Thinking in shadows / by Glenn Dixon

“Light is knowledge. Knowledge is love. Love is freedom. Freedom is energy. Energy is all. Without light we cannot have any images.” Vittorio Storaro. Cinematographers Style (2006)

A cinematographers ability to control light is paramount in visual storytelling. We need to be aware of how the light falls on our subjects yet think in shadows at the same time. It is that contrast between light and dark, positive and negative that gives life and emotion to our photography. Shadow quality refers to the definition and sharpness of a shadow when a source of light is “cut” or blocked by an object. The more sharply defined the edge of the shadow is, the easier the light becomes to control and manipulate.  The continuous lamps I will focus on here are the three that find their way into my basic kit whenever I am filming, these include 1x1 Litepanels, Dedolights and Redheads. Please note this article does delve into the technical in order to serve the artistic. If you are interested in cinematography and lighting, please push on. I know you will enjoy it.

Shadow quality is determined by two main factors:

1. The number of individual light sources. 2. The ratio between the size of the subject and the surface area of the light source. It is commonly thought that each video lamp is one light source. As we will see that is not necessarily the case.

1. A very popular piece of lighting equipment is the open face flood. There is the Redhead which typically comes in an 800W flavour, and it’s big sister the 1K-2K Blondie. They are relatively inexpensive to acquire and are extremely versatile. A Redhead is a fine example of something that has many uses but is fairly useless at everything. To it’s credit it does lots of things acceptably but nothing exceptionally. One of the reasons why? You guessed it. Shadow quality.

It is very difficult to produce sharply defined shadows with an open face flood such as a Redhead. The reason being that these lights use a bulb suspended inside the arc of a parabolic reflector element. When you spark the light, a percentage of light is emitted directly from the front of the globe. The remainder bounces backward into the reflector before being diverted through the front in a jumbled mess to join it’s buddies. This means that there are essentially two sources of light. The globe and the reflector. The result is a double shadow effect in the falloff pattern. You can see in the image below how there is a ghosting around my sleeve and fingers.

At this point I would love to come to the Redheads defence but I digress: it does get worse. The lamp is rated at 800W however the actual light output is significantly lower due to a huge amount of energy lost as heat. The globes are extremely delicate and blow at the slightest bump. Carry lots of spares! Why then would you bother with this light? Unfortunately it does save your life on the odd occasion. When all seems lost you can dump it in the corner of a room and bounce the light off the roof to give you some ambient fill.

The Dedolights developed by the Cinematographer Dedo Weigert’s company are greatly renowned for their precise detail, manoeuvrability and superior shadow quality. They are a small directional light with the ability to move between spot and flood positions with extreme precision. The barn doors and various light modifiers afford the cinematographer the possibility of creating abstract shapes and ethereal light effects. This lamp largely owes its fame to the lens which emits light as one unison source. Single source of light = higher shadow quality.

2. A Litepanel is an array of dim-able light emitting diodes. There are literally hundreds of individual LED’s that cover the 1’ by 1’ surface. Subsequently there are hundreds of individuals sources of light, as a result the shadow quality is extremely poor. This lamp is said to have a comparatively softer quality of light to that of a Redhead or Dedolight due to its large surface area.  If the surface area of a light is large in comparison to the subject size, the light is able to “wrap” around and we observe this phenomena as “soft light”. We must be cautious though around labelling a light as being “hard” or “soft” indefinitely. A Dedolight may appear hard when lighting a wall from five metres away, however it will appear quite soft if lighting a piece of lego from 15cm away.

It is important to understand that each model of lamp has a specific quality. That should not be mistaken with every light having a specific application. Labelling lights as “interview lights” or “special effects lights” is the enemy of artistic expression. Why can’t a Dedolight be used as a key light for an interview if a hard quality of light serves the story or drives the character development forward? The key is understanding the effect of each tool and being able to utilise it in a way that is thought provoking and moves the heart.

Links:

Dedo Weigert discusses the Dedolight here. Cinematographers Style on IMDB. Light Panels website.

** Image of Litepanel to come.