Lighting For Digital

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To paraphrase Duke Ellington, there is only good or bad lighting. Much more than a camera, lighting has the greatest influence on the image since light is what truly shapes it. Since the digital revolution, lighting has become a more difficult task for both cinematographers and gaffers. Digital’s unforgiving nature, especially within the highlights, forces cinematographers to take more care with their lighting, which adds crew, time and money.

Most cinematographers will often tell you that lighting for digital takes more skill and craft than lighting for film. A majority of the DPs that we surveyed also agreed that LEDs have had a huge impact in the lighting world and have become a go-to lighting tool in the past few years, thanks to their portability and versatility. In this new energy- and eco-conscious world, lighting users are always looking to boost efficiency while cutting down on heat and size. Battery-operated LED lights provide shooters with these advantages.
In their own words, here are some of the go-to lighting tools that make a cinematographer’s job easier and more efficient.

DP Brandon Mastrippolito (Modern Family) likes to use Mac Tech LED tubes because they’re light, bright, energy-efficient and can be set up quickly in practical locations.


Modern Family, Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23
I love the Mac Tech LED tubes. They’re high-energy-efficient, very bright, and when combined with battery packs, we can shoot in practical locations without much extra lighting gear. The other go-to tool that helps with speed and efficiency—which is what production wants—is the Wescott Spiderlite TD with a Super Pro Plus Bag from Chimera. We call them "strip bags" when we use them with the Spiderlite. I used all three on Modern Family and Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23. On the latter show, we did an entire episode in seven different bathrooms, so we had very little room to move or use any bigger lights, and used just the battery pack LEDs, plugged straight into the bathroom walls. Another bonus? They don’t get hot, so makeup doesn’t run and the actors don’t sweat. And to supplement, I’d use the stripies to fill in their eyes, if needed.


One Heart
The big thing about lighting digital, especially with the [ARRI] ALEXA, where you’re at an 800 ISO as your base ASA, is that you need more stop and more foot-candles to get where you want. The other big thing is that it reproduces low-light conditions with no noise in the blacks; unlike film, we’re finding we’re stretching and using smaller instruments all the time. And I love the Litepanels LED lights, which at first were spotty and the color temperatures were a little weird. But they have gotten so good now, and their battery-powered little dimmable brick light series is just great, as you can hide it behind a file cabinet or a desk and you get that extra punch that you might not have otherwise gotten. And because they’re dimmable, you can adjust the color temperature, and they give you a nice soft light effect—they’re just a great go-to tool. I just shot this high-school football movie in Dallas called One Heart, using up to four ALEXAs for football coverage, some prison scenes and other low-light scenes such as driving scenes. We used the LEDs a lot, as they’re so effective.

DP David Moxness, CSC (Revolution, Fringe), uses Lighttools Soft Egg Crates for large soft frames. According to Moxness, the frames are easy to use, versatile and provide extraordinary control for soft light sources.


Revolution, Fringe
I wouldn’t say I have a go-to tool when shooting digitally, but I do need to flag and carve light more methodically and more aggressively in most cases—and perhaps more often than when shooting film. One tool I do find myself using more while shooting digitally is the Lighttools Soft Egg Crates for large soft frames—4×4, 8×8 and 12×12. These soft crates are fantastic. They’re easy to use, versatile and provide extraordinary light control for soft light sources. I’ve also been experimenting more with LEDs recently. They have come a long way in a short few years and are more stable with constant color and output. The light output versus power consumption is astounding. It’s so handy having a light that can deliver high output while consuming very little electricity, certainly extremely useful when shooting in remote locations—vehicles, elevators and the like. I’ll definitely continue to explore the remarkable world of LEDs.