Great Lighting For Microbudget Video

No matter what camera you’re using, any shot is only as good as its lighting. When I was in film school, I was introduced to the Lowel Tota-Light, and I hated it. It was extremely bright, extremely hot, and extremely harsh. It took me about a decade to learn how to use it, but now this little hundred-dollar wonder is my primary tool for lighting everything from interviews to commercials.

Another inexpensive, open-face light is the Smith-Victor Q60, which is a bit larger and less robust than the Tota-Light, but features built-in barndoors, which make it easy to use cine-gels and to direct the light exactly where you want it.

The key to using an open-face light like the Tota or Q60 effectively is understanding that the light it provides is a raw ingredient, not a finished product. Just as flour needs to be combined with other ingredients to make cake, raw light needs to be combined with lighting modifiers to make a tasty image.

To illustrate this point, take a look at the following video. I’ve indicated on-screen what lighting is being used for each variation of the shot.

Let’s walk through what’s shown in the video.

Here, you can see the first setup.

The key light – the primary light source – is an unmodified Tota-Light. The fill light is another Tota-Light, shining through a small Tota-Brella.The back light is a Smith-Victor Q60 with a piece of Tough Spun diffusion gel clipped to the barndoors with clothespins. This softens the light slightly, and makes it a bit less likely to flare the lens. To really protect against lens flare, I’ve clipped a piece of black foamcore to a stand, and positioned it as a “flag,” allowing the light to hit the subject, but not the camera lens.

Using a “naked” (unmodified) key light casts “hard,” sharply-defined shadows. Today, this is a fairly stylized look, most often associated with the film noir genre of cinema from the 1930s – 1950s, which used a lot of relatively hard (but often quite beautiful) “single source” Fresnel lighting.

Notice that the key light illuminates the eye and cheekbone on the shadow side of the model. This lighting effect is commonly referred to as the “Rembrandt triangle,” because the painter used it in many of his portraits. Because the lights remained stationary throughout this tutorial, you will see the Rembrandt triangle in every version of this shot, although the lighting modifiers will soften the edges of the shadow substantially.

As you can see in the following shot, the fill light by itself does not cast enough light to illuminate the subject. Its function is to “fill” the key light’s shadows with light. How much you fill them depends on the aesthetics of the shot.

It’s a good idea to soften your fill light (in this case, I’ve used a small umbrella) to avoid casting shadows with it. TV shows and low-budget movies of the 1970s and ’80s were notorious for using lighting that cast multiple shadows on the actors’ faces – a less than attractive technique.

Adding a fill light to a hard key light softens the film noir look, and puts you more in the neighborhood of 1960s cinema, which tended to use a lot of lights, often hung from the rafters on a metal grid.

A strong back light (“hair light”) completes the classic “three point” lighting setup. 90% of the shots in mainstream movies use some variation of this three-point lighting design.

Shining the key light through a “silk” – in this case a diffusion panel from a 6-in-1 reflector kit, provides a much softer, more contemporary light. It also gives the subject’s eyes fairly natural-looking rectangular highlights, much like the reflection of a window.

The drawback of using a silk is that it requires an additional stand. A very similar effect can be obtained by using a white shoot-through umbrella. The larger the umbrella, the softer the light.

As you see here, the quality of light from a silk and an umbrella is very similar.

With a key light creating softer shadows, it is quite common to dispense with the fill light, and simply pair it with a back light to create a bright edge that separates the subject from the background. This is a very popular lighting design for episodic television.

Adding a fill light creates a very lush effect that visually reinforces the lighter mood of romances and comedies.

It’s easy to get caught in the gear-lust mentality of thinking that you need expensive lights to achieve attractive lighting. I hope this little demonstration showed you that even “low-end” instruments like the Lowel Tota-Light and Smith-Victor Q60 can look fantastic, when used properly, and paired with well-designed modifiers.

31 Replies to “Great Lighting For Microbudget Video”

  1. This is a nice little tutorial. I was surprised to see you using lights with umbrellas the way you have them oriented. I’ve never used them that way — it seems like it would really cut into the amount of light they’re going to put out. But maybe that’s what you’re after?

    For what it’s worth, Lowel’s own tutorials demonstrate the use of umbrellas with the underside, not the outer side, facing the subject. (Here’s a tutorial link from Lowel:

    1. Thanks for the comment. This is a great point … I’ve been shooting through umbrellas for so long, I forgot that not everyone does it! Actually, whether you shoot through or bounce into a white umbrella, the amount of light you get is about the same. The quality of light, however, is softer and more pleasing to the eye (my eye, anyway) with shoot-through. I’ll do another test shoot to demonstrate the difference.

  2. What really blows my mind about this tutorial and others you offer is that I have had the very same equipment in my kit for years but didn’t really get the good results until I saw it in action on your videos. Breaking the shots down light by light is illuminating in more ways than one. Simple stuff but it makes all the difference.

    1. Thanks, Chris! Sometimes I wonder, “Who am I to be giving advice?” but as long as people seem to find my tips helpful, I’m happy to keep sharing.

  3. Love this tutorial, Alex. A tip that I know I, especially, would find useful is letting us know the wattage of your bulbs in the tota lights. I find that’s always been a great feature of the tot as (being able to put in different bulbs), but I’m always interested to see how other DPs handle the amount (or lack thereof) of light. Just a thought.

    Loving this blog!!!

    1. Great point, Matt … I keep a 1,000 watt bulb in one Tota and a 750 watt bulb in the other. Totas also work fairly well with dimmers, which is another good option for adjusting brightness on the fly. Of course, you need a high-voltage dimmer (like those available from marine supply stores).

        1. I checked on this, and son of a gun, they changed it! It was 1000 watts for years. I guess they downgraded it for safety reasons. Looks like they only sell the EMD bulbs in 750 watt now – they used to have several different wattages to choose from. Thanks for pointing this out. I’ll amend the post.

  4. Great tutorial, Alexander! I found it really, really useful. I’m in the process of buying a light kit myself and I’ll probably buy the three lights you have recommended here.
    How would you have light this scene if there were two people present, one at 12 and one at 9 or 10? Would you do anything different?

    1. Thanks, Mike. With two people more or less next to each other (as opposed to facing each other, or perpendicular to each other), you can usually make this same same setup work. The main issue would be ensuring that one person isn’t blocking the other person’s light. Often, this means raising the light up a bit higher, so that shadows are falling down, instead of across (if that makes sense).

      Also, since one person will be sitting closer to the light, you have to be careful with exposure. For example, putting whichever person has darker skin and/or hair closer to the light can save a lot of aggravation. You may have to move the keylight farther away so that the difference in light falloff isn’t as severe (e.g. a person sitting four feet away from a keylight is twice as far as someone sitting two feet away, and the light will be half as bright. But, if the light is 10 feet away, then the difference between 10 feet and 12 feet is much less severe. Of course, the overall light level will be much lower. This is definitely a “play by ear” issue).

  5. Nice job as usual. Been following your site for a few months now – I work in the world of in-house industrial and have to do it all myself. Good to read your solutions to problems that I come across. Keep up the good work!

    1. Thank you! Feel free to ask questions if you’re grappling with anything. If I have a clue about it, I’ll share it.

  6. This is an excellent post! Very helpful as I am just getting start with interview lighting. I noticed on your images that it says Canon 5d Mark II ungraded footage. Do you shoot with specific picture styles or just the standard setting? I’ve been using flat picture styles recently and have had to do a lot of post work to make the image colorful

    1. Thanks for the kind words. I try to shoot an image that needs as little color grading as possible. Essentially because there’s only one time when I have access to ALL the image data, and that’s when I shoot it! Anytime afterwards, I’m working with a highly compressed MP4 file. So, I set up a “User Defined” picture style. It is based on Standard, with Sharpness of 3, Contrast of -4, Saturation of 0, and Color Tone left at 0. The main thing is to turn Contrast all the way down. I usually dial in white balance manually.

      1. Awesome, thanks for the tip! I have been using some of the cinestyle ones and have found them to be flexible but for run n gun shoots where I need to get the footage out sooner rather than later it’s been frustrating to get all the color back. The images you’re getting on your videos are great!

    1. Good for you! Be sure to use some kind of light modifier to soften the quality of the light. Even a shower curtain works well, as long as you keep it from getting too hot.

  7. Oh, two umbrellas came with the kit. And the tough spun diffusion that you mentioned for the 600 watt.
    Here’s hoping I don’t seriously maim somebody with an exploding bulb! 🙂

  8. Alex, can I ask you a quick question about working with umbrellas? I was playing around with my tota kit today and I had a bit of a problem in getting the light to bounce from my reflector onto my subject (me; I was alone). At first, I tried to use the tip of the umbrella to “point” towards where I thought the light should strike the reflector. But this didn’t seem to hold true. Has this been your experience as well?

    1. Mike, this is a great question. The reflector is what you need to adjust, not the light. An easy way to practice this is to take your reflector outside on a sunny day, pick a “target,” and try to bounce the sun onto it. You’ll quickly see that the angle has to be fairly precise in order to bounce light from a given source to a given target.

      Also, the softer the source, the less visible any reflected light will be. If you’re bouncing light that’s already being softened by an umbrella, you’ll need to put the reflector fairly close to the subject to see any difference.

      I hope this helps!

  9. Thanks! I’ll give that a try. Do you have any tips for practicing lighting solo? I don’t have a dummy or any thing like that to work with.

  10. Hey Alexander! I have a question about three point lighting. In almost every tutorial that I have read, it is stated that you should roughly place the lights at about the two o’clock position (45 degrees) and pointed down at about 45 degrees also. Part this is pure aesthetic – you want to create shadows and thus depth in the face.
    But I’m curious. Is this also because you want to create diffuse reflection (vs. direct reflection)?

  11. Mike, to be honest, most people don’t think about reflection unless there’s some kind of issue. In a normal room, with carpeted or dark wood flooring, reflection usually doesn’t factor into lighting design. If you’re doing some kind of product shot that involves shiny surfaces, then diffuse vs. direct reflection comes into play, but in lighting human beings, it would only become an issue if there were, for example, a shiny surface such as framed artwork in the shot.

  12. Alexander, I’m a little late to the party, having just discovered this great write-up.

    My questions:
    – Which 60″ umbrella did you use with your tota-light?
    – Are you using a third-party umbrella adapter?

    The reason I am asking is that I have had a lot of issues trying to use non-Lowel umbrellas with my totas, most of them being to big (at the shaft).


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