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Production Equipment Reviews: Studio & Location Lighting (a working review)
(Review update for 2015)
In the last couple of years every area of the video/film industry has seen dramatic changes and while lighting units may have appeared to change little compared to camera formats and video codecs, lighting is without a doubt heading for a revolution. With health and safety regulations changing by the month and rising energy prices - LED lighting products are without a doubt coming of age as manufacturers such as Arri, Dedolight, LightPanels and Velvet Light continue to expand their LED range.
The following review, while beginning to date, will certainly be helpful to those who want to get a bit of background on this all important subject of – lighting.
Why do I Need Lighting?
Generally speaking, light, whether natural, artificial or a combination of both is used for three reasons:
It’s dark; I need light to help the viewer see what’s going on.
I need to balance the light in a scene to ensure correct exposures.
I need to use light creatively that will set the scene, invoke the desired mood.
For films that are to be heavily graded, creative lighting plays a key role in setting picture contrast. Without the proper use of lighting techniques, trying to grade flat footage generally results in a poor image that has no bite. Certainly as image editing manipulation is (to a degree) becoming more simplified and corrections can be made in "Post", it is essential for any serious film maker to understand the "Why’s" and "How’s" of lighting in image creation.
Introduction to Lighting:
It wasn’t that long ago, when the average commercial video production company only had to choose from a relatively small selection of lighting units or kits that would pretty much see them through. Today, while in some respects that is still true, there have been many advances in technology and the lighting product market is bulging with choices. For the newcomer to this subject it can be difficult to decide what choices to make. This review is based on general “real world” video production lighting requirements and only scratches the surface of this fascinating subject, and one of the “keys” for the successful film maker to learn.
Of course, it all depends on what business you are in, and your lighting choices will be determined by many factors. Will you be studio based? Will you be travelling? Is a specialist project a one-off or will you be using a consistent set-up? Do you want a system you can build upon? Do you work alone or with a team of people? Mains power or battery? Tungsten or LED? and on the questions go. It is important to think these points through as lighting units can be expensive and should be seen as an investment in the business.
Just because a particular camera can record low light environments means diddly squat. unless you are into undercover private investigation work. As already mentioned, light illuminates the darkness, but creative use of light is used to invoke various moods and brings contrast to a scene or product. For the film maker, creative lighting can tell a story that never needs spoken – shapes and shadows, that is the art of lighting design.
However, for most corporate and broadcast video productions, budgets are tight, time is limited and at times there is no power available to plug-in those tungsten halogen floods, and that is just the beginning of the problems that can be faced on a typical shoot. Over the years our own company Studio Scotland has been involved in numerous projects that have required various lighting approaches, from the comforts of a well rigged studio to "equipment hostile" underground caves soaked with condensation. At times we are given all day to light a complex scene and at the other end of the spectrum we are allocated minutes to capture an important interview in challenging environments. Below is a sample of equipment we have used over the years and how that equipment has fared.
The Redhead 800 Watt Open Faced Lamp (Hot Light):
The humble Redhead 800 watt lamp must be one of the most common lamp heads that has been used for decades and its general design has changed little. This Ianiro model shown here comes with accessories such as glass cover (essential for safety where a bulb can explode) barn doors (good for flagging stray light where it is not wanted and attaching filter material) and scrims (not shown) which modify the properties of the light. On the more expensive models you have a rotating mechanism that enables the bulb to be moved forward or back thereby widening or narrowing the beam a little. However don’t get this confused with the popular fresnel spotlight unit. (See below)
Redheads are fairly inexpensive and are usually bought as part of a 2 or 3 head kit. It is most advisable to make sure you have spare bulbs as tungsten lighting bulbs are notorious for blowing if they get a knock. If replacing a tungsten bulb it is important that you do not touch the bulb as the oils in your skin will cause premature failure of the bulb - use a cloth or tissue to replace the bulb. You will also need to carry spare fuses (small tool kit) for the mains plug as these can also blow along with the bulb. If you are thinking about purchasing these units used, then you must watch out for damage to the ceramic blocks that hold the bulb, and lumpy looking mains cable which infers that the inner wiring is old and breaking down. The heads you see in these pictures are 20 years old but they have undergone a number of component replacement parts. Depending on usage it is a good example of why these units continue to be so popular.
When choosing Redheads, while you do not need heavy duty lighting stands, you should make sure that whatever you use is up to the job. You do not want one of those hot lights falling on someone, which leads onto the subject of heat. They do not take long to get roasting hot especially the barndoors and a pair of heat resistant gloves can come in very useful particularly when changing filter material once the lights have been on a while. Of course you will need to make sure they are cool enough before packing away after a job, if we are in a hurry we often place “Hot Lights” outside in a cool breeze to help speed up the cooling process.
A point worth mentioning is that if you intend to do a lot of interviews or product work, close quarters tungsten lighting can cause various problems in regard to skin reaction, and products such as food wither under hot lights. See the LED/Fluorescent cool lighting section below.
Now 800 watts of light in a small room may appear bright, but should there be a need to colour correct the light with blue filter gel material and perhaps diffusion materials to soften the light source, and or you are competing with available sunlight coming through a large window, you will soon see how limited 800 watts of light can be. This is where controlling your filming environment becomes important to help overcome these typical technical issues. Moving on, we will take a look at what is basically the same unit but more powerful.
The Arrilite 600/800/1000 and 2000 Watt Open Faced Focusing Floodlight:
The Arrilite 2000 watt lamp head is also a common performer that is used by video crews around the world and once again its general design has changed little over the years. As with the Redhead featured above you are basically dealing with exactly the same product and accessories. Of course the heat is much greater (be careful with filter materials catching fire or melting) and electrical current draw will be much greater, so care will be needed if you intend to use more than one of these from a domestic power supply.
We use these lamp heads for situations where we need to punch light into a large area, be it for creative aesthetics or simply to lift a dark area in an industrial environment. The more powerful light source also allows for the lamp to be placed at a greater distance than a Redhead thereby giving better technical control and softening shadows. Larger lamps also allow the use of large diffusion panels whereby you can create a spread of light coming through an entrance way. Conversely the hard beam can be used behind smoke or fog oil. 2000 watts of light also means that you can use colour correction filter material and diffusion material without sacrificing too much light output.
What’s an Arrilite 2000 watt floodlight like outdoors? In bright daylight, it is really only effective at close quarters bearing in mind that you will likely be filtering the tungsten lamp. When shooting outdoors, we find that these lamps are more useful in shaded areas or at dusk/night time.
Generally speaking, these types of products are very popular because they can be used for a whole variety of jobs, other than the bulbs they are very tough, long lasting and there is usually plenty used models to be had, just beware of old hard worked offerings. Regarding cheaper Asian “knock-off” products see below.
The Arri Fresnel 150/350/650 and 1000 Watt Spotlight:
The Arri fresnel is once again one of the most popular lamps used throughout the world and they come in a range of sizes. Basically, the lamp head uses a fresnel (think of a lighthouse) glass screen in front of an adjustable tungsten lamp which focuses the beam to a degree. Where these units really come into there own is where you have the ability to use shapes, or cookies as they are often called in front of the lamp thereby allowing you to create shadows and shapes (although not a clean hard edge) on your subject or on the wall behind a subject. Common cookie patterns are windows, blinds or mottled effects. These are an excellent way of giving more depth to an interview within a location that is lacking in inspiration. However, this product should not be confused with the focusing spot lamp (either a focusing spot lamp head or a focus attachment snoot) that is designed to project a sharp edged image mask onto a surface.
Generally speaking, what has been written about the open faced lamp head applies to the fresnel unit. The one thing you will notice is that they are more expensive. There are those who feel that purchasing the 150/350 models are a bit of a waste of money when you could own a 650 model and simply use a smaller bulb and or use filter material (ND – Neutral Density) to reduce the light output if required. Generally speaking, the ability to have more light on tap is usually more desirable as opposed to not having enough.
Bulb replacement for the Arri fresnel units is either from a nifty top cover or swing away front element making replacement very quick and easy. While the bulbs are a different design to the open faced lamp heads they none the less suffer the same issues and need to be handled with care. Regarding cheaper Asian "knock-off" products see below.
Do we travel abroad with these units? In our case we do not, they are far too bulky and electrical supply can be problematic in many countries. We either hire lights on location or we use our LED units. See below.
The Arri Daylight Compact Fresnel Spotlights:
These lamps are fabulous and the mainstay of television & film studios the world over, however in regard to this review I will simply say that many of these specialist lamps require commercial power outlets, generators and the need to know what you are doing. Owning lamps such as these is rarely profitable for the average production company and unless you are involved in serious lighting projects (and you would not be reading this review if you were) these lamps are usually hired in for project specific jobs.
If you need this kind of kit, there are smaller units that can be purchased complete with transformer and one company who have done well with their own design is the American based Coollights who were the first to bring useable value for money LED panels to market (See LED below). The other alternative is to hire a professional lighting guy to take care of things for you.
Dedolight & Dedotek:
German engineering is world renowned and as you would expect, Dedolight lamp heads are star performers that are built to withstand a great deal of abuse. Basically, these little units are like Arri fresnels stove enamelled black and can fit in the palm of your hand. Light output depending on the model is really quite impressive. Using 12 / 24 volt bulbs and utilising either their own dimmer/mains control or via a 3 / 4 channel dimmer Dedotek unit they draw very little current. While there is a whole range of accessories available we made our own shapers/cookies and filters which really are a must for better creative and technical control of the light.
Of course, for those who do a lot of travelling these units are very popular but they are also great for difficult lighting situations. For one job we had to lower 4 Dedolights into a large silo container whereby Iron Ore pellets were being forced into the silo. The Iron Ore dust was horrendous and destructive and would have damaged most lamp heads. Once filming was complete the lamps were removed from the silo, the bulb unit was slid out of the casing and they were washed in soapy hot water. They looked like brand new. Dedolight Drawbacks? Well as you would expect, they are not cheap and while the 24 volt model lamp head is much more usable in different situations it really will be down to your own needs and what projects you will be working on in the future. Certainly used models are well worth looking out for but don’t expect to see them crop up that often, they are an investment.
What about heat? Although the bulbs are only 12/24 volt the units still get very hot and will burn your hands, so again you need to be careful. Another upside is that they only require a lightweight stand or a table clamp to mount them.
LED Cool Lighting:
As we have already done a review on various LED lighting units I will not repeat anything here (see LED lighting Review) other than to say that we love them, particularly for work that means we need to be able to act quickly, change lighting sets promptly without fuss and even use them battery powered (same V-Lock batteries used on our cameras and monitors) on the move or in extreme environments.
One of the great things about LED lamps is that they run virtually cool to the touch and it’s not just the crew that loves them it’s also the talent being interviewed for any length of time. Long exposure to tungsten lighting causes all kinds of issues for human skin which requires make-up to keep under control. We have encountered some individuals who react badly under prolonged tungsten lighting and can turn a deep orange/red. So, if you do a lot of interviews and you can afford them, LED lighting units are a great addition to any lighting kit. See LED Lighting Review
Kino Flo and Arri Cool Banks Lighting:
These are banks of fluorescent tubes within a casing and are favoured for their soft cool light and can be seen in both large and small studios around the world. For the mobile production company you will either love or hate this product. While it is a technology we have used, personally it is not a product we have invested in because it does not suit our needs. If we want soft light we have opal diffusion panels that can be placed in front of a range of lighting units to more or less get similar results. If we need cool lighting we use our LED lights. A great advantage over tungsten is the cool running and low current draw and they are particularly suited to studio environments. With the LED market developing ever more powerful, stable and highly portable products it remains to be seen how the cool lighting world will progress.
What About Other Light Sources (Work Lamps etc)?
A quick glance at various forums will show that there are many individuals out there that want to introduce lighting to their projects but don’t have the budget. The most common question is; can I use work lamps from the local DIY store usually fitted with 300 or 500 watt tungsten halogen bulbs? Quick answer, yes, you can use virtually anything that gives light whether it’s the big ball of fire in the sky, car headlamps or the light from your cell phone. Use your imagination, however each light source will have its challenges, part of the job is learning how to meet those challenges.
For the professional it comes down to equipment being fit for purpose, and therefore just like any other item of kit, lighting units are tools in your tool bag. The better suited the tools for a given job the more you can concentrate on the job in hand, as opposed to trying to figure out how on earth you are going to achieve a lighting solution to what really should be a simple exercise.
As mentioned briefly before, it is also important that you understand safe working practice particularly in regard to "hot lights" their current draw, possible fire hazard and placement stability.
What about cheap imitation Arri type units from Asia?
Generally you get what you pay for, on the odd occasion you do get a good value for money product that turns out to be a winner. "Hot Lights" open faced or fresnel models may appear fairly simple in construction, but models from the likes of Arri are very well made and are supported by a company with decades of experience. The main things you need to be careful of in a cheaper unit will be the quality and integrity of the electrical components (switches / wiring / voltage transformer) and heat exchange parts used. You may find that after prolonged use they begin to show signs of breaking down. The unit itself may also be of inferior or lightweight materials that will not withstand the rigours of professional use.
One of the best ways to find out is to post a question regarding any new product on a good quality forum where you can learn from the experiences from someone who has bought or used that product. If you are running a business then purchasing cheap equipment that will be used regularly is usually a false economy.
These lighting units are very popular for stage shows used in both fixed gantry positions or part of a travelling roadshow. Once again, the film maker learns to use whatever light is available, and certainly if shooting an event at the local theatre then these will produce enough light to record the show. Over the years we have had a great deal of experience with theatrical stage lighting having owned various lighting rig solutions, however they are specifically designed for live events. One year we were contracted to shoot an opera in Denmark where lighting was a mix of PAR Can floods / spots and fresnel focusing spots. With the help of the theatre lighting engineer we balanced each lighting unit (using a light meter) to meet the exposure range of the HD camera system used. The resulting footage was perfectly lit, creating a high quality image.
Although these units can be picked up quite cheap, generally speaking, PAR Cans and other theatre lights with their very simple construction and sealed beam lamps are not suited to general video production work, however we used several banks of them in a number of scenes within our latest feature film production. Once again, it’s all about investing in equipment that is fit for purpose.
Lighting Filters & Cookies:
Okay, so you have got the lighting units sorted out, is that it? No! Generally speaking, light needs to be controlled, shaped, diffused, filtered and coloured. Here is a following overview of the kind of accessories you may find useful depending on your requirements.
Coloured Filter Material (Gel): This gelatine material can be purchased in rolls or sheets in a huge range of colours – Rosco & Lee Filters are very popular makes. These are used for effect.
Neutral Density Filters (ND): These are colourless and designed to reduce light, useful when you have no dimmer control available on your lighting units and you need to reduce the light level. This method may be necessary to help balance a number of lamps on a set, or allow wide open apertures (shallow depth of field) on a camera. ND filters are also used over windows to cut down/balance external exposure.
Colour Correction Filters (CC): Used to correct or alter a colour shift. For example an 80A gel will correct a tungsten lamp for daylight allowing the lamp to be used in conjunction with ambient light coming in through a window. There are many filters available but the common ones are those to correct Fluorescent (Green) CC--M set, Tungsten (Warm) 80A/80B and Daylight (Cool) 85/85B.
Diffusers: Used to soften or alter the quality of light. Diffusion material comes in a wide range of styles ranging from Silk Spun Course and Fine Weave to material that looks like tracing paper. If diffusion material is not to hand then bouncing a lamp off a neutral board, wall or ceiling will soften any harsh lamp. When using diffusion methods care must be taken regarding light spill which can be controlled (flagged) by using sheets of black card commonly called flags.
Cookies or Shapers: Using a fresnel lamp head or focusing spot these are used to create shapes and shadows and bring depth to an image. The most common use for these accessories is behind an interview that would otherwise look a bit flat. The next time you look at a movie, documentary or drama take a look at the lighting, particularly on head shots or around a room set and see if you can spot the use of shapers.
These can be purchased or made from card, foam board or wood. Once again, remember to be careful with “hot lights”. The common shapes are blinds, windows, branches etc. Of course there are many ways to create shapes and shadows without using cookies, try placing a couple of light stands in front of a fresnel lamp or shoot a lamp through a planter or framework, or just about anything that will break up the light source and create an interesting look.
The most common attachment are barndoors which help to control stray light, they are also useful for attaching filter material via the clips found on some barndoor types or by using bulldog clamps. Another popular attachment is the softbox which comes in various shapes and sizes and folds down for transportation. One problem with a softbox is the light spill, and this is where the use of an "Egg Crate Grid" accessory helps to focus the soft light where you actually want it most. Similar to the softbox is a diffusion frame which can be purchased as a collapsible sprung model or in some cases we have made a modular frame whereby we can stretch diffusion material across to make a large panel that gives a beautiful light source, however, the larger the diffusion panel the greater number of lighting units required to get an even light spread.
Lighting Cases and Flight Cases:
Okay, you have settled on your lighting needs, the next question is, "If you are involved in location shooting how are you going to transport them?" Remember, it’s not just the actual lighting heads you need to think about, you will have attachments, filter material, clamps, spares, tools, rolls of tape, lighting stands, cables etc. See our review on flight cases and boxes.
There are numerous stands to choose from and clearly some lighting products need greater support than others. For those on the move with a backpack, lightweight alloy stands that can breakdown into a compact size are favoured. A T-bar is very useful for mounting 2 LED light panels thereby creating a similar effect to a soft box. There are various useful clamps that can be attached to a good quality steady stand that can be used for various tasks such as holding a field monitor. Whatever you choose, make sure it’s fit for purpose, you do not want a lawsuit after a hot light falls over because the stand was inadequate.
Lights, Stands & Cables – A Word of Warning!
If you are going to be around the public, be aware of this, as sure as moths will fly into a flame so will people gather around your lighting stands, lights and cables regardless of whether there is ample room for them to congregate somewhere more safely. After years of being in this business it just never ceases to amaze me why people do this. If in the public domain, make sure any open faced "hot lights" have glass protection screens (exploding bulbs), use fit for purpose sturdy lighting stands with weights if needed (small sand bags are popular), tape everything down and out of the way as much as possible (rubber mats are popular for laying over cables at a door entrance). Where possible use a guard and signage around any piece of equipment to keep the public out of harms way. You have been warned!
Mains Extension Cable:
One of the things that can be overlooked is the humble mains extension cable. If you do location work then the chances are you are going to need extension cables. Depending on the size and nature of your company will likely determine whether you have dedicated lighting (round pin) extension cables, but for the general user who will use their extension cables for a range of tasks some simple points should be adhered to.
Never use an extension cable unsuited to the task in hand, when using "hot lamps" it is a fire hazard waiting to happen. If you are handy, you can order a high quality cable on a drum from an electrical outlet that will be suited for use with tungsten lighting heads. Rubber plugs and sockets are advisable and particularly within industrial environments make sure the cables have a suitably thick coating. Using cable wraps for the shorter extensions and reels (never use "hot lamps" plugged into a cable drum that is still wound up as this will do its best to impersonate an electric fire element and will catch fire) will keep them in good order. If you require a good amount of cable you will need suitable cases/bags for transportation. See our review on flight cases and boxes.
Whatever lighting product you need, there will be a unit or system out there that will be best suited to your requirements. There are many books on lighting available, some better than others so recommendation from others on a forum can be useful. Of course a visit to your local library could safe you a great deal of money although what’s on offer can be a bit limited.
Once you have general knowledge of what does what, a good exercise is to take a note pad and write down what it is you want from your purchase, what kind of budget you can allow and narrow down the choice from there. If you are a newcomer to all this, a used 2 / 3 Red head kit is a great introduction to lighting, they are not overly expensive, they always come in handy no matter how many lights you end up with, they will pay for themselves over and over and they can last for many years.
As with any expensive tool, be it a camera, a mixer, a tripod, if at all possible visit a showroom, an exhibition or even consider hiring equipment before making a final decision. While one of the benefits of purchasing industry standard lighting products was their resale value generally held (if in good condition), with health and safety regulations causing a problem with the use of HOT lights in certain locations/environments – residual value may begin to drop as LED lighting improves at a rate.
Stewart Menelaws (Director of Photography)
You can read some more in-depth reviews on XDCAM products by choosing from the review links below.
"You can also read interviews Stewart has done for "The Producer magazine".
Studio Scotland Adopts XDCAM HD