Lighting 101


Many years ago I was video engineering a corporate presentation at the Sheraton New York Grand Ballroom. Though-out my career I’ve probably done a hundred shows at this location. This job was a piece of cake, we could do it in our sleep.

After I completed setting up the video carrypack, cameras and doing a preliminary white balance & shading on the cameras with my chip light and chip chart I turned the cameras and framed them up onto the stage.  The client strolled by a few minutes later and began staring at the control room video monitors. He turned to me with a worried look on his face and said, “these cameras look awful!” and then “can you fix them?” Sheepishly I responded, “sure, let me see what I can do.”

I knew fully well there was nothing wrong with the cameras. The Lighting Designer (a personal friend of the client) was still working on the lighting and I hoped that once he dialed in his lights everything would be ok.

A few hours went by and the crew of lighting guys continued to run cables, focus lights, add gel & diffusion; but the lighting look never got better. It was way too contrasty, well beyond the dynamic range broadcast video cameras were capable of.  Most everything on stage was falling into the blacks and the whites were clipping (losing their highlight detail). Confident now that the Lighting Designer had little experience lighting for video I steadied myself for the uncomfortable conversation I knew was coming.

At lunch time the lighting guys “saved” (shut-off ) their lights and turned on the overhead house work lights so the hotel staff could set-up tables and vacuum. A few minutes went by and the client walked up behind me, slapped me on the back enthusiastically and exclaimed, “you fixed the cameras!”

How would I explain this to the client? The plain old overhead work lights offered a better “design” on-camera than his friend’s lighting design. Fearing that when the lighting crew came back from lunch the cameras would mysteriously “break again” I sheepishly said to the client, “actually, I haven’t changed the cameras at all since we spoke … the lighting guys are still making changes.”

Years later on one of my first broadcast TV shows I walked into the “video control” section of the TV truck on the first day of set-up and saw the video shader reclining way back in his chair with his hands folded behind his head. A few hours later he was in the same exact position. It seemed he never touched the RCP paint boxes the entire time lighting was setting up.

Finally my curiosity got the best of me and I asked him about it … I’ll never forget what he said. “While lighting is setting up, focusing and adjusting the lights, I set a rough white balance with my chip light and chart, gain, shutter and I lock in a desired aperture on all the cameras to achieve the base look we are going for. Then I don’t touch the cameras again until lighting is done focusing. This forces the Lighting Designer to light evenly so I won’t be forced to make drastic iris or colorimetry changes later on whether during rehearsals or the show itself.” This comment confirmed my thoughts! Of course, this approach requires that the Director and Producers are on-board with the video shader’s plan so when they cut to a camera in rehearsals and it looks too dark they give the note to the LD instead of yelling for video to “shade camera #3!”

When working with video cameras it’s important to light FOR the camera! It is common for LDs who work in Theater, or who light industrial/corporate presentations (or in churches) to create a lighting design just for the live-audience in the house. This approach almost never works well on video projection (Imag) or broadcast because the human brain is far more capable of resolving contrast (dynamic range) and colorimetry shifts from varied color temperature lighting sources than any video camera currently manufactured. Worse, on some industrial/corporate jobs I’ve been on the video shader and LD would start making changes simultaneously during set-up, “look-sees” & rehearsals and as a result both were chasing the other’s tail during the entire show!

OK, so let’s get practical. What are some tips that can be applied to almost every church using video cameras? Before we start tweaking the camera itself, what can we do with lighting to create those great looking camera shots?

Dan McKenrick

For some answers to these questions I’ll turn to Dan McKenrick. Dan has lit many programs you see on TV, like “In Performance at The White House,” “Real Time with Bill Maher,” and “Kennedy Center Presents;” and has done entertainment specials with Garth Brooks, Sara Brightman, Elton John, B.B. King and Amy Grant to name a few. Dan’s also helped many ministries up their game when it comes to lighting. Here are some thoughts he shared with me we can all apply:

First is, when working with lighting and therefore electricity, the most important tip is safety, safety, safety!

Dan has been to many churches whose lighting rig had not been safety inspected in fifteen or more years! He’s seen it all from frayed cables, loose connectors, blackened sockets, bare wires, insufficient wire gauge for the wattage being drawn, etc. Our lighting fixtures, dimmers and controllers are just tools, but they happen to be potentially dangerous tools! Dan recalls a church he visited that had open-face lighting instruments. These can potentially explode and must always be used with a wire mesh safety shield in front of the bulb. When Dan pointed out the fact that these important shields were missing and someone could get hurt if a bulb exploded the church tech was apathetic. I guess he didn’t know that the same type of lighting instrument caused Michael Jackson’s hair to catch on fire! Dan encourages, “Learn how to use your tools safely.”

I’ll add that the first church I volunteered at there was a wonderful head tech guy named Arty. Arty stood about 5’11” and weighed about three hundred pounds. He was a big man! When it came time to focus lights Arty would climb up to the top on a rickety 24’ tall wooden A-frame ladder and make his adjustments. However when he needed to focus an instrument just out of his reach, instead of climbing down the ladder and moving it, 300 lb Arty would start jumping up and down at the top of the 24’ wooden ladder bouncing it across the sanctuary until he got close enough to the light he needed to focus next. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen!

Why is taking risks like this ok in church? I’m sure Arty would never have done the same at his work place (at least I hope not).

Dan also reminds me of a very experienced TV studio employee who was working alone on a standard 8′ step-ladder without someone spotting him. The employee fell off, hit his head and died. Let’s learn how to use our tools safely, ok? [Safety talk over.]

The second piece of advice Dan offers is “learn how to use our tools.”

Dan suggests taking down a bunch of lights from your hang to the ground, plug them in while on the floor and work with them.

How do you focus an ellipsoidal or a fresnel?

How do you adjust the intensity of a light?

Can the light output be shaped?

What beam width at a given distance will each type of light produce?

All these things are best learned when not on a ladder or on a scissor lift but on the floor when you have time to play with and learn your gear.

And while you have the lights on the floor, give them a cleaning.

The third piece of advice Dan offers is, “don’t try so hard!”

Basically, when it comes to lighting in the church for video cameras we would do well to follow the KISS adage (“keep it simple stupid”). Dan has been at churches that have had the vast majority of their instruments all pointed at the podium with nothing focused anywhere else.

When focusing, work with only one light at a time, turn off all other lights except for the one you are adjusting, letting it perform an exclusive task, not duplicating the focus or purpose of another light.

Dan also suggests for video lighting design to use the minimum number of instruments needed to adequately illuminate an item on-stage and then move on.  Once the key light for a person is established, which typically would be focused head-on from the direction of the audience, move on and key light your next item on-stage with just a bit of overlap between light beams. If you have extra lights left over, you may then add side-angled fill lights to subjects. Don’t use more than one fill light, per angle, per on-stage subject.

If you want, you can then fill light the on-stage subject from the opposing angle. Two fill lights for an on-stage subject should cover it. Then move on to the next item on-stage requiring fill light. If you have extra lights left over, you may then add back light to a subject if you wish. The point here is not to have multiple lighting instruments hit the same subject on-stage from a similar angle.

How bright should you make the stage?

With modern cameras, you don’t need to light 100-200 foot candles like in the old days. 40 – 80 ft candles is more than adequate. You can probably get away with far less.

What if you don’t have a light meter?

There are three simple cost effective tools you probably already have that work well if you do not have a light meter.

First is, use your video camera and a trusted monitor as a light meter instead. Set the camera gain to zero, iris to manual control – typically around F4 – F5.6 depending on how much depth of field you want, and then when focusing lights judge the intensity – the need for dimming or ND gel and focus using the your camera and a trusted video monitor.

Can’t use the church’s video camera and a monitor? How about taking still photos of people on-stage while focusing and checking them on a laptop computer?

Or lastly when you are focusing lights, you can confirm your lighting focus and relative intensities by watching the shadows on the floor of the stage behind the subject or a stand-in. Are there two shadows off the same object shooting off in the same direction? That means you have more than one lighting instrument focused on that subject coming from similar angles. Is one shadow lighter than another? That can mean that one light is lower in intensity than another. Watching the direction and the intensity of shadows you cast when walking across a stage will tell you how evenly the stage is lit. If shadows get darker and dimmer and you don’t correct it in your lighting design, you will probably need to ride the camera iris more than you would with a more even lighting design. If the camera’s iris is opening and closing realize that your depth of field will also be changing, with background objects (or worse your subject) going from in-focus to out-of-focus. If the lighting is uneven and the camera iris is not adjusted well, your image may be under or over exposed. So, there really is no good alternative to having consistent, even, lighting.

What about the balance between the front key, side fill lights and back light?

The answer is highly subjective and is really up to you as the lighting designer, however as a starting point try having your fill lights at half (50%) the actual illumination level of the front key and back lights about the same as the fills or a bit stronger (75%). Don’t judge the “50% fill” by the fader lever position on your lighting board or a dimmer read-out because the actual illumination level from a given lighting instrument will be dependent many factors including the wattage of the bulb (and its perceived light intensity), the distance the lighting instrument is to the subject and how many instruments are used.

Need confirmation of the balance? Check the shadows on the floor. The key light shadow should be darkest and the fill light shadow(s) should be about half as dark.

And what about the vertical angle of the lights off the horizon?

Again this is subjective and is really up to you as the lighting designer, however somewhere between 25°- 45° degrees off the horizon is a good starting point.

Note that if you increase the vertical lighting angle facial features will cast steeper shadows and as a result facial features will be more defined on camera at the risk however that eye sockets may (eventually) fall to black.

Decreasing the vertical lighting angle will cause facial features to be less defined on camera resulting in the eyes being more visible at the risk that the talent may (eventually) complain about the “light being in their eyes.”

The fourth piece of advice is to consider the color temperature of your lighting instruments and other objects that transmit light in your room (like projectors and windows).

My layman’s definition of color temperature is, “color temperature is the hue cast by a light source when representing white.” Daylight naturally presents a blue-ish hue when focused on and reflected by something white. Incandescent lights present a yellow/amber hue. If you dim incandescent lights they become even more red/amber. Florescent lights typically have a blueish/green hue. Video projectors typically have a hue somewhere between Florescents and daylight. HMI lights are typically around daylight in their hue.

Now, the human eye and your brain adjusts for these various types of light so that white always looks white to you. A video camera however gets adjusted (white balanced) for one color temperature only (there are exceptions, as in setting up camera scene files). So, if you white balance for incandescent lights on-stage and then your camera pans over and includes a projector screen in the shot, on-camera that projection screen may look very blue in hue.

In an ideal world you want all your various light sources to be a similar color temperature. There are many ways to accomplish this (which we’ll address in a separate post), however it suffices to say that this is an issue you need to be aware of and the typical solutions usually entail raising the color temperature of the warmest light emitting instruments (typically with some density of CTB gel) and lowering the color temperature of the coolest light emitting items (CTO gel) so somewhere in the middle a happy medium can be found.

Dan also shares, “It’s tough being the in-house lighting guy!”

Dan relays a story about how he had been attending the same church since 1988. Many of the suggestions he made to his church about improving their lighting went unheeded. Why? Well, Dan didn’t walk around with a billboard proclaiming his TV show credit list. But there was also the fact that he was the “hometown prophet.”  Sometimes people think the in-house person just can’t be an expert, or as expert as someone from the outside. It wasn’t until some big name preachers came to town all mentioning Dan’s name to his senior pastor that things started to change at his church.

The point here is sometimes the “hometown prophet” just isn’t listened to so call in an expert from elsewhere if it helps you achieve what is important.

And lastly Dan reminds us that we all have areas that we need to improve on, even if we are an expert in other areas. We all have questions. Is there a Christian TV program that you like the lighting look of? Try picking up the phone and calling them to see if you can chat with their lighting person and get some advice. You just may find out that someone will not only answer the phone call but be happy to help you as well.

The original version of this article was published September 2013.

Title photo attribution – Bryan Rosengrant

Tom D'Angelo

Tom D'Angelo has worked in television production and AVL corporate theater for nearly four decades. He is Emmy Award nominated (Best Director category, Mid-Atlantic) and has been part of various teams nominated or winning national Emmys.  As the Media Director at a megachurch in the 1980’s he developed a love for the Church and church performing and technical artists.