The Perils and Promise of Lighting for HD

February 22, 2006
Better cameras make things easier, but tight budgets require creative solutions


To those who suggest that there isn't any difference between lighting for SD and HD I have to respectfully disagree. The question then becomes: Is it easier or harder to light for high definition photography?

Opinions vary widely on this matter, based both on experience and conjecture. From my own experience, having worked in HD production for more than three years on long form-documentaries, commercials, corporate, cable, broadcast and even low-budget theatrical features, I have to conclude that sometimes it's easier and sometimes it's harder.

Last month I worked on the live high definition production of CBS Sports' "NFL Today" show that accompanied the AFC Championship football game in Denver. I had the opportunity to discuss this very topic with the Lighting Director Lenny Mancini, Jr., who felt very strongly that lighting for HD is easier; in fact he says he can't wait until all his work is in hi-def.

Mancini explained that the improvements in the cameras themselves mean that he has less problem with the highlights overexposing and their ability to reach into the shadows without as much fill light means the ultimate effect becomes a more natural look.

On the exterior set of "NFL Today," where the four hosts and commentators sat in a roofed environment (in case of inclement weather) behind the "sports desk" with the bright football field and stadium in the background, Lenny was able to balance the shaded foreground with only four, 1,200 W HMIs. The cameras themselves did the heavy lifting in terms of compressing the highlights so as not to overwhelm the shadow areas.

Some HD cameras, like the Varicam, actually replace the knee point and slope controls when in special modes like "Film Rec" with an alternate control called "Dynamic Range" and offer four presets that can be invoked as needed, from 200 percent minimum to 500 percent maximum. For ENG or EFP crews, who finds themselves in the field without a proper engineer and monitoring equipment (normally required to tweak the knee), they'd still be able to have a range of creative control over the highlights in the sky or on lightly colored wardrobe, which might otherwise be a problem.

On the other hand, the widescreen, 16:9 aspect ratio associated with HD formats does serve to complicate matters, not only because it creates a larger "playing field" to light evenly, but because light stands or grip equipment have to be spread further back out of the shot. In some cases this might require larger units placed further back, especially if using large diffusion in front of the lights like 6-by-6-foot silk diffusion. When confronted with limited real estate, this might force the shot to be smaller than in 4:3 and create a limitation that will be blamed on the lighting department.


Currently, when compromises are made in the framing to accommodate both 4:3 and 16:9 frames, the smaller square in the middle is favored, simply because the majority of the sets in use are in that format, but as sales of widescreen sets proliferate, more care will be given to staging and lighting for the full widescreen. I found it revealing, as we rehearsed the post-game award ceremony in the Pittsburgh locker room at Mile High Stadium, where the Steelers ultimately received their trophy for winning the conference championship, that the background banner that CBS provided was square; as we composed the picture for 4:3, it filled the frame behind our host Greg Gumbel and his guests, but on the 16:9 picture, you could see the banner perched in the stands off the set!

Until now, there has been considerable conjecture that hi-def would reveal all the imperfections in the on-camera talents' face, and it is incumbent on the lighting department to consider this in their design approach. My experience has taught me that a combination of minimizing detail enhancement in the camera settings and careful application of soft lighting can make everyone happy. Standard definition cameras often need aggressive detail just to have a sharp enough look, but the HD cameras are so inherently sharp with many more lines of resolution that it's possible to run the detail down if not all the way off. This also minimizes the addition of unwanted noise.


One aspect of HD production that does serve to make the lighting both more difficult and easier is the additional scrutiny that is imposed because of the newness and the additional costs involved.

I had the privilege recently, during the first week of HD debut of ABC News "Good Morning America, " to light and shoot its first multicam HD live remote at SeaWorld in San Diego. Because of the many unknowns involved, technical operations required a rehearsal day to test the HD uplink, so you can understand that the normal costs were doubled in addition to the extra HD encoder equipment, technician and spares.

Because it's only 4 a.m. in California when the show goes on the air on the East Coast, considerable efforts are made in the lighting design to make the West Coast live remotes look like daytime so that when they're replayed three hours later they still look "live." In this case, it meant lighting a large exterior tank where two whales, Shamu and Baby Shamu, would be stroked, fed and weighed on a scale by our correspondent and a whale trainer. Obviously a large light was in order!

Even before I asked for it, the operations producer reserved a Bebee lighting crane truck, which has a bank of three remotely controllable 12 K HMIs on the end of an 82-foot crane. It also has a self-contained generator that makes deployment simple and swift.

Sure enough, after blocking the shot with the placement of the Bebee truck in mind (it weighs 32,000 pounds, so it needs a strong footing), when we turned it on, even the whales thought it was daytime and came out to look for their breakfast.

We illuminated the foreground where the correspondent and trainer would play, with a 20-foot strip of daylight balanced 4-foot Fourbank Kino Flos and the remote went off without a hitch. In this case, HD was easy because the show was willing to pay for the proper tools, to protect the investment they were making in new technology.

Whether lighting for HD is easier or not, it is safe to say that it's more fun than SD, because everyone pays additional attention to the larger and sharper pictures, and with the newness of it all, the "wow" factor is still significant and can't help but reflect well on the lighting and camera technicians involved.

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