Lighting on location is almost always a challenge for one reason or another. Sometimes it's difficult or impossible to rig lights in the places you really need them. Other times, power management and distribution prove to be problematic. More often than not, however, the most irritating part of lighting on location is that there just isn't enough space to light with traditional studio methods, which forces you to improvise. I ran into such a situation recently when shooting a screen test for an up-and-coming Denver actress named Emma Moody. With 15 square feet of space, two high-powered LED's, a little bit of natural light, and a MacGuyver-esque mindset, we managed to get it done. Here's how.
Here's the run-down of the situation. Because screen tests are often shot with flattering soft light, we chose not to deviate from the norm in this case. However, in addition to needing soft light on the actress, we wanted to create a fairly contrasted image overall, because of our intention to post process the images to a striking black and white. With this aesthetic in mind, we chose a place in my apartment that would provide a wide range of tonal values. The spot we chose was the tiny corner next to the fireplace.
In terms of equipment, we were using two Strahlen ST-100 LED lights, which Andy from Strahlen graciously sent me to review (coming soon). These lights have an output that is comparable to a 500 watt open-face light. Other than the two lights, we had very little in terms of lighting modifiers other than the magnetic fresnel lens and dome diffuser. We didn't have any flags, silks, muslins, or foam-core, and even if we did, the distinct lack of C-Stands would have been even more crippling.
So to sum it all up, we had to create soft light on the actress while maintaining a strong sense of contrast, all in a space no larger than 15 square-feet. Add to that the fact that we had two lights and not much with which to modify them. Sounds like a challenge!
With that said, here are a few stills from the screen test that I shot for Denver-based actress Emma Moody:
Now that you've seen what the final results look like, let's talk about how it was accomplished with very few lighting tools.
Harnessing the Power of Natural Light
One of the first questions that I always ask myself when lighting any space is, "Can I utilize and manipulate the natural light in this space and use it to my advantage?" The first piece of this process is to figure out where the sun is currently, and more importantly, where it will be throughout the duration of your shoot. Additionally, you should be noting whether or not there are clouds in the sky or any objects that the sun might travel behind during your shoot.
Although natural light is really complex and quite beautiful, oftentimes trying to harness this light for long periods of time can be more trouble than it's worth. In these cases, you'll want to throw some black garbage bags or large pieces of duvetyne fabric on your windows to block the natural light out completely. However, ours was a relatively quick shoot -- no more than two hours including setup -- so utilizing the natural light seemed a safe bet.
Once you decide to use the natural light, the next questions are then how you're going to do it, and for what purpose. I usually don't like to use natural light as a key unless the subject is right next to a window. In this case, it made more sense to turn the sunlight into a naturally soft fill light.
In our case, it was mid-afternoon, and the sun was almost directly behind where Emma was sitting - her back was faced directly toward the west. The sliding glass doorway out to our balcony was about 5 feet to her left (camera right). In the absence of foam-core or any traditional bounce materials, I used an old Miles Davis poster that I had lying around (any other poster wouldn't have looked as good). While something much larger would have done the job better, the backside of this poster, when fastened to our blinds with gaff tape (which allowed us to very easily change the angle of the bounce) gave us a soft directional light on the right side of Emma's face.
Bouncing Light and Using Your Walls as a Source
Once we had our natural fill ready to go, we needed to set up a key light. For this we turned to the aforementioned Strahlen ST-100 LED's, of which we had three (but only two light stands). Keeping in mind that we were in a tighter corner, it would have been impossible to get one of the ST-100's into the proper position to throw on a soft box and use it directly on Emma. There just wasn't near enough space to do so.
Instead of trying to hit the actress with direct, diffused light, we chose once again to bounce the light. The first way we tried to accomplish this was by using our white-ish walls as a bounce (something that you'll see all the time when DP's light on-location). However, using the wall alone just didn't provide a powerful enough output, so we turned once again to our friend, another 16"x16" Miles Davis poster.
We fastened said poster about 6 inches away from the light and angled it toward Emma. Voila, a relatively soft key source that came in at just over a stop hotter than the natural fill, thus giving us a really nice 2:1 key to fill ratio. However, this light served a second purpose beyond just being the key. It also served as a secondary source to throw light and cast shadows on the white wall behind the actress. In order to ensure that those shadows weren't too harsh and obvious, we fitted the light with the magnetic Dome-Diffuser attachment, which spreads out the source to nearly 180 degrees and softens it slightly.
With the key out of the way and one ST-100 light still to use, we now needed an accent light of some sort. My favorite type of accent light, one that works in just about every shooting scenario you can imagine, is a hair light, which shines down on to the hair of your subject from the opposite side as the key. Most hair lights, depending on how strong they are, also cast light onto the shoulders of the subject, thus helping to sculpt their shape and separate them from their background.
Once again, however, the tightness of the space was an incredibly limiting factor. So this time, instead of attempting to get direct light onto Emma's hair and shoulders, we opted for a strong bounce light. In order to accomplish this, we used our remaining ST-100, put it at 100% brightness, pointed straight up at the ceiling above our actress, then raised it as close to the ceiling as it could go, which looked a little something like this:
While this light didn't necessarily create as strong or as sharp of a hair light as I generally like, it added enough ambient, yet directional light coming from the top to balance out the key and the fill and to separate Emma from the background ever so slightly.
So there you have it, folks. Soft light with only two lights, no modifiers (or C-Stands), and a little help from mother nature, all in an insanely small space!
What We Could've Done Better
As much as I'm proud of accomplishing an aesthetically pleasing soft lighting setup with very few resources, it most definitely could have been better. First and foremost, the lack of a dedicated eye-light really made the shots where Emma was looking toward the camera a bit lifeless, despite the fact that she was energetic and full of life herself. A simple ring-light on or near the camera would have solved that problem quite easily.
Secondly, because of her dark undershirt, Emma's arms fall off into the blackness created by the fireplace in the wider shot. This likely could have been solved a couple of different ways. The first way would have been by using a more reflective surface for the ceiling bounce (maybe another Miles Davis poster, or a piece of aluminum foil). Another option would have been to use a dedicated light behind Emma as a rim-light to literally cut her out from the background. A small battery-powered LED could have accomplished that task quite easily. That small LED also could have been placed within the fireplace so that it didn't register as completely black in-camera.
What do you guys think of this lighting setup? What kind of lighting techniques have you used to create soft light in tight places? Let us know down in the comments.
Link: Strahlen: LED Lights with Unparalleled Versatility -- IndieGoGo
Hey Robert, interesting read. Well done. I agree with your critique. However to really evaluate the quality of your shoelace rigging it would be necessary to see the screen test itself - is there a link?
January 21, 2014 at 7:38AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
I actually haven't finished editing the screen test yet. Since I've got a few other videos to cut first, the Strahlen LED review being the most important, I imagine that it'll be done in a week or two. I will definitely embed it into the article once it's finished, though.
Thanks for reading!
January 21, 2014 at 9:06AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
Really really want to see that Strahlen Led review!
January 21, 2014 at 1:11PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
We're happy that you're so excited! We're looking forward to it ourselves. :)
January 21, 2014 at 2:02PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
Jonathan, it's mid way up. Good shoot mr hardy. My only critique is a noticeable lack of eyelight. A incandescent lamp, a non-led flashlight (cause of the lack of syncing on their tiny ballasts), or some kind of white bounce would have really helped highlight her eyes.
January 21, 2014 at 8:39AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
I found a small LED pocket lamp which just about fits into a microphone clamp. It does an incredible job as hairlight and as it’s lightweight I can put it almost everywhere.
January 21, 2014 at 8:59AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
That's awesome! Any chance you could find it online and share the link?
January 21, 2014 at 2:33PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
I used this very strong bike light (magicshine MJ-872 1600 lumens bike light) to light a scene. Beautiful light, strong, powerful, long battery life, light to carry. But when examining the footage, I found that the light's Hz (hertz) was not working well with the camera's shutter speed. It created these rolling lines from the top to the bottom of the screen. Similar to shooting a TV or computer screen. I tried different shutter-speeds but the lines only changed width and speed. Anyone knows how to get around this?, because the light is lovely...
January 21, 2014 at 11:27PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
The only non-photographic oriented LEDs I've found that work well are the Surefires. They cost as much as movie lights. The Surefire St Minimus is the best headlight I've ever had. It has definitely outlasted 3 or 4 Petzls I've had that seem to break every other time you change batteries. It has a dimmer (not just 2 or 3 different brightness settings.). I'm extremely sensitive to strobing/flicker in LED lights and this is the only one I know of that doesn't, even when dimmed way down. I haven't tested it with a less than 180° shutter, or with slomo, but just regular 24fps, 180°, I've used it as an edgelight, eyelight and hair light. And I always have it with me as my personal light when on set, so it's often the quickest fix when you're losing light or are shooting quick enough to just Hollywood it in really quickly.
January 26, 2014 at 6:54PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
Very helpful article, im getting asked more and more by Actors to shoot their audition tapes. An actor can be seen in LA from a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. I kinda did the same thing two weeks ago with an actor up for a Netflix gig. He wanted to be in character so I lit for a tiny bit of mood. (2-z/96 led, 3 candles) There's 2 scenes, for the second I changed it up a bit. Hope you you don't mind I share it here, apparently they loved it, his agent said it was amazing, he's still up for the roll as of today....Fingers crossed :)
January 21, 2014 at 9:22AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
Anthony, what a stunning look you crafted for that screen test. Glad you shared it.
January 21, 2014 at 9:54AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
Thanks Shawn, I didn't want to overdue it but since the period dates back to the 1200's I figured I'd have some wiggle room. It turned out better than I anticipated. Appreciate the comment.
January 21, 2014 at 2:04PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
Anthony, that really is a wonderfully lit shot. Would you mind elaborating on where the the lights/candles are positioned in relation to the actor? Thank you!
January 21, 2014 at 2:33PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
The actor was about 2 ft in front of a plain white wall, I had a z/96 to the right, inline with the actor shining on the wall, dimmed about 50% (if you know those lights) and the other z/96 was about 10 ft away (head high with a slight pitch towards the actors' left side. Right beside him was an end table with 3 lit candles in wine glasses for a slight effect. The camera was an fs700 in S-log recorded internally with the sigma 18-35 f1.8 attached. I mostly shot at 35mm. Hope that helps. There were no other lights in the room but the 3 I mentioned. It seemed to work well. I appreciate your kind words David.
January 21, 2014 at 4:26PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
Those new pro/semi-pro LED fixtures have changed the game for me. I LOVE them.
January 21, 2014 at 10:51AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
If you have time, could you elaborate a little please. Do you mean for interview lighting ? Do you have a preferred brand ?
January 21, 2014 at 11:27AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
My experience is with the $300 RPS Studio version.
I use them for interview key with a (cheap Fotodiox Bowens mount I already owned) soft box, and have also used them on an indie short and two 'drama style' music videos, both softened and unsoftened. That's in the last 3-4 weeks. All of that is in post right now so yet to be able to link to anything.
I have also rigged a few of them together to give me a DIY 4K for 'sun through the window'. It was a bit of a hassle but sure beat renting and hauling around a 1.2k HMI and finding a way to plug it in.
On one desert shot ran it from a cheap inverter from my car as 'moonlight'. had the talent 15-20 feat away - worked great.
I've had no fan noise issue (some have with the Fotodiox one), and they are a lot of grunt light for the money. CRI is ok, have had no flicker issues so far, but have only run to 48fps on them. To be fair, I don't expect them to be a light source for 100fps+ work.
The Stahlens look a lot better, but I just wanted a cheap one to try out the concept.
For those instances you need 1k of daylight I'm sold.
Hope that helped.
January 21, 2014 at 11:44AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
One more thing - the Strahlens look good, but at that price point i'd look at the Nila Zaila which is only $200 more for a much more versatile AC/DC light. Not as strong, but their lens system is awesome.
/not affiliated with Nila.
January 21, 2014 at 11:58AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
Fantastic, thanks very much for your insight.
January 21, 2014 at 12:30PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
Thanks as well Mark. Great insight
January 21, 2014 at 2:01PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
I'm right with you Mark, you stick them anywhere and get instant DR. For bargain basement lights they're holding up pretty good after a year and half. No burnt bulbs, dimmers still work, they connect fine. I'm very pleased.
January 21, 2014 at 2:08PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
This is news ? But film submissions get denied?
January 21, 2014 at 12:58PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
This stuff is terrible.
January 21, 2014 at 1:07PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
May I ask what's so terrible about 1500 words of original lighting instruction? I'm all for constructive criticism, but calling this kind of post terrible seems contradictory to what everyone else asks for.
January 21, 2014 at 1:25PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
+1 Robert, There's nothing terrible about this post. great info
January 21, 2014 at 2:12PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
You write some of my favorite content on nofilmschool. Not at all sure what these folks are talking about. The general consensus that I've seen in the comments is for more hands on technique posts like this.
January 21, 2014 at 9:40PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
The article itself isn't terrible and I'm sure it helped some people, no offence there. I just don't want to wade through low level stuff to find good content on this site.
January 22, 2014 at 4:37PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
Nothing is terrible when it comes to gaining knowledge of film making. I learned enough from this article to help me in a scene I am shooting if you don't like articles like this why are you wasting time reading it Brooks Reynolds.
January 23, 2014 at 1:04PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
i liked the article a lot! most of the articles are about interviews, writing, selling your film, and camera gear which are all awesome but it is nice to see stuff about lighting or editing for example that we dont get as much info on.
January 23, 2014 at 1:18PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
I don't comment very much but wanted to add to the +1's for a great post. I found this very well written and informative, please continue to post great stuff and ignore the idiots!
January 24, 2014 at 12:40PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
January 22, 2014 at 12:19PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
January 22, 2014 at 12:27PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
No offense, but I think stunning is a stretch. I think she looks over lit and the lighting harsh and artificial, a bit of negative fill would have gone a long way. Backing her off the background even a foot or two would have also helped a lot.
January 21, 2014 at 1:29PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
No offense taken, Carlos. Stunning is definitely a stretch, and the flaws you point out are entirely valid. We kept her so close to the background so that we could utilize the natural light as a fill. Pulling her off the background would have made that natural light more of a soft kicker on the right side of her face, and it would have added a bit more contrast to her face than we wanted.
Definitely not a perfect lighting setup or image by any stretch of the imagination, but I think there's something to learn from it.
Thanks for the comment!
January 21, 2014 at 2:30PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
I think the information is great and definitely informative for people new to lighting. I think the space ended up being more of an obstacle than the small lighting package. Thanks for the reply and write up.
January 21, 2014 at 2:35PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
"Lighting Like a Pro"
I don't think any pro would be happy with that setup or final result sorry.
January 21, 2014 at 3:31PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
January 22, 2014 at 4:39PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
A question for Azul, Brooks Reynolds, Jesse and others who've slammed the post: What do you hope to accomplish with your comment?
A large part of the premise of this site is to be a place of education for filmmakers with varying levels of experience. Robert Hardy should be praised for having the guts to put his work out there for an international critique session in a very public and popular forum. It's hard enough to put creative work up for review in front of a small classroom of a dozen or so peers, let alone on the web where anonymous trolls can thoughtlessly slam a 1,500-word post in half a sentence.
Whatever you may think about the final result, there's tremendous value in this post for budding filmmakers who are working to get a grasp of lighting concepts and real-world applications. It becomes even more valuable when you consider the constructive and thoughtful comments. It's a damn shame yours weren't among them.
January 21, 2014 at 5:40PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
The title is of this article is very misleading. The techniques and concepts presented are not clear, and the reference photos shown are rushed and amateurish, I don't think this is worthy of an article of this site or and it is not right to oversell it with such a title of "lighting like a pro to stunning effect". In fact, my personal opinion is this article is confusing to the point of teaching bad/lazy lighting. Anyone with a half trained eye or any kind of photographic education would agree. Sorry I am just trying to be constructive, I understand the intent and the author is a busy guy, but I think this could have been done much better.
January 21, 2014 at 7:59PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
I see your point as fair. I wasn't suggesting that commenters shouldn't criticize. I took issue with dismissive and troll-ish posts that don't add anything to the discussion. The ones that write something like "This is terrible." Or "+1".
January 21, 2014 at 9:17PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
How is this news is trollish, really you must think when some watches your film and dislikes it is a troll as well. As Lex Lutor would say in superman returns WRONNNNNNNNNNNGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGG
January 22, 2014 at 12:18PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
As much as I hate to admit it, you are definitely right, Pietro. Both the screen test and the article were thrown together in a hurry because I am, in fact, a very busy guy these days. As a result, the images I created, as well this post, are pretty mediocre, which is absolutely a shame, because I'm capable of far more on both of those fronts, and the dedicated readers of this site deserve better.
At the same time, back when I was reading this site religiously several years ago, this was the type of content that I pined for, content that might open my mind to a new way of thinking about lighting or moving the camera or whatever. I'm not saying that this post necessarily does that, but I know a whole lot of young filmmakers who have never manipulated natural light in interior situations or even thought about pointing a light at a wall. Those are the type of people who I believe can benefit from a post like this one, and I certainly hope that they do in spite of the flaws of this post.
And yes, the article is misleadingly titled, and I contemplated it for quite some time before I submitted it. Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is that this writing job is helping me pay my bills right now, including some hefty hospital bills, and titles like this generate more clicks. It's as simple as that, and frankly it makes me feel like an asshole. But that's how the world works these days, which is an unfortunate and unavoidable truth.
I'm sorry for having wasted your time, and I hope that you continue to visit our site and comment and call us out on our bullshit when it needs to be done.
January 21, 2014 at 9:27PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
Don't be so hard on yourself :-)
Last time I looked I wasn't paying to be here.
While I too can be guilty of occasionally throwing rocks, I do try to remember that all of this information is being delivered to us gratis. While your headline may have been clickbait, that's very small beer in the scheme of things. And instructional/demonstration blogposts like this are HARD to do. I sometimes think Mr Bloom wishes he'd never started doing them.
I actually get paid to read ALL the blogs (seriously). While NFS can be infuriating sometimes (I'm looking at the commenters mainly) its still an incredible resource and several notches above most of the blogs I have to peruse. AND ITS FREE. Even your marketing is a low hum compared to some.
The addition of yourself, Chris Boone and V Renee has widened the scope and depth of the site considerably.
More power to you.
January 21, 2014 at 11:37PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
Bloom is quite the gem.......
January 22, 2014 at 12:22PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
Wow Robert. That's quite a load...
January 22, 2014 at 1:05AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
there hasn't been a single article you've written that I would consider a waste of time. Keep up the good work and stand for what you write.
January 22, 2014 at 8:05AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
Wow, that was some brutal honesty. No joke the article is NG cause the lighting is just bad, but I was glued to your searingly honest reply to the troll comments. Hats off for that. Good luck and if you can apply this type of honesty to your titles and articles I know I'll be reading!
January 22, 2014 at 4:03PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
your troll because you have different opinions
January 22, 2014 at 4:07PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
January 21, 2014 at 9:40PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
I'd just interview an expert and breakdown their work and look at how they would light scenes with no artificial lights, 1 light, 2 lights etc.
Showing your own below par lighting setup is not really that useful.
Furthermore, do those Strahlen lights really fit into a "Shoestring Budget"? Shoestring for me would be two $8 desk lamps and an old real estate sign as a reflector. That would be capable of a pretty decent look actually.
January 22, 2014 at 12:58PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
I've used incandescents as fills/keys and some of those cheap reflective windshield covers to reflect natural light. Cheap, effective, and not shouting 'we are a production check our permits'. Which to me is job one on actual shoestring productions, not using gear that looks too money for multiple reasons.
January 24, 2014 at 9:15AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
I agree with Jesse, having two $1000 LED lights is considered shoestring nowadays?
January 23, 2014 at 3:04PM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
Id have to agree.... You could achieve better and more pleasing results with a couple of par cans, a bead board and a flag.
The title is completely misleading, and to be honest I cant use your honesty for anything.... If that is how you felt about it, why put it up in the first place.
If you guys want more lighting threads head over to Deakins forum and get some real insight. Remember Deakins isnt alway about expensive lighting.... In fact almost opposite.
January 24, 2014 at 3:18AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
I have always always hated the 'hair' light technique. I feel like it adds a network TV look to shots that are otherwise well lit. I was taught to put a pretty bright light above and behind the talent so that their hair looks nice and shiny. However I think it looks tacky as hell in almost every situation.
The exception being profile shots where I think it look fantastic.
Bouncing the highlight off of the ceiling as they did here looks much better to my eyes.
January 24, 2014 at 9:08AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
Thanks for nothing people
February 27, 2014 at 10:58AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM
Thanks for nothing peps
February 27, 2014 at 10:59AM, Edited September 4, 8:45AM