The importance of lighting skills


Are lighting skills important?

This is the question that always comes up after an assignment that required some sort of lighting skills but the shooter had none.

So what’s the answer.

In recent years new technologies have allowed cameras to be more sensitive to lower lighting conditions. Although low light capability is useful in many situations it also created the believe that lighting skills are no longer necessary, some even stated that lighting is intrusive. This is the typical reasoning from those who have no understanding whatsoever of what the physic of light really is and how it applies to photography.

You will never hear a successful cameraman, one who makes a good living with his skills underestimate the importance of lighting skills, he knows all to well what made him successful, but you will hear people at the low end/earning of the production spectrum arguing that lighting skills are not important. Now you can draw your own conclusion on what end of the production spectrum you would rather be.

Just because a camera is capable of recording images in low lighting conditions doesn’t mean it will provide quality, on the contrary. Unless the image is flat with no highlights cameras capable to get a good exposure under low lighting conditions will also overexposed highlights above the cameras capabilities, thus eliminating details in the highlights within the same image. Lighting skills also mean keeping details across the entire brightness range of an image. This is even more critical with the popular inexpensive cameras in use today where the brightness range is considerably lower than higher priced cameras. Sufficient lighting to get an acceptable exposure has nothing to do with the quality of light, good (paying) clients look for quality not quantity.

Lighting skills is not about what light to buy or where to place the lights, it’s about the ability to see, understand and manipulate the light as a visual medium. Lighting instruments will aid the photographer in achieving this but will not create quality lighting, skills and knowledge is what create quality lighting. I often get asked “what light kit should I buy” and my answer usually is “buy whatever light you need to do the job”. This is when I get the “deer in the headlights” look. Don’t buy light kits just because they are there, buy individual lights as you learn what each light can do for the quality of your work. When clients start seeing quality money will sure to follow.

There’s also a myth that clients don’t understand the difference between good and bad lighting. This statement too comes from those at the low end/earning of the production spectrum. Cheap clients surely don’t, but good clients experienced in producing quality programming surely do, lighting skills is the first thing they look for when hiring a crew. Again, please understand this, lighting skills is not about where to place each light but why. It’s not about the mechanic of light but the understanding of the physic of light that lead to lighting skills.

When you ask the question of how important lighting skills are you’ll get many answers, mostly opinions. Ask yourself this question, where do you want your video career to go, what’s your goal. Success in a capitalistic society is measured by how much money you make from your skills, it means that your skills are in demand and clients are willing to pay good rates for your services. On the low end of the scale unskilled or low skilled video makers are in overabundance. Because of the low cost of cameras people are entering the profession by the thousands. Mostly newcomers with little skills and little training, rely on automation to do the job for them. Today the supply of low end cameramen far exceeds the demand for the type of work they are capable of providing. Look at Mandy or Craiglist, most video wanted ads today are for low or no pay jobs, and even those are hard to get.

Good paying assignments are seldom advertised, all of the jobs we get today come from references. Producers will not take chances with crews that they are unfamiliar with, once they find a good crew they’ll stick with it unless the crew screws up. Producers also help each other, if they need a crew outside their market they’ll ask another producer for references, word of mouth is still the best and only advertising in this profession. Good producers seldom look at directories to find crews.

In terms of earnings vs. skills, VJ or however the shooters with similar VJ skills call themselves are at the low end of the quality and earnings scale. Those lucky enough to actually have a job on the average earn less than an assistant manager at McDonald. News or any other organization that hire VJs or similarly skilled crews are not at all interested in getting quality work. VJs were created by the news industry as a need to save money. To meet economic needs a new low level of quality was created mostly to supply cheap videos for the web, and the reason for this is that most web sites are not profitable. If a VJ would suddenly acquire better skills most likely he/she will ask for more money and thus defeating the economic reasons of why the pay scale of VJ was created in the first place. This is why you will never see VJ or similar style work on any significant broadcasting programs and those few low end VJ style programs that tried to make it into broadcasting failed miserably.

On the other end of the scale, a video professional with marketable lighting skills earn on the average over $250K a year, that’s about ten times what a video photographer with VJ type skills earns. Clients with good budgeted projects, either for broadcasting or for commercial applications, will always hire those with extensive skills in all areas of productions, not only because of the quality but also because of productivity and problem solving skills.

To succeed in this profession you’ll need every possible skill you can get. No two jobs are alike and on each job a professional will only use 20% of his skills. Tomorrow he might use another 20% on another type of assignment, and so on. Often even within the same assignment a number of skills will be required. The most common skill however that is used in most assignments is the skill of lighting. On an average assignment a photographer will use many different skills, some easy that just about everybody could do it as well as many advanced skills.

Look at some of the jobs we do.

For example, on the Gruden QB Camp shows, the opening piece is done feature style using lights to create dramatic effects as well as camera movements. This was all done with small cameras mostly Canon 5D and Panasonic AF100. Following the intro coach Gruden is talking to the camera, interview style, of course the same crew has to know about good interview techniques; a full size broadcasting camera was used for this. There’s also a lead-in segment where the QB leaves the hotel and is in route to see coach Gruden, that was shot VJ style with small cameras. The main body of the show done in Gruden’s office was done with 5 cameras and only 2 cameramen. 3 of the cameras were unmanned or remotely controlled. Lighting was a real challenge as the office was very small, this is where the producer really appreciated the crew's problem solving skills. The end of the show moves to a football field for the QB skill segment. Here a mix of cameras were used, two large broadcasting cameras on the coach and both producers use small cameras VJ styles for cutaways. The only reason we got this very good assignment, and this is the third year, is because of the diversity of skills we offer our clients. Producers are not going to hire different crews to do different segments of the same show, they hire crews that can do everything and do it well.

The fundamental of lighting 

The most famous and most widely used of all light techniques today started long before electricity. 15th and 16th centuries renaissance artist, the likes of Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Botticelli came to the realization that something was missing from their painting. It was two dimensional and what was missing was depth. That’s where the Chiaroscuro lighting technique was born. Those artists had no LED Litepanels, HMIs or tungsten lights, all they had was natural light. They created techniques and mastered the manipulation of natural light, they understood light, they learned to “see the light”.  Today just about everyone who use lights are also using the centuries old chiaroscuro technique, although most don’t even know they are using it. Everything we do with lights today is based on the effect of natural light, we use artificial lights for our convenience and speed when the natural light is not in our favor, but the very same quality and effect of the light that those artist created five hundred years ago did not change.

What we teach at the lighting workshops is lighting first and how to use lighting instruments to achieve that.

This is a brief and crude video I made several years ago to quickly explain to some people in this business the very basic principle of the chiaroscuro. This is the fundamental of lighting.