THE ENLIGHTENED VIDEO PHOTOGRAPHER
Clean up your images with a little bit of lux
By David Hosansky
In the beginning, you will need light. Not a great deal of light, but enough to insure that your images have good resolution and color. The effect of low light on videotape is not the same as low light on film. Still pictures shot in poor light come out looking murky; but video pictures are not only murky, they are also "snowy" (with grainy flecks of color) and have lifeless, almost nonexistent, color. Nevertheless, video cameras can often capture images under lighting conditions where a still camera could never go with out an exposure time of several seconds with a wide-open lens. Illumination is measured in lux, and camcorder manu facturers stress the lux level (often deter mined arbitrarily) when touting the lowlight sensitivity of the camcorder. But this level is the barest amount of illumination you need to record an image. Just because the camcorder can record a picture at a lux level of 5 doesn't necessarily mean the exposure will he a good one. Often buried in the camcorder specs is a more realistic figure for the recom mended minimum amount of light needed;
this, typically, is about 150 lux. Trans lated to the more familiar terms of still photography, that's around 6 EV, or the equivalent of 1/30 sec at f/l.4 with ISO 100 film. It's still fairly low light, but it does mean that even those camcorders that can capture images with as little as one lux probably will produce sharper images when the light is brighter than that com ing from the candles on a birthday cake. Unlike still photography, it's the chargecoupled device (CCD), not the recording medium, that is reponsible for capturing images in low light. Many camcorders have a high-gain setting, which will re cord an image at very low lux levels-2, 1, and even 0.5. On some camcorders the high-gain setting causes streaky blurs when the subject or camcorder moves, but it does work well when everything is static. Home camcorders are designed to be
used with the amount of light you'll typ ically find in and around an average home. You'll have no problem lighting outdoor scenes, and you can light indoor ones ad equately with the lamps in your house and maybe just a 5or 10-watt video light. Just keep two basic rules in mind: Provide sufficient base light. That's the overall illumination necessary to al low you to record a good picture. A suf ficient amount of illumination will allow the autofocus mechanism to work, the colors to be snappy, and the depth of field to be adequate. Light evenly. Video images will be less than satisfactory if some parts of the scene have a great deal more light than other parts. Video has much less exposure lat itude than film, so with uneven lighting, the bright areas can shine glaringly and the shadowed areas look like black holesor both. With these rules in mind, step outside and become acquainted with the sun. Shooting by daylight Chances are you won't need to worry about
Video lights are a convenient source of light
the amount of light when you shoot out doors, but you do have to be concerned with the direction and quality of the light. It's best if you can keep the sun behind you and slightly to the side, SO the light falls on the subject. If you can get little Johnny positioned in such a way that his face is well lit, don't fret over the shadows in the background. You can also move in closer and simply eliminate much of the
background. lithe lighting is not evenperhaps one side of Johnny's face is in shadow no matter where he stands-the best thing to do is to fill in the shadows with a homemade reflector. Simply use a large sheet (3 x 4 feet is a good size) of white poster board or foam board. You might want to staple aluminum foil or some other kind of reflective paper to it. Have an assistant stand near Johnny's
shadowed side, angling the reflector to catch the sun's rays and brighten the shad ows on his face. A silvery `space blan ket," available at sporting-goods stores, also makes an excellent reflector and one that you can tuck into your camera hag. It's also great for use indoors. If you have a very powerful battery powered video light, you could try using it to lighten the shadows. On lamps with
Shoot with your household lights
Take the video light off the camera
Beware the streaker
an adjustable beam, set it to the widest possible angle. The disadvantage is that it will turn faces reddish unless you use a blue daylight-conversion filter in front of the lamp since sunlight and video lights have different color temperatures. When your subject is backlit by the sky, a large body of water, or something else that's very bright, your camcorder's ex posure system may be fooled into closing down and practically silhouetting your subject. One way to get around this is to move in close so that the subject, not the bright background, dominates what the exposure sensor reads. Another solution is to brighten the subject with a reflector or a video light. Many camcorders take care of the sit uation by letting you open the iris, either by pressing the backlight-compensation button or overriding the automatic iris control until your subject is properly ex
Harsh shadows outdoors
posed. Generally, this will work only when there is not a great difference in the amount of light on the subject and background. The disadvantage is that when the subject exposure is correct, the bright background will be overexposed. Look carefully in your viewfinder, as it is sometimes difficult to evaluate the lighting in the small black-and-white finder.
Don’t let a cloudy day discourage you. You may not catch those bright, sunlit images, but your shadow problems will be reduced, and the cloudy light can give your pictures a misty, even poetic look. Again, you might want to set up reflectors to catch the diffused daylight and brighten the shots.
Although most of the time your concerns are in having sufficient light, you could have the opposite problem: too much light. On a sunny day surrounded by white sand or sparkling snow, the amount of light may exceed the maximum capability of the camcorder by 60,000 lux and more. Give up shooting? No way. Put a neutraldensity filter over the lens, which will reduce the amount of light entering the lens.
Professional video studios have grids mounted on 18-foot-high ceilings, from which are hung tens of lighting fixtures containing 500-watt and 1,000-watt tungsten halogen bulbs. They have 5 to 10 floodlights, producing up to 10,000 watts apiece, mounted on rolling lightstands. You, on the other hand, are working with a handful of 100-watt bulbs and perhaps one or two video lights, which simplifies things enormously.
The first thing to consider is what kind of ambient light is available. If you’re shooting in a large, brightly sunlit room, look through your viewfinder to see if there is enough light streaming in to create a clear picture. If so, count yourself lucky and proceed. Just be wary of having windows in the shot when you're lighting with sunlight. The windows may produce extreme backlighting that will silhouette subjects in front of it. You’ll need to throw more light on the subject or compensate with the camcorder’s iris, as before.
If there’s not enough sunlight, pull down the shades or close the drapes, and turn on your house lights. No, this is not a mistake. The reason for pulling down the shades is to avoid mixing light sources. Most camcorders automatically set their color balance for the light falling on them. If your camcorder is balanced for incandescent lighting, the sunlight streaming through the window will appear bluish on tape. (Or if you manually balance it for daylight, the room light will appear orangish.) This is more apt to be a problem in wide-angle shots than in close-ups. You’ll also get a mismatch of colors with incandescent and fluorescent lights. However, you can get away with using a quartz video light with other artificial light sources, since the two have only slightly different color temperatures.
When shooting after dark, you’ll find that ordinary household lamps often can be adequate for basic illumination. Space them out evenly and place them as high as possible. If you do not have enough light, replace the bulbs with 100 watters. And if that doesn’t work, remove the
lampshades. A torchère lamp, which has a reflector beneath the bulb, bounces the light off a ceiling and can give you a shadow-free image. And ceiling-mounted track lights, especially those with a dimmer control, arc just about ideal for video shooting.
When your household lights give an image—but just barely—a video light can liven up a dull picture and brighten the colors. Even a 5or 10-watt video light will make a significant difference; that’s why many camcorders are now being made with a so-called color-enhancement light built into them.
Video lights give you more control than household lamps and are easy to carry and set up. The most convenient ones are those that slip into the shoe on top of the camcorder (or a shoe on top of an add-on bracket) and have a rechargeable battery pack that’s part of the unit. Many take the same type of battery as the camcorder, so you only need one recharger. Of course, the lights can be used off the camcorder, either handheld or on a lightstand or tripod, and they often can be bounced, focused, and used with diffusers and other lighting modifiers.
Some lamps also can be plugged into a wall outlet; this is advantageous if you will be shooting for more than a half hour, which is about the maximum time you’ll get out of the battery before you have to recharge it. Battery-powered units avoid the obstacle of trailing cords, but you’ll need to have fully charged spares on hand.
Using a single light
If a single video light is your primary
source of illumination, you'll want it to be soft—that is, not casting harsh shadows—and placed in front of your subject. Many video lights are adjustable from flood to spot—choose flood. Or soften the light by putting some sort of diffuser (such as tracing paper, frosted plastic, or even a piece of fine wire screen) in front of it. Attach it with clothespins or paper clips, and keep it far enough away from the bulb so it won’t scorch or burn.
An easy, effective way to achieve good overall illumination is to bounce one or two video lights off the ceiling or a wall, but do it only if the surface is white; otherwise your pictures will be tinged with whatever color the surface is. Or bounce it into a photographic umbrella. You will lose a couple of stops of light when you bounce it, though.
You can use a single video light for overall room illumination, as described above, or you can use it to improve the exposure on your subject. In this case, it becomes a “key” light*—the principal light. Place it on the camcorder or, preferably, a bit to the side (within 20 degrees) and slightly above it. You can also use that one video light to help illuminate dense shadows cast by other lighting. Now it becomes a “fill” light. Use a soft—or softened—light so it doesn't create more shadows. You may be able to use a reflector to do the same thing.
You can also use that one light on a tali stand behind and above a well-lit subject, where it can act as a backlight to separate the subject from the background. Or you could use the light to brighten dark areas of the background. By shining the light at an angle, you can bring out texture and shape of the background, giving the whole scene more dimensionality.
You may be dissatisfied with the flat picture produced when you space lights evenly or when you use a video light that’s mounted on top of your camcorder. Just as an on-camera electronic flash produces a flat, nondimensional light, so does light from a straight-on video light. To give your pictures more depth and modeling, it’s time to be more creative. You can do it with a twoor three-point lighting scheme.
Invest in two or three video lights or photoflood lights. You can also use reflector lights (from a hardware store) attached to clamps. Reflector lights are much cheaper, but a bit trickier to use, and you’ll need objects in the room to attach them to. Video lights give more controllable beams and can be easily raised
Arrange multiple lights
and lowered on tripods or lightstands. Whatever light you choose, make sure your fuses can handle the desired wattage if you’re not using battery-powered units.
Start out with an adequate level of baselight and then bring in other lights to emphasize the-subject. In a two-light scheme, first set the key light, which is the main lighting source on the subject. Place the key slightly above and to one side of the camcorder—between 5 and 30 degrees on either side and pointing down at an angle between 10 and 40 degrees.
The key light generally is a hard light source and reveals the features ol the subject’s face. To fill in any harsh shadows caused by the key light and to lower the overall lighting contrast, set a second light called the fill. This should be a soft, broad source on the opposite side oí the camcorder and within, say, 5 to 30 degrees from it, and at the same height as the camcorder. Put this light at flood position rather than spot. Or bounce it to give a nice, even fill over a broad area.
To get still better results, go to threepoint lighting and add a backlight (hair light). Its job is to give solidity to the subject and separate it from the background. Elevate it so it points down at a steep angle from behind the subject and slightly to one side.
If you get deep shadows on your subject’s face, try raising or lowering the key light or adjusting its angle, lí the lighting appears uneven, you may be able to soften the fill and the backlight by putting some sort of diffuser in front of them. If that doesn’t work, try adding a second or even
a third fill, aiming them at the dark areas or bouncing them off the ceiling. A threepoint lighting scheme may involve more than three lights.
But don't regard all shadows as the enemy. Shadows are what give the picture depth. However, you should try to avoid multiple shadows cast by several lights. Heavy diffusion on the secondary lights helps; so does keeping people away from walls, placing them against dark rather than light walls, or positioning furniture so it breaks up the shadows. Or simply moving a light closer to a person will diffuse the shadow he casts.
You can use these lighting schemes for a twoor even a three-person scene by modifying the setup. You’ll want a key (and perhaps a backlight) for each person, but fills can be added more freely. Their purpose is largely to chase away shadows. With several subjects, frequently one person’s key light becomes another person’s fill or backlight.
The greatest lighting challenge comes when you have subjects that are moving around, especially when you follow them with your camcorder. Preview the shot by panning the camcorder to see that there are no excessively dark or bright spots in the scene that need correcting. And take a good look in your viewfinder to be sure you can shoot without getting lightstands in the picture.
Even a beginner can immediately spot poorly lit images. With a little patience, you should be able to produce well-lit pictures of family fun as well as of fairly complicated scenes.