In this part we’ll look at the different types of lights available, and how they affect our choice of an all-round lighting kit.
Types of Lights
I’m not going into the gory details of how lights work. If you would like to know more about this, and cinematography in general, I recommend Cinematography: Theory and Practice, by Blain Brown. In brief, here are some nuggets:
The oldest technology (short of a candle, that is). It gets hot and isn’t very efficient. It emits yellowish light (which is similar to halogen and sodium vapor lamps). On the flip side the bulbs are cheap, it is relatively maintenance-free, and can be dimmed. Tungsten is (or was?) the most-used interior location light source. Even today, nothing beats it for price vs performance.
You don’t earn points for knowing what HMI stands for. HMI is usually daylight-balanced, and as explained in Part One, is excellent enough to match the intensity of sunlight, provided you can afford everything else that comes with the territory: ballasts, extra human beings, and lots of power. Nothing comes close to HMIs for intensity vs price.
The technology that is most favored for run-and-gun work. Doesn’t get hot, but isn’t very powerful either. I’m not a fan of LED panels (the image shown at the beginning) because you can’t shape them or spot them with any meaning. On the other hand, the technology is maturing rapidly, and now we have fresnel kits like the brilliant Arri L7-C:
Fluorecent lights are as ubiquitous as tungsten bulbs, and is usually daylight balanced but with a green-ish bias (not on the high-end models though). If electronic ballasts aren’t used, they also create flicker problems. Unfortunately, most cheap fluroscent kits can’t be dimmed or shaped much, and their intensity and versatility isn’t anywhere near tungsten bulbs. However, when done well, like the Kino Flos, the results can be stunning.
Plasma is the new kid on the block, with claims to great outputs for very less power and heat. This is nascent technology, and there are already a few solutions available, like the ones from Hive Lighting. For beginners, I would advise against plasma lighting.
Here’s a chart that compares these light types, along with what they bring to the table (click to enlarge):
*I’ve used Arri systems for easy comparison only. For plasma, I’ve used the Hive Hornet. I’ve normalized the lumens rating for 650 Watts for easy reference, but don’t forget that some fixtures aren’t available in 650 Watts. To get lumens, multiply the LPW by the wattage.
**Pricing is not going to be accurate, and is just a general indicator. Do your own research and contact the manufacturers for actual pricing. The price includes one bulb, if necessary.
Just because I’ve only included a few selected items doesn’t mean other lighting instruments follow the same behavior or performance. There’s a lot of variation between fixtures and blubs, so don’t make the mistake of assuming what’s shown here is representative of the entire industry.
In general, one can surmise the following:
- Nothing beats tungsten for price vs performance. It is easily the cheapest in the lot. However, don’t forget to factor in the low lamp life over a period of time.
- HMIs aren’t dimmable, and need ballasts and ballast cables. They are a chore to setup, and are temperamental beasts. Yet, nothing comes close to the raw power that these are capable of at the moment.
- The Arri L7-C is my favorite lighting instrument at the time of this writing. As and when it comes down in pricing (unlikely!) it will obliterate tungsten fresnels.
- Good fluorescent fixtures and bulbs aren’t cheap. The cheap ones aren’t worth it for professional shoots.
- Plasma has tremendous potential, but is still too new, with limited options.
Hard light vs Soft Light
Hard light produces hard-edged shadows, while soft light produces tapered shadows that gradually move from light to dark. Take a look at this:
Soft light is light spread like butter. The fun part is determining how to use hard light, soft light and all its variations, permutations and combinations.
The general ‘term’ used in the industry in conjunction with hard and soft lighting is ‘modelling’. Modelling is the practice of giving shape to an object to make it appear more three-dimensional. By using light sources, one tries to model any subject to give it:
- Prominence (areas of interest are brighter and well-lit, so you can see them clearly),
- Shape (modelling and three-dimensionality),
- Texture (realism and three-dimensionality), and
- Mood (ambiance, emotion, etc.)
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