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.