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4 Types Of Film Lights Every Cinematographer Needs To Know

4 Types Of Film Lights Every Cinematographer Needs To Know

Having lots of options when it comes to selecting gear can be great, as it allows cinematographers to pick and choose the pieces of equipment which will help to visually tell the story best. Sometimes choosing from all the gear out there, can be a bit daunting. So in this article, I’m going to summarise the different lighting options which are available, by looking at the four main types of lighting fixtures for film and going over how they are each useful.

There are of course many other options when it comes to illumination, the sun being the most blindly obvious one, excuse the pun. But the four types I’ll be going over are the artificial fixtures you’re most likely to see on any professional set.


1. Tungsten

From new technology to something which has been around for quite a while, let’s look at tungsten lighting. Tungsten is a form of incandescent illumination and is named after the tungsten filament which is heated up to produce light. Until very recently tungsten has been the default choice for home lamps and fixtures. Likewise, it's been the most common source throughout the history of filmmaking up until recently.

They produce a high output of powerful light and can be rigged to dimmers to increase or decrease the intensity of the source. However, they require large amounts of power to run. The color temperature of tungsten lamps are set at the warm end of the Kelvin scale, usually around 3200K. Although their color temperature is fixed at one level when full up, they can get warmer if they are dimmed down, as low as 2500K.

To get around dimming, wire scrims can be placed in front of the light to decrease the intensity of their output without affecting their color temperature. In order to change their color temperature or tint, gels can be added to the front of them. These lighting gels can either be clipped directly onto the barn doors of the light with croc clips or put on a frame that is placed in front of the light.

For example, placing a full CTB gel in front of a tungsten light will cool down its color to a daylight balance. Along with having a warmer color, the lights themselves also get pretty warm (to put it mildly). Anyone who has spent a day inside a studio will know exactly how sweltering it can become. Especially for the actors who have to stand under them all day.

As these lights have been around pretty much since the beginning of filmmaking they are in no short supply and are cheap to buy or rent. However, when using larger units the cost of additional power generation needs to be factored in, as well as potentially more crew members to run and set them up. Despite its practical downsides, tungsten light is often considered by DPs to be the most beautiful light source, especially on the skin.

It has been used by some big-name DPs, such as Roger Deakins or Rob Hardy, over LEDs at times for large studio setups which require a soft spread of ambient light.

Some examples of tungsten sources include:
A Mole Richardson 20K Molebeam, a nine-light maxi brute, a 2K blonde, or a single practical tungsten bulb.

Tungsten is valued for its warm, high-quality output of powerful, hard light, at a reasonable price point, often to illuminate large interiors or even exterior scenes.


2. LED

LEDs or light-emitting diodes are a relatively new type of lighting, which have seen a recent rise in popularity on sets, for good reason. They are energy efficient, with a lower footprint, a longer life span and most can be powered using batteries, a small generator, or even ordinary house power. Their efficient design means that they don’t generate much heat. Many high output LED fixtures can therefore be used without raising the temperature in a room to uncomfortable levels.

One of their greatest strengths is that they are easy to operate and to tweek. Their light can easily be dimmed up or down with the turn of a knob, and many LEDs can change their color temperature or even the tint. Some come with a single color temperature on the kelvin scale, such as 5600K daylight, others are bi-color, with the ability to change between daylight and tungsten, and RGB LEDs can change to almost any color on the spectrum.

Some also come with preprogrammed effects settings to quickly mimic different lighting situations, such as a police siren light, a fire, or a TV. Most LEDs output a soft quality of light with an even spread and come in a range of form factors, such as light panels, tubes, fresnels, and even 20’ high LED video walls, which have been used on shows such as The Mandalorian as a practical studio set background which can be carefully programmed and controlled.

LEDs range in price from lower-cost lights which are less powerful, up to high output lights such as SkyPanel 360s which go out for a pretty penny. For higher budget shows with custom sets, some cinematographers like to collaborate with the production designer by creating spaces where LED lights are built into the set and rigged to a DMX unit which can easily dim or change the color temperature of the fixtures.

Some LED lights include the Arri Skypanel S60, the Nanlite Forza 300B, the Astera Tube, and the Litegear Litemat. Overall LEDs are quick and easy to set up and tweak, are capable of a diverse range of looks, at different color temperatures, and can be used in locations without power with batteries, or used with power with a minimal energy footprint.



3. Hydrargyrum medium-arc iodide lights or HMIs


Hydrargyrum medium-arc iodide lights, or HMIs (which I think is a bit easier to say), are designed specifically for filmmaking. Like tungsten they to provide a very high output of light but with greater efficiency. This means that they use less power and don’t heat up as much as tungsten units.

That doesn’t mean HMIs don’t produce any heat, however. After larger HMIs have been turned off it can take quite a few minutes until they become cool enough to handle. Another big difference between HMIs and tungsten lights are that HMIs have a much cooler fixed color temperature at around 5600K, or daylight.

This means they can be used to supplement natural sunlight without affecting the color balance or needing to add extra color gels. HMIs are often favored by DPs who like to supplement natural ambient sunlight and maintain a naturalistic look. For example, they are commonly placed outside of windows and shined into rooms to create more contrast and maintain a consistent level of sunlight while shooting for extended periods of time.

HMIs, particularly large units such as 18Ks, are more expensive than tungsten lights and have very expensive bubbles or bulbs. Occasionally after long use a bubble will shatter, which comes at a fairly pricey replacement cost. HMIs need a ballast to run, which are boxes used to limit or regulate the current.

The power line is first plugged into the ballast and a second line then runs from the ballast to the HMI to send power to the light. Due to their high output, larger HMI ballasts can sometimes emit a humming sound. Usually, the hum is quiet enough to record sync sound though.

Modern HMI ballasts are flicker-free, this eliminates any visible electrical pulsing or flickering on the image which would otherwise require shooting with a different shutter angle to fix. When you strike or turn on an HMI, it can take a little time to warm up and come to temperature. During this warm-up period, the output of the HMI will slowly rise until it reaches its maximum.

They are designed to run for longer periods of time and it is bad practice to frequently turn HMIs on and off in a short period of time without waiting for the bulb to cool down. As these lights need to be turned off before they are moved around, it's important that DPs are sure of the position of the light before it's turned on, as moving an HMI to a different position requires turning it off and letting it cool down before it can be turned back on again.

Some examples of HMIs come from Arri’s M series, Film Gear’s Daylight Pars, K5600’s Joker, or from Silver Bullet. Overall HMIs are excellent high output daylight sources, which can be used to replicate and enhance natural sunlight for productions which have enough budget to afford them.


4. Fluorescent

A fluorescent is a lamp which uses an eclectic current to excite a gas within the tube which produces a soft glow. Fluorescents are more efficient than tungsten lights, so operate at a lower temperature using less power but with a lower output than either HMI or tungsten. The light which they produce is soft with lots of spread that can wrap nicely around subjects.

These tubes are good to use as a soft light source and can be rigged to the ceiling or from high up to provide ambient light to a room. Stacking lots of tubes together to create a larger area source or placing fluorescents close to a subject can also create a nice, natural fill or key light.

Their long-form factor is good for creating vertical reflections against metallic surfaces, which was notably used early on to create the reflections on the suit in Robocop. They can come in either daylight or tungsten color temperatures. When using multiple tubes there’s also the option to ‘salt and pepper’ them, using one daylight, one tungsten, one daylight, one tungsten.

This results in an overall color temperature somewhere in the middle of daylight and tungsten. As fluorescents are commonly found in locations such as underground parking lots, kitchens, or garages, DPs will sometimes either frame the location lights in the shot or instruct production designers to put them up as practical lights in locations as a motivated light source.

Like HMIs, fluorescents made for film use require a ballast. Since the popularity and availability of LEDs has recently skyrocketed, there has been a downward trend of using fluorescent lights on set, with many prefering to use LED tube lights as an alternative. However, there are still DPs who favor fluorescents for their soft output of light.

Some fluorescent fixtures are:
Kin Flos, practical bulbs, or blacklight or ultraviolet lamps.

Last words

I hope you found this helpful, please share this with your friends. Let me know in the comments if you have any suggestions or input on the kind of articles you’d like to see.

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