Light It Up: Speaking The Language Of Illumination

Whether you light as a one-man band or work as a director or cinematographer alongside a huge crew, some things are a constant. Take lighting, for example. Effective lighting is both an art and a science. It takes a good eye along with ample imagination and skill—but it also takes knowledge, knowing how to put the correct tools together to help shape a compelling story.


When it comes to lighting any scene, there are always constraining elements in play. Like anyone thrown into an unfamiliar setting, if you’re armed with inadequate gear and resources, you’ll pay the price and have a difficult time creating a visual masterpiece.

One of the most important lighting tools is mindset. Always explore and educate yourself on everything regarding locations. Are you shooting interior or exterior, and at what time of day? Generally, exteriors are far more challenging to light on the fly because you have little to no control over the elements. Interiors can be simpler to light, but also require considerations that include backgrounds, the size of the room and power constraints.

Once you have some experience, however, you’ll begin to see constants and patterns in the various locations in which you find yourself. On exteriors, you’ll understand the angles of the sun and the quality of the light available during different seasons. On interiors, you’ll notice how the window light hits your scene, the ceiling height and the room size—all elements that affect your ability to create powerful lighting setups.


Lighting plans can be an important tool in your arsenal, especially when working with a crew. It can be as simple as a few lines drawn on a cocktail napkin or as elaborate as a fully detailed lighting plan featuring the name of each instrument used, the wattage and the height, plus total amperage drawn.

I personally use OmniGraffle ( to create my lighting plans. It’s a simple and intuitive Mac program that allows a drawing-challenged person such as myself to create sophisticated enough plans with a significant amount of detail.


It’s 2016, and your lighting choices and grip gear have never been more flexible, more technologically advanced or, frankly, more intimidating than ever, due to the sheer amount of gear available! Remember, there’s no perfect lighting technology. They each have trade-offs, making them perfect for some projects while lacking for others. The following types account for the majority of production lighting available.

Mole-Richardson 6731 Tungsten Par


Tungsten lighting has been around since the late 1920s, immediately preceding the smoking carbon arc lights that lit scenes at the dawn of cinema. While today’s tungsten lights have advanced in design and build quality, from an operational standpoint, they’re the same as they were in 1927, when Mole-Richardson opened its doors in Hollywood.

One of the most popular tungsten lights ever created is the 1,000-watt 6-inch Fresnel. This light is powerful enough to be used as a key source, hair or rim, or as an accent light. The 1,000-watt Molequartz 6-inch Baby Solarspot features circular channel construction for added strength and has efficient airflow, resulting in cooler operation on set. Less heat on the fixture and a lower seal temperature from the globes also lead to longer life.

At the other end of the tungsten spectrum are relatively portable instruments such as the Mole-Richardson 6731 2,000-watt Tungsten Par. Par stands for Parabolic Aluminum Reflector, and it allows the light to have a more powerful, concentrated beam projection than would be possible with a Fresnel lens such as the 1,000-watt Molequartz—even if the Fresnel was a 2,000-watt model. Unlike traditional 2,000-watt luminaries, the 6731 Tungsten Par uses a specifically designed General Electric 2,000-watt Tungsten halogen lamp intended for axial operation. By placing the lamp on its side and using a highly polished Parabolic reflector, the Tungsten Par achieves output comparable to a standard 5,000-watt 10-inch Fresnel.

Pros: High light output, with beautiful light quality. Some feel tungsten renders the most beautiful skin tones, with a very controllable, focusable beam.

Cons: Tungsten instruments are electronically inefficient and generate a tremendous amount of heat. With only about 10% of the electrical input being output as light, the remainder is heat. Using a 3200K tungsten preset white balance, many cameras render an image with more noise than lighting set to a 5600K daylight white balance. Tungsten bulbs are delicate, so it’s not a good idea to move them around when turned on.



While LED lighting technology has been around for a few years now, the first LED lights were made of hundreds of 5mm LEDs on each panel. For those who wanted a focusable Fresnel LED light, its evolution has taken a while. ARRI recently introduced the L-Series of LED Fresnels, with an LED Fresnel fixture so close to its conventional counterpart in function and performance that it creates a previously unattainable opportunity: like-for-like replacement of traditional Fresnels with LED-based units.

Focusing on the middle of ARRI’s production line, the L7-C is a 7-inch LED Fresnel lens. The light’s color temperature, tint and hue can be continuously adjusted from 2800K up to 10,000K, between full plus or minus green and RGBW colors.

L7-Cs feature Light Engine 2, achieving 25% brighter light than previous versions. In addition to plus/minus green correction, other features include vibrant color selection (RGB+W color gamut), Hue and Saturation control, high color rendering, low power consumption (160W nominal), fully dimmable, true Fresnel lens light characteristics, onboard DMX In and Out, RDM implementation and USB mini connection for firmware updates.

Pros: ARRI build quality, excellent brand reputation, beautiful light quality and a very controllable, focusable beam.

Cons: A relatively new technology, therefore costly when compared to ARRI’s same-size tungsten counterparts. The L-Series lights essentially have built-in computers, a technology that has yet to be proven for extreme use or rough handling.

Kino Flo Tegra 4Bank DMX


You’ve probably heard of Kino Flo, and for good reason. Kino Flo has been an innovator in fluorescent lighting for many years, with advantages over other popular lighting technologies. Fluorescents also run cool, and are flicker-free and energy-efficient.

Kino Flo fluorescent lights can go from nighttime to daytime interiors by switching tungsten for daylight lamps. For travel and smaller footprints, the Kino Flo Diva-Lite 415 boasts the company’s trademark modular fixture designs, with universal input voltage from 100-240VAC, full-range dimming, switching and remote-control features. The Diva-Lite 415 is also relatively light and easy to maneuver into position thanks to its rectangular design.

For productions that have more room and need more light output, the Kino Flo Tegra 4Bank DMX produces as much light as a 1000-watt tungsten softlight, using only one-third the amount of power at 2.8A (120VAC) compared to the tungsten softlight at 8.3A. Proprietary solid-state electronics operate the lamps at high output, and they’re dead-quiet. The built-in barndoors with newly designed hinges, honeycomb louver and center-mount system make the lightweight Tegra ideal for handheld shots, rigging in tight locations or mounting on a light stand.

Kino Flo Diva-Lite 415

Pros: Low current draw and an excellent brand reputation with unique, glowing light quality. A lightweight option for travel, they’re simple to use and adjust lighting parameters, and feature a built-in dimming function.

Cons: Fluorescents need to be relatively close to your subject, as too much output is lost with distance. Fluorescents are large, soft sources and effective for a soft spread of light, but there’s no focusable beam, so they’re ineffective for throwing a slash or light onto an object or painting a cucoloris pattern on a background.


De Sisti is an Italian lighting company that has been in the U.S. for decades. One of the main challenges facing LED panel users is that the light source typically emanates from hundreds of 5mm LED bulbs. Therefore, when you aim an LED panel at a subject, it’s illuminated, while the shadows have a strange, unnatural look because you’re essentially seeing hundreds of tiny different shadows, one from each bulb.

One way to mitigate this shadowy effect is to attach a softbox to the LED panel that softens and diffuses these hundreds of small shadows. The downside to using an LED panel through a softbox is that the softbox effectively reduces output by 20% to 30%. LED panels, as a rule, don’t have high output to begin with, so reducing that even further isn’t desirable.

Enter the De Sisti LED Softlight SERIES, a new range of LED softlights using Remote Phosphor technology (with a Color Rendering Index greater than 90) and an LED color-mixing chamber to produce a smooth, even, soft beam projection with very diffused shadow. The optical system eliminates any pixel effect that’s created by all panel-type LEDs.

This series of LED softlights is ideal for multiple-camera setups and available with various honeycomb control screens and intensifier options for extra control. All of the electronics are integrated within the fixture and feature DC DMX dimming control from 0 to 100% with zero flicker, even with high-speed cameras.

De Sisti LED Softlight SERIES

Pros: Low current draw, excellent brand reputation and mitigates the “multiple shadow” look of other LED panel lights. Lightweight, and simple to use and adjust lighting parameters, with built-in dimmers and remote DMX control.

Cons: Because this design doesn’t fold or break down, these lights could be bulky for air travelers or one-man bands. These are large, soft light sources, and effective for a soft spread of light, but there’s no focusable beam, so they’re ineffective at throwing a slash or light onto an object or painting a cucoloris pattern on a background.


K5600 makes HMI lighting for video and film. HMI stands for Hydrargyrum medium-arc iodide, and is the Osram brand name for a metal-halide gas discharge medium arc-length lamp. HMIs are a hybrid of fluorescent technology, a mix of ballasted discharge lamps and tungsten that produces a hard beam of light that’s available in both PARs and Fresnels with a focusable lens.

K5600’s Joker-Bug 800 fits in one tiny airline case, weighing only 38 pounds, and is relatively small and lightweight for an HMI kit. The main draw for using HMIs is that they have roughly three to four times the efficiency of tungsten lights at the same wattage and are daylight-balanced. Introduced in 1999, the Joker-Bug 800 is K5600’s most popular HMI light. It produces as much light output as a 4,000-watt quartz fixture, with a power draw of only 11 amps, meaning that one circuit can power a Joker-Bug 800 and another smaller HMI, or other type of light. The Joker-Bug 800 works incredibly well as a hard source or as a source for a medium-sized Chimera or other brand softbox to become a large, daylight-balanced soft source.

Pros: HMIs are extremely efficient, with high output for their wattage, and are daylight-balanced. Low power consumption means a Joker-Bug 800 can be plugged into any house outlet and the circuit still has enough room to power another small light.

Cons: HMIs are relatively expensive. They also require a separate ballast with a cable connecting the ballast to the lamp head. HMI bulbs are a consumable item; they output a high amount of UV light, so care must be taken that the light is used with its included Fresnel lenses to prevent UV exposure to talent and crew.

Light Speaking Language  Illumination
K5600 Joker-Bug 800


Many professional grips, gaffers and cinematographers feel that grip equipment is just as important as the lights themselves. Grip gear is used to rig everything on set, as needed, but its primary purpose, pertaining to our discussion here, is to hold and position lights and lighting controls like flags, scrims, fingers, diffusion, nets and reflectors.

While there are numerous grip companies, three of the most popular seem to be Matthews Studio Equipment, Manfrotto and American Grip. Interestingly, all three offer a huge assortment of light stands (C-stands, flags, sandbags, dollies, etc.), but if you explore their gear, you quickly discover that each company offers items unique to their own product line.

I own grip gear from all three of these companies, as well as several others, all quality stuff that functions exceptionally well. You’ll also discover that if you shop for a standard item, such as a 40-inch C-stand with a grip head and 40-inch arm, the pricing between these companies is in the same neighborhood. Making your decision really comes down to trying out each brand, and then buying what feels good and works best for you.

In closing, the best plan for lighting is to know your subject, know your gear, understand its capabilities and have a plan. The rest is in the art of learning how to truly paint with light. While you may score the best gear, understanding how to light comes with practice, knowledge and a lifetime of inspiration!