Lighting Techniques

7 Lighting Tips for Shooting Video with Digital SLRs

August 15, 2012

By Dan Havlik

Cinematographer Alex Buono is one of the early pioneers of using HD-DSLRs to capture video for television. A longtime user of the Canon 5D Mark II and 7D digital SLRs and, more recently, the Canon C300 digital cinema camera, Buono serves as director of photography for Saturday Night Live and has shot dozens of spots for the show using those three cameras. One of Buono’s best-known clips is SNL’s iconic opening title sequence, virtually all of which was recorded on the streets of New York City at night with a Canon 5D Mark II. In an interview with PDN, Buono shares some of his lighting tips on how to get the most out the HD video you shoot with a DSLR.

1. Think Small (but Not Too Small)
Photographers who shoot with digital SLRs for their still photo work actually have an advantage over traditional cinematographers because they’re already accustomed to doing more with less, particularly when it comes to lighting. The main reason is the unique ability of the latest DSLRs to shoot in low light at high ISOs with very little noise.

“In the past, ISO 400 was about the max you could get out of any camera [for video] and the idea of lighting a scene at ISO 1600 sounded like science fiction,” Buono says. “It’s just remarkably different now. The ability to go outside and shoot in ambient conditions at night at high ISOs really changes how you light a scene.”

In the past, a typical night exterior set-up for Buono might have required large lighting instruments—12K HMIs or 20K Fresnels—powered by massive generators to provide the enormous amount of energy those lights require. Nowadays, with the ability to shoot at high ISOs, Buono is able to approach the same night exterior with much smaller lights, such as a 1.8K ArriMax HMI, which requires a fraction of the energy and can be run on house power.

He finds that his lighting package can often be reduced to battery-powered LED lights and Kino Flos. Even when a large soft source is required, the Kino Flo VistaBeam 600 provides plenty of light yet can still be plugged into a wall socket.

“Lighting with house-powered instruments saves money and allows me to be more mobile,” he says. “I can work so much faster, my crew is smaller because the lights are smaller and I don’t need the extensive genie-cable runs.”

HD-DSLR shooters should be wary, however, of believing that because their cameras can produce good results at high ISOs, they can get away with shooting video using no lighting at all.
“The number one misconception is that you don’t need to light your shot anymore. That is not true. I’m absolutely approaching lighting from conceptually the same way I always have. I’m still using key lights, fill lights, backlights, etc. The difference is the units tend to be smaller, require less power and are less expensive.”

2. Consider Color Temperatures
While being able to shoot high-def video at high ISOs at night opens up opportunities, it also presents unique challenges, particularly when it comes to color temperature, which is often a mixed palette.

“With traditional film lighting, the instruments have perfectly matching color temperatures. Tungsten lights are all 3200 degrees; HMI lights are all 5600 degrees. That’s it. On the other hand, shooting night exteriors at high ISOs under ambient lighting, there is such a mix of color temperatures: warm tungsten headlights clashing with cyan metal-halide street lights and green fluorescent store fronts … there’s so much color contrast in the real world.”

Because of this swarm of color, HD-DSLR shooters may need to gel their lights to match the “natural” ambient riot of hues. “I find myself adding colored gels much more often than in the past,” Buono notes, adding that he often chooses gels that simulate the yellowy look of sodium vapor lamps or cool fluorescents.

3. LED and Beyond
One of the biggest innovations for HD-DSLRs is the advent of small, battery-powered devices that provide flicker-free, continuous LED light. (As an example, check out our write-up on the Litepanels Croma in “Objects of Desire” from the July 2012 issue.)

“Prior to LED lighting, there was a dearth of usable battery-powered lights for video,” Buono says. “We used to have these funky battery-belts that could get you a 30-minute blast of light, but that was it.”

Now, with a device such as the Litepanels MicroPro ($315) mounted on a DSLR, you can get 50 foot-candles of light at four to five feet. “It’s amazing. You can run and gun with just an on-camera light.”

Though LED lighting devices—Manfrotto, Polaroid and several other brands also sell LED panel-style lighting—can be expensive, Buono says they’re a must-have for anyone shooting video with a DSLR.

For documentary or newsgathering work, he recommends the 1×1 Bi-Color production light ($2,330) from Litepanels. “It’s such a powerful tool,” he says. “It can be tungsten, it can be daylight, it can be soft, it can be hard, you can turn it into a big soft light: It’s pretty versatile.”

Though he calls Litepanels a “phenomenal advancement,” he says powerful devices such as the Kino Flo Celeb 200 ($2,631), are “the next step in LEDs.

“[The Celeb 200] has such a range of adjustability of color temperature, it eliminates having to carry all these gels around. It’s incredibly versatile, fully dimmable and still packs quite a punch.”

4. Light Modifiers for Still Photography Also Work for Video
Just because a light-modifying tool was designed for still photography, doesn’t mean it won’t work for video. That’s what Buono learned when he was looking to get a classic beauty look for a fake perfume commercial for SNL.

The commercial spoof, for a phony perfume called “Red Flag,” featured comedian Kristen Wiig in a red dress, and Buono wanted to make her look as glamorous as possible. His first instinct was to use a Briese light—a high-end, German-made soft light—but was wary of the fairly expensive rental rate (up to $1,000 a day). As an alternative, Buono’s gaffer, Sean Sheridan, suggested using a seven-foot Westcott Silver Parabolic Umbrella, a modifier designed for the still photography market.

“My gaffer shows up with it and says ‘Trust me. I’ll use a large-filament tungsten bulb and it’ll look great.’ And he was right. We got these gorgeous close-ups of Kristen and it was all done with this umbrella. It’s incredibly lightweight and fast, and you can own it for a hundred bucks.”

5. When in Doubt, Block It Out
While traditionally it’s sometimes a struggle simply to get enough ambient light for a scene, when working at high ISOs with an HD-DSLR, you will often, ironically, find yourself in situations where there’s too much ambient light.

“Shooting at high ISOs [with an HD-DSLR] you end up spending less money on lighting and more money on grip equipment to control spill from existing ambient light,” he says. “For example, you may need to black-out the color-wash spilling from street lights that you would never have seen shooting at a lower ISO.”

He adds that while not having enough light usually isn’t a major issue, excess color from ambient light will be. “We may have plenty of light for exposure but we’re going to have all this color bleeding all over the place, so the ‘gripping’ will usually be more complicated and you have to prepare for that.”

His advice when it comes to ambient light: When in doubt, block it out and then add the lights you want to help get a consistent color temperature in a scene.

6. The Right Tools for the Right Situation
While shooting with a digital SLR lets you be more mobile and, arguably, more flexible, it doesn’t mean you can or should shoot everything with a stripped down “run-and-gun” lighting setup. The benefit of cameras like the 5D Mark II, 7D and now the C300 is that you can do more with less, but you still need to come prepared.

“In the past, the weight and the size of the camera and the size and expense of the lighting was cost prohibitive, but those barriers have been removed. You can now practically light every situation without using a ton of gear but that doesn’t mean you throw out all of the old tools. If I’m in a traditional situation, I may still approach it in a traditional way,” Buono says.

“There’s something about the look of a studio 10K light with that giant piece of Fresnel glass in front of it. You’re never going to get that look out of the latest and greatest LED. Sometimes, the old-school thing is the right way to go.”

7. Scout Your Location for Lighting
Speaking of preparation, Buono says it’s vital to scout a location not just for blocking the action, but, more critically, for how the scene will be lit.

“Carefully scouting a scene will save you a lot of money. You have to participate in the location scouting and you have to pay attention to what time of the day the shoot is going to happen. The sun is going to do more for you than any light could ever do. The sun and a piece of foam core is a lighting package. There are a lot of scenes where we’ve location scouted and planned our schedule around the sun’s position so that all I need is a 4 x 4 bounce card. I’ve also rejected locations because the sun’s position will actually hurt us more than help us.”

The same goes for indoor shoots, particularly in large venues where you think you might have to hang lights.

“Sometimes you can’t rig because the location is a hundred years old and the walls are too ornate; other times you just don’t have time to rig.”

If that’s the case, Buono suggests being prepared to bounce as much light as possible. “I’ve had a lot of success lighting large-scale locations just by aiming a Molebeam at a wall 50 feet away and getting this natural bounce that lights the whole scene.”

In one case, Buono had to shoot in an antique ballroom. Its ceiling was made of Tiffany glass, so hanging lights was out of the question. Instead, he floated Airstar’s The Cloud over the set—a 12 x 12-foot screen filled with helium that resembles a large air mattress. Once it was floating over the ballroom, Buono blasted “a cheap 5K light into it, which gave the whole scene this gorgeous, toppy glow.”

The ability of an HD-DSLR to shoot at high ISOs lets you get away with bouncing light much more than in the past.

“You bounce into a dark-brown, wood-paneled wall and most of the time there’s not enough light coming back off of it for exposure. But if you’re shooting at 800 to 3200 ISO, it becomes this incredibly natural, soft key light. If you can’t rig a light in the right position, just bounce something.”

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