Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Tip #42: Simple and effective lighting kit

By Dan Parkes (Director)

It sometimes seems the art of 'painting with light' requires membership of a secret circle in which few ever devulge their secrets. Or so I thought after working with several different Directors of Photography who seemed disinclined to describe in simple or practical terms how they light a scene. But I later discovered that it looks far more complex than it is. The actual lighting techniques are usually quite logical; what is often more complex is the different equipment and their various applications -and all important safety considerations!

Because we could not afford to have a DoP on set for the whole of production we only employed one for key shoot dates, and for other sections of the shoot, the assistant director, Kieron James, and myself lit everything ourselves. We were very surprised with how effective our lighting ended up becoming, and so in this and the next blog are some very basic tips we learned along the way.

Since we were using a 35mm adapter which looses at least a stop of light (a 'stop' measures the amount of light that can go through a lens -effectively the more glass the less light gets through), we knew from the outset that we needed a lot of light. So our basic lighting package that we hired from a local company consisted of one powerful light, an Arri 2K (2000w), and then a selection of smaller fresnels, 800w, 650w and 300w. We needed the 2K to light large areas, maybe the background, or to bounce off a ceiling to provide ambient light. And then the smaller lights were used to create mood and atmosphere.

The lights all came along with their relevant stands and leads of course, but make sure you also have gels, diffuse paper and croc clips. We also added a separate stand and reflector which could also double as a flag.

Here is a check list of equipment you may or not need, depending on the type of shoot, courtesy of Promotion Hire who provided our lighting equipment:

HMI light (powerful, high quality lights good
for exterior work, but require ballast)

Kinos or LED softlights (expensive but
good for creating soft bank of light)

2K light (a cheaper option for a
more powerful light)

1K light (also known as a "blonde")

800w light (also known as a "red head")

650w light

300w light

Dedo (smaller and more portable lights
-good for interviews but only 100-150w)

Softbox/Chimera (another more
expensive way of softening the light)


Gels (to correct lights depending
on whether you are filming inside or
outside or to create colour effects)

ND (Neutral density -good for blocking
sunlight coming in through windows)

Diffuse (to soften the lights
to avoid hard shadows)
Clips (to clip gels, diffuse etc to the lights)

Dimmer (to adjust a more powerful light
to a lower wattage -allows more control)

Flag (to block unwanted light
or create shadow)

Super clamp (for attaching
lights to wall fittings etc)

Gaffer tape

Sandbag (for top heavy lights to
ensure they don't tip over)


Extension cord


  1. Great post, Dps are one of the last crew members to try to keep their practice a dark art. As if understanding lighting turned you instantly into Christopher Doyle.

  2. A few things that DoPs will also use include black foil, colour meters and light meters.

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  6. This post comes across as extremely disloyal to whichever DP you did have, whether you intend it or not. It's a slap in the face to DPs disguised as a tip to the masses, and you should rethink the message you are trying to get across.

    I have to wonder what level of quality you'll get looking for DPs who are happy to part time.
    I wonder if that particular DP wil work for free again, if this is the aknowledgement of their effort?

    To the first anon poster: An alternative side of the coin is: A decent DP can provide a level of authority and technical expertise that can elevate a struggling production. Why is it a dark art? because it usually follows years of technical education in physics, maths and appplied technology, as well as learning your way up through the ranks by gaining expertise on just about every other crew task.

    A DP is there to contain and elevate the visual medium through expertise with the technical details that most directors prefer not to stress overly much over, and it's rarely guesswork or "dark arts" that gives success using these "complex devices". The first paragraph of this post frankly just p*sses all over that competence: to paraphrase: "the devices are tricky but the techniques that use them are easy?"

    To anyone thinking the above post makes sense, let me offer an alternative way: Fair enough to be cheap on other technical details, but NEVER go cheap on your DP, and assuming you have sufficient skill to handle all aspects of your shoot, without a knowledgeable second opinion, is probably the most common mistake that directors make.

  7. Thanks for your comment Mike but I think you are misreading our intentions. Firstly, the DoP did not work for "free". The DoP was in fact the highest paid member of crew who was scheduled for only the initial key scenes of the shoot. However the DoP did later come along on their unscheduled days at a later date -but this was not something we had requested, they volunteered and did it completely of their own initiative.

    There is a lot of focus going on the DoP here when this blog is really all about the kit. We definitely do not belittle the competence of a DoP although that can be a matter of opinion (just being a DoP does not make you a good one!). However we strongly recommend using a DoP as much as possible, as well as learning about their kit and techniques...

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  9. A note to those wanting to post a comment: it seems unfortunate to have to resort to removing some messages, but all posts will be moderated and blatantly offensive comments removed.

  10. The term Masterpiece derives from the fact that one must master the elements of their craft to deliver a great work. "Membership of an inner circle" it simply isn't, and that premise, as well as the general flavour of the article: that for the cost conscious director, spend on the gear vs the talent, is disingenuous. Especially in light of the comment above from your former DoP.

    I would also counter the basic premise of this article and state that it's the technology that is actually very simple: light on / light off (VS being i.e. a heart surgeon it's probably a doddle in fact), and your gaffertape, gels and power extension cords etc won't exactly suspend my disbelief.

    TO master the art of lighting is to master diffusion vs density vs soft vs hard light across distance and motion. Reflections. Shadow. Colour. Contrast. Focal length.

    Simple things like skin tone and how light will glow from it vs complexion and how a light will soak into it, and how film (or an lcd) will react differently to that than the human eye.

    This is NOT simple stuff compared to knowing which way the light is supposed to point and how many watts it runs across the wire, (nevermind which light to use, and how sharply to achieve any of the above in a sophisticated fashion).

    For the record: I'm not an expert: I struggle to understand this stuff. Perhaps I'm fortunate in that I would never overestimate my own limited talents in this area, to the point where I would part-time (or underuse) a DoP. For what its worth, I hope your direction was successful, and when my time comes I hope I do better.

    If you want a conversation, vs simple difference of opinion on any of this - feel free to join us over on
    http://www.cinematography.com where many with FAR more competence than I will be happy to weigh in.


  11. Mike-

    Your reply unfortunately contains misquotes.

    Nowhere in the article does it mention "spend on the gear vs the talent" and neither does it say that the equipment in itself is complex.

    Instead it encourages using a very basic kit (ie 2k, 800w, 650w and 300w is what we used).

    Also it mentions the complexity is the choice of equipment and its application.

    To use your example, most people would have no problem comprehending the difference between hard and soft light. But would they know what kind of light provides which and/or what to do to a light to change it from hard to soft?

    Just as most would understand that a brain surgeon needs to remove a tumour (the principle objective), but may need to learn exactly what tools and how to use them correctly (application). The objective is relatively simple but putting it into practice may not necessarily be.

    Again this blog is about the kit, the equipment available. It is not demeaning the role of the DoP or the complexity of lighting. It is simply saying that it is within your reach to learn and explore and ultimately put it into practice and make film no matter what budget you are on.

  12. Dan.
    I understand your intention, and I wasn't quoting but paraphrasing the first paragraph of your article. I stand by the interpretation. Your first paragraph describes the technology of lighting as far more complex than the supposed "secrets" used by DoPs: methods that can be emulated if one has access to a Simple but effective light kit.

    Respectfully this seems an unwise
    statement to make.

    The rest of the article describes what such a light kit might consist of, and how in your personal experience, having access to such replaced the necessity for a fulltime DoP.

    Respectfully, If this is accurate and indeed worked well for you, then kudos - but it seems an exception to time tested methods, and at odds with everything I (and many others) are trying to cram into our own limited heads.

    Perhaps I'm overawed by the profession, but in my humble opinion: A competent DoP could probably do more with a maglite than most competent directors could with the set lighting from Close Encounters :-)

    I'll bow out now: Thanks for taking the time to respond - and good luck!

  13. Hello Mike!

    I suppose complexity is subjective -I believe a lot of things in life look more complex than what in reality they really are.

    Take for example what the great DoP Roger Deakins mentioned recently in explaining a seemingly complex shot "I used a low bounce over the transparency. Very simple really...But it is always a trick of some sort. It is interesting how easily, in fact, the viewer can be tricked."

    But Mike I must correct you on one thing -I would never believe or have stated anywhere that 'having access to kit replaced the necessity for a fulltime DoP.' Equipment can never ever replace talent. Without the fulltime DoP we actually had LESS equipment (only 4 basic lights). And many shots were lit with only one light...

    I hesitate to add this, but it seems relevant -and with all due respect to the fulltime DoP who worked hard- the shots where people have commented on the good lighting, were in fact not shot by the fulltime DoP....

    So it really comes down to, as you say, not what you've got (or who you are), but what you do with it that counts!

    Please don't bow out, a healthy and sometimes humorous debate of this kind is well... enlightening! :-)

  14. Actually there's a LOT wrong with that equipment listed: there are several inaccuracies; you leave out items that can be really useful to low budget film-makers (like totalights or mizars); but worse - you give no indication as to which to use or how to use them effectively! You've just pasted in pics from some lighting hire catalog "Here is a check list of equipment you may or not need...".

    Is that it? Lighting isn't just pointing a light, or adding a bit of diffusion to make it soft. I've seen (and put together myself) set-ups that may have only a few lights, but use considerably more reflectors, diffusion, and flags. And then there's the matter of the Great Outdoors...

    It is naturally tempting for a newbie to see a DP's job as being primarily to do with settings lights. But that is only a part of it. There is the overall 'look' of the production, which means talking with the other HODs, and with you the director, about their choices. There is the choice of stock and camera. There are matters to do with colour temperature and flicker. There's all the stuff to do with camera speeds. And stabilisation. I could go on. And on...

    It takes years to learn this stuff.

    You say "I believe a lot of things in life look more complex than what in reality they really are.." The fact is, with lighting a feature, they really are! It's not like a short film where you can often wing it, and learn as you go. We've all done that. With a feature it's another ball game entirely. I've seen people struggle to get a feature off the ground, then cock it up by cutting stupid corners. And it destroys them.

    But then... you've just made a 'feature' yourself, so you should know this..? Which is what makes this all a bit mystifying. Presumably you've managed to wing it somehow. Maybe you're a fast learner and have a good eye. And maybe your production wasn't particularly demanding. Maybe you're not that concerned about the look of it. Maybe you have a wickedly good script, or a great conceit (like Blair Witch or Exhibit A) that let's you get away with it. But even so...

    (And it's worth noting that though Blair Witch did well, Exhibit A, like many others since, did not.)

    Fact is, at a time when many aspiring newbies are learning the craft, and trying to 'break in', suggesting that one way to cut corners is a DIY approach to lighting (albeit on the less demanding stuff) is really bad advice. It's one thing to learn from your mistakes on shorts, but a feature is something you really need to get right at the time. It's also highly disrespectful to DPs - particularly the one you did use!

    Add to that the fact (as I'm sure you've discovered) that you have a major credibility hurdle when it comes to distribution. A local festival (you quote Norwich in the header) may well be enthusiastic to see local talent having a go, but 'real' distributors view things very differently. If you look like an amateur outfit most of them will be reluctant to take you on as you will likely need a lot more attention than someone who knows the ropes and can promptly deliver everything they need at the standard they require - however good your film may be. You need to look as Pro as possible. In that respect a good DP will lift your film immeasurably.

    My advice to noobs is to get as good a DP as you can (and not someone who's just gone out and bought a DSLR) who will work with you from the outset to the screening of the final print. Establishing a relationship with a DP, learning to work collaboratively with them (and not just bring one in to light a scene or two), will really help make you a pro, and give your career more chance of sustained success.

    Dan, I wish you all the best with Ambleton (really!). It must have taken a HUGE amount of effort, and big big big kudos to you for getting it done! But you're wrong to suggest that people should cut corners with their DP.


  15. Thanks Karel, I agree with most of what you say, certainly regarding your advice to look professional and not cut corners with DPs. However unfortunately like so many who seem to be taking unreasonable offence over this post you are jumping to erroneous conclusions. Specifically-

    1. You complain we have left equipment out. That is simply because there is not enough space to put everything in and so only included what was available when we hired our lights. You can hardly label that an 'inaccuracy' when we never said it was a complete list.

    2."You give no indication as to which to use or how to use them effectively." Of course we don't -that is not its purpose. If you had read both the title of the blog and also the content of the blog you will notice this is about the equipment and we mention this is part one of a two part blog (the following blog which will go into the techniques).

    3. Complexity. You will also notice that I mentioned "more complex than they really are" which if read correctly means it is complex, but not excessively so. I never say it is easy. My saying is that "anything difficult must be worth doing" and that includes lighting.

    4. "Newbie...It takes years to learn this stuff...." Most of the filmmakers involved in this production have been making films for not years but several decades (including myself) so this is an inaccurate and unfair assumption. We were certainly not newbies.

    5."Suggesting that one way to cut corners is a DIY approach to lighting (albeit on the less demanding stuff) is really bad advice."
    This is where I wholeheartedly disagree, especially as this blog is about no budget film making and so is all about DIY! what if a camera operator decides to learn the craft of lighting a simple scene, and does it himself (ie "DIY" as you say) you believe this is wrong? How does one ever become a DoP without learning to become one? Most definitely they should not jump in the deep end and light a feature, but how about lighting cameramen with some experience (as in our case) lighting second unit shots? Everyone starts somewhere, and when it comes to filmmaking rules are made to be broken...

    6. "Major credibility hurdle when it comes to distribution". Since we had a professional DoP onboard for the film I can't see how this can be an issue. I hesitate to add that we have won two Best Feature awards and one Best Actor award and have received over a dozen distribution offers, including several from LA which we will be following up shortly. Still I am realistic that actually selling a film is very difficult to say the least.

    7. "But you're wrong to suggest that people should cut corners with their DP." We never said 'cut corners with the DP'... we said get a professional or learn to become one yourself.

    Ultimately, the most important thing is not to cut corners with lighting!

  16. Welp, you do people a favour and then what...

  17. The fact this post has got so many people riled up says a lot.

    People keep mentioning the argument, 'Yes, but that's not how Roger Deakins (or some other similarly famous DP) does it.' The implication being that unless that's the level you're striving towards working at you shouldn't bother, which sounds a bit ridiculous to me.

    I mean, if someone had given you money to run a small restaurant, you wouldn't not open it just because you couldn't get Gordon Ramsay in as the chef or couldn't cook with the skill he does, would you?

    This post is about having a go and working with what you've got. Yes, there is a lot to be said for getting in experience and professional DPs but there is a cost associated with that. To use the restaurant analogy again, not all of us are trying to run a Michelin-starred establishment.

  18. Yes, a very good comment and nice illustration, thank you. I would add that even with a low budget film, that should never mean low quality. So it might not be a Michelin-starred establishment, but the DoP or chef should aim for the best most professional quality possible under the circumstances.

  19. "People keep mentioning the argument, 'Yes, but that's not how Roger Deakins (or some other similarly famous DP) does it.' "

    Er, the only person to mention Deakins here was Dan himself: "Take for example what the great DoP Roger Deakins... "

    Delete this post if you like, but it stands out a mile.

  20. Dan,

    Thanks so much for sharing your perspective and methodology here.

    Definitely seems like you touched a chord with some people based on the level of unnecessary vitriol in all the back and forth. (Some deep-rooted insecurities, personal issues w/ you, or something funky is going on there... 'cause it's way beyond the tone of anything I read in your posts.)

    I hope everyone who so strongly disagrees rather than just dumping on your sincere efforts to help filmmakers, also has extensive blog posts and articles elsewhere that lays out THEIR methodology, philosophy and on-set secrets for the new generation of filmmakers they claim to be so concerned about.

    Let all the filmmakers read both (without any bashing) and decide for themselves. Nothing to be afraid of.

    Far too few filmmakers share their full experiences or secrets with the next generation, but are quick to dump on anything outside of their own filmmaking experiences.

    I think "the masters" became so by doing, experimenting with NEW ways of doing things and benefiting from contact with professionals that are generous and open with their knowledge, "secrets" and methodologies.

    And while new and novel approaches won't always work, I would rarely dismiss them out of hand until I - at least saw the final results, 'cause that will speak the loudest.

    No doubt good filmmaking karma will follow you as you continue to be generous with your knowledge, open-minded and look out for the next crop of filmmakers coming up.

    Remember my saying "Haters are the mile post on the road to success.", so you must be doing something right here.

    Best of luck with your film

    -Anthony Q. Artis





    LOL. Some words of wisdom from good old sam jack. I agree with my man Anthony, Dan keep doing your thing baby! In this age of recessions and the rise of video lots of changes are coming. And as long as there have been humans on this earth, our species loves to resist change.

    All of Dan's detractors DO NOT HAVE TO READ DAN's BLOG. It's really as simple as that. All the mud slinging is really not necessary.

    At the end of the day we are all brothers and sisters in film. Isn't time that we acted like it?

    This type of shit, was always the stuff that turned me off about film. All the EGOS and what not. Crew vs actors, actors vs crew, craft service vs director, director vs DOP.

    It's a wonder how ANYTHING GETS DONE. But when it does get done and the sights and sounds hit me on a emotional level, baby it was all worth it.

    So at this moment i would like everyone to sit back and chill and think about why you got into film. Why your heart burns so brightly to leave posts on a forum such as this and allow the feeling to reintroduce itself into your present life so it can help you get to your future.



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