Arriving at the Right Balance

Some LDs get great joy from focusing their designs—carving out pieces of lit space from the void. However, for me it's always been a moment of sheer terror. Focusing is the point where the beautiful vision that was in my head and later translated into plans, plots and associated paperwork, finally faces the test of reality. Will the angles really work? Will there be enough coverage? Will I blow the budget, get the production behind schedule or publicly humiliate myself trying to make a flawed design concept actually work on set?

No, for me, setting the pictures is by far the most exciting, and sometimes even satisfying, part of the lighting design process. Watching the vision that was previously only in your head materialize on a monitor or on a stage has been my reason for lighting, ever since I started doing shows at high school. How I also wound up as a lighting technologist, IT manager, software developer, freelance writer, consultant, teacher, technocrat, and recently, magazine editor (not this one)—remains a profound a mystery to me.


The process of balancing a picture is neither straightforward nor intuitive. I initially attempted to learn by watching others at school. This turned out to be a bad mistake, because I came to realize that they didn't have a clue either (they later became doctors, lawyers, accountants and politicians). They would generally chase themselves all over the stage until everything was at full intensity. At this point the director (usually a teacher) would sort of take over and wind up with everything at 75 percent except center stage, which would stay at 100 percent. At least it was easy to plot the cues.

The dominant or controlling light source is the key to balancing the shot. I had lit more than 50 school and community productions, and some dozen professional stage productions before I began to get how balancing works. It was to take several more years—until I was lighting television drama—before the process finally crystallized into a clear concept that I could eventually teach to my crews, and to my students at college.

Until that point I had merely been a technically skilled lighting technician with a good working knowledge of the various applications of the three-point lighting formula, and a good eye for detail in reproducing the look of the productions in our studios. Over the years, through watching a lot of adequate—but not great—television, I have come to recognize that a significant number of my lighting brethren have not yet reached their moment of balancing insight. This may be because the idea is so deceptively simple that when you arrive at it, you may not feel that you have actually discovered anything at all.

The technique is to balance the picture around what I think of as the dominant or controlling light source for the picture. The dominant light is not necessarily the keylight for the picture; in fact it's quite commonly the dimmest source in the scene. Let's consider some examples.


Your mission is to light nighttime interior that appears to be illuminated by a shaft of moonlight through the window. In this setup the dominating light is also the keylight (the main source of shadow and revelation). By starting your composition with the sources standing in for the shaft of moonlight and building in the fill lighting and set lighting beneath it, you avoid chasing your tail with levels as you strive to keep the moon effect from being swamped by the other sources.

The next example is an interview set where there are very limited available positions for front fill lighting. You can only fit a couple of fluorescent softlights between all of the audio, monitors, foldback, camera, video prompter and staging paraphernalia in the studio. If you start composing your picture by bringing up the keylight sources and adding in fill lights, backlights, set lighting, practical fixtures, etc., there's a distinct possibility that your fill lights will run out of photons some time before you get the look that you envisioned. If you think of your limited fill lighting as your controlling source and balance all other levels relative to that, then not only will you have the pictures you desire, you won't end up on your knees pleading with the audio department for enough room for another lighting stand.

Or perhaps you have a translight photographic window-backing in your set that needs to be partially overexposed to get the feel of a bright daytime exterior. If you use the window backing as the controlling source and balance all other sources around that point, you won't run the risk of burning a hole in the backing while taking that extra hour to add another truckload of lighting gear behind the set.

I've found that the same principle can be applied to location lighting. If you look for your least controllable light source and balance your color temperatures and intensities around that source, you wind up spending less time and resources arriving at the look you are seeking.

When you take a close look at this balancing act, the approach seems so obvious that you may even start to wonder why you booked that extra lighting truck and generator.