Cinematography: 6 tips for lighting fast on set
Lighting can take time to produce the best images possible. Some shots can be filmed in natural light and require nothing but a little bit of poly-board to lift the exposure on the face, whereas other set-ups require multiple 18K lights, elaborate rigs, and dimmer boards. It all depends on the shot at hand. It's a juggle between getting the shots required and making sure each image is the best it can be aesthetically. Here are a few little tips I've picked up to help light fast next time you're on set:
1. Be well prepared. A simple one and perhaps the most important. Use all the time you can planning your lighting approach off set, rather than on the shooting day.
2. Make a decision stylistically about the look. Are you happy to let that over-exposed window blow out? Do we need to see detail in the sky over the actress's shoulder? No one way is right or wrong but make those decisions before you step on the set.
3. Have a few 300w or 650w lights on stands with dimmers and a few flags/cutters on C-stands, set aside ready on set. There are always those moments just before the camera rolls when time is pressing and you need a little more light in the actor's eyes or flag a wall.
Learn to let things go and know when "good enough is enough".
4. Shoot to the slowest lens in your package. If you've lit your set to a stop of f2 and the director asks for a slower lens, which is f4 for example, you'll now need more light. If you light to f4 and use f2 lenses all day, that's an easier adjustment.
5. Light two or three shots ahead. Whilst lighting for your master, you're also getting ready for the closer intimate shots coming up. Knowing in your head that to shoot the reverse wide after lunch will require the panning of a few lights and bringing in one of your 650w lamps you already have on standby means you're not going to be holding up the set for too long. Starting rigging any additional lamps for shots coming up when you have the time and the set is waiting for the star or the make-up checks.
6. Learn to let things go and know when "good enough is enough". I could finesse flags and tweak barn doors all day on set to try and eliminate reflections or shadows to make the best image possible for the director. Know when to take the time to do this and when it matters and when to let things go. If the shot lasts two seconds and the director gets a wonderful performance, confidently forgive any imperfections. Only you can see the small light reflection in the corner of the window behind the actor but the audience won't. Your finessing might also cost the director a shot or two at the end of the day which are much more important to the storytelling than the DP making every shot a Rembrandt. Making your day and getting 100% of the shots but having them only at 85% of what your want them to be is better than getting 85% of the shots required and having them all look 100%.