Making the Light Decision

Learn from my mistakes

At the age of 18, I, in common with most budding camera operators initially spent my hard-earned money on the wrong lights. I did this because a) I didn’t have much money to spend and b) No-one gave me good advice – The Iris magazine didn’t exist!

So the objective of this article is to give you the benefit of  my hard earned experience so that when you are investing in lighting you can make the right purchasing decisions and acquire equipment that is appropriate for modern HD cameras and will provide a lifetime of service – From day one…

I am embarrassed to admit (but for the benefit of this article I will) that the first video light I bought was a 1000W fan-cooled halogen spotlight which I purchased purely because it was cheap and powerful. Its beam was fixed and in operation it got so hot that colour correction gels or even diffusion material would burn through (and even catch fire). After even 5 minutes of use it needed over 10 minutes cool-down before you could touch it, let alone transport it safely – It was terrifying and the only practical way to use it was to bounce its output off a ceiling or wall etc… NEVER buy a light like this! In reality I would have actually been far better off with a couple of 500W floodlights from a store like Halfords or B&Q!

I used this light for a few jobs purely because it was all I had, but as soon as I could afford I made my next investment – A local camera shop offered me an ex-demo kit of 3 x 650w video lights manufactured by a company called Kobold.  The whole kit with stands and a white umbrella fitted neatly into a large briefcase, making it easy to transport, a big plus for me as my transport at the time was a VW golf. I bought them. The lights were open faced and the bulb position relative to the reflector could be adjusted to create a slightly different beam width between spot / flood settings.  They came with a set of 3 dichroic filters so you could easily change from tungsten (3,200K) to daylight (5,600K) colour temperature.  With 3 lights I could be a bit more creative and try out 3-point lighting techniques (Key, soft fill and back-light).  This kit was undoubtedly a big improvement over the fan cooled 1KW light, the umbrella allowed me to use one of the lights as a soft source, there was a bit of beam control and they did not set things on fire… However, if I had been more experienced I would have realised that no-one uses umbrellas for film / TV lighting and this was really best suited to being a continuous lighting kit for photography rather than video. It was also partial to blowing bulbs at every opportunity – If the lamp was on and you adjusted the beam angle they’d blow or if you dared to move a lamp to adjust the lighting effect they’d blow and at £10 a pop it became a very expensive kit to run – sometimes I’d get through 3 or more bulbs in a day and very soon I realised that this lighting kit had to go!

On reflection, I now realise what a big part of the problem was – I was naively dealing with high street photographic retailers that were dabbling in and therefore not expert in the emerging professional video market – They weren’t really interested in video, had no practical experience, negligible product knowledge and didn’t carry a range of lighting equipment.  So because I didn’t know any better I ended up buying what they happened to have in stock rather than what was best for my needs.

I knew that good lighting technique and equipment was essential if I was to create great looking images and felt sure that there had to be a better place to source lights than photographic shops. Fortunately a colleague mentioned Arri Lighting to me and I decided to visit their lighting sales operation in west London in order to buy the best lights that I could afford at the time – That meant buying what was (and probably still is) the most widely used entry level lighting kit – A set of three 800w ‘Redheads’. These are much larger and more robustly constructed than my outgoing Kobold lights and whilst they are still open faced flood lamps, the combination of big barn doors and improved beam angle adjustment was a real boon – I could gel them up and create streaks of light on interview backgrounds, bounce to create a soft source or even use direct for scenes where harsh shadows were required. I purchased a soft box for one of the lamps, transforming it into a versatile soft light source. I wanted to be able to dim the lights but off the shelf dimmers were expensive so I found a circuit diagram for a 2KW dimmer and built my own lighting dimmers from components bought from RS components…  Now I could vary the output and colour temperature of the lights to create a warmer look…

Whilst my ‘redhead’ kit undoubtedly served me well, as I gained in experience I realised that the problem with all open faced spotlights is that they are the equivalent of a very broad paint brush because their output is relatively uncontrollable and lacks finesse. The more creative I tried to be the more control I needed and in my quest for better beam control my next addition was some Arri 300W Junior Fresnel spotlights which I could also use with my DIY dimmers. Thanks to the employment of a Fresnel lens and adjustable lamp / reflector position these spotlights deliver a level of beam control that is far better than open faced lamps, making them great as backlights or to highlight defined areas…

I then added a 2.5KW ‘zap’ soft light – Basically a large crate containing 2 x 1.25KW independently switchable linear lamps and a white parabolic reflector… The light from the lamps is not emitted directly from the fixture, instead it is forced to bounce off the white reflector and the net effect is a beautiful soft light without having to fiddle around with soft boxes or reflectors. These were really designed as studio fixtures and they are quite cumbersome but I liked the output and ease of use so I used them on location… As you may have gathered by now I was using a bigger vehicle!

When working for broadcasters (or on big corporate jobs) I was often working with the benefit of a ‘spark’ (lighting electrician / gaffer) who’d come with a van crammed full of a wide range of lights and associated gear. When you work with a good spark you get exposed to a much wider range of lights than any freelance camera operator would carry, from 100W Dedolights right up to 2.5KW HMI’s and beyond. In this situation what soon becomes apparent is that when you have a full armoury to hand you rarely use ‘jack of all trades’  lights like ‘redheads’ or ‘blondes’ as there is invariably a more appropriate instrument available.

Over the years as a freelance lighting cameraman I was privileged to be exposed to a massive array of lighting equipment, good, bad and ugly! So, if I was a freelance owner-operator or perhaps a documentary production company wanting to own my own lighting equipment, given a choice of any of the lighting equipment available today what would I invest in to deliver the best balance in terms of  quality, performance, portability and cost?

Before issuing my prescription we need to consider the advances in camera technology over the last few years…

Sony DXC-3000P camera Purchased in 1989, my first professional video camera was a Sony DXC-3000P which was at the time a ground-breaking 2/3″  ENG camera. This was Sony’s first professional camcorder to use CCDs sensors instead of tubes, at last eliminating some of the major drawbacks of tube cameras such as the need for regular tube alignment and image burn-in when shooting bright highlights such as the sun, car headlights or naked bulbs etc…  I seem to recall that it resolved about 520 TV lines and whilst great in its day, if you were shooting indoors you invariably had to boost the ambient light levels just to get a reasonable exposure level.

If you needed to use gain there was 9 and 18dB available – At 9dB there was significant noise and at 18dB noise levels were so profound that every scene looked like it was being shot in one of those awful snow globe souvenirs! (Of course if you’re in a dimly lit street shooting a bomb disposal team performing a controlled explosion on a car then any picture is better than no picture at all, so even the noisy 19dB setting would be used if appropriate). The camera would also produce pronounced vertical smears on highlights such as the sun, naked lamps or car headlights. In addition to this, its sensors delivered very poor dynamic range, so a scene that looked fine to the naked eye (or would have rendered well on film) would look dire, with crushed blacks and /or burnt out highlights. Hence lighting for the DXC-3000 usually involved not only increasing the overall light level, but reducing the dynamic range of the scene by artificially lifting shadow (black) levels so that the camera’s output appeared more natural looking…

The reason for this brief excursion down memory lane is not because I yearn to own a DXC-3000 again, but purely to illustrate that at that point in time (and actually until fairly recently) video cameras weren’t very light-sensitive and therefore camera operators almost always had to use supplementary lighting in order to get an acceptable level of illumination into a scene.  This is what we call ‘lighting for illumination’.

Thankfully, the CCD and CMOS / MOS sensors used in the latest cameras and camcorders are vastly more light sensitive and provide greatly improved dynamic range: With many cameras you can literally shoot in candle light and the dynamic range of some high end cameras is nearing that of 35mm film (hence why Digital Cinematography is now a reality).

In the frenzied world of ENG and documentary production, gone are the days of having to turn up at a press conference with a 2KW ‘blonde’ lamp to bounce off the ceiling just so your camera will deliver a properly exposed picture – Modern cameras will deliver fully exposed images in general ambient lighting,  thus freeing us to light purely for creative effect rather than mere illumination.

Without the need to create artificially high levels of light in a scene, when choosing a lighting kit we can now focus primarily on the quality of light source rather than its output power.

Whilst there are hundreds of manufacturers of lighting equipment and dozens of technologies involved, there are only two types of light: Hard lights and Soft Lights. A hard light is effectively a point light source that creates a beam of light rays travelling in one direction and subsequently creating hard shadows, whereas a soft light provides a diffuse light thanks to its scattered light rays travelling in multiple directions, providing soft  or even imperceptible shadows. It’s fairly easy to convert a hard light into a soft light source by bouncing its output off a ceiling, through a ‘trace frame’ or using a ‘soft box’ (a soft box places diffusion material in between the light and the subject in order to scatter the light), however it’s more difficult to turn a soft light into a hard light as either the scattered ‘beam’ would have to be re-focused or the light placed far enough from the subject that the light effectively becomes a (very weak) point source!

Almost all real-life situations contain a mixture of both hard and soft light sources: For example, in a room illuminated purely by direct (hard) sunlight streaming through a single window there will be multiple secondary light sources created by the primary hard light source being bounced off multiple internal surfaces and thus creating additional and usually more diffuse sources, therefore in order to create natural looking lighting effects we need a combination of both hard and soft lights in our kit.

Soft Lights

In terms of maximum value for money combined with a fabulous quality of tungsten colour temperature output the sub-£300 Photoflex Starlite QL / Medium Silverdome kit is hard to rival. When used with a 1KW lamp through the double diffused dome its output is fabulous, perfect for a whole range of uses from interviews to product shots. The only downside of this fixture is that it’s quite big when built up and because it uses a tungsten filament it generates a lot of heat.

The next contender is the Kino-Flo Diva 400 which uses 4 x 55w colour matched fluorescent tubes to create a great dimmable soft light without the heat or bulk of the Starlite kit. At around £1,100 these are a lot more pricey than a Starlite and the other issue is that whilst the tubes can last thousands of hours they in essence very thin glass tubes which are very prone to accidental damage during transit. their light output and quality is excellent thought.

The final option is an LED softlight. LED fixtures are the most efficient currently available, so much so that some of them can even be powered by a 12V battery pack for the ultimate in portability and safety. There are now many manufacturers of LED fixtures but beware: All LEDs are not equal. Cheaper lamps use ungraded or low quality LEDs and unsophisticated drive electronics that when combined often lead to poor colour temperature control and therefore strange colour casts on subject matter. My top LED softlights are the Gekko Karesslite and Kelvintile, The Litepanels 1×1 and Zylight’s new IS3. My personal favourite is the Gekko Karesslite which features excellent output levels, great colorimetry, robust design and can be powered by a pair of V-mount batteries.

Hard Lights

There are more hard lights available than you can shake a stick at and if you are on a tight budget you can buy cheap hard light kits such as redheads but the truth is that this is a false economy in all but the very short term and I would strongly recommend you avoid making the same mistakes I made by buying your lights only once by buying the right kit the first time! With that concept borne in mind I am compelled to declare that the best lamps by far come from Dedolight. A 3-head Dedolight DLH4 kit is supremely versatile with great beam quality and control. Dedolights are fully dimmable, robust and very compact – Brilliant for the busy location camera operator. You can add a projector lens and then use a gobo (steel pattern) to generate amazing background lighting effects. A 3 head Dedolight kit fits into a soft case you can easily carry in one hand or just slung over your shoulder. It’s a kit of lights you will keep forever and build on over time. I know of camera operators with 20+ lamps so that they can literally paint a scene with light in great detail.

Of course there will be occasions where a 150W Dedolight just doesn’t have enough output power to either counter a strong ambient light or for example to create a very strong key to emulate daylight… For these situations the top of my list would be a Dedolight DLH400D as it delivers a superb daylight balanced light quality from its advanced optics and 400W metal halide lamp.  The problem with this is that at over £3,200+VAT it’s beyond the reach of the budget conscious operator, so if you need a hard light with a big punch at a small price then it’s hard to beat an Arri 2KW blonde. OK it’s tungsten and it has little beam control but when you need brute power it delivers. You can of course bounce it of a ceiling or reflector to create a soft source too – Buy a Photoflex medium Silverdome kit and an in-line dimmer for it to add versatility.

Camera-top lights

A good camera light is an essential part of any camera operator’s kit. A Zylight Z90 mounted on a noga arm and powered from the camera’s 12v battery is my favourite as it combines good output with fully variable colour temperature and output power. The Dedolight LEDzilla is superb too, however it is a single colour temperature fixture. If you’re looking for a bargain then at just £129 the CineDesign CDL-R50 may fit the bill. It’s a dimmable LED unit which can be run on internal AA batteries or an external source!

In summary:

When buying lights make sure you buy from a company that specialise in servicing the Film / TV industry. If you are at all uncertain or perhaps haven’t used the lights you are considering before then don’t be afraid to ask for advice and if possible visit for a hands-on demonstration. Remember,  not all lights are equal! Try to buy quality lights that will last a lifetime so that you can add to your kit rather than having to chop and change. If you’re on a budget and only need a simple kit then buy a basic 3 head Dedolight 24V kit and a Photoflex Starlight kit is a great starting point. You won’t regret it!

If you have the benefit of a bigger budget then here is my personal wishlist:

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