A Tricky Lighting Situation, Lit Without Lights.

Last week I was doing a corporate shoot at the fancy offices of a multinational company. It was a simple shot, a mid shot of a person talking slightly off camera. To add some interest we used a basic track and dolly system so the camera could track left to right to add a sense of depth to the shot. We were given several options for a shooting location within the offices. A cafeteria, an office, a board room with large windows or a lobby/landing area with a central spiral staircase and big picture windows at each end.

Of course we chose the landing area with the interesting staircase and picture windows. It was visually interesting, but not without it’s problems. For a start it was a busy area with people coming and going all the time, not much we could do about that but work around the noise. We knew we would be interrupted and loose many takes, but felt is was worth the extra time and effort because visually it look great.

The next problems was light. Now you’d think that with large picture windows at opposite ends of the landing, light wouldn’t be a problem, but it was. The lobby area was quite long and there was little natural light reaching the centre where the spiral staircase was. As a result the interviewee was standing in shadow with brilliant bright light streaming from the windows behind and the exteriors we could see in the shot. In addition it was a day with scattered cloud so light levels were up and down quite a bit.

So, how did I light this? The obvious thing to do would be to pour a ton of light with a nice bright fixture onto the subject. As anyone that’s ever tried to shoot against a bright window knows, you need a lot of light to compete with the sun! Most LED or fluorescent fixtures just don’t have enough output to deal with this situation. High power tungsten fairs better but is very inefficient due to the need to use daylight correction gels to balance the colour temperature of the tungsten lights with the exterior sunlight. HMI would be my light of choice for this situation, an HMI lamp is 2 to 4 times brighter than than a Tungsten lamp of the same power and the colour temperature is a good match for daylight, but I don’t own any HMI lamps (at the moment at least). So what to do? As there was plenty of light, just not on our subject, I decided to use reflectors. I always carry a number of cheap, pop up, 5 in 1 reflectors of differing sizes with me. These have a main pop-up disc that acts as a diffuser combined with zip on covers that have white, gold and silver reflective surfaces plus a black surface to use as a flag or negative fill.

Using a 4ft silver reflector I was able to bounce plenty of light into the centre of the landing to nicely light the interviewee. This bounced light was much brighter than I could have achieved with the Arri 600 fresnels I had with me. A further benefit was that as the sun went in and out, although the overall light level went up and down the contrast range remained fairly constant, so with a little iris riding we were able to cut between sun in and sun out shots without too much difficulty. If I had wanted to make the interviewee look a bit warmer I could have used the gold reflector surface. If I needed more light, then a larger reflector. Reflectors are so useful yet really cheap. It’s worth buying a couple of proper holders and stands for them as this makes them easier to setup and adjust. A great soft light for interviews can be created by using a low level fresnel lamp aimed up at a reflector to one side and slightly above the talent. This is often easier than trying to get a big softbox up high, although there is a lot more spill. Reflectors are often forgotten as a lighting fixture. I really like them.

5 thoughts on “A Tricky Lighting Situation, Lit Without Lights.”

  1. If you have at least one source of natural light, there isn’t much you can’t achieve with 1-3 reflectors. To me, it’s the most elegant and natural looking solution. Also, really lit interviews look unnatural and very “video-y” to my eye. I think sometimes people show up with their big light kits just to impress the client that what they are doing is somehow hard and requires a lot of equipment. Cinematography is like martial arts – usually the best result comes from the simplest solution that requires the least amount of movement – reflectors are like the Judo of the cinematography world – simply redirect what is there in a way that serves you.

  2. Alister,
    Thanks for remiding me of what a lovely tool (and in most cases natural looking to boot) reflectors are.
    I’m often too quick to pull out the lights when some reflectors would do a wonderful job.

    Also thank you for the informative and well done PMW200 introduction video.


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