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πŸ“· 🎬 Photo and Video Lighting: Best of Both Worlds

Cinematographers and photographers both employ all of these techniques, but they go about it in different ways and there’s a lot to be learned from both. Things change when the light source must be continuous and therefore draw more power and when you have teams of people ready to set your lights and modifiers up. Here are some observations from years of watching both at work.

  • One of the simplest ways employed by any event photographer of getting soft light is simply pointing their on-camera flash up and bouncing off the ceiling. Most cinematographers should know this, but I’ve seen many a time a cinematographer will fight with a low ceiling, trying to cram a hot light and diffusion into a narrow space, rather than just skipping the diffusion and making the ceiling itself into a broad light source. Just be aware that the color of the ceiling will affect your shot and that your light needs to be bright enough to bounce in this way. Production design for a higher budgeted film will often avoid light-color walls because they’re simply blazΓ© and don’t contrast with skin tones, but when available, don’t shy away from using this technique.
  • Still photographers are often used to working with polarized light sources, especially for product or art photography, but I rarely see a cinematographer polarize the light itself. 
  • Product photographers in particular seem more savvy on the concept of diffuse vs. specular reflection. Diffuse reflection will brighten when the light is moved closer, whereas specular reflection does not change apparent intensity with proximity to the subject. 3D artists are more aware still at how diffuse reflection relays color info and specular or direct reflection reveal texture.
  • Cinematographers seem more keen on the incorporation of “practicals” or lights that are visible in the shot as parts of the environment. A lamp on a table would be a good example here, carefully tuned to 2–4 stops brighter than a subject’s face. They’re way more worried (or claim to be) about “motivated” light that could actually come from a real world source in the scene. But then they’ll shoot a shot outside where the sun is at the backs of two people facing eachother….go figure.
  • Separate your light modifier from the light and get it nice and close to the subject. A small, inexpensive, open-faced light can work wonders in tandem with a 5-in-1 diffusion placed close to the subject.
  • Use a booklight for extremely soft, double diffusion. This is one of my favorite techniques; the light, as in this example, becomes extremely soft because it is first bounced and scattered, and then diffused. (EXAMPLE PHOTEK). Still photographers will use double diffused softboxes but the booklight concept is less-often employed unless done within a single modifier like a Softlighter or brolly box.
  • We mentioned creating a catchlight in the eyes. This is a trick both sides use, but I more often see cinematographers consciously thinking about it and setting up a white bounce card near the camera for this express purpose. Remember, the angle of incidence thing; if there’s a white card close to the camera then light bouncing from that card and into an actor’s eyes is likely to be visible from the camera.
  • Gobos and cookies: Cinematographers often break up the light hitting a boring surface like a wall by putting something in between the light and the wall. This can work absolute magic for subconsciously simulating time of day with low light passing through window shutters, or can be used to create some incredible shadows that can add narrative to your shot, something we’ve already discussed. Color as well as texture can be added to the background, even just subtly, to increase contrast with the subject, again, creating depth.
  • I find cinematographers to be more conscious of the weird aesthetic of multiple shadows. LED panels are made up of dozens of tiny individual light sources. The big lights historically used in cinematography emit two ‘sources’ of light: the element glowing inside the lamp and the reflector projecting that light out of the fixture. Any of these multiple-source lights will generally look better if you can unify them into one source casting one shadow.
  • Cinematographers have historically been better at using incident meters to measure ambient environments and the  “set a stop” to which everything else can be lit relatively. It’s important to know exactly what you’ll be needing if you’ve got a production company paying big bucks to bring in truckloads of lights. 
  • They also have the additional job of maintaining consistency, not just in lighting, but in depth of field, time of day, etc. While the still photographer doesn’t worry so much about this, I do find one concept worth mentioning. Cinematographers are often just fine lighting wide shots with harder lights and then moving to a fairly different, increasingly diffused, approach for the tight shots. Wide to tight is a common way to schedule a video shoot, and the logistics outweigh the surprisingly unnoticeable aesthetic change.  I find still photographers more often fearing hard light when it would often look just fine on a wider shot.
  • I find Cinematographers to be more conscious of cutting light. For example, they’ll flag light from hitting a certain area rather than just relying on the addition of a darkened gradient in Photoshop. It really pays to learn about color correction and know what can be done in post in the photo and video world as it can save lots of time and hassle on set.
  • Cinematographers have historically been much more interested in “cutting” light, not just with stuff between the light and what it’s hitting,
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