My adventure into video started in the early 2000s, when non-linear editing programs like Final Cut Pro and Avid became available for desktop computers. Much of the work was still standard definition, and I was using the Sony PD150 — an affordable mini tape camera for documentary projects. (Important projects were still shot on expensive, professional full-size shoulder video cameras.) The PD150 had tiny chips that were not especially light-sensitive and created a “PD150 look” of deep depth of field — not very cinematic. In other words, everything was in focus all the time. The high compression of the mini tape cameras left something to be desired in image quality as well.
This was a time when shooting stills and video required two cameras and two lighting systems, one for each type of shoot. I can remember traveling to a location with just my still camera system plus strobe lights — only to get there and realize the potential for a video upsale. Then I would have to run back to the studio for my video gear. This was when the web finally had enough bandwidth to show short videos of a few seconds to a few minutes, and clients started to use video content on their websites. While it was extra work, I could upsell clients with video and often double my fee.
That all changed with the introduction of professional DSLRs with HD video capability. Still photographers could now have an all-in-one High Definition still and video camera with increased light sensitivity — and with a hyper-cinematic look, thanks to sensors twice the size of a feature film format. Instead of the “PD150 look,” we had the “5D look” of everything out of focus all the time because of the incredibly shallow depth of field.
Because of the increased sensitivity, a myth developed that no lights were needed. In part this myth was true, but in reality, just because you could shoot without lights in some situations didn’t mean you should. Technically, you could get an acceptable image — but what about the artistic aspects? Photographers are visual artists hired not only for their technical prowess but also (and mainly) for their storytelling. Anyone can learn very quickly how to focus and set the correct exposure in still or video photography with today’s digital cameras.
Photographers are expected to use their ability to create the best narrative about a subject — one that tells the viewer a specific story through the use of composition and lighting. Photographers shooting video now have the luxury of storytelling over time as compared to catching the story in an instant, but the artistic challenges remain the same.
When I teach “Secrets of Video for Photographers” workshops around the world, I start out by reminding attendees that videos and films are just a bunch of still images strung together. Most of the techniques still photographers use to create interesting images can be applied to video. I am always surprised when long-time professional photographers seem stunned by this statement. They apparently think video is a whole new world, but in many ways it’s just an extension of what they already know. Remember, one of the main crew members on any feature film is called the Director of Photography — not the Director of Film or Video — because of the importance of lighting in storytelling.
This brings me back to the myth that DSLRs need nothing more than available light. Light for exposure is certainly important, but “lighting” for storytelling is equally if not more important. Lighting is a major part of successful storytelling on a visual level. The full, open lighting used for a comedic story would not suit a dramatic story that needs more chiaroscuro, and vice versa. In fact, lighting can be artfully used in many ways to communicate. In the broadest sense, lighting sets the tone for the overall feeling. With no sound or motion, most viewers can tell you what type of story is being told by simply looking at the lighting in a video for a few moments.
Beyond the overall feeling, there are all sorts of approaches to lighting that can be used to subtly direct the viewer. A change in location can call for a descriptive type of light. A hospital, supermarket or school calls for different lighting than a barn or deserted factory. I bet as you just read the name of each location, your mind produced a quick visual of each — complete with lighting.
Time of day can make a huge difference in lighting, whether day or night. A change in lighting can communicate a change that is happening to a character or in the story. Possibly one character is talking, but what’s important is the reaction of the other character — so, by reducing the lighting on the speaker and increasing it on the listener, the viewer can tell what’s important.
As photographers venture into video, they often tend to throw away everything they know about lighting just because it’s video. Yes, some of the tools are different, and your techniques may need to be adapted somewhat — but good lighting is storytelling lighting. Let’s take the tools first. If you shoot with strobes, you’ll need to switch to some type of constant lighting. Most strobes do have modeling lights, but in general they are underpowered for video, poorly color balanced and have cooling fans that are too noisy to use while recording sound. Instead, you’ll need video tungsten lights, fluorescent or LEDs.
Much like a direct strobe or flash, these lights can be harsh and need appropriate modification. I find umbrellas useful to soften light, but they lack the controls that other modifiers have. Trying to control or modify umbrella light can be hard, as umbrellas are generally not constructed to support barndoors or grids. Large silks are also useful in softening light but have the same issues of lack of control and the need for supports separate from the light (moving the total package becomes an issue). Umbrellas and silks still have a place in video lighting — but most photographers shooting video don’t have a large crew or the time to deal with these issues.
What other light modifier in your arsenal is controllable, modifiable and easily moved as one unit? The venerable softbox. Still photographers have used the softbox for over a generation because of the quality of the light and its versatility. Originally they were wooden, metal or foamcore creations that were hard to transport and store but could control a soft light source fairly easily. Chimera was the first company to overcome the problem of transportation and storage by making a collapsible softbox out of fabric. Chimera went on to improve the controllability of light by creating modifiers like barndoors, grids and additional diffusion elements. A word of caution: the softboxes I use for my still work with strobes are not suitable for video work, as the tungsten lights are much hotter and require higher heat-resistant material. Be sure to use a softbox made specifically for video hot lights.
When lighting, I always consider the size of the softbox. Its size in relationship to the subject, along with the distance from the subject, creates the contrast ratio. Just as in still photography, I find that to cover a reasonable variety of situations I need more than one size of softbox. For those beginning to shoot video, I suggest getting started with something like the Chimera Combi Video Kit. Kits like this one save you money and give you different ways to control contrast, shape and falloff that you wouldn’t have with just one type of softbox. Chimera film and video softboxes are heat-resistant and come with a removable front face plus an interior baffle to give you more lighting options.
Of course, the quality of the light is paramount. I find the front face material of Chimeras softens the light without deadening it. The removable baffle softens the light even more. I suggest you try different configurations until you find what fits your style the best. You will probably use different configurations for different situations. I experiment continually.
You might want to think about getting a few grids as well to further control the light. A grid controls the spread of the light without affecting its softness. The movie industry has grips whose main job is to control the light by setting flags to block light off unwanted areas with C-stands and flags. Still photographers shooting video often need to control lighting at the source without the benefit of stands and flags. Seriously consider getting equipment that allows you to expand your control with integrated modifiers, like a Chimera does with baffles, grids and barndoors. For me, having the right equipment that is expandable is better than time-consuming workarounds. The last thing I want to do while clients or talent wait is try to rig a workaround.
Oftentimes, as your subjects get bigger, so does the light source. Most softboxes come in a variety of sizes to match the need. I have a collection of Chimeras ranging from the small kit suggested above to individual boxes of 54 x 72 inches — all with a variety of speed rings for the most popular lights. Along with the traditional rectangle-shaped softbox, a new light shape that has become very popular is the octagonal or eight-sided box. The one I use is the Chimera OctaPlus, which has very little falloff from center to edge. There are three sizes available — 3, 5 and 7-foot versions. Innovative as always, Chimera offers a 5-foot OctaPlus that turns into a 7-foot OctaPlus when you use an optional conversion kit consisting of a skirt and larger front face — so, for very little extra gear, you can have a larger softbox.
LED lights are gaining a foothold in video production for good reason. They are lightweight, sturdy, low power and low heat. They can be balanced for daylight or tungsten, and in some cases be adjusted anywhere between daylight and tungsten without using filters. I started early with LEDs and have seen them increase in output dramatically. I travel extensively with them, and unlike other lights, I’ve never had an LED light break.
One problem that remains with LEDs is their harsh, direct light. Talent can become very uncomfortable with the brightness LEDs produce. There is also the problem of multiple tiny shadows cast by the rows of LEDs. However, both of these issues can be solved with the right diffusion, such as Chimera’s Tech LED which creates smooth, talent-friendly light.
Since most photographers today already have DSLRs with HD video, the next step is to work on a story and light it appropriately. The story can be simple, but it needs a beginning, middle and end. The beginning should explain what the story is about and set up for the action to come, which is usually about a problem. The middle carries the action or problem to the viewer. The end resolves the problem.
The yogurt video below demonstrates how simple this can be in three shots.
The beginning, “I want to do something healthy for myself,” is both the setup and start of the action. The middle defines the problem: “I want a snack.” Admittedly not a big problem, but a snack is not what you think of as healthy. The end is the resolution — “I have Dannon Light and Fit, the good-for-you, good-tasting snack.” The problem of finding a healthy snack makes the story interesting, and the solution of finding something good-tasting as well as healthy is satisfying for viewer.
The appropriate lighting for this type of story is open but not dramatic — simple and inviting, making the scene accessible and keeping with the tone of the story. A softbox to the right of the camera shaped the face and cast a soft shadow to give some depth to the scene. Remember to tell a story not only with words and action, but also with lighting. If any one of those elements contradicts the story, the viewer will be confused and the story will be less convincing.
My best advice is to keep it simple when getting into video. Remember, big productions require big crews! You may not have access to actors who can move and act at the same time. Try it yourself — it’s hard to talk and hit marks. So keep the movements simple for both the actors and the camera. Break down the scene into simple, short shots that allow for editing out mistakes without ruining a lot of work. Long takes require everyone to be perfect for a long time. The best stories are short stories, as your viewers will lose interest if you don’t get to the point. Keep the dialog down — the old saying “Show, don’t tell” is true. Think about your photography. How often is a photograph successful if it relies on the caption to tell the story? Finally, although shallow depth of field is cinematic, out-of-focus subjects are not. Try to light for enough depth of field so your subjects don’t go in and out of focus.
Stabilize your camera so the horizon is level. Have your subjects move rather than the camera. Think about shorter shots from different angles to complete a scene and give the appearance of camera movement, as illustrated in the ”Yogurt” video. If the camera does move, use a fluid head on your tripod made for movement. Manfrotto has a number of fine, low-cost fluid heads; the hybrid Photo-Movie head with quick release has the attributes of both a photo and movie tripod head.
If you want to handhold your camera, use a support system like the DSLR Shoulder Rig from RedRockMicro. Remember that to give your video a cinematic look, you’ll be shooting at 24 frames per second with a shutter speed of 1/48 of a second. This slow of a shutter speed invites blurry images caused by unsteady camera movement. A well-stabilized camera moving at half the speed you think it should will look the best.
Video for still photographers is here to stay. The sooner you turn that little switch on the back of your camera to video, the sooner you can have fun telling stories in a different way.