ABC of Set Lighting
Arthur Campbell, Cinematographer
from American Cinematographer January 1934 p.365
JUST as there is a fundamental light in portraiture, there is also a basic method of lighting a set, and they are not dissimilar.
We know that one source of light, no matter where used, whether to light a person or set will create a shadow. If this light is placed directly in front of the set, facing it in the same way as the camera faces the set we will get a flat light. However, that is the most we can expect from one light.
There are times when shadows are desirable, but we will not go into that phase of lighting here. We will try to establish what might be a basic light for a set regardless of its artistic merits.
In view of the fact that it will be agreed that one light is not sufficient to light a set we will disregard the front lighting and place this first unit to one side as reasonably close to the objects as possible so as to throw the beam across these objects from one side. This will create a shadow which of course is undesirable as one side of the picture will be entirely in shadow.
But let’s take an imaginary set such as is sketched on this page and assume that the first unit we have placed is light A. You can readily visualize how this would be insufficient to photograph this set. We now place light B on the opposite side of the set. This will not only kill the shadows from light A but will act as the highlight for all objects on the right side of the set and our first light, A, will kill the shadows of light B and act as a highlight for all objects on the left side of the set. With limited lighting facilities of this kind it might not be well to diffuse either of these lights as you undoubtedly will need all the light they give to secure a proper exposure. Also this is not a set up that would permit the camera to take in a full picture. By this we mean you would have to confine your shot to a three-quarter picture.
Reduced to its simplest terms, that is the A and B of lighting. The C of lighting will consist of the backlighting of the scene. Obviously on a set like this it will be impossible to place a light back of the furniture or people who might occupy the scene without having it glare right into the lens, or if placed low it will not include the entire picture. So this third light will have to be placed high out of the lens angle approximately at a point that will hit the front edge of the radio. You will note this is outlined with dotted lines on the radio; this is to indicate that it is above the radio. This light must face directly down. While it will flood the entire set and light the back wall, throwing light behind the chairs and radio to mould those pieces, still its greatest light is being poured to rear of the set and will act as a back light, lighting the hair of the people who might be occupying the chair and the couch.
The placing of this light might be a bit of a problem. Obviously there is nothing to hang it on. You cannot use a stand lamp, as the stand would show in the picture. This might be overcome by stretching a wire across from the picture moulding, or if there are windows on each side, a wire from one window to the other and hang this light from that wire, making sure, of course, that it is not in the camera angle.
If you will recall last month’s article on the lighting of the human face you will remember that this lighting of the set is not dissimilar. In that set-up a light was placed to the right of the person, another to the left a bit farther away and one for back lighting. The second light placed at a little greater distance was set so as not to kill the shadow entirely, but to give a nice balance over the first and predominating light. It was also suggested that it be diffused.
However, in the lighting of this set, in view of the fact, that a greater area is covered and more people will be involved, it will readily be understood that the lights as placed will act as highlights on those things nearest to them and tend to kill the shadows on those at the greatest distance from them.
The third unit is very important for back-lighting. This, however, will be influenced by the color of the walls. If they are light they may tend to act as reflectors and furnish sufficient backlight of themselves. However, for the one doing his first job of lighting it would be well for him to experiment both ways.
As we said, we have not attempted to bring out any artistic effects. We have not attempted to do any moulding of objects or furnishings, but have merely set down here the simple basis of lighting for a set presumably in a home.
The studio naturally is built and equipped to handle these situations in the very minutest details. Special lamps and special equipment for lamps are available. These would be prohibitive in most cases to the amateur, however, there are a few items that he might build economically which we will endeavor to explain to him in succeeding articles on lighting the set. The first and most important thing in your first step of lighting is to get sufficient light; next to work away from flat lighting and to cross your lights so as to have one side more brilliantly lit than the other and then to have back lighting.
Study the set you are to light, experiment with your lights before shooting and endeavor to study the effect of these lights so that your eye will become accustomed to balances. We have not touched upon this, as we believe you must first learn how to lay the foundation, but as you go on you will realize how the placing of the lamp in different positions and different distances will give
you pleasing effects. You will work out a lighting value that will possibly be something a part of yourself. Attempting to imitate the lighting of another photographer is not always successful, as you do not have the same “feel.”