Here’s a re-cap of what we did during the workshop. Not an exhaustive list, and more aimed at jogging your memory than providing a prescriptive checklist, as every location and situation will be different.
General principles/tips to remember
Time is relative! You may have heard of general and special relativity: now here’s Owen’s theory of creative relativity! “Time moves much slower in post-production” 🙂 I.e. time on-set is generally worth a lot more than time in post, so if you can save 10 minutes of rigging, for the sake of 20 minutes of Photoshop in post production, then do it. There’s really no need to “get it right in camera” (that is, make the finished image solely in the camera) when we’re shooting creatively – just “get it right”. Of course, if you can save an hour of painful manual cloning or selection with 10 minutes spent relocating a light on-set, you should also do that – it’s just whatever is the easiest and most effective path to the goal. So shoot and rig with post-production in mind.
Creative Relativity is also not constant: with recent advances in Photoshop such as the remove tool and generative fill, it’s now easier than ever to remove items such as light stands in post, making the time-dilation even more extreme (i.e. we’re more likely than ever to let it ride on-set rather than spend any time trying to manoeuvre a light and building ever more complicated rigs to get it out of shot).
Similarly, don’t reserve time to carefully pack your gear away at the end of the shoot – just get it back into the car, and sort it out later, when time is less precious.
We’re conditioned to associate the crisp hard light you get from a Fresnel-focused spotlight with a vintage/classic look as this is what movies of the time and “Hollywood Glamour Portraits” were lit with. It looks dramatic, and full of mood. The key to achieving this look is a small source, which is controlled: i.e. it doesn’t spill out everywhere. AD200’s are an ideal flash based light source (small, lightweight, portable and powerful) as long as you can contain it. Silver reflectors, essentially make the light source the same size as the reflector and whilst small ones can work, they will make the light source a bit bigger and so, the shadow edges softer, and sometimes produce two shadow edges, which is far from ideal. It is therefore, essential, if you want hard light with nice crisp shadows, that any light control you use does not increase the size of the light source. Essentially, this means using matt black surfaces, such as barn doors or tubes made from black card.
The light source is the last thing it illuminates before it hits the subject. A ball of light on a white wall, will produce the exact same light quality of light as a softbox or brolly of the same size (when viewed from the model’s position). In enclosed spaces, you can put phantom lights up by just projecting light onto the appropriate bit of white ceiling, wall, or a white reflector on the floor. Use snoots or barn doors etc to ensure light only goes to your reflective surface.
Volumetric light shafts work best when shooting into the light – even if it’s just a little bit.
For a more natural haze/dust look, you need to let the fog marinate for a bit. Mixing it up with an air mover can speed this up. In fact, sometimes I just feed the output of the fog machine into the intake of my Clarke floor dryer to chop it up and circulate it faster. (This also looks pretty cool on video..)
Good portrait lighting can be transposed on-set. I.e. if your model is reclined, you can also recline a lighting solution. Eg if you like the look of an overhead light for a standing subject, just put the light in the equivalent position and angle for a reclined subject. Usually this means from the top of the head.
Lighting a set for stills, is very much like lighting a set for a movie: think about the “practical lights” (visible light fixtures such as ceiling lights, table lamps etc), and maybe add “motivated lights”: light on your subject made to look like it’s coming from a practical light, or the sun.
Sometimes we use two or more lights to mimic the sun: it’s so far away, that here on Earth, it’s light rays appear parallel, and so we can point multiple lights through multiple doors and windows in the same direction and have it look like one light, 93 million miles away.
Continuous spotlights are easier to work with if you can control the daylight, and especially if you want to include practical lights in the scene. You’ll need to expose for the practicals anyway, and continuous lights will be in the same exposure zone.
Match the colour temperature of your light to the ambient light if you want to augment that light: raw flash is a good match for daylight, and if you want to match a tungsten (warm) light source, add a CTO gel.
The fill light for direct sunlight is always a bit cooler. Emulating this in your lighting setups will make them look more natural. Also, a bit of colour temp separation will add some flair to the shot.
As you’re touring a location for the first time, these are some things to think about as you look at each room, or area:-
Narrative – is there a situation, or scene that the location suggests? Maybe an era or style such ash 1940’s film noir detective, sci-fi/cyberpunk, classic French Boudoir imagery, backstage at a show, period costume drama etc
Features – maybe a fireplace, grand doorway or staircase which may suggest some poses for your model
Shots – i.e. where will your model be, where could you shoot from: usually – where can I get sufficient distance to avoid a distorted looking view? What immovable objects will be in the background (radiators, windows, cars outside a window, high contrast objects or things that don’t fit with the period/style, anything with type on it, such as the spines of books), and how easy will each of these be to remove in post?
Lighting opportunities. Run through your internal library of lighting styles and elements and make a note of any that might apply in each room such as: available window light, or skylights (which you may then re-enforce with flash). Maybe an overhead shaft of light through some fog (down a staircase or maybe other places where looking up fits the space). Are there objects that would cast great shadow patterns from a hard light source such as window frames, blinds or latticework.
Are there items with high relief that would respond well to some sidelight? (carving on a grand fireplace or door for example).
Can you shine a light through the windows/doors? Find out how to get to the area outside of the room, and establish if you can position a light at the right height outside to do what you need.
Where will your shadows go from your key light? Do you want them in the frame?
If there are no immediate and obvious lighting styles presented by the room, fall back on light that generates it’s own drama or character: eg using a projection attachment to create shadow patterns, or bring your own set of blinds, or breakup filters.
Start to think of rigging solutions for your lighting – with post production in mind – i.e. can you put a stand or boom arm where it will be easy to remove post-production?
Establishing a shot
So once you get to a room or area that you’d made a note of, to start shooting, you need to establish:-
What is the scene? I.e. where will the camera be, and where will it point, and what will be in the frame? Note, that contrary to many YouTube videos about lenses, the focal length is not a creative choice you make – it’s an outcome of establishing the shot: i.e. at this distance with these things in the frame, the focal length needs to be X. We don’t start by saying “I want to shoot this at X mm”, unless we are forced to because we want some other quality of a certain lens for the shot (say a really low depth of focus).
Where will the model be? For more natural looking almost fly-on-the-wall shots, Look for a position that makes some sort of contextual sense. Ie a position and pose that might actually happen naturally. Sitting on a bed, lying on a bed, sitting on a stair, looking out of the window, looking into the fridge and so on, are all things that someone might naturally do.
Where will you shoot from? Consider the distance from your camera to your subject. The closer you are to your model in general, the larger the closest areas will be compared to areas further away. Eg, a difference of say 1m from head to hips if you are 1m away from the model’s head, is double the distance, making the hips a quarter of the size: yes it’s another inverse square: half the height and half the width, making a quarter of the area. This may be a good thing, or a bad thing, depending on the nature of the shot.
You don’t need to shoot from inside the room. Consider doors and windows to shoot through. You can include part of the door or frame in the image, or just shoot from outside the room to get extra distance and even out the composition.
Of course you may choose to just shoot a more edgy or abstract pose especially for figure nudes and then the position can be optimised for general composition of both the subject, the arrangement of shapes in the background, and the shadow positions.
Where will the lights be? The key light, an edge or kicker light, and a fill light are the bread and butter of my lighting style on location. I very rarely use more than these 3. I’m usually looking to produce some “modelling” of my subjects features with my key light, which means I want the light off-axis with the camera, either horizontally, or vertically, or a bit of both. I usually want the lights “above” my model’s face (so if they’re lying down, or have their head tilted back, the lighting must rotate to follow). I’ll also very often have the model direct their face to the light laterally, to avoid messy nose shadows across their face.
I love a kicker, or edge light and will normally aim to position this opposite the key light (or as close to that position as I can get it). Sometimes this means putting this light outside through a window, or through a door, or bouncing it off a wall.
Are there practical lights in the scene? Most of the time, if I do have practical lights in the scene, I want them on. Do the practical lights have visible bulbs and if so, or they aesthetically pleasing? (those econo-tube bulbs look awful, and often poke out of the lampshade as they are too long, and I carry a stock of regular, clear incandescent bulbs to replace them).
Rigging lights and decoration
On most sets you’ll be able to get the stands out of shot with a bit of work. One of the easiest ways to do this if you have the room is to simply move the light further away. This causes a number of other effects though, which we then need to deal with. The light will fall off across the scene less, however this is often a benefit, especially if we are emulating a distant light like the sun. There is nothing we can do about this either, so don’t sweat it! The main issue with moving a light further away is that it is now lighting a wider piece of the set* We would then need to control the spread of light by using barn doors, grids, snoots and flags.
*This is the actual relationship between light intensity and distance: a light further away spreads the same amount of light over a wider area, and so is less intense. Increasing the distance between the light and the subject is one way of increasing the area it covers, however there are other ways of making light spread over a wider area I.e. a focusing system whether that is a simple Fresnel lens, or a more complex set of projection optics. The real, universal lighting “law” is that “light intensity is inversely proportional to the area it covers”. The inverse-square law only applies to point sources, and is one way of affecting the area a light source illuminates.
Another common way of getting a light stand out of shot, when the actual light is already out of shot, is to use a boom arm, so you can then move only the stand and leave the light where it is. Make sure you counterbalance the boom, and sand bag the stand legs. If you are using a C-Stand** with a turtle base, put the longest leg under the heavy end of the boom. Put the sand bag on a leg high enough to hold the bag off the floor. This is almost always also the longest leg. Note, if the stand were to rotate to fall over, it will pivot around the leg contact point with the ground, not the centre of the stand, so a sandbag on this leg will still provide stability. Seriously though, just use a proper stand with a wide base rather than C-stands – the legs are way too narrow on those for the height they can get to.
**The “C-Stand” or “Century Stand” is so called because it is a 100 inches high. It’s the ubiquitous medium sized general purpose stand in a Hollywood grip truck. It’s not the name of the type of stand – just the size. Most “C-Stands” we buy are higher than that and are therefore, not in fact “C-Stands”. They’re also poor quality knockoffs mostly. It is a poor stand design at the end of the day with a base too narrow to support the heights they can attain, and you are better off with a sturdy light stand, with a wide base for most situations.
Sometimes we can attach lights to fixtures in the room, such as doors, curtain poles, bed frames, etc and the weapon of choice for this is the Superclamp. These are incredibly useful bits of grip that can hold about 16kg and can be joined together to make multiple grip solutions. Think about not only the weight of your light, but the rotational force it will apply to a 1-inch square piece of whatever you attach the clamp to. Mostly, this method is only suitable for lightweight lights such as Speedlights, AD200’s, or incandescent Fresnel focused spots, which are basically just a bulb holder and weigh very little (do also be aware of the fire hazard these present – i.e. don’t mount them up in the net curtains)
Dress the set: what distracting objects can you remove? Scatter cushions and teddy bears from beds, coasters from bedside tables, odd coloured or patterned bed clothes, knick-knacks, anything that doesn’t fit the period, cables etc. If you have undesirable objects that you cannot remove, such as a radiator, that may be very difficult to remove in post, cover it up with something light absorbing such as a dark towel.
Add any extra things such as net curtains on a cross-pole, blinds, props etc. If you’re building a story behind your picture, add props to support this. Props can also help to establish a time period the shot is meant to be in: eg few things date a scene more than the look of the telephone, cars or any other kind of enduring technology such as a television, fridge, stereo etc. I’ll often add a 300 series bakelite telephone if I want to give the impression of a 1940’s/50’s setting. It doesn’t have to be prominent, or in use, just in the background is enough, although, of course, a telephone does also provide an option to have your model (or actor really) to be doing something in the scene. Other period props include white cigarettes, a cigarette holder, old cameras etc. Also think about props to support a mood – if the “character” in the picture is relaxing, they may also be having a drink – add a bottle and a glass.
Lighting inspiration – forget photographic lighting
For the longest time (ie up until the dawn of digital cameras with their instant feedback) “photographic” lighting was very formulaic. Lighting recipes and terms such as “loupe lighting”, “Rembrandt lighting”, “butterfly light” and so on were (and still are) bandied about. The most likely reason for this formula based approach was that you couldn’t afford to be too creative if you needed to guarantee results with flash – and as you couldn’t see the results until the film was developed (Polaroid backs were used to give an approximation, but the final look and exposure may be different, and of course, it takes a minute or so to change out the camera back from Polaroid to production film stock, and the model may not be looking in quite the same direction) most photographers stuck to these tried and trusted lighting solutions for portraits, fashion, editorial and so on.
This is about a million miles away from my thinking on lighting. I don’t really care for pre-canned, named lighting formulas, and I would strongly recommend learning to appreciate light yourself, rather than emulating Rembrandt, or Caravaggio. Even though movies also used film, they used continuous light – light that you can see with the naked eye. You can be a lot more creative if you can see the light, and so lighting directors on movie sets created mood with dark and light zones, colour, shadows and contrast. Movie lighting is a much better source of ideas for location lighting for stills, and as we now have instant feedback from our digital cameras, we can also produce similar light with flash. It’s a little bit more work as we can’t see the light until we take a shot, but the upside is that flash sources are much more powerful, and a whole lot more portable, and of course, I’ve done all kinds of things with flash heads in a studio setting. If you need to expose for practical lights in the scene, inside, on-location however, then flash loses some of its advantage as we can’t use the high output they provide, and if this is the case, I’ll use continuous sources if at all possible. I can also shoot video in the same scene and this can produce some effective results https://youtu.be/-GiYs2Ideo8
Some very powerful and mood-filled lighting can be found in film-noir, and in “neo-noir” movies such as Bladerunner, Bladerunner 2049, and TV series such as Altered Carbon. The “modern” Dr Who series are also often cited as masterpieces of creative lighting.
“Light the scene, and put the people in it”. This is the main difference between movie lighting and “photographic lighting”. The subjects move about in the scene, so positioning lights that only work for one actor, when they’re in one position, is often not practical or desirable as you want to show how the light on them changes as they move around. This movement though, is also very forgiving on the outcome. Take each frame one-at-a-time as a still, and often, none of them would be satisfactory as a still picture, but taken as a movie clip, it works. When I light on location, I’ll start off with this in mind, and then when we’ve settled into a shot, I may then finesse the light on the model – as they won’t be getting up and moving about for a still shot. It’s a bit of a hybrid approach between lighting a scene, and lighting a model.
We can also steal other techniques from the movies, and use them with far fewer resources and for a much lower cost. Low-level fog for example, may be produced on a film-set by chilling vapour with dry-ice, however we only need it to exist for a few seconds, and so we can get away with chilling fog with some freezer blocks in a tube. We don’t need to be concerned with sound for stills either, and so I can use a very powerful but very noisy workshop dust extractor to provide a focused stream of air.
Lightmeters – another relic of the past
This is a frequently asked question on forums, from new photographers: should I use a light meter? The accepted wisdom is that an incident light meter with a dome on it, pointed back towards the camera, that measures the light from a light source, at the subject’s position gives you a scientifically correct reading, usually expressed as the aperture value you need to set on your camera for a given shutter speed and Iso. And it does, as long as the light is more or less from the front (ie close to the lens axis). The further around to the side the light gets, the less useful this reading is as the dome “sees” less and less of the light, and so gives a progressively lower reading for the average amount of light across your subject, resulting in massively over-exposed side and edge lights (and for a back light facing back towards camera, it will read almost nothing).
For more accurate readings, you can point the meter at the light you want to measure, and then at camera to get an overall combined average amount of light on the subject. Even then, this is less than useful for creative lighting and is another throwback to those lighting formulas and the days of film.
Today, we are almost all shooting with a camera that can give us a visual map of all the light in the scene, at the press of a button. The monitors on the back of modern cameras are very very good and are far and away the best tool for evaluating what the light will look like in your image: that is, you take a picture and look at the results.
You will often find videos extolling the virtues of the light meter (usually paid for by people who make light meters) that say things like “don’t use trial and error to get your lights set, measure it with a meter and get it right first time”. These videos then invariably show the photographer taking multiple readings with the meter, and adjusting the lights up and own. In a trial-and-error fashion. I don’t see what difference it makes whether you use a device that records the light level in one bit of the picture and adjust until it’s “correct” or take a picture of all of the light with the camera and adjust from there. Also, if you take a picture to see what the light looks like, you’ll also see the direction, shadow quality, highlights and colour and be able to adjust those too. If you use a meter to establish the light levels, you’ll still need to take a test shot to see the rest of the light’s qualities anyway.
Finally, however you establish the scientifically “correct” level of light for each of your sources, this is no way to work creatively. The only thing that really matters is what the image looks like. “Correct” exposure may be too dim or too bright depending on what you want for the mood and feeling of the shot. Going back to movie lighting, do you think any of the light levels in say, Alien were “correct” as reported by a meter?
So for me, handheld light meters are also a relic of the past. I do have one, and if I use it at all, it’s either for testing the output of a new light, or as a social prop on a commercial job (“He must be a proper photographer – he’s got one of them meter thingies and everything”).
For a longer explanation check out this video from Karl ‘Gordon-Ramsay’ Taylor
My kit list for a typical location shoot
- 3 x Incandescent Fresnel focused spot-lights for use on low light sets
- FalconEyes 1600 TDX LED Fresnel focused spot-light
- Godox SL200 LED COB light for use with projector
- 2 x Godox AD200 for almost all flash work. I have put together a two-light kit that fits into a small backpack, with the BD-07 kit with large DIY barn doors, snoots, correction gels and grids. Also, a lightweight Godox AD13 boom arm if I have to carry the lighting on foot.
- Godox AD600BM
- Aputure black spill-kill dish with barn doors and grid/gel holder – for use with SL200 or AD600
- Colour Temperature Orange (CTO) gels in 1/4, 1/2 and full strength
- Replacement bulbs for practical light fixtures that will be in-shot. Clear incandescent or filament LED.
- 3 x Lencarta heavy duty stands
- Lencarta lightweight medium stand (lower min height)
- Lencarta floor stand (for really low light)
- Mini-boom and sandbag
- 4 x Superclamps
- Cross pole (used mainly as a curtain pole)
- 2 x Justin Clamps
- 2 x Tripod – one for BTS cam
- Gaffer tape – the fixer of all things 🙂
- Nikon D850
- Nikon D800E (mainly used as BTS video camera, but also as backup)
- Mains power and intervalometer for D800E which, when combined, allow the camera to run for hours
- 24-70mm f/2.8 Sigma zoom lens
- 70-200mm f/4 Nikon zoom lens
- Nikon 85mm and 50mm f/1.8 lenses – for low DOF shots in natural light
- 18-35mm Nikon zoom lens – mainly used on BTS cam
- Triggers for flashes
- Batteries – Nikon EL15s and lots of AA’s for the various triggers, intervalometers, remotes etc
- 2 x fog machines eBay Example 25/09/2023 (one with dense fluid, and another with low persistence fluid for spot effects. Search eBay for “QTX dense fog fluid” for a current listing)
- Air movers – floor dryer and workshop dust extractor for focused airstreams
- Oil – for making skin shine
- Towels – for wiping off oil
- Lee 100mm filter kit
- Glow filters, for creating blooms on highlights to create that soft dreamy look for boudoir
- Extension cables for power (usually for the fog machine)
- Med-large, clear freezer bags – for making your AD200s weatherproof, and isolating smoke detectors when using fog or haze