Choosing the right video production lighting system without wondering if a better option is coming soon is nearly impossible. The choices available for lighting kits today are immense and are expanding at a quick pace. You’ll need to know about tungsten, HMI, fluorescent, LED, and now plasma.
The best plan of attack is to first look away from the gear and then write down your needs. Here are six questions every online video producer should ask before devising a lighting scheme and purchasing a kit:
- Are you purchasing studio lighting that needs to be simple for a variety of operators to handle in an existing facility?
- What types of projects will you be using the lights for? Events? Interviews? Meetings?
- Will you be using the light indoors, outdoors, or some combination of the two?
- How much control will you have over lighting in your shooting environment?
- Are you changing technologies for a specific purpose, such as energy efficiency or longer bulb life?
- Or are you starting fresh and need the most light in as small and flexible a kit as possible?
Types of Lights
In this Buyer’s Guide we’ll look at five types of lighting commonly used in video production: tungsten, ellipsoidal reflector, fluorescent, LED, and plasma.
Color temperature of various lighting sources and digital camera white balance.
Tungsten lighting is available in two configurations: open-face and closed-face. These terms refer to whether the light has a lens on it (closed-face) or not (open-face). Open-face tungsten lights, by and large, are amazingly flexible and cost-effective — especially when you consider that the average light gets used and abused for more than a decade.
Closed-face tungsten lighting is thought of more as “theatrical” lighting, although it has been used in studio and field production since the beginning. Fresnel lights use a lens to let you focus the light beam spread from quite narrow to quite wide.
Closed-face lights are usually built to incorporate “doors” in front of the light and “scrims” in between the doors and the light. Scrims are metal screens of varying density that are used to “knock down” (reduce) the amount of light a fixture is giving without dimming it.
Tungsten lights can easily be dimmed to vary the brightness of the lights, all the way down to no light at all. Typically, tungsten lights are dimmed by reducing the voltage going through the light. The side effect is that the light “temperature” changes and becomes “warmer” (a lower Kelvin rating) the
more it is dimmed. This is why external scrims and neutral-density gels are often used to reduce the light output instead.
Ellipsoidal reflector spotlights (often called Leko or Shakespeare lights) offer a very controlled throw, which can be quite long, with the ability to internally cut and shape the light with very hard edges. Often called “hard” light, these lights produce shadows that are sharp and very distinct.
These lights can also be used to cast the shape of an internal “gobo” or pattern. Glass gobos can even hold color corporate logos.
Fluorescent lighting is usually used open-face; bare lights face the subject. Video producers have adapted the cool running and low-power requirements of fluorescent lights to the special needs of production. You can use special bulbs that are specifically daylight- or tungsten-matched to fit in with existing lighting.
By its nature, fluorescent lighting is a broad-based wash of light. By using specially designed housings and light modifiers it can be used as both a direction key light or as a fill, but not too far from the subject being lit. The light it delivers has a nice, soft wrap around the subject’s face.
Open-face LED lighting is still developing rapidly, with higher-powered LEDs being developed nearly every year. What started as just a lightweight and low-power on-camera fill source has blossomed into a full field of lighting tools with multi-kW LED lights able to throw light across a room, yet still be cool enough to handle with your bare hands.
LED lights have also segued into closed-face lighting by putting several small but high-powered LEDs into a Fresnel enclosure. This recent development transitions LEDs from a rough, open-face source often used for a wash or key light, to a more flexible, focusable light.
Fluorescent and LED production lights are most often dimmable, and the color temperature shift of these lights is not as pronounced as with tungsten lights. Fluorescent lights can only dim within a range before there’s not enough energy to make the gases in the tube light up. Similarly, LEDs have a minimum voltage, but as they dim, they do not change color at all.
Some dimming circuits for LEDs flicker the LEDs many times a second instead of varying the voltage. While this works to the naked eye, it causes problems when the lights are used with a high-shutter speed. The flicker rate can be seen in the images. Be aware of this when shooting.
Most recently, plasma lights have arrived on the scene, and they offer an amazing amount of lumens per watt. These systems focus RF energy onto a small capsule of plasma which glows brightly from an internal reaction to the RF energy.
Currently, plasma lighting is offering the highest efficiency of all the lighting technologies. It is being used for directional open and closed-face lights, as well as “soft” flat-panel lighting. Initial costs are very high, and availability is scarce, but the many advantages of plasma lighting have created a high interest in this technology.
Here are some things to consider when choosing your lighting:
- Initial cost: New technologies cost more initially but save money in energy, heat, and bulbs over the long run.
- Operational convenience: Tungsten lights have been used for nearly 100 years of filmmaking and, as such, are well-developed and varied. Alternatively, new technologies offer sizes and form factors not easily attained with traditional lighting fixtures.
- Application: How you intend to use a light should be the best determining factor of what type of light you choose. A small run-and-gun camera light is not a big softbox for a corporate interview. Each has its place.
- Color rendition: The Color Rendition Index (CRI) of lights measure how close they come to the broad-spectrum light that comes from the sun. LEDs and fluorescent lights achieve their energy efficiencies by only emitting light in a narrow wavelength, sometimes dramatically affecting how certain colors and fabrics appear when lit with these lights.
So write down what you need the light to do and what you want it to look like, and then select the gear that enables you to best attain those goals.
Lastly, I’ll say a few words about light-shaping tools. Almost any light of sufficient power will fulfill the basic task of illuminating your subject. How you craft that light makes a big difference in the quality of the images you produce.
Using doors, flags, scrims, gels, reflectors, and other shaping tools to keep the light where you want it — and away from where you don’t — are critically important. If you look inside any big grip truck, the majority of the space is not for the lights, but for everything else. Usually more than half a truck is for the shaping tools used to modify and control the light.
Allocate a good part of your lighting budget to control and shaping tools, and you’ll make the most of your lighting investment.
This article appears in the forthcoming 2013 Streaming Media Industry Sourcebook.