Understanding Light

Film and photography have often been considered light and shadow play. The use of lighting in both mediums can be an extremely powerful skill that will absolutely revolutionize the way your videos and photos look. With the right eye and right technique, even a simple shot taken from your iPhone can be quite cinematic in its look and feel. So how can you up your lighting game? The basics of lighting are the first step in creating something great!

The Physics of Light

Wait! Take a deep breath because this isn't a flashback to your High School physics class. We're going to take a much more simple approach to the physics of light by understanding two primary factors: color and direction.

As you may remember from school, all light comes in the form of wavelengths. It varies from Ultraviolet on one side of the spectrum, to infrared on the other. What concerns us the most in this spectrum is the range of visible light that our human eyes can actually see, in the form of the colors violet to red light. What do we get when me combine all the colors from one end to the other? White light. Take a prism and place it up to sunlight, the prism will diffract the light and separate it into the bands of color mentioned above. 

prism diffracting light

Color Temperature

So we know that light can vary in color, so what? In photography and film/video this is super important! Since we are essentially capturing images by use of light, we always want to make sure we're capturing it in the correct colors that fit the mood and style we're looking for. Pros often use color temperature to describe exactly that. Color temperature, measured in Kelvins (K), gives a measurement of the kind of color a specific source is emitting. 

As creators, we are particularly interested in Tungsten (ranging between 3000-3200K), which is a warm yellowish light, and Daylight (ranging from 5000-5500K) which is typically closer to what we would see being emitted by the sun -- a white, sometimes blueish light. 

So next time you turn on your camera and notice that things look a little too orange or blue, you know it's a color temperature problem -- also known as white balance on DSLRs! Many cameras will give you the option of adjusting white balance in-camera, so if your image looks a bit too blue then set the white balance within the 5000-5500k Range. Likewise, if it's looking a bit too yellow, adjust it to the Tungsten 3000-3200k range. Doing so will bring the color in the photo or video back to its more natural state.

Lighting Diffusion

Remember from our mini physics lesson, light comes in forms of wavelengths and is often directional. If you point a flashlight in a certain direction, more often than not you will find things to be visible anywhere directly in between the flashlight and the solid surface on which it hits. Often times, this kind of lighting can get the job done but can be a bit harsh -- creating strong shadows and bold contrasts on skin and objects. This can be easily remedied through the use of diffusion. Diffusion happens when we take a translucent, or semi-transparent, material and place it in front of the light. What this does is allow some of the light to go through the material, but at the same time dispersing it in a wider direction. This somewhat weakened stream of light results in a softer glowing effect. Softboxes make great use of this phenomenon.

Another way to diffuse light is by reflecting it and bouncing it off another surface. For example, studio photographers will often bounce a strobe light off a reflective or translucent umbrella, causing the light to bounce back and reflect onto their subject. This same technique disperses the wavelengths of light in a wider direction, causing once again, a softer light.

A great trick to get a similar effect when you're on a budget is to bounce light off a white wall or ceiling. The resulting bounce-back will be softer and more flattering on your skin. 

For more professional solutions that will take your content to the next level, visit our lighting section for your own softbox kit! 

Basic Lighting Setup

Great! So now you understand some of the key concepts of lighting. Now what? I want to leave you guys with one last basic concept for lighting. We learned this format on the first day of film school. 

Lighting setups for video and photography consist of three main lights: the key light, the fill light, and the backlight (also known as the hair light). 

Key Light - The key light will be your main source of light. Will be the cause of most shadows in your image.

Fill Light - Generally a softer light often diffused or reflected to help "fill" in harsh shadows.

Backlight/Hairlight - Light used to give your subject a bit of an edge and allow them to stand out from their background. Gives the subject a nice pop off their background.

You can better understand these different setups by studying portraits taken in a studio, like the one below:

portrait model

In this photo, you can identify the model's key light by observing the direction at which the shadow under her nose and chin is heading. Generally, the key light will be the source of those shadows, coming from the opposite direction. Likewise, you see that her arm and side of the face facing away from the key light is not left completely in the shadows. You see some detail in the areas circled "fill." The fill light here is most likely caused by the use of a reflector bouncing the key light back onto the model. You can also find reflectors in our lighting section of the store. And lastly, her dark outfit would surely blend into the dark background if it weren't for the well-positioned backlight/hair light coming from behind -- giving her a nice edge and allowing her to pop out of the background.


Guidelines, not Rules

We hope this quick crash course on lighting can help you take your content to the next level! Always remember though, art is extremely subjective. These are but guidelines to help you elevate your craft, not rules to live by. Often times creators will even forgo things such as setting the right white balance or using a particular lighting setup for creative purposes! A slightly blue screen could be reminiscent of a winter day, or by using just a key light you can create a more dramatic image. However you choose to light up your work, do it with intent and you'll surely reap the benefits!