With an understanding of the parameters of light, let’s talk application. First and foremost, you don’t necessarily need any “lighting gear” to get great shots. So much fantastic work has been done with simply ‘natural light’. Procure something light to bounce light (e.g. poster board, tablecloth, etc.) or something dark to absorb it and you’ve got a cheap way to start lighting. Look for naturally occurring scenarios around you and pay attention to what makes the light look good. Clouds diffuse sunlight on a cloudy day, making for a very soft, large light source. A light-colored building reflects light onto the subject for a pleasant fill. Shoot in shadows for even lighting that, while a bit flat, often looks better than the alternative.
I’m going to spend more time discussing continuous lights because they apply to both still photography and video. As time passes they become brighter, higher quality and more affordable and I find it much easier for beginners to learn with continuous lights than strobes or speedlights.
I’ve included some starter lights in the recommended gear at the beginning, so there’s a bit of repetition here now that you better understand the principles behind your lighting tools. Those were lighting tools I’d consider essential and advise people to own. Some of the lights we’ll talk about here are much better off rented. Rent specialized tools like a haze machine. Things like that aren’t as worth renting and cleaning, but they can be used to add an atmospheric depth to an image because the more distant from the camera the more the haze obscures the view. It’s a relatively easy way to add a lot of visual interest (watch nearly any interior scene in “The Crown” on Netflix for ample examples).
This is the place to start.
LEDs have come of age. Even the more anal of us are recognizing the benefits of convenience over spectral perfection. You can now get a 20k Mole LED that runs off a couple common household circuits. Color rendering is massively improved, flickering at sort of high speeds isn’t so bad (though real high speed is another story), and the remote control and gel replication features can be both cool and useful. Plasma looked like a thing, but after being picked up and dropped by many manufacturers, it looks like LEDs are the way of the future. I advocate buying smaller lights and renting large ones for a lot of productions. Though I say LEDs have come of age, they still benefit from massive updates every year. Renting can be a great way to stay on top of the technology. Aputure has been the most visible player in the prosumer space. Their second generation COB 300D light is a solid choice and their smaller RGB lights look very interesting. Flat panel LEDs are generally only useful when modified. Bounce them off a wall or shoot them through an umbrella. Lupo released some extremely high output LED “Skypanel alternatives” this year that give a lot of versatility in a fairly wieldable package. The output is so high that even with a usable amount of built-in diffusion, you can still use the light as a key, even outdoors. Color consistency between manufacturers (and even within manufacturers) can still vary widely so do test the lights you’re wanting to use together, and with the camera you intend to use them with. Specifically choose LEDs for hard light or throw and pay attention to when hard light looks good.
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