A Primer on Practical Lights: How Practicals Can Make Your Cinematography Come to Life
If there's one simple thing that you can do today to make your cinematography look more professional and polished, it's incorporating practical lights into your scenes.
Practical lights are, of course, traditionally defined as any light where the source is in frame. More often than not, this means lights that are built into your locations (usually ceiling fixtures), desk and floor lamps, televisions, computers, and strings of Christmas lights. It can also refer to headlights from a car and street lamps. All sorts of things can be used as practical light.
Before we get into the specifics of why and how to light with practicals, here's a quick quote from Roger Deakins, taken from his fantastic online forum, about the importance of practical lighting, especially in the digital age where camera sensitivity and dynamic range are through the roof:
I find myself lighting more and more with practical light sources and very few 'film' lights. [...] Choice of and the placement of practical light sources is an increasingly important aspect of lighting. Digital capture and the increased dynamic range that it offers makes lighting this way even more exciting.
Now that we've got that out of the way, our friend Billy Campbell over at Blind Spot Gear, makers of the portable LED Scorpion Light, sent us a new piece of a conversation that he filmed with his father Douglas Campbell, a 40-year veteran of the film industry. You may remember an earlier excerpt from this conversation which was all about lighting and shooting interviews. This time, the pair talk practical lights, and share some thoughts about how to best use practicals in different situations. Check it out:
There are two primary reasons that you might want to incorporate practical lights into your scene. First and foremost is that they're one of the few ways that cinematographers can motivate artificial light sources. In most instances, light motivation is incredibly important because it helps the audience suspend their disbelief. If the light doesn't make any sense -- maybe it's coming from the wrong direction or it's not a believable color -- it might very well draw attention to itself and distract the audience from the story. In that instance, the cinematographer has failed miserably at their job.
By smartly placing practicals throughout the scene (and making sure the audience is aware of them), you can motivate just about any kind of light you may need. If you need a way to motivate your key light for a night interior shot, a desk lamp will work wonders. For day interiors, windows are usually the best for motivation. And when there's a lamp behind a character, that can easily be used as motivation for a kicker. There are all sorts of ways that practicals can motivate artificial light.
Billy at Blind Spot was also kind enough to share a few examples of how practical lights, like bedside lamps, TVs, and candles can be used to motivate artificial sources. The lights he's using in these scenes are, of course, the Scorpion Lights which he manufactures:
The other reason that practicals are an incredibly powerful tool for cinematographers is that they're a simple and effective way to create depth in a scene. Of course, depth can be achieved any number of ways, but lighting is one of the best. Placing practical lights at various depths throughout a scene can not only help you motivate any artificial sources you may want to use, but they can drastically enhance the way the audience perceives spacial depth. Just look at the still from Skyfall on the right. The primary practical lanterns are helping to add shape and dimension to the character, and the additional practicals in the deep background are adding depth and creating some subtle specular highlights and bokeh.
The last thing to mention about using practical lights is that dimmers are wildly important. Having the practical source blown out in frame just looks bad and is distracting, so you should avoid it at all costs. While there are multiple ways to control the intensity, like traditional diffusion and the spray paint methods that Billy mentions in the conversation above, dimmers are usually the most effective because of the range of control they give you. Plus, dimmers for household fixtures are really inexpensive, and you can usually pick them up for less than $10.
What are some of your favorite tips and tricks for using practical lights? Share them down in the comments!