How should I light my video shoot? With Paul Mottram!

How do I light my video shoot? What are the best lights to use?

Nowadays for lower budget, location lighting, LED sources are mostly used. Historically, it was always heavy and hot tungsten lights, and I've still got quite a few of those old fashioned lamps, because they still work very well in the right situation. There's no real need to get rid of them. If you’re going to gear up from scratch, modern, efficient LEDs are the way to go. However, cheap LED lights (on Amazon for example) often reproduce colours quite badly when recorded with a modern digital sensor - simple as that.

© Paul Mottram

If people are choosing and buying lights, they need to make sure something called the light's CRI number (Colour Rendering Index) is fairly high.  Anything above 95 is considered acceptable - as a reference, Daylight and Tungsten light have a CRI of 100. So if it looks too good to be true on Amazon, and they are £50 lights & they are huge panels with a massive output, there's probably going to be a catch somewhere along the line with them. So the short answer is LEDs, but you've got to be very careful about what you buy and do loads of research and look at lots of reviews to really make sure that the colour reproduction is going to be good and faithful to reality.

What are some different types of lighting and what effect do they have?

Well, I've been asked this before: what's good lighting and what's bad lighting?

My answer, weirdly, is not about the lighting, it’s always the placement of the shadows within the scene. The creation and placement of shadows is extremely important when it comes to good lighting, because it's shadows that give you the emotion of the shot. If I were to place you against a large window, your entire body would now be in shadow, effectively you would become a silhouette. Then all of a sudden, because you're in a total shadow, the subject now becomes enigmatic, concealed, you become anonymous.

If I then put you in a brightly lit studio, with multiple lights everywhere and filling-in all the shadows and eliminating contrast, i.e. completely flat, shadowless lighting, all of a sudden, you've got no emotion in the picture whatsoever, more like a gameshow. So, it's not the lights that you should be looking at when you do good lighting, it's where the shadows fall. If I put a light on the left side of my face and half of my face is in darkness, that is much more ambiguous, artistic and mysterious. Much more creative than just putting the light in-line with the lens and flooding you with light, like a flashgun on a stills camera. There's no emotion.

The simplest thing is often the way to move forward.

So cinematic lighting is the placement of shadows, not the placement of lights, which is a strange sort of paradox. For example, you can easily produce horror lighting if I put a light underneath a face to make it look sinister. The reason I'd look evil is that the shadows are now going upwards. This is because shadows in nature never normally point up. Once the sun has fallen below the horizon, there are no shadows formed upwards. So if you generate shadows going in that direction, your brain says, oh, that's a bit weird, that's a bit odd, the laws of physics seem to have been broken and it becomes a 'fight or flight' reaction. Therefore the direction of the shadows is proven to give a recognisable and innate horror response.

So remember, it's not just the quality, quantity or direction of the lighting fixture itself, it's the shadows that are created by that source within a scene that produces the emotion for an audience. For better television and film lighting always consider where and how your shadows are placed. 

© Paul Mottram

I’m filming outside - do I need any lighting stuff?

Yes, the best thing you can do outside and with absolute cheapness is any kind of reflector. If I haven't got a reflector with me, I'll use a white van, I'll position the talent nearer to a white wall or even a use piece of A4 paper, anything is better than nothing. What I'm trying to do with a reflector is control the amount of contrast in the shot and therefore the shadow quantity on people's faces. It always comes back to the shadows, as a good reflector can act as a second light source to control the contrast. One rarely uses a reflector to get more light for an exposure, you use a reflector to fill in the shadows.

Older video cameras and ones that can't shoot in a LOG profile find it difficult to cope with heavy, contrast-y scenes. A good reflector would be an excellent & simple piece of equipment to own. It's also nice to get some sort of reflection of the bounced light into the actor's eye. If you can get their reflector close enough, you'll get a lovely little twinkle 'eye-light' on the darker side of their face. So I do also use lighting equipment outside and if I have the opportunity and/or budget, of course I'll use actual lights. HMIs or powerful hard source LEDs are a good bet and I'd would still be generating and controlling the shadows.

Tell us about the lighting on a shot you’re proud of. How did you manage that? 

I was filming once for a documentary in some Russian army base and we needed to have these four soldiers looking at a map whilst they were all huddled around a table. We had hardly any equipment with us, as when you’re doing a documentary you're often up against time constraints and mobility issues, so you might not have all the gear to hand that you really want. Sometimes the simplest thing often works out to be the best. So to light four people looking at a map with one light, with all their faces looking down in a small room where you can't get any direct light into their eyes presented a problem.

So what we did was very simple (and importantly, quick). Firstly we chose a fairly dark coloured map to cover the table, it wasn't a white or pale as that would have produced too high a contrast ratio and we then hung one single light above them pointing straight down into the centre of the map without hitting any of their heads. This hard shaft of then reflected back up off the dark map into their eyes giving a sort of a green/blue tinge into their faces, it was just really simple but effective and quite beautiful. The rest of the room fell away into darkness and there was just this pool of light on the map reflecting back up onto the soldiers faces. Magical, it sort of glowed and looked amazingly cinematic for such a simple one light setup. 

So sometimes the simplest thing is often the way to move forward - just think what part of the image you need to light for (in this case it was their faces) and do what you can to deliver that, with any of the resources you have at hand.

© Paul Mottram

How do I get the best lighting?

Let's say if it's lighting for an interview, you want the key light to be reflected in the subject's eyes for a start. You want that little tiny twinkle of light that catches the light in people's eyes and gives them a bit of humanity. If you are lighting an object, you're looking at representing it's form & texture. If you're lighting food, then that almost always looks good with a heavy back light. If you are lighting a toy to sell on eBay or if you were doing a shots of Lego for an e-commerce website for instance, then a strong, soft side-light with some front fill would be the way to go. If you're trying to sell makeup or beauty products then it's going to be flat shadowless lighting, maybe using a LED ring-light. So it all depends on the object, context and purpose of the shoot.

Cheers Paul!



Edited for clarity by Esme Johnson.


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