Many of you have heard me talk about how I light to eye by either looking at the back LCD screen or a lighting monitor like an HP DreamColor. Lighting to eye is something that is based on experience and what you like esthetically. I trained my eye through the use of exposing film, not an LCD screen or a monitor, but a photo-chemical process and by the use of a light meter. Many say that the light meter is dead with digital. I disagree. It is the only tool that you have in your box that can measure what you love. It can tell you how you lit a specific scene in case you have to go back and pick something up later in your schedule. You will need that tool to measure footcandles and f-stops to guide you to make the match perfect.
“What Do You Like?”
Let’s start with the basics.
KeyLight: This is the first thing you start with and this light will dictate all of your other levels of exposure with your back light and fill light. Deciding on the quality of you key light will be your choice. You can use hard light or soft light, or in this case we are showing you a book light in our lighting example, which is a very soft source. Where you position this light is up to you as well.
Back light: Some like a heavy back light in certain situations. Others like the subtlety of a back light at night, where it barely etches your actors out of the dark background. All of these choices establish your style. I try to not repeat my looks, and I am constantly challenging myself to light differently, lighting that will be unique to the story. Challenge yourself. Move out of that comfort zone. Remember that abyss I talked about jumping off just to see what it looked like on the way down? This is what I was talking about.
Fill light: It is my favorite training tool because it is what shows you every detail. Or you may choose to suppress the fill to the point where your audience has to squint to see. Now you might be thinking, “OK, what I see is what I get on the monitor.” Yes, but what is that measurement? Take the few seconds it takes to get out there and read on your light meter what you see and respond to. Log that in your memory or a book with the scene number. I always draw a quick crude lighting plot of where things are located. That way you are good to go. I have burned myself too many times by not doing this, and I sit in the theater beating myself up over not taking those few seconds.
“How to Train your Eye”
• Set up a Book Light or a simple key light that you can position. Get this to your liking and then read and record it in your book, along with the position.
• Set up a light behind a model and slowly increase it until it is where you say, “I love this.” Go over and read it. Put that in your book, with a little diagram of where the back light is located.
• First, flag the Key Light so that it will not affect your bounce until the bounce card is collecting light from the key light source. Move your fill card in slowly. Don’t add a light into it yet; we are training your eye. Now, you can look on your lighting monitor or your LCD to gauge it. We call this passive fill. Passive fill is light that you are collecting and bouncing from a white card that is filling your model in, not from a light aimed at it.
You are moving your fill card toward your model, and it starts to collect the fill light. Stop the fill card once you like the level of fill on your model’s face. Go in there and read that. Now put that value next to the fill bounce in your book.
Once you have that measurement, you can back your fill card out of the shot, put it over camera and match the measurement from what you just wrote down in your book. How do you match that? By using a light meter. You can continue to do this with a bounce and a light into it, or use a Kino Flo. See, you can use anything you want now because you have a measurement of what you like.
“Finding your Fill Ratio”
You have just figured out what you like, so now we have to find out what that ratio is to the Key Light. If your Key Light is reading a 4.0 stop and your fill is reading at 1.0, then you are a very moody lighter and like 4 stops down on the fill. If you read your fill at a 1.4 and 5/10th’s, then you are a less moody lighter. All of these levels can easily be adjusted to help tell your story. The fact of the matter is that you have just trained your eye to what looks good to you, and now you have a way to measure it.
“Selecting Your Light Meter”
There are many light meters to chose from that will fit your budget. I started out with a Minolta back in my gaffing days, then moved to a Sekonic, and now find the Spectra IV as my go to meter. For your review, I have selected a group of meters that all read foot candles.
The light meter is a powerful tool in figuring out how intense your lights need to be. I think I have used this example before, so if you have read it, I will bore you with it again to prove this point. Every light has an output measured by foot candles. Having a light meter that reads in foot candles is so important for this very fact. Let’s say you are lighting a night exterior and your back light moon source is 150 feet away. Foot candles is the only form of measurement that will tell you if the light you are thinking of using will be bright enough. Once you get some experience, you will just know your lights and what they can do. This is the process of being a cinematographer. Experience, experience, experience. How do you get that? By getting out there and training your eye and by making mistakes. I have given you the road map to get out there and tune your eye. Itʼs time to get BUSY!!!!!!!
Equipment used for this blog post-
Canon 85mm Cinema Prime
Redhead – Backlight, Diffused
Book Light: Blonde, Bead Board Bounce, 1/2 Frost Diffusion, Gel
2 Light Fay – Fill, Gel
Bead Board for Passive Fill Card Example
Spectra IV Light Meter:
For Foot Candle example video
Adobe Premiere Pro CS6
Music provided by: The Music Bed
Jose De Los Angeles: Gaffer/Lighting Technician
Derek Johnson: Camera Operator C300/Grip
Model: Monette Moio
Shot at: Revolution Cinema Rentals
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