Movies at the speed of Light


There are many ways to light a set, five different DP (Director of Photography) with the same crew the same script and same location can light five different ways with the same director. The conditions for selecting one lighting approach over another can vary widely keeping in mine some of the restrictions of any shoot; time and money. Creating a plan that is practical, efficient, and adapted to the condition to move the story forward.

Every lighting situation comes with many challenges and unique problems and for every challenge and problem there are many solutions. Here you’ll find theory and practices for the filmmaker.

Develop your own methods, techniques, and distinctive style for lighting, be it stage, event, commercial, short or future production.


Everything you see with your eyes, all of the world’s beauty is possible because of light. However most of the time we do not see light; we see the aftermath of light hitting a surface and being reflected back to our eye. Photons of light have wave particle duality, exhibit properties of both waves and particles.

Without light its radio. The manipulation of these photons is what this paper is about. How light works and the character and quality of light is the DPs talent, to evoke the proper time, place and atmosphere with lighting that not only works with, but enhances the story. Light is affected by almost everything but mostly only two things, mass and gravity, refection, refraction and absorption is how light reacts to things (mass) on and off the set. Everything you do to light can alter the viewer’s experience and altimetry alters the story, and story is everything.

The DP has to work with light in many forms, the sun, incandescent, HMIs fluorescents and LEDs, from soft to hard and color too. When and where to use these types of instruments is mostly dictated by time, money, place and story, if you have enough money, you can take your time at any place to tell the story. Rarely is there enough money or time.

Designing a lighting set can be much about individual aesthetic, ten gaffers or DPs can find ten different lighting plans for the same set. Different problems can have many different solutions and still achieve the same outcome.

The criteria for selecting one approach in solving a lighting problem over another can cover a wide range of possibilities, and the professional, after a review of creative, technical and mechanical considerations, can then make a professional judgment on the best way to achieve the goal and wishes of the director. Time and money are the filmmaker’s biggest problems, but mostly time, for no amount of money can buy you time back. Creativity sometimes has to take a back seat to the realities of the film budget. Since every location is different and the unpredictable way that things will change, from day to day and even minute to minute, make it difficult to have every probable problem that can arise be covered. Have some backups for your larger and or more complicated sets, being able to adapt and being ready for some problems can make you a hero to your director. Mostly you will have to develop your own methods and techniques for achieving your goals in creating a lighting effect that can bring the vision of your director to its ultimate climax.

Color of Light:

Light is part of the electromagnetic spectrum, gamma rays, radio waves, X-rays, television, cellular Band, ultraviolet and infrared, are all part of the electromagnetic wave. Film and video can be made to see most of these wavelengths.

Figure 1.1: Wavelengths from 380 to 780nm (nanometers) are the visible part of this wave. All colors that we see come from this visible part of the wave. These waves stimulate the nerve endings of the human eye. The combination of these colors make white light, or what we preserve as white light, for white light come in all colors to the human eye.

550nm is about the center of the photopic curve of this visible light about the center of green and yellow. The human eye for most people respond better to this wavelength and then the wave starts to fall off on either side of this peak.

In lighting, we deal with mostly the visible part of this wave. The colors of light are compared to a standard; this standard is the black body theory, a piece of theoretical metal heated until it omits its own visible light. The temperature of the piece of metal at degrees Kelvin is also known as the temperature of the light it omits. At the early stages, the piece of metal is red and with more heat the hotter it gets, the temperature and Kelvin all continue to climb, from red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet and white-hot. White is not known as a color.

Kelvin is important for film and video, film has to be rated or balanced for the proper Kelvin temperature of the light being used for your production. Tungsten lights are balanced for 3200 oK and HMIs are balanced at 5600 oK, in video the camera has to be balanced for the correct Kelvin temperature. This can be accomplished with the internal mechanism of the camera.

Daylight can be as warm as 1500oK sun up or sun down to high noon 20,000 oK.

Lighting equipment comes in all shapes, sizes and color. There are all kinds and type of lights to fit all kinds of light situations, from spot to flood, soft to hard and everything in-between, from 100 watt to 30 Kilowatts.

Some leading manufactures for lighting equipment are, ARRI, Balcar, Kino Flo, Lowel, LTM, Mole-Richardson, and Strand lighting.

Name Fresnel/Open-faced/Par Wattage Amps Drawn Paper Calculations
Inkie/Mini Fresnel 200W 1.7 2
Tweenie Fresnel 650W 5.4 6.5
Baby Fresnel 1000W 8.3 10
Junior Fresnel 2000W 16.6 20
Senior Fresnel 5000W 42 50
Mickey Open-faced 1000W 8.3 10
Mighty Open-faced 2000W 16.6 20
Sixlight PAR 650 3900W 32.5 39
Inbetweenie Fresnel 200W 1.7 2
HMI 575 Fresnel or PAR 575W 4.8 5.75
HMI 1200 Fresnel or PAR 1200W 10 12
HMI 12,000 Fresnel or PAR 12,000W100 120
Omni Light Open-faced 500W 4.2 5
Tota Light Open-faced 1000W 8.3 10
DP Light Open-faced 1000W 8.3 10

Elementary lighting; in film and digital imaging we look at a two dimensional representation of a subject. In order to give the allusion of three dimensions we need to light it in three dimensions, key, fill and backlight.

Some typical color temperatures are:

Kelvin Temperature -Light Source
1700 oK Candlelight
2680 oK 40 W incandescent lamp
3000 oK 200 W incandescent lamp
3200 oK Tungsten Halogen
3200 oK Sunrise/sunset
2900 oK Tungsten lamp
3400 oK 1 hour from dusk/dawn
5000-4500 oK Xenon lamp/light arc
5600 oK Sunny daylight around noon
5600 oK HMI
5500-5600 oK Electronic photo flash
6500-8000 oK Overcast sky
9000-20000 oK Blue sky

Tungsten-Halogen fixture has a color temperature of 3200 K; it maintains this temperature because the filament is constantly being redeposited back onto the tungsten filament.