Module 29


Updated:  01/01/2016

Module 29







" Creative manipulation of light can elicit stunning images from a modest consumer camcorder, while poor lighting will cripple the most expensive, state-of-the-art broadcast camera."

-Michael Grotticelli

The third and last lighting variable is intensity. As we will see, the control of light intensity (or quantity) represents a major variable in dramatic production.

For example, in the photo above the inside and outside illumination levels have to be carefully balanced to keep one from overpowering the other and spoiling the effect.

Note how the different color temperatures (blue for moonlight, reddish for interior light) are also important to the effect.

Although these things are easy to see in the photo, in an actual setting the eye ends up being a poor judge of both relative intensity and color temperature. For this we need the tools discussed in this module.

Light intensity (quantity) is measured in foot-candles in the United States, or in lux in most other countries. Even in the United States lux is replacing foot-candles.

As we've noted, a foot-candle equals about 10.74 lux (or, for a rough conversion, multiply foot-candles by 10 to get lux).

To provide some points of reference:  

  • sunlight on an average day ranges from 32,000 to 100,000 lux
  • TV and film sets are lit at about 600 lux
  • a bright office has about 400 lux
  • moonlight represents about 1 lux
  • starlight measures a mere 0.00005 lux

Studio and Field Light Levels

Although most modern TV cameras need at least 600 lux of light to produce good quality video, many can produce acceptable pictures under just a few foot-candles of light.

When color was first introduced, 300 foot-candles (more than 3,000 lux) of light were required in TV studios.  As more light sensitive cameras were introduced, this level kept dropping. 

Today, many on-location shoots are done with as little as 30 foot-candles (about 300 lux) of light.  The latest generation of professional video cameras can produce good quality video under less than one foot-candle (less than 10 lux) of light.

Part of the motivation for using less light on locations lies in limiting depth of field and creating a bokeh "film look" by using wide f-stops. We commonly see this today in dramatic productions.

Although low light coupled with wide f-stops make maintaining sharp focus difficult, selective focus effectespecially in HDTV, this maximizes selective focus  eliminates.

Note in this scene that without selective focus the woman and the goat would almost disappear into background clutter. 

With today's sensitive video cameras you may also have to use a neutral density filter to cut down the light going through the lens and thus force a wider f-stop. 

You should also be aware that if you are using a teleprompter, about one-half of a f-stop of light is lost going through the teleprompter mirror.


Light Meters

Light meters are used to measure light intensity.

As we will see, being able to establish rather exact intensities for the various lights is important for professional video work.

Uneven light around a scene will cause variations in video levels and dark or washed out skin tones.

It's possible to walk around a set with an incident light meter (discussed below) and quickly find dark or "hot" areas where lighting needs to be adjusted.

There is another reason for being able to accurately measure light on a set.

By subtly manipulating the brightness in the primary and secondary areas of a scene you can achieve a sophisticated means of visual control.effect of bright picture area

As we've noted, our eyes are drawn to light areas in a scene. (Note illustration on the left.) Therefore, you can use light to emphasize the scene's center of interest and downplay secondary or potentially distracting elements.

Before you can use relative intensities creatively (and avoid intensity related problems) you need to be able to accurately measure light intensity.

Because the eye is a rather unreliable judge in setting up lighting, you need to use either a light meter or a keen eye coupled with a high-quality color monitor.

Although the latter is preferred for making final adjustments, when lights are first being put into place it's much faster to use a light meter.

There are two types of meters: reflected and incident. 

Reflected Light Meters

A reflected light meter measures the amount of light being reflected from (off of) subject matter. This is the type of built-in light measurement system used in most still cameras.

Because a reflected light meter assumes that all subject matter reflects 18-percent of the light falling on it — a so-called average scene — it can be easily fooled by nonstandard subject matter. This is why the auto-iris or auto-exposure devices in video cameras can get you into trouble. spot meter

The accuracy of reflected light readings can be improved by using a spot meter (shown on the right).

Spot meters are a type of reflected light meter that can measure light within a one- to five-degree angle of view.  

In a studio setting, for example, you can stand where the cameras will be and take readings off of all of the important subject matter in the scene.

If light readings between different elements in a scene are greater than five f-stops, the optimum contrast ratio has been exceeded and you will end up with some of the problems we discussed in the modules on maintaining video quality.

Contrast ratios can be reduced either by throwing more light on the dark areas or by reducing light intensity on bright areas.

The use of a meter is especially important in professional HDTV production, which is more technically demanding that SDTV.

Incident Light Meters

Whereas a reflected light meter is valuable in determining incident light metercontrast (brightness) ratios in a scene, an incident light meter (shown here) can tell you how bright the light is that's falling on a scene.

Thus, instead of measuring the amount of light reflected from subject matter, incident meters measure the amount of light directed on the scene.

To get an accurate reading in the studio with this type of meter you must point it directly at the light you are measuring while standing in the position of the talent.

Some incident-type meters, such as the one shown above, read directly in foot-candles or lux, others require a conversion scale. 

There are light meters, such as the one shown below on the right, can be used both as reflected light meters (including spot meters) and incident meters. professional light meter

Often, you have to shoot video under very low light. News and documentary work and some of the network reality shows that rely on existing light are good examples.

Today's professional video cameras are very sensitive to light. However, in checking out a location, and before you take the time to set up all your equipment, you may want to make sure your camera can "make good pictures."

You will probably want to use a meter for this purpose —  especially if the lighting conditions are questionable.

In low light conditions you will want to know how sensitive your camera is in terms of an exposure index (EI or ISO sensitivity). - This article provides information on determining the maximum sensitivity of your video camera. Once you know this, it's easy to check out questionable locations with any good light meter.

Color Temperature Meters

We noted color temperature meterin the opening section that sometimes it's important to use color temperature to achieve creative effects. There are color temperature meters — one is shown on the left — that provide a readout of the dominant color temperature of light.

In video, color temperature meters aren't used nearly as much as light meters because cameras can be white-balanced to automatically accommodate most light sources.

But, in creating an intentional difference between light sources, as in the case of the illustration ▲ at the beginning of this module, knowing the relative color temperatures of light sources is important to creating the desired effect.

Gels (colored filters) can be used in front of lights to change their color. We'll discuss the creative use of color in lights in a later module.

Controlling Light Intensity

Of course, it does little good to know how to measure the brightness of lights if we can't control their brightness.

There are several ways of doing this.  

Intensity Control Through Varying Distance

As the distance between a light source and the subject increases, the light is spread out over a larger area and the intensity decreases.

Put more precisely, the intensity of light from an unfocused light source, such as the ones illustrated below, decreases according to the inverse-square law. We'll leave precise FC/lux calculations to the mathematicians and illustrate this concept by showing the intensity of a light bulb at different distances from a subject.

light intensity and distance

To use another example, let's say when a light is 3 meters (10 feet) away from a subject you find that there's 4,000 lux of light on your subject.

If you then double the light-to-subject distance to 6 meters (20 feet), you will end up with only about 1/4 the original light, or 1,000 lux.

This relationship holds for studio fluorescent and LED light sources, but not for focused types of lights, such as Fresnels and spotlights, and lighting instruments that have highly polished reflectors.  You can find charts showing how light intensity diminishes with distance yellow dot here.

This distance-intensity concept proves particularly useful in setting up lights on locations. In these situations altering light intensities becomes a matter of just moving the lighting stands closer or farther away from subjects.  

Scrims scrim

Another way to control the intensity of light is with scrims, which resemble a frame of finely woven screen wire.

By using a single or double thickness scrim over a light, the light's intensity can be cut 30- to 60-percent without changing its color temperature.  

Focusing Lights

Many lighting instruments can be focused. This also influences intensity.

By using a lever or a crank the beam of these lights can be pinned down and concentrated over a narrow area, or flooded out to cover a larger area.  


Lastly, brightness can be reduced in incandescent lights by reducing the voltage to the lamps with dimmers. Unfortunately, this also affects color temperature.

A rough rule of thumb is that for every one-volt drop in the voltage to an incandescent light, the color temperature drops 10K.

Since the human eye can detect a 200K color shift in the 2,000-4,000K range, this means that a studio light can only be dimmed by about 20 percent (in relation to the other lights) without being noticed.


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