Lighting Off-Site Locations

In a perfect world, every off-site location would be well equipped. Production crews would deal only with pleasant-looking, well-prepped talent, optimal soft lighting, pin-drop quiet sound, and as many battery packs as one.

Of course, in the real world, shooting just isn’t that easy, and neither is lighting a locale effectively. Often a crew will show up only to find they need to combat harsh light, stray shadows, or odd color temperatures. On top of that, where you’re shooting—either inside or out—presents very different sets of challenges.

“If you’re in a studio, you control the whole situation,” said Cool-Lux founder George Panagiotou. “When you’re outside, you’re fighting a lot of natural elements, with sun or shade or people going from sun to shade. Shooting indoors, you’ve got to deal with windows and office lights. There are a lot of very difficult situations.”

The situation may be more difficult now than it was 10 years ago due to the development and evolution of digital video, which is more sensitive to lighting. As a result, news photographers have created an aesthetic where the natural environment of the room is used as a base and is then enhanced with smaller lights. Still, how do you achieve a professional look outside of a controlled environment?

Office Lighting

In an office setting, you’re typically presented with two types of lighting challenges. First, the office is lit with unflattering lights, often controlled by one or two switches. And in more modern buildings, windows are featured prominently in the architecture. Both of these factors need to be dealt with in order to achieve an appealing look.

“A lot of corporate offices use the most efficient light source they can, which is fluorescent,” said Lowel’s Duane Sherwood, director of communications. “In terms of the office-style fluorescent, there are probably seven or eight different color temperatures.”

If your lighting kit is equipped with a tungsten light, you could match the color temperature of the tungstens to the fluorescent lights with a green filter. Unfortunately, not only do tungstens throw off a lot of heat (up to 80% of their energy is turned into heat) and are inefficient when compared to HMI lights (which have five times the efficiency), the tungsten-green filter idea is “a Band-Aid solution at best,” according to Sherwood. “There’s not a flesh tone alive, no matter how you white-balance the camera, that looks good when it’s lit with green light.”

Fortunately, there are other solutions. Chuck Gloman, producer and Arri light user, suggests not cooling the color temperature of the tungstens but instead warming the fluorescents. This is done by using “a minus green filter, which is actually pink, and will convert the cool deluxe, which is usually what offices have, to tungsten.”

If you’re lucky enough to be shooting in a small office space, the best approach is to turn off the fluorescents and light the area yourself. If that’s not possible but you have a lot of pre-production time, Sherwood suggests that you take white foam core sheets (cheap, and available at any office supply store) and cover up the fluorescents.

The other major issue is the presence of windows, which introduces the possibility of uncontrolled sunlight and shadows. John Jackman, author of Lighting for Digital Video & Television, which is available from CMP Books, said the key to lighting around windows is to not have them in the frame. “As soon as you set up a shot where the window is in the frame, you’ve got a huge contrast problem that is really hard to conquer. This is a very common mistake for beginners.”

You can use the window as a light source, however. “What you might do is have the person next to the window, using the window as the key light,” suggested Jackman, “and, using either a reflector board or a piece of white foam core, bounce light on the other side as fill. You can create some very nice-looking lighting by just rearranging what’s coming in the window.” Be sure that you use some kind of fill light when windows are present; otherwise, the image will have too much contrast, leaving your subject’s face shadowed.

Another thing to watch out for is the presence of random shadows in a shot. “Every shadow is sure to have a light source generating it,” said Gloman. “If you see shadows all over the place, people wonder, ‘Well, where’s the light coming from?’”

To avoid shadows, Gloman advised getting your light “as high as possible so that the shadow is below the line of sight. That way, you don’t see it. If the light is directly at the person, the shadow is going to be behind the person. So if you get the light up, angled down, it should be on the ground, where you can’t see it.”

In the past, some crews simply let a window’s blue light permeate the shot, though it is a technique that’s fading from popularity. According to Gilles Galerne, president of K 5600, people today want to balance the color temperature inside and outside.

“The [indirect] light that will come from a window is usually fairly diffused, so you want to answer this with a diffused source,” he said. “If you have someone sitting next to a window, half of his or her face is lit by the incoming light, and the other half will be the shadow area. If you light on the other side [of the subject] with something really soft, you’re not going to create a shadow.”

Galerne suggested using a diffusing light bank to illuminate the side of the subject opposite the window. “What a diffusing light bank does is wrap around the subject so there’s no possibility of there being any shadows anywhere. All you have to do now is adjust the contrast—what is most pleasing to your eyes—which you can see in the viewfinder of the camera by making the artificial source either closer or further away from the subject.”

The Hard And Soft Of It

Galerne mentions “soft” lights, which, as the name implies, are more gentle, flattering, and diffused. On the other end of the spectrum are “hard” lights, which are harsher, stronger, and more intense.

As the greatest portion of the population ages, soft lighting, which smoothes out fine lines and wrinkles and takes the edge off deep-set eye sockets, has become much more popular. Hard lights aren’t completely without merit, however. If you’re doing an interview where the nature of the piece is dramatic, or you just want to create some drama, then you may want to use hard lighting to increase the contrast.

Galerne gives this example: “If you’ve seen those shows where they’re interviewing old mobsters, a lot of time the background is dark, the light is coming from a side angle, and the majority of their face is in darkness. It’s a creative decision done to enhance the drama.”

Another use of hard light is when you’re shooting outside, but this is a subject of great debate. (If you want to get lighting experts riled up, ask them where they stand on using hard lights outdoors.) Some argue that hard lights are effective in obliterating shadows the sun causes. “People don’t realize that when you’re outside, you need more light,” said one professional.
Another perspective argues that such an approach is complete nonsense: “Why would you haul lights outside on a bright day?” Instead, you should use reflectors to bounce the light to where you want it. In any event, try both methods and see which you prefer.

Man-On-The-Street Interviews

Mother Nature is not known for her benevolence toward production crews, which is why you’ve got to be prepared for both sunny and overcast days. Fortunately, overcast days are great for shooting (plenty of soft, diffused light and few shadows).

One of the easiest (and cheapest) options in dealing with sunlight is to use a reflector to bounce the light. “Most people rely on reflectors and bounce cards to sort of fill in the shadows,” said Sherwood. “Someone is usually standing just outside the shot with one of those collapsible flex fill things or a white piece of foam core.”
Another option is to have “a soft, diffused on-camera light and use existing lighting, sunlight, as your key light,” said Panagiotou. “Turn your subjects to face the key light [or to the desired angle] and then use your fill light, or your eye-light, as it should be called on the camera, for illuminating shadows created by the key light.”

Jackman warns against using an on-camera light as your key: “When you use it as a key light, you get that lovely deer-in-the-headlights look,” he said. “But if you use it as a fill light and the existing sunlight as key, then it decreases the contrast enough to give you a good aesthetic.”

The problem with an on-camera light is that it places a heavy demand on your battery. If you haven’t come prepared to handle its power needs, you’re running the risk of losing power to both your light and your camera.
“If you’re doing interviews and you’re going to be on the street all day, you’ve got to back yourself up with a belt or extra battery—it’s the only way to deal with battery drain,” said Panagiotou. To be really safe, he advises plugging your light directly into your belt pack. That way, your power-hungry light won’t siphon power from your camera’s on-board battery.

Unfortunately, most people forget the battery/light dynamic, which results in odd lighting or missed shots. Frezzi’s Ed Kuhn wants crews to think about lights and batteries when they’re looking to purchase a new camera.

“Consider the whole package,” he said. “Consider the battery system and the lighting system together before you make a purchase. A lot of times, people will choose a camera and a battery—then they look at the light. Depending upon the battery they’ve chosen, it’s [usually] not sufficient to support an on-camera light system.”