: hydrargyrum medium-arc iodide.

Yeah, we know. We already forgot.

Basically, HMIs are like Frankenstein’s monster types of light, a weird mix of incandescent and chemiluminescent lighting sources—but like Frankenstein’s monster, this light is insanely strong, and so is typically used on film sets.

In other words, HMI is the most costly, by far, of the 4 types of light, but you’re paying for power here.


Despite all this, any filmmaker must always know the difference between options and answers:

There is no “best” kind of light, only the light that is best for the story you must tell.

Which is where we get to the point when, on any production, we’ve done our best with what we have—we’ve worked with unmodified natural light, controlling what we can to get the shots we need, and we’ve even stepped in to modify that light with diffusers, flags, reflectors, etc.—and our best just isn’t good enough to achieve what we want.

So it’s time to get unnatural, and bring in the power of our own light.

Here are 4 steps to follow to introduce your own light to your next shoot.

1. Observe

Whenever you get to any set—preferably not the day of the shoot—you have to listen to the light.

Wait—you listen to music or stories or your grandpa snoring in an easy chair, not light. This kind of synaesthesia is only for pretentious poets, right?

Wrong. We mean:

Don’t just walk in and set up lights without any thought to what’s already there. Because natural light—or in this case, “ambient light”, the light which is already in place wherever you’ve chosen to shoot—when used well and modified, will do much more for your story than bringing in lights and totally mixing up the vibe of the place.

Plus, factor in all the time and work to add lights, versus really working with what’s there, and you’ve got a smorgasbord of value available.

On any production, give yourself a few moments to see what your environment suggests.

Here is a brief but literal map of the Sugar Wheel Works space, with our crucially important shots planned in advance and a basic understanding of how our lights and our subjects will physically interact during the shoot.

Here is a brief but literal map of the Sugar Wheel Works space, with our crucially important shots planned in advance and a basic understanding of how our lights and our subjects will physically interact during the shoot.

So, yeah: you may not be physically hearing the light (unless maybe you count the low hissing of a bulb), but you are interpreting what it suggests.

And in order to do so, you'll probably have to visit the set before you start shooting. In the case of Sugar Wheel Works, we spent some time scoping out Jude's workshop and just talking to her about her process to get a feel for how and where we'd shoot.

2. Assign

Now that we’ve gotten a good feel for what we’re working with, we’re going to actually bring in our own lights and start mapping out not only where everything belongs, but what each light’s role will be.

There are a few positions, or main roles, that lights commonly fill, and knowing these roles intuitively will help us decide if more lighting is required. In fact, you’ll basically be assigning each light to a hierarchy (no. 1 being the most influential, obviously):

1. Key Light  

There isn't much to say about the key light—which is weird because this is by far your most important.

This is your main light, the predominant source for illumination in both your shot and your space. 

This light will also govern the placement and aspects of all other light. Whether it's the Sun, a massive bank of windows, or a monster HMI, this is the pivot upon which all other light revolves. 

Thinking about bike wheels? The key light is your hub. Now for the spokes...

2. Fill Light  

This light is opposite to our key or main light. Its job is to fill in, or balance, the key light. This is where we really hone in on relative intensity.

As a starting point, set up your fill light opposite to your key light in location and height.

A simple way to assess the fill light is on somebody’s face, with the key coming from one side and the fill from the opposite. Once you get your main light up, have somebody stand where your talent will be and look at the dark side of his or her face.

If the light on the opposite side of your talent’s face is perfectly even, that is what we call a 1:1 ratio; it’s got practically no shape and seems flat. Yet, you may also find that the shadows are dark, opaque even, with little detail, which is spectacular if you’re going for some major drama.

Try starting with a 2:1 or a 4:1 ratio for your fill light so that you get shape in your shot but you’ve dialed down the drama. 2:1 simply means there is half as much light on the opposite, or dark side, of your subject’s face.

Here we've deduced that we have some big windows to the left that perfectly suffice as our key light, but to add some drama and shape to Jude, our subject, to the left of the key we pop in a Kino Flo Celeb LED light as our fill.

Here we've deduced that we have some big windows to the left that perfectly suffice as our key light, but to add some drama and shape to Jude, our subject, to the left of the key we pop in a Kino Flo Celeb LED light as our fill.

But seriously, if it’s easier for, just forget the ratios completely. Look into your camera and think about how what you see feels.

Does it match your story? Your subject?

If not: tweak it, look again.

3. Background Light

The background light is exactly what it sounds like: a light for your background. 

Inside Jude's shop, we didn't need to add an additional background light. Her studio's flush with enough natural light to bring our background, with enough dimension, out of shadow.

Inside Jude's shop, we didn't need to add an additional background light. Her studio's flush with enough natural light to bring our background, with enough dimension, out of shadow.

Start by asking yourself if one is even necessary. If you have an ample amount of window light and it’s coming from the right direction, you’ll probably get a dynamic, well-lit, compelling shot without a background light.

Need a background light, though? First look at what elements are in your frame—these are called practicals—that you can turn on or use to light your background. Lamp light from a workbench, for example, could be angled just right to give you the level of illumination you’re looking for. If you find that you do need to add light, work through each piece of property in your head, thinking about what would be ideal.

Then, as always, give it a try, take a look, and adjust.

4. Hair Light  

Again, crazy name: this light is used to light the hair of our talent (surprise!), and is sometimes called a “rim light”. Whatever you call it, its job is to outline the subject or object we’re filming. (“Fringe light” has a nice ring to it, right? You heard it here first!)

We've introduced just enough of a hair light to separate Jude from the background while making sure to keep the shot feeling natural.

We've introduced just enough of a hair light to separate Jude from the background while making sure to keep the shot feeling natural.

This outline helps to define your talent apart from the background. A subtle outline can help provide definition without calling attention to itself, whereas a strong hair light will draw plenty of attention, typically feel more produced, and can fit in scenarios where you’re looking to add some big, epic notions to your shot.

Otherwise, a hair light is most needed when you have talent with dark hair against a dark background. Without separation, the background may swallow your talent right up.

So, you get to your space, get a feel for all the light you already have to work with, and you notice those huge old-timey workshop windows, with sunlight streaming through, that could easily serve as your key light.

What next?

Turn off all the lights inside and start with just the window light. What do you see?

Build your hierarchy from the key light down, and use, as much as possible, the light you have already on hand. And even then: not every step in the hierarchy must be assigned.

Like a quiet sonata, start from silence to better listen for how each added piece changes the whole work...and then only add light when it’s necessary, when your story demands it.

Every bit of light you add can make an immense difference. Make sure it's a difference that is tied to story.

3. Modify

Alright! Having fun? Because now we’re really getting to the part where everything we’ve advised up until this point is coming into play.

This means we’ve observed what natural / ambient light we have by listening, we’ve figured out where we need to add light by determining a hierarchy of necessity within the space, we’ve added that light, keeping in mind the types of light we’re adding—and now it’s time to do some modifying.

As we learned in part 2, there are 4 basic ways we can modify natural light: add, cut, diffuse, and block it.

These, of course, apply to light that you’ve added to a scene, but you also have the added consideration of the type of light you’re handling, because certain types—no surprise here—require certain modifications.

Imagine light as a microcosm of your story itself: it has very specific needs and purpose. 

Let’s back up. So, say we come upon an area in our scene that’s vitally important to our story, but its natural light just won’t do it for our needs. This we’ll call a “problem area” and immediately we should suss out all of these areas, and then work through how to modify or add lights for each.

OK: so at Sugar Wheel, we’re in a space where our key is sunlight coming through a batch of big windows. But now we’re shooting at sunset, when the Sun shines directly into the space, and anything the light hits will be super bright, while anything it doesn’t will be quite a bit darker.

Bam! You found a whole slough of problem areas!

To "help out" the available light coming through our key, or the window, we add some intensity by setting up an HMI outside. And just to make sure that we're not getting too intense, we set up some diffusion to keep the light soft.

To "help out" the available light coming through our key, or the window, we add some intensity by setting up an HMI outside. And just to make sure that we're not getting too intense, we set up some diffusion to keep the light soft.

Here we need to help out the available light by increasing the intensity, so we decide to add an HMI outside the window, placed off axis from our sunlight’s direction so we still get some shape if we need to shoot with our backs to the window.

Small desk lamps are small light sources and will often be bright and harsh light. Large windows? Much softer. Overhead fluorescent lights can actually be quite soft, especially if they are housed within reflective surfaces (often white) and sometimes even covered in diffusive material (but you will have to think about whether their direction works for you).

We are often biased towards soft light: it’s usually more “flattering” on folks. But! As we mentioned in part 1, soft is not always better.

For our story we do want to keep the lighting on the softer side so we hang a large 8’ x 8’ sheet of diffusion on the outside of the window so the light coming from the HMI is less harsh on our artist.

Yet, none of this modification attends to temperature, which brings us to our last step.

4. Dial

Dialing is pretty much just a fancy term for adjusting the temperature of light, and depending on the type of light you’re using, you can either dial in a specific temperature on the source itself (LED), or modify the light’s color with gels (tungsten and HMI) or by physically changing the light’s casing (fluorescent).

Yet, since we can dial up and down our camera’s white balance, and even dial in a shift, our focus in thinking about temperature is mostly on avoiding mixed lighting, or getting a consistent temperature in our scene.

While Heidi engages with Jude in conversation about her craft, we notice that the tungsten light from the sign mixes grossly with the daylighting from our key, the window.

While Heidi engages with Jude in conversation about her craft, we notice that the tungsten light from the sign mixes grossly with the daylighting from our key, the window.

Ah! So much better! Because we wouldn't dream of subjecting Jude to such mixed lighting, we simply turn off the tungsten lights, removing that pumpkin-colored glow.

Ah! So much better! Because we wouldn't dream of subjecting Jude to such mixed lighting, we simply turn off the tungsten lights, removing that pumpkin-colored glow.

Of course there are always exceptions: always story-relevant situations in which mixed lighting can appropriately enrich your narrative.

On a person’s face, for example, if blue sunlight coming in from a window mixes like jambalaya with the warm light from a table lamp, you’ll get that muddy, stew-y, unflattering skin tone. But maybe that character is sick, so in this case you’ll want all kinds of mixed light! Watch hospital dramas, too—they mix light like crazy to make sick people legitimately look sick.

Anyway, one big option in dialing light up or down is to get yourself a pack of gels: thin plastic films that go over light sources to change color. Really: you can pretty much find any gel you need for whatever color you desire. The world of gels is your oyster!

We recommend a Rosco Cinegels Sample Kit for starters, because it not only includes a variety of gels to dial up or down your light, it also carries ready-made deterrents against mixed lighting based on light type, and comes with some added diffusion materials.

We recommend a Rosco Cinegels Sample Kit for starters, because it not only includes a variety of gels to dial up or down your light, it also carries ready-made deterrents against mixed lighting based on light type, and comes with some added diffusion materials.

Some of the most commonly used gels, though, are a “Color To Blue”, or CTB, which is blue and will cool down your light (increase its Kelvin). Take an orange table lamp and—voila!—have the light it gives off match daylight.

Then there’s “Color To Orange”, or CTO, which is orange and can take a daylight bulb and warm it up substantially to match that of a table lamp.

Gels come in all kinds of sizes too—from small sheets to large rolls—as well as in different strengths, which will control just how much a gel changes the light.

A background light is a great example. If your subject is lit by a window at 5600 Kelvin, and you find the background a little dark for your liking, you could add light at 5600 Kelvin to get an even color throughout your scene.

Or! You could add light at roughly 4200 Kelvin (a tungsten light with a 1/2 CTB), which will make the background appear warmer, meaning it will make the overall workspace more inviting.

Speaking of an inviting space, big thanks to Sugar Wheel Works and Jude for accommodating us. In turn we did all we could to have the light accommodate Sugar Wheel and the incredible work they do. 

Next week in part 4, the final installment of our series, we'll premiere the film Stillmotion and the fantastic crew of Sugar Wheel Works created.

But until then, check out some beautifully lit stills to get your gears turning:

The more you understand all the facets of light, the easier you’ll find you can observe, assign, modify, and dial up or down the light on any shoot.

Light is a powerful tool, and every little change in light you make will have a huge affect on story.

As always, we’d love to hear any more tips or tricks you may have up your sleeve when it comes to adding light to your stories. Please share in the comments below.

Be sure to check in next week for the final part in our 4-part series about making the most of light in your stories!

Missed last week's post on modifying natural light? Find it here.