How to Avoid DSLR Lighting Pitfalls - dummies

By John Carucci

The difference between great and not-so-great DSLR film lighting often comes down to a few inches. Sometimes a few minor tweaks make the difference between effective and ineffective illumination. Being aware of these potential dilemmas reduces their likelihood and allows you to make a better movie.

Remain diligent of all lights in the film

That spill from the coverage area of one light to the next can produce hot spots and odd shadows. Although the cause varies with each situation, one common thread involves having lights too close to each other. That’s why it’s important to strategically set them up, especially when two lights intersect.

Consider the following:

  • Make sure lighting efficiently covers the scene. Sometimes a portion of the light doesn’t reach the subject. Either it strays out of the way due to improper bouncing or it’s not bright enough. Make sure the light is properly directed to the subject and close enough to be effective.

  • Deal with problematic ambient light sources. Stray light can ruin your shot. Combat it either by moving the subject out of the way, bringing the key light closer to balance exposure, or using a reflector fill light to “open up” the subject’s face.

  • Make lemonade. You’re going to be thrown lemons, so try to turn them to your advantage. For example, stray light from a window on the set is difficult to overcome, especially on a bright day. Use it to your benefit by turning the subject around and using the ultra-bright portal as a main light.

  • Build the light gradually. Turn the lights on one by one, starting with the backlight. After tweaking the backlight’s position, move on to the main light, and then the fill.

Too much texture may endanger your film

Some elements of the set benefit greatly when texture is exaggerated. For example, a middle-aged person showing the early signs of facial wrinkles likely won’t be agreeable to being captured with anything but the most flattering light. Conversely, a person who has already embraced old age may see wrinkles as a badge of honor, showing wisdom.

Here’s how you show texture effectively:

  • Analyze the texture. Observe the surface and position the light to skim across the grain. Be sure it creates shadows on the textured areas, with highlights on the edges.

  • Position the light source to the side. Letting it skim across the face creates this effect.

  • Soften the effect. Use a fill light or reflector on the other side to reduce the textural contrast.

Situations where texture works:

  • Razor-stubbed face: Conveys the character’s ruggedness or despair.

  • Wrinkles: Show the beauty and wisdom of an elderly face.

  • Fabric pattern: Emphasize that linen blazer, corduroy jacket, or sweater pattern.

  • Scene details: Use the texture of the background to help the subject stand out against a distracting background. Just blur with selective focus so the subject stands out.

Keep your eyes on the film subject’s face

When making a movie or documentary, beautiful scenery doesn’t matter if the main subject is either in shadow or blown out. That’s why even in night scenes, the subject’s face is still recognizable. Sometimes all it takes to lighten the face is a little repurposing of the light with a reflector or a fill light.

Consider the following:

  • Make sure the face is defined. Don’t worry too much if the background is slightly lighter or darker than normal.

  • Exposure is too dark. Use a light or reflector to add detail to the face.

  • The face is too light. Adjust exposure to match the ambient light. If the rest of the scene goes too dark, try to use some fill lights; otherwise, the background goes dark.

  • Move with the subject. If the camera moves through the scene, have an assistant hold a reflector or light and move with the action.


Watch out for lens flare

Whenever you deal with light, you run the risk of producing lens flare by getting the lens axis too close to the light. Sometimes this acts as an artistic device; but mostly it looks like you weren’t observant enough.

Consider the following:

  • Be cognizant of light position. Use the Live View on your camera to judge the scene. Move as close as possible to find the flare area and then back the camera up a bit.

  • Use a lens hood. Also called a lens shade, this protruding plastic or rubber accessory attaches to the front of the lens to reduce lens flare and loss of contrast.

  • Attach a matte box. Far more effective than a lens shade, consider a matte box. It includes a movable flap on top like the bill of a cap, yet it moves like a barn door. It shields stray light from the top and bottom. It also has side wings that do the same.

    The matte box not only shields the lens from direct light, but it also provides slots for filters.