Our Camcorder Classroom - Lighting

What does a camcorder fundamentally do? Takes moving pictures, right? (OK, it also records sound, but that’s the topic for next time, so we’re concentrating on the video stuff for now.)

But let’s delve a little deeper. What actually IS a picture? It’s a recording of something, right?
Yes, but a recording of precisely what?

The answer is something we take for granted almost every second of every day. A picture is a recording of LIGHT reflecting off the subject—nothing more, nothing less.

Without light, there is no picture.

And this is why lighting is so critical to making pleasing videos.

If the light is ugly, the picture will be ugly. If the light is inadequate, the picture will be too dark. If the light is overpowering, the picture will be overexposed. When the lighting is bad, your pictures will be bad. It’s as simple as that. In short, controlling the light is controlling the picture.
And the effect is powerful.

Try this experiment.
Set up a camera, and a TV monitor showing the shot. Have a student act as the talent, sitting on a chair or stool facing the camera. Frame a traditional interview-style “talking head” shot.

Next close all drapes and turn off all of the lights in the room to make it as pitch black as possible. Then turn on just one lamp or video light that you can easily move around. Position the talent as if at the center of a giant clock face. The camera is at 6 o’clock—dead ahead—and the 12 o’clock position would be directly behind the talent.  Now, you’re simply going to move this light around in a circle, keeping the talent in the middle.

First, put the light right next to the camera to illuminate the talent from head on—directly next to the lens, keeping the camera and light both as close to 6 o’clock as possible.

What does it look like? The result typically looks a lot like a drivers’ license photo. The picture is bright enough, but FLAT. Everything is seen, but there’s little perceived dimension to the shot.

Now move the light to the right to between where 5 o’clock and 4 o’clock would be.

Now the light hits the subject from an angle instead of straight ahead. Suddenly the face gets the appearance of depth. The nose and eye sockets cast SHADOWS that tell the eye that the subject has a three-dimensional shape.

This is the magic of lighting. Even though we understand that the TV screen we’re looking at is actually FLAT - the shadow cues from lighting give the face the appearance of depth. Plus, shadows add some DRAMA to the picture.

Consider how this new lighting effects your perception of the subject.

Now move the light to 3 o’clock, lighting the subject from 90 degrees to the side. Now half the entire face is in shadow. How does this affect the perception of the character? Does the subject suddenly appear a bit sinister?
Watch how Hollywood lights the good guys and the bad guys in movies. Good lighting actually helps the audience understand the characters.
For fun, move your single light directly BEHIND the subject to 12 o’clock. Suddenly you’re subject is in the witness protection program! There MUST be something they’re hiding!

It’s a simple exercise, and fun, but it’s a great example of how lighting matters in storytelling.
Or course, in most video, there’s not just one, but a balance of many lights. The primary light, as in our single light example, would be called the KEY Light. In traditional three-point dramatic lighting, the KEY is joined by a FILL light to soften those dramatic shadows that the key light creates, and finally, a BACK or HALO light is used  to help separate the subject from the background.

The same basic concepts work in field lighting as well.
The sun is typically the key light and you can control it (more or less) by understanding where it’s coming from and positioning your talent or scenic elements so that it helps, rather than harms, your shot.

Direct sun on the face is as harsh as the light in the 6 o’clock position in our exercise. So place talent so that the light is at an angle or even behind them. Try using a shiny reflector made of cardboard and tinfoil to bounce sunlight to create key or fill lights or to soften shadows. Something as simple as a white sheet on a plastic pipe frame can diffuse direct sunlight falling on a person or scene.
Remember, no matter what creates the light, or how it’s managed, the underlying truth is that all any camera does is record the light that reflects off your scene.

Learn to control the light—and you learn how to control how beautiful your video images can look.

Next time: Sound

Bill Davis is a video professional with more than two decades experience producing, writing, shooting, and editing video. He spent 10 years as Contributing Editor at Videomaker Magazine, and conducts seminars and lectures nationwide on the art and craft of videomaking. He is the author and producer of the Videocraft Workshop series of video editing training programs, including the START EDITING NOW! Classroom Workshop Edition.