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When good lighting is bad

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Tom Prigge
When good lighting is bad
on Aug 28, 2012 at 1:34:30 pm

There was recently a mention that this board had been dead lately and needed a little livening up.

When is good lighting bad? I often see lighting in interviews that are over the top dramatic. A single light coming from the side, half the face in dramatic darkness. And the subject is talking about the most banal thing. It is lighting that calls attention to itself. Is that good lighting?

It is similar to using some ridiculously unreadable font on the screen. The purpose of the text is to be readable, not call attention to itself. The purpose of lighting is to see the subject. While mood can be conveyed by both fonts and lighting, I find that lighting I often see is the result of some self-indulgent practitioner who is trying to impress someone (maybe others in the biz) with his prowess rather than simply illuminating the subject so the viewer is not distracted by a bunch of unneccessary shadows and whatnot.

That should get things going. Talk amongst yourselves.

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Todd Terry
Re: When good lighting is bad
on Aug 28, 2012 at 10:05:22 pm

I think really great lighting design is one that is beautiful, flattering, and doesn't call attention to itself. The best lighting is never even noticed.

I do think lighting should be interesting though. Sometimes I am a fan of that half-the-face-in-dramatic-darkness look that Tom mentioned... if it's warranted. Myself, I almost never do classic three-point lighting simply because it is so nice and pretty and even.... and boring. I prefer subjects to look natural, as if in real-world situations. Most of us don't walk around in lighting looking like we are at the Sears Portrait Studio about to get our picture snapped, so I greatly prefer lighting that looks a bit less... "engineered."

Some of my favorite and most interesting cinematography of the last 20 years or so was on the HBO series "Six Feet Under." Alan Caso did a stunning job lighting that show. It was so beautiful, interesting, yet completely natural at the same time. On re-watching a show I would find myself analyzing a scene that looked so unlit (yet beautiful) and trying to figure out what all instruments were used, and where. Some of them were very complex lighting plots... but you'd never know it without giving it a good second look (I didn't even notice them on first viewing). And often his best lit thing wouldn't be the most important thing in a frame at all... it might be someone or something else, or a background or foreground element. Very unexpected, daring, and sometimes it would just blow me away with just how darn good it was.

I find my own lighting tastes and methods are constantly changing and evolving. I can look back at my work through the years and almost pinpoint when it was created just by the way I was lighting at that particular moment in time. For years I favored tungsten lighting. Then I was doing a lot of flo work. Now, I do daylight lighting probably 90% of the time. Sometimes I'll light a scene with a single HMI and get really pretty results (if I'm lucky). One of the tricks I developed (or more like stumbled on) is to light talent in a scene with a single 1200w fresnel HMI, placed very high and very far back to the rear of a subject. I blast it into a white 4x4 bounce card that is the key in front of the subject, but I crack the barn doors just right to "steal" a little stray light directly from the instrument as a back/side light. Sometimes this gives really beautiful results, and is a technique I stumbled on completely by accident and had never seen anyone else do. But in a year or two, I'll probably think this technique is archaic and will have moved on to something else.

And... for the lingual purists out there... I do know that a location, set, or scene is lighted, it's not lit (unless you are actually setting it on fire). But I've found when I ask how a scene is lighted people tend to look at me quizzically. So i just say "lit."


Todd Terry
Creative Director
Fantastic Plastic Entertainment, Inc.

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Bill Davis
Re: When good lighting is bad
on Aug 29, 2012 at 2:12:25 am

My favorite analogy.

Lighting is like cooking.

So what's the differentiator between poor cooks and decent ones? The decent ones have enough training and experience to turn out palatable food most of the time. They seldom turn out inedible dreck.

What elevates a decent cooks into a good one? Fewer mistakes and the time and effort to refine their recipes to deliver a tasteful and satisfying meal under nearly all common conditions - and under some difficult ones.

Now a great cook elevates beyond even that. Toss anything at them. Unusual ingredients? Fine. Difficult conditions? No problem. Their knowledge and experience means they've been there, done that and know instinctively which ingredients can be added and which need to be omitted in order to keep the desired "taste profile" refined and delightful.

Then, there are the master chefs. They have all of the above, and add ART. These are the folks who turn out food that takes you places you haven't been before and make you smile while going there. The food doesn't just taste amazing, it's a work of art on the plate.

Lighting is no different IMO.

Up to "good" on your personal arc of learning - concentrate on the basics. Learn to get solid results under every foreseeable circumstance. Indoor, outdoor, mixed light, light background, dark background, matte subject, shiny subject, backlit, side-lit, overhead lit, huge empty space lit. Do that first. Then when you know how to do all that. - you're ready to refine.

At some point, when you KNOW you can light most stuff really well - it's time to spice things up. This is when you discover if you can move from good cook to great cook.

In my opinion, the ONLY way to get beyond "good" is through relentless practice. Period. Trying to learn "a technique" that elevates your technique directly to "great" is a trap. It gives you ONE look. What you need is a BRAIN conditioned to see the environment, the subject, and the needs of the project and synthesize all of that into an approach that elevates your results.

Just like cooking.

My 2 cents.

"Before speaking out ask yourself whether your words are true, whether they are respectful and whether they are needed in our civil discussions."-Justice O'Connor

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Jason Jenkins
Re: When good lighting is bad
on Aug 29, 2012 at 11:06:14 am

...I'm hungry.

Jason Jenkins
Flowmotion Media
Video production... with style!

Check out my profile.

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Dennis Size
Re: When good lighting is bad
on Aug 30, 2012 at 4:35:17 am

Nicely said Bill.
Simply put, in my opinion, good lighting should tell, or enhance, a "story", not detract from it.
When lighting is bad I think it's obvious, and doesn't need to be pointed out.
The bigger issue is whether or not the lighting is successful. That would make for a more interesing discussion.
I propose this as an example. There are two major events occuring in the US right now that are consuming an incredible amount of broadcasting time by every Network, cable company, and small affiliate -- the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.
Both conventions are lit by highly talented professionals, doing their best to provide good (make that great)lighting, not only as public events, but as major broadcasting productions.
The question at hand is not whether the lighting is goood or bad, but if the lighting is successful, especially considering the differences of their individual "stories".

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Robin Probyn
Re: When good lighting is bad
on Sep 1, 2012 at 3:49:21 am

Re the original post..

But then by this logic.. oh heres a boring corp shoot interview with head of sales.. just bang a camera light on him to suit the content..
Why not have a nice soft 3/4 light and some modeling shadow.. I think its the scourge of all our lives having inexperienced dirs and producers complaining about shadows in interviews because they have only seen bad lighting in their careers and never seen a Rembrandt painting.. ..But I would agree with getting rid of the cheesy rim light or the 5 light interview set up.. !!

If its going to be boring at least it can look good.. not unlike a lot of feature films.. and thats the camera persons job anyway.. however much directors want to move the keylight over the lens.. :)

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David Speace
Re: When good lighting is bad
on Nov 27, 2012 at 8:33:01 pm

That 5th light in a 5-point lighting setup! That's the light that is on the floor shining up on the face, presumably filling in the wrinkles and bags under the eyes...and creating an unnatural shadowless neck and jawline... the one that makes the older subject look "younger"! I've mentioned this before on this forum... I call it the Katie Couric light! Try this when you are lighting an interview with the 5-light setup... START by turning on the floor light first with the subject in the chair, then check the monitor to see what this light is doing! You now have to turn on the other lights, to not only light the subject's face... but, ALSO to overcome the "ugly" effect this light has created!

Dave Speace
DZP Video

Windows 7, 64 Bit, i7 8 Core, 16Gb Ram, GeForce 4800

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