How to Control Your Lighting For Higher Production Value

Your best lighting tool isn’t a light.

No, really. Lights are important, but if all you’ve got room for in the budget is a work light from Home Depot, it doesn’t mean you can’t build a great shot with it.

There’s a trick to it.

sightscene1-11When I was in high school, I had the opportunity to spend some time working with an Emmy-nominated lighting designer in Los Angeles. Each night, we’d light the set for a daily TV program and you know what she spent most of her time doing? Adding scrims to a couple of fresnels we were using as keys. Scrims — in this case metal screens of varying density — modify the output of the light. We had an entire grid at our disposal, tons of practicals built-in to the set and pretty much any fixture you could want, but 90 percent of our time was spent working with a couple fresnels, putting scrims in and pulling them out. Trying this one, trying that one. She was working to control the light so that it spread perfectly across the talent.

Watching her taught me an important lesson about lighting. No matter the source, the real skill and the real art comes from how you control and modify your light. Do it right, and you can make any fixture look like it cost a billion bucks — even the sun. But… trouble is, sometimes all the implements you need, or think you need, to control a light adequately can add up to more than the light itself. That’s where the work light comes in.

How do you make a work light look like a $3000 set of Kino Flos?

Much the same way you would with a more expensive fixture. Remember, it’s not the fixture that matters — it’s how you can control it.

First, you can modify the color temperature to look more like daylight with some color-temperature blue gel from Rosco (though, if you don’t need a sunlight look, you can skip this step). One sheet should do it. Next, you can cut the harshness of the light with some diffusion. This is a really important step, one that will give you a nice, soft blanket of light. I really like #100 and #103 and I wrap it around a big frame that I can stick in a c-stand. But no worries if you don’t have a c-stand or can’t afford a frame — pick up a $5 frosty shower curtain liner. Hang it off a curtain rod and hand it to a friend to hold in front of the light. You’ll get much the same effect as that more expensive diffusion.* Really though — as soon as you can afford an entire roll of diffusion gel, spring for it. Diffusion is your best friend. I still use it even on already soft sources like Kino Flos or LEDs.

Can’t get your hands on any diffusion? None at all? Not even that shower curtain liner? Then bounce your light. Bounce it off the ceiling or a piece of muslin or even a bed sheet. Sometimes, I bounce a light off muslin or another surface and then still pass it through diffusion. It’s all about control and modification to get the lighting look you need.

Chris Stinson

Work lights are pretty big sources, so spill might be a problem. You can opt again for a professional flag to control it or, if those aren’t in the budget, some Duvetyne cleverly hung (or held) just where you need it will also block light. Duvetyne has the added bonus of being safer to use with hot sources. It’s still not cheap, though, so one of my favorite tricks is black foam core. It works super-well and is super-cheap. I have a stock of varying sizes in my closet. When you do have some money to spend, I’d grab a couple 4′ x 8′ sheets that you can get at art stores. Tape two together with some gaffer’s tape and you’ve got a v-flat that will pretty much stand on its own.

Got any favorite lighting control tricks? Share them with me on Twitter @justinmclachlan.

*I need to point out that when using materials to modify lights, you always, always have to consider the fire risk. While professional gels can withstand very high temperatures, they’ll still melt if they get too hot. The same goes for something like a shower curtain. Keep it a safe distance from your light source.