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.

The Situation

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