Guide to Light Systems for Film and Television

Introduction

Let’s start by coming to an understanding that the list of lighting tools is long as long as it is complicated. This is a collection of the most common lighting tools that you will encounter on set and their basic function. I highly recommend spending time with each one of these tools so that you can learn how they work and what you gain from using them. In the end though, light is light. Mastering how to use light to bring characters to life, enhance narrative and properly expose your image is what ultimately makes you a great cinematographer. [Header photo credit: Ramos Alejandro]

Types of Bulbs

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Tungsten

Color Temperature: 3200K (Tungsten)
Light Output: 150 – 12K Watts
Heat Output: Very High
Power Consumption: Very High

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HMI

Color Temperature: 5600K (Daylight)
Light Output: 500 – 72K Watts (Tungsten Equiv)
Heat Output: Medium
Power Consumption: High

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Fluorescent

Color Temperature: Variable
Light Output: Usually 1K Watts (Tungsten Equiv)
Heat Output: Low
Power Consumption: Low

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LED

Color Temperature: Variable
Light Output: 100 – 500 Watts (Tungsten Equiv)
Heat Output: Very Low
Power Consumption: Very Low

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Types of Light Fixtures

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FRESNEL

Fresnel lights use a lens on the front of the fixture to focus the beam of light which allows you to control the beam characteristics. Most fixtures allow you to make the beam wider and dimmer (Flood) or smaller and brighter (Spot). Focusing from spot to flood also changes the edge characteristics of the light. Flood produces a more gradual falloff where spot creates a harder edge.

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PAR

Parabolic Aluminized Reflector (PAR) lights are typically open faced sources with the bulb positioned in front of a reflective bowl. These lights tend to be brighter when compared to a Fresnel light of the same wattage. PAR’s are also good at throwing light long distances from the source due to their directional light beam. The light created by PAR’s is very intense and hard edged.

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ARRAY

This fixture features many lights placed in an array to create one larger light source. Typically PAR fixtures are used in this configuration. Array’s create very broad powerful beams of light that can be used to light large areas evenly.

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SOFTLIGHT

Softlight fixtures utilize a rounded reflector (called a scoop) to produce very bright, wide soft banks of light. The scoop usually comes in white but can be other colors to change the quality of the light. Most softlite fixtures utilize 1K or 2K bulbs. Softlights are great for lighting a green screen due to the even shadowless light they emit.

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Types of Light Modifiers

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Softboxes

Softboxes are light modifiers that create soft, diffuse light from the fixture that is attached to it. Softboxes are made of rods that create a box shape out of heat resistant material. The side walls are usually made of a reflective material whereas the front is made of a silk like material to allow the light to pass through. Some soft boxes are silk on all sides which creates a much more ambient light source.

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Scrims

Scrims are a light modifier used to dim the light fixture they are attached to. Most light fixtures have scrim slots on the fixture itself or on the Barn Doors. Scrims come in “Double” (denoted by a red ring) which reduces the light level by 1 stop and “Single” (denoted by a green ring) which reduces the light level by 1/2 a stop. A scrim that has mesh covering the entire circle is known as “Full” whereas one that only has mesh covering half is known as a “Half”.

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Barn Doors

Barn Doors allow you to cut and shape the light exiting the fixture by moving the four flaps into different positions. Gels are commonly attached to the Barn Doors with the use of a C-47. Most Barn Doors also have slots for scrims.

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Gels

Gels are pieces of heat safe film that are placed in front of a light source to control its color. The most common application of gels is to change the color temperature of a light to another color temperature. For example CTO (Color Temperature Orange) gels change daylight light sources to tungsten. CTB (Color Temperature Blue) gels change tungsten light sources to daylight. Gels are rated as 1/8, 1/4, 1/2, and full which correspond to the density of the gel. Keep in mind that adding gels reduces the light output. There are hundreds of colors of gels available. Gels are considered expendable because the color will fade over time.

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Flags

Flags are a a metal frame that come with a variety of fabrics attached to the frame. Flags are usually attached to C-Stands to allow them to be positioned easily. The three most common flags are Silks, Solids and Nets. Silks are white pieces of fabric that creates soft light when placed in front of a light source. Silks can also be used to bounce light to the subject for a more subtle soft fill light. Solids on the other hand are black fabric used to either cut light at the source by blocking the light fixture or by removing ambient light near a subject, known as negative fill. Nets are the fabric equivalent of Scrims.

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Foamcore

Foamcore is a cost effective equivalent to Silks and Solids. Typically Foamcore is used to bounce light onto the subject.

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Cucoloris (Cookie)

Cucoloris (also known as a Cookie) is a specific type of flag, foamcore, plywood or celefane that creates a textured pattern when placed in front of a light source. Typically Cookie is used to create the variation of light made when light passes through tree leaves. The use of an actual tree branch is known as a Brancholoris.

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Reflectors

Reflectors come in either small collapsable disks or in the larger 42″ x 42″ panels. The large panels are great for location shooting since direct sunlight can be reflected to modify the lighting. Reflectors are available in silver, gold and half silver/gold (on smaller disks).

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Butterflys (Overheads)

Butterflys are essentially very large versions of flags that are used to modify light of a large area. One of the most common applications is to use a overhead net to reduce the intensity of direct sunlight. Over head silks can also be used as giant softboxes by shooting a high power PAR light through the silk.

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Am I missing something? Post a comment below with suggestions of gear that should be on the list. Need help with your next video production in Dallas? Drop us a line!

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