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Hints and tips on my lighting design process - working on location on a budget

Ben Morfoot

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Hey everyone,

I've been a long time reader but posting for the first time as I'm finally in a position to start trying to apply what I've learnt from the forum.

I want to ask for tips on my process, and any suggestions you have from your own processes.

I'm a DP for a small production company and our model is generally a single person (myself) handling everything to do with the camera and lighting.

We do a range of work but a lot of time is on short form content for social media etc, which includes a lot of on location interviews.

I'm looking at refining a workflow to make sure I having as much control as possible.

However, the budget is always limited on our shoots and while we have a small range of lights we can use, I need to justify rental of anything more powerful (and conversely make sure I don't turn up at the shoot without enough lux/candlepower to get the shot). I also need to justify if I need additional people on the shoot to help with lighting. For example It's easy to tell producers I want an M18 to key, but I need to be able to break down it to the bill payers why that over say an Aputure 600D.

This is my current process:
  • On scout, meter light levels on the proposed interview background
  • Back at base work out the lighting setup based on the location and what we want to achieve - where I'm putting my key/fill/backlight etc.
  • Using published photometrics  of sources I'm thinking of using, I'll work out roughly what LUX/FC light I'd need based on what stop I'm shooting to, and what I've metered to on the scout.
  • Generally double this to account for bounce/diffusion and make sure I've got enough headroom
  • Look through out lists of lights and commonly hired lights to see what will meet that
  • Armed with the shoot plan, and the numbers to roughly justify it, rent lights what I need.

Is this a fairly typical process? I'd love any feedback on how I could get better, do things more efficiently and more intelligently.

Thank you in advance for your help!


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Everything you're planning is logical and until you gain experience is appropriate.

The transition to narrative film will be easier as you will be doing the same, if only making sketches to illustrate a more formal drawing done by Studio Department Heads later.

One thing I would add  (you probably already do this),  is to shoot digital photos of all 360 degrees around the Interviewee area to show what background is behind interviewer,  and to show higher-ups where you will need to place whatever you need equipment- wise.

It would be nice to have a lights man with you for the shoot.  (Someone to actually adjust the light while you are standing at the camera so you can shout "whoa"  or "that's it, lock it down" etc.).  Allowing you to spot the "happy accident:"  The execution scene at the end of "In Cold Blood"  i.e.  rain outside the window on Robert Blake's face simulating crying;  or "L.A. Confidential" the sunrise glow on the wall of Kim Basinger's bedroom when she invites Russell Crowe into her personal life.

If you are at the light, you won't see what the camera sees and miss a wonderful nuance of lighting.

By all means learn how to manipulate every light you can get your hands on "in your sleep,"  but stand by the camera or look through the lens to set lights when afforded the opportunity.

Hope this helps.

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Thank you Eric, that's really helpful!

I do take some shots around the scene but not as comprehensive as full 360 degrees. I'll start doing that and moving towards more comprehensive illustrations of the scene as they get a bit more complex.

And makes sense on the lights man, I will try and rope in help from any other crew who are around when I can and hopefully at some point be on some shoots with someone dedicated to that.

This week I've made myself a spreadsheet based calculator to try and automate a few of my steps. I have record of the photometric data for 1m brightness of the lights we commonly use. It then gives me the estimated stops I'll get from that light at various distances. It only uses the inverse square law which I know isn't that accurate, and for bounce and diffusion I just roughly assume I'll lose a couple of stops. So while not precise it gives me a quicker reference to be able to estimate what lights I'll need (and critically make sure I have enough brightness on the day).

However this feels like the sort of tool that must exist already. I've seen the ARRI calculator, but not one for a wider set of lights.

When you're planning your lights to bring to set, are you doing that entirely with judgement, or some back-of-the-envelope calculations or another tool?

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You're welcome.

Yeah,  360 degrees, for shots of the interviewer, if used, and generator and light placement.

Spreadsheets are nice as far as it goes... but after doing the theory, spend some time doing the practical.  By that I mean, assuming life doesn't interfere, go to a rental house and rent the type of lights and grip gear (if who you work for won't let use theirs for practice),  and  measure them, one at a time, and notate that.  (Outdoors---Indoors---Day---Night---Near---Medium---Far---Side---Back---Bounce and Thru---and last but not least: TOP).  Long ago, (I remember) in LA one could rent for the weekend (Fri-Sat-Sun), on a single day rate....    see if your area Rental House will accommodate you.  Take them examples of what you did so they know you aren't doing a job. Just be sure and get their equipment back before the appointed time, or risk a second day rate.  Get some likeminded friends to help and measure that light's output at various distances, then draw and notate that. 

If you have to do it on your own don't let that stop you. Learn what each light does, photograph that,  make sketches with footcandle readings and f-stops shown.  Do over and under exposures as well and work in Photoshop to bring it to different expressions/moods.  As an aside, rent a gearhead and practice on that as well... you never know!!!

The kind of work it seems you are doing now requires smaller units.  Motion pictures, "entertainment" movies use, generally, much larger units.  Although, check out "The Sand Pebbles" Cinema Classics Collection and the use of Mighty-Moles, 1000watts, for Day Exterior Fill Light.

Stop by a stage theatre and get to know the lighting people, have them show you their lighting plots so you get an idea of how a stage play is lit (hard lights and color--multiple scenes in same area at different times of day/night---the so-called "specials" etc.), and the planning behind it.  If you can get onto a film stage and talk to the gaffer/lighting director study their set-ups, and ask to see any light plots as well.  They are using much larger lights and more of them.  

You might ask Roger Deakins, through his website, just how he handles the "recce"/scouting session and how the conversation with the director, production manager and gaffer is translated into a lighting scheme/lighting plot (for both large and small sets/locations) and who draws that.  Maybe David Mullen can help illuminate his method(s) for this. 

Huge variables and similarities co-exist here. 

While the crew shoots a given day's work, sometimes there is another rigging crew working from a plot to pre-rig upcoming scenes at another location.

The "WHAT"  and "HOW" is dictated by the "WHY"  and sometimes by the "WHERE," other times by the "WHO" ... and ye gads, it COSTS how much??!!

There is no one way, but hopefully this will help you find your way.  Rent, test, document.  If you can't rent, then test and document while using your company's gear (without holding up the shoot) on the job.

To bring an end to this philosophical pontification (huh?),  see if your rental house has a Mole-Richardson catalog you can take home and study their extensive technical details relating to beam angle and photometric data.  Then put it to the test!

Hope this helps.


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If you have an Ipad the program Lighting Designer (LD https://apps.apple.com/us/app/lighting-designer/id511366142) Can  be very helpful in not only making up lists, but also in showing an overhead plot to producers. Some (not so great) examples from my own stuff.

Also helpful to plot out DMX, when you get into that world.




Also Apps such as SunPlan are vital on scouts to get solar positions for time and dates.


If you want to start getting crazier, you can get into programs such as capture and a lighting console (I use blackout) to start doing rough previs for producers. With capture you can really start to get an idea of outputs at distances but I personally find it VERY annoying to work with.

Edited by Adrian Sierkowski
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Eric thank you for your wisdom, loads for me to get thinking about there and reflects I guess that this something that will really build over time. I’m definitely trying to document any real world setups I do, recording the key numbers about the scene and what seemed to work. Hopefully that’ll accelerate my learning.

And Adrian thank you, hadn’t come across Lighting Designer. Don’t have an iPad but will borrow one to check it out. Been looking for an excuse to pick one up! I’m slightly unclear from the app page - is it primarily about documenting a setup or does it help in the actual design too?

I haven’t played much with DMX since working on stage productions in college but would love to get into that for bigger shoots. Thanks for the tips. Is Capture just fiddly to use? And do you find the idea of outputs it gives to be fairly accurate when you actually light the and scene live?

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Hey Ben

Lighting designer can, I think, do, photometrics, but to be honest with you, a lot of that comes from experience. Lighting designer is more too show to producers what you need where, and when. And to help you visualize things. Especially as it's mostly to scale, so you can see how large an actual unit will be in a location. I think the (much more annoying) program called Capture has more realistic photometrics and camera stuff in it, but that is well beyond even my own modest wheelhouse.

Having hated iPads for a long while-- now that I have one-- it really makes my work a lot easier and I don't think I could be as effective without it now.

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