Lighting With Big Sources

Lighting with big sources can give your images a quality that simply isn’t possible with smaller sources. A BTS photo of a reality show set I lit with large sources.

Recently, I had a chance to do something in production that I haven’t had a chance to do since quarantine began. I was able to shoot on a reality TV series. Not sure if you’ve shot reality programming before, but often, it requires having a relatively heavy camera sitting on your shoulder for many hours at a time. I’ll be honest and say that while I like shooting handheld footage, it’s really the documentary filmmaker’s default mode, and it can be physically taxing to hoist a 20- to 30-pound camera onto your shoulder for so many hours in a day.

Lighting with big sources
The Fujinon U107 is a high-end box lens used on the reality show I just worked on. It retails for $212,000!

Fortunately, for me, the reality show that I just shot on was a bit out of the ordinary. It was a contest show. There was a set, a panel of judges and seven contestants/presenters who pitch their ideas/concepts/companies to the judging panel. I am under NDA, so I’m not allowed to say the name of the show or show any screencaps of the footage we shot, but I can definitely talk a bit about the gear that we utilized. The “A” unit on the show was relegated to a nice-sized soundstage at a studio just inside the LA Studio Zone. The “A” unit on the show shot 10 cameras routed into a mobile recording truck. The cameras were rather large pedestal-mounted cameras with box lenses. In this case, the Sony HDC4300 matched with the Fujinon UA107 Box zoom lenses. To lend some perspective, the HDC4300 camera, which is a 4K broadcast 3 x 2/3” sensor camera system, costs about $65,000 per camera and another $20,000 for the CCU and the Fujinon box lenses. This model retails for about $212,000 per lens. This gives you a picture of the production values for the show.

We shot the show using the Canon C300 MKIII, an S35 digital cinema camera that has become popular in the world of documentary, corporate and, yes, reality programming.

I was part of the “B” unit. In the show format, we shot the pre-appearance interviews on green screen, then a mid-show interview, then an exit interview and hero shots. We were also charged with shooting a little b-roll montage of each of the contestants. We shot them around the studio lot and, fortunately, there was a nearby park with a lake, so we were able to take a few of the contestants out to the park to place them in visually appealing situations for their montage. You’d have thought that since the production was being shot on the highest-end Sony studio cameras that the producer and editorial department would have requested us to shoot the talent for our sequences with a Sony camera like an FX9 or a Venice. Unexpectedly, they requested us to shoot all of our sequences with the Canon C300 MKIII.

From a lighting perspective, I knew going in we’d have our own decently sized stage, an insert stage (3,400 square feet). I’m not sure how many of you often shoot on stages, but for me, it’s a special occasion being mostly a documentary filmmaker. I really enjoy shooting on relatively large stages, but it’s not something I usually get to do more than a few times a year. The rest of the time typically finds me in homes, offices, restaurants, clubs and live performance spaces. Why do I take great delight in shooting on stages? Room, of course. On a stage, I have enough room to utilize large lighting sources. When you’re shooting a special documentary moment in real life in someone’s home, you’re lucky if you have the time and space to throw up a 35- or 40-inch softbox or two. There usually isn’t room, time and manpower to build a 12 x 12 diffusion frame to bathe your subject in beautiful head-to-toe soft light. On this project, I had the square footage to be able to light the subjects in the most flattering light possible.

All of the interviews we were to shoot were to be green screen. Normally, I’m not a fan of green screen, but for this show it made sense. The “A” unit stage was pretty elaborate, featuring a huge, custom-designed set flanked by a huge, curved video wall 36 feet wide by 12 feet high. The stage was lit by no less than 150 instruments, all high-end stage lighting with follow sources, all ran by DMX cues, expertly designed by a top lighting designer. The look of the show could be easily translated to the green screen segments by simply shooting the right plates of the set.

I lit our 12 x12 green screen with two Kino Flo Four Bank fluorescent light fixtures. They provide perfect output for lighting green screens.

For our insert stage, we first assembled a 12 x 12-foot green screen. The idea was that we were going to be shooting talent sitting in a chair being interviewed as well as being interviewed standing and standing for hero shots. There were going to be a few instances where we had to have sufficient green screen background to cover two talent standing. The directive was that we were going to be shooting all of these different frames all week and there would be no time to relight from a sit-down interview to standing, nor from single subject lighting to dual subject. We had to work backward and make sure that we were always lit for two standing subjects but that the same lighting would be flattering for a single seated subject as well. We mounted the 12 x 12 to two combo stands, one on each side of the frame.

Lighting with big sources
We utilized two of the Aputure 300D MKIIs as our key source on talent. The 300D MKII provides a lot of output in a relatively small and inexpensive COB package.

For my key source, we went with an 8 x 8 frame. I own an 8 x 8 half grid cloth diffusion that we thought would work well as our key source. We built the 8 x 8 frame and mounted it to two C-stands, one flanking each side of the frame. Moving on to the fill source, opposite the 8 x 8 key, we built a 6 x 6 frame, a Scrim Jim with a full stop diffusion. We knew that our hair light would be a challenge as our talent ranged from 5 feet, 1 inch tall to 6 feet, 6 inches tall, so I knew we’d need a larger source. You may be asking yourself, “It’s 2021, aren’t hair lights kind of ‘out of style’?” To a point, hair lights have kind of gone out of style in most shooting scenarios, but for green screen compositing, a good hair light serves more than merely an aesthetic function, it actually helps the compositor obtain a cleaner key by popping out the edges of the green screen subject from the background.

The new Aputure 60D LED daylight focusing fixture worked perfectly as our hair/rim light, punched through a 27-inch parabolic softbox.

We experimented a bit with hair lights but found that the new Aputure 60D LED focusing daylight fixture paired with a 27-inch parabolic softbox with a 40-degree grid on it to minimize spill worked great. Twenty-seven inches at about 8 feet from talent is a good size hair light and it worked so well that we were even able to use it on our more hair-challenged subjects without issues from specular highlights from balding and bald heads by simply dialing the power down so that our subject was still getting nicely cut out from the background but without the nasty reflections.

Going back to the top of the list, we lit the 12 x 12-foot green screen utilizing two Kino Flo Four Banks with the Kino 5500K tubes in them. Kinos have been somewhat passed over in favor of LED technology for lighting talent, but for green screens, the Kino Flo Four Bank is still considered a very optimal tool. The Four Bank puts out a soft, even and diffuse light that results in very evenly lit green screens with no fuss or muss.

For the 8 x 8 key source, we aimed two Aputure 300D MKII COB lights with the light intensifiers on them at our half grid in the frame. The resulting light was relatively large and bathed one or two subjects, sitting or standing, in a very flattering and even light with plenty of wrap. For the 6 x 6 fill, I ran a single Aputure 300D MKII through the Scrim Jim. The producer for the show came by to sign off on our lighting and he imparted that he wanted us to give him a soft, flattering light, but not too flat. He wanted to see modeling on the talent’s faces, so while I ran both of the key source lights at 100 percent output to reach the T4.4 stop that we wanted, I ended up running the fill source at only 9 percent of the light’s output on most of the talent to obtain the look the producers wanted.

Lighting with big sources
BTS capturing footage for the show with our large lighting sources providing a polished look that pleased the show’s producer. All thanks to large sources.

As far as why I love lighting with big sources, the factors are most of the ones I’ve listed in the previous paragraphs. Large sources are extremely flattering to people’s faces, wardrobe, hair and makeup. Utilizing large sources eliminates issues that you’ll often run into when using smaller sources. With smaller sources, you constantly run into uneven lighting, you need to adjust and relight from when a talent who’s standing sits down or vice versa.

A downside to lighting with large sources is that the soft light goes everywhere, it can be a bit more of a challenge to control the light. I ended up using a 2-foot x 3-foot solid on a C-stand flanking both the key sources and the fill source to keep the light from spilling onto the green screen. Not a big deal, but more flags mean more C-stands to hold the flags, more sandbags to weight the C-stands, etc. It’s just a lot more gear, weight and setup/breakdown time. For me, though, the extra effort is worth it. Keying with an 8 x 8 and filling with a 6 x 6 source simply looks better and higher-end than keying the same show with a large softbox. It takes more effort, room and crew though, but if you can swing it, I highly recommend lighting with big sources.