The Importance of Lighting Design

On set of "The Last Author" using Kino Flos and Wescott soft boxes.

Ask any professional filmmaker or photographer worth her weight in lens caps, and she’ll tell you that light is tantamount to a successful shoot.  It’s because of lighting a set properly that significantly adds to how long it takes to shoot a film.  I would guess that most of you out there who make this your profession understand that. You spend a lot of time getting the light just right. In photography, getting the light right can mean the difference between spending a few minutes in Lightroom or Aperture, or hours in Photoshop. For pro filmmakers and videographers, poor lighting can also lead to extended post production time adding filters to hide, mask, or “dress up” poor exposure or visual noise. But this all relates to proper lighting exposure. Today I want to address another aspect of lighting that a good visual artist should consider: design. I’ll approach it from the angle of our 48 Hour Film Project “The Last Author” (watch it first if you haven’t yet). In essence, lighting design is the art of using light to create a look and feel for your piece. It’s a combination of choosing not only the right lights, but the right bulbs, diffusion, reflectors and/or gels. Here are five tips for lighting design you can take to work with you on your next project:

  1. Know your options. Familiarize yourself with the various lighting options. Kino Flos, Diva’s, Tota’s, HMIs, soft boxes, etc. In addition to these types of lights and the power they put out, find out what kind of bulbs you can use and what light temperature they emit. For example, with Kino Flo’s (a very popular light used by every kind of filmmaker) you can have daylight balanced bulbs or tungsten bulbs. As the names suggest, the former emits light that approximates day light, and the latter has a cooler temperature. Are you shooting at night but need it to look like daylight is streaming in, you may want to stick a couple of 4-bank, 4′ Kino’s outside the window with daylight bulbs.
  2. Know your story. What is the mood you’re trying to evoke? Choose lights, gels, etc. that lend to it.
  3. Look beyond 3-points. Those of you that do a lot of documentary or commercial work most likely know about 3-point lighting. But look beyond your three lights. Consider putting a gel on a 4th light and shining that on a wall or bookshelf behind your subject. Shine colored lights even on objects way in the background. With additional lighting, you can add more depth and character to your shoot.
  4. Hire/Recruit a knowledgeable DP/Photo Assistant. As a director (or the chief photog on a commercial set), you don’t necessarily need to be the most knowledgeable about lighting. In fact, in many cases, the director or head photographer knows a fraction of what a good director of photography (DP) or photo assistant knows. Surround yourself with talented people. Remember the power of collaboration.
  5. Plan. In order to bring all this to fruition, you have to plan accordingly. Meet with your DP ahead of time to discuss the look and feel. If it’s a commercial project, make sure you have a strong understanding of what message so you know what kind of look and feel will help communicate that message. Make sure the equipment you need for your shoot is available.

Lighting Design on “The Last Author”

Lighting design played a very significant role in the making of our 48 hour film project “The Last Author.” For the scenes with the main character, Tom Goodwin, we wanted a bright yet sterile look. We lit him with 2-bank Kino’s right over his head, then used a bright tota with blue gels to create a slight blue cast on his face. We used my wife’s small Wescott soft-box as a fill, and a second one shone on the wall behind him.

Setting up a shot with Kino Flo on C-stand overhead, softbox for fill, and a tota with blue gel for the face.
The resulting image. Shot with a Zeiss CP.2 35mm T2.1.

For the scene where Tom confronts Evelyn, we wanted a warmer tone, but we also wanted shadows to evoke a sense of “hiding”. The only main light source was our Kino hung high and at an angle. The rest of the lighting were candles and the rooms natural low light. We also rented dimmers with our lights so we could adjust the brightness as necessary.

You can see the Kino Flo in the upper right-hand corner of photo.
Evelyn is in hiding, so our DP used shadows to evoke that feeling.

We are currently working on in-depth behind the scenes making of our film. We have lots of Flip and 7D behind the scenes footage to share, as well as photos galore.  It will make a great teaching tool for anyone interested in filmmaking in general, or doing a 48 hour film project specifically. Stay tuned. Follow me on Twitter or subscribe to this blog to be kept up to date.

2 thoughts on “The Importance of Lighting Design

  1. Great stuff Ron, I have several testimonials I am shooting tonight and I am prepping the lights today… this was good timing and gave me some new ideas.

    I can’t wait for the BTS.


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