Let there be light: How lighting is the difference maker in your imagery

The Swag Breakfast- Let there be light photo.jpg

There are some things that come slowly to us creatives and others that hit us like a ton of bricks (or strobe heads).

Proper lighting is one of them.

Lighting is essential to create the absolute best visuals from your production. This really hit home for me last week while shooting at The Swag in Waynesville, North Carolina, listed by Travel + Leisure magazine as one of the top 15 continental U.S. resort hotels. As we shot their newly renovated rooms and gorgeous common areas, I realized how we used multiple forms of lighting in almost every image.

With the advent of digital cameras for stills and video, a whole new generation of creatives is coming on the scene who don’t have to worry about the technical aspects of images turning out right. Gone are the days of Polaroids and struggling to get the light level up to a manageable basis for your cameras.

But with these wonderful new tools comes the challenge of getting both usable images and ones that stand out against the glut of content on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and other social media sites.

The only real solution is to work with a production company that “gets it”—one that understands there is more to properly lighting a scene than grabbing a fast lens with an incredibly low f-stop and jacking up your ISO.

To really get the best possible shots, here are some points to consider for two scenarios you might encounter at your next production.

1. Backlit scenes or people

The sun is by far the best lighting tool you can ever have if you are shooting exterior architecture, landscapers, or lifestyle. But it’s not movable—it shifts as it desires in the course of 24 hours, and you may have to supplement the sun to ensure the best light.

To get the proper lighting on a backlit subject, you have two options: Go with the light available—which will blow out the background—or add light to balance the sun to a more manageable look. (For all the right-brainers—yes, there is a time and place to let the background blow out for effect. That’s a topic for another day.) You can do this with light reflectors, strobes, or hot lights:

Light reflectors: These are panels or material stretched across a frame that do just what the term says—they reflect the light of the sun or light source back onto the subject. The reflectors come in a myriad of materials and colors—from white to silver to gold—and even some with half of one color and half another. They work great to balance out the harshness and brightness of the backlit light source.

Strobe Lights: Strobes are lights that fire when triggered and create quick flashes. They’re activated in one of two ways. The first option is to use a sync cord to attach the strobe to the camera, which you can then fire by depressing the camera’s shutter. The second is to use a wireless trigger to fire the strobe remotely. Strobes can be powered by batteries for on-location shooting or by AC power with a power pack that will plug into a regular AC outlet or be run by a generator off site. Strobes enable you to attach various heads, reflectors, soft boxes, and umbrellas to direct the light back to the scene. They offer the best alternative to boost the light and you can manage the output with various power controls at the power source. They’re more cumbersome as you have light stands, light heads, power packs, and other accoutrements to deal with, but they’re very reliable and efficient.

Hot lights: These lights are just that—lights primarily used in the movie and commercial side of productions that are constantly on, hot, and as bright as the bulbs you have for the lights. This is your best option for video, since the strobe option won’t work as you don’t want flashes in a video. You can recreate almost any light you desire but the lights are cumbersome with stands and power cords and can become very heavy with the larger light output needed.

2. Interiors

Here is where lighting takes a real hit with the technological advances in cameras. Today, all it takes is a fast lens, high ISO, and tripod to achieve a good image, even with limited lighting. But the really great interior work is done with the addition of some of the same lighting sources mentioned above, plus a few tweaks thrown in.

The first step is to look around you and measure which light sources you have to work with. Think lamps, chandeliers, overhead lighting, or windows. How have the architects and designers lit the space to give guests and visitors the ambiance envisioned? Don’t ruin that with your under- or over-lighting.

Add the following elements slowly. If you are shooting video, the choice has to be hot lights. For still photography, you have the choice to go with hot lights or strobes. If you’re shooting both—as we do so often now—you might have to consider hot lights only. Remember, with hot lights it’s always harder to balance the natural light from windows or other light from outdoors with hot lights. So, pick a time of day when you don’t have massive light streaming in through windows or doors.

Once you have begun lighting, keep in mind that your goal is to balance light in the room with added light to achieve the best possible images, always keeping that balance in line with how the room was designed. Both strobes and hot lights have dimmers or ways to control the light, and many rooms and spaces also have dimmers. Another option is to change bulbs wattage in the existing lights.

Keep this in mind: In tight areas, the equipment and stands will make moving around tough, so consider having an assistant who can move stuff around as you stay at camera to determine when everything is well balanced and ready to shoot.

Your ultimate goal is to bring balance between natural light or interior, artificial light to create images that enhance the scene and property. This truly brings the scene to life for people viewing the images online.

Chip Henderson