Passions Aside, It's About the Lighting

My proclivity for hanging about on Internet lighting discussion forums is not something that I'm ashamed of. You hardly ever come away from the experience without having learned something of interest--and sometimes it's even of value. The near-anonymity of the discussions tends to encourage the participants to expose their fanaticism on all kinds of issues, in ways that just wouldn't be tolerated in the cafeteria or the coffee shop. Whether it's Mac versus PC, grandMA versus Whole Hog, Martin versus Vari-lite, or Lee versus Rosco, the result is always the same: a hard core of True Believers opening up a jihad against all who dare to question their faith in a product or ideology.

What's really worrying about these technology and product flame wars is that the participants may be completely overlooking the whole purpose of lighting. While it's great to play with the latest tools, and I'm certainly not too proud to say that I find playing with new toys to be a lot fun, there are some fundamental elements of the lighting process that cannot be overlooked.

No matter what else we're trying to achieve, unless we're making radio, we really can't avoid the requirement to give the camera enough light to actually make a useful picture. Although it's quite likely that we may not wish to reveal every element of the frame in every shot, we still need to provide enough light, in the right places, to capture an image. That may sound like a statement of the blindingly obvious, but if your first move when taking on a lighting project is to think about whether a WholeHog 3, a grandMA or a Vista is the coolest console to use, you may just be overlooking the point.

Lighting an image is largely independent of the technology used to produce and control the light... those are merely implementation details. Lighting an image is all about where light should and shouldn't be, where the light is coming from, and what kind of shadows the light creates. Whether the light comes from a bonfire, a Coleman lamp, a metal halide discharge source, a piece of white hot tungsten wire, or the fusion reactions in the sun, is really only of interest to the crew (if any) and the producer who is paying for the equipment rental (if any).


The television industry is well known for its fads and fashions when it comes to equipment. A visit to the warehouse of any production rental company will reveal racks of equipment that was in demand by every DP or LD in the industry two years ago, but now just sits gathering dust and depreciating in value. On the other hand, those of us with limited production budgets keep on using our Molefays and Blondies, long after industry fashion would have us use low-voltage European spotlights or lightweight full-spectrum fluorescents to do the same jobs.

There's no doubt that a daylight scene is more easily lit with a couple of powerful HMI daylights, but the same look can be achieved with a bunch of molefays fitted with daylight lamps or a lot of CT Blue filters.

An experienced eye may notice the absence of the slight magenta cast introduced by HMI sources, but a good LD or colorist should have cleaned that up anyway. Similarly, a large florescent softlight produces a very natural-looking soft source with little effort and little power, but a large bounce sheet of polystyrene produces light just as soft and natural, even if it may take more effort to setup and strike.

Controlling light levels can be achieved with anything from a piece of wire mesh or neutral density filter, to a computer-controlled optical or electronic dimmer. If the right balance of levels is achieved, the pictures will look great, and nobody viewing will know (or care) if the dimmer was a 1965 Skirpan or 2007 Genlyte, and whether it was controlled by a box with a round knob on it, or a 8,192-channel Maxxyz.

Our industry's fascination with increasingly capable moving lights and the sophisticated consoles that drive them has diverted much of the attention of the present generation of technicians away from the more "boring" luminaires that actually do 90 percent of the lighting work in television.

Certainly moving luminaires have given us a whole new range of tools to amuse our audiences in games shows and music presentations, but the inability of the operators to keep these hyperactive luminaires in the same place or the same color for more than 10 frames, has kept this potentially useful technology away from the majority of other productions. These fixtures could add immense flexibility to a general purpose studio rig, but you just know that someone will start to wave them around on air during a sports hosting or the reality program.

Being obsessed with the latest available technologies and experimenting with all of their capabilities is an admirable pastime for a smart young person with a love of technology and an interest in lighting.

Looking beyond the glitter, whir and flash of the technology and into the heart of the picture is the next step in the creative lighting process. It is the responsibility of us old lighting curmudgeons to help the next generation of LDs and DPs to transcend their fixation on the technology and truly see the light.