Types of Lighting in Film

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What are the Different Types of Lighting for Film

The film industry is no stranger to tech innovation. As such, there are hundreds of options out there when it comes to selecting lights. 

In this article, I break down some of the most common types of lighting you would see on a film set. 

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    Tungsten

    Tungsten light refers to an artificial lighting source (like a lamp or ceiling fixture) that emits heat and produce a “warmer” or reddish colour.

    Canon

    Tungsten lights are the original movie lights, and are often what you imagine when you think about big Hollywood movie sets.

    There are many brands of tungsten lights for film, the two main ones being Arri and Mole Richardson.

    The fixtures typically come outfitted with a yoke to position the light at your intended subject, a set of barndoors to shape the light and block it from spilling where it isn’t wanted, and a set of scrims that knock down the light without the use of a dimmer.

    Dimmers (aka squeezers) are limiting the electricity reaching the bulb. Because tungsten is essentially a flaming filament, dimming to lower light levels results in different color temperatures.

    This effect may be desired in order to create a warmer tone in your scene, but when fluctuation in color temperature are not desired, lower light levels can be produced by placing scrims in front of the fixture.

    Benefits of Tungsten Lighting

    • Pure light source. This means that there are no major color shifts between fixtures and different brands, and that there won't be an surprise green or magenta spikes like there may be with other types of lighting.
    • Amazing for skin tone. The quality of light that tungsten produces plays very well with skin tones. For this reason, some directors of photography still insist on using tungsten lighting when lighting people, despite the tremendous advantages of other light sources available to day.
    • Easy to maintain. Tungsten lights are very simple. If you know how a standard house lamp works, you know how these light fixtures work. They are very easy to work on and maintain, even for a novice electrician.

    Negatives of Tungsten Lighting

    • High heat. Because tungsten lights are essentially tiny little contained flames inside a bulb, there is a large amount of heat emitted. This is where the term "hot set" comes into play, because if the set is being utilized it is hot from all of the lights. This can cause a number of problems for actors who tend to sweat and can make your makeup artists work double-time to keep the talent looking their best.
    • Power hungry. These lights consume a lot of power per footcandle. Meaning, to get the same light output as a different type of fixture, it could take 2, 4, or even 6x the power. This is generally not a huge issue on big sets where generators and studio power are used, but it is definitely something for an indie filmmaker to think about when utilizing house power.
    • Single color temperature. These lights come in at about 3200K and that's it. There's no ability to change the color temperature from within the fixture, in an app or through DMX. In order to change the color temperature on these lights, you need to use colored gels. This means you have to carry around rolls of all the different colors you may use. Plus, depending on the flavor of gel, you can lose stops of light from your fixture.

    My Recommendation: The Arri Kit

    Arri is an extremely popular brand of lighting and camera equipment because of the high level of detail and build quality that goes into every product.

    Because of this, they are more expensive than other brands, but it’s my experience that you get what you pay for.

    Arri lights will last longer, take a tougher beating, and the company will provide better customer service and maintenance than the other much cheaper off-brands available out there.

    An Arri kit is just a useful tool to have on any set and you may find yourself reaching for these lights more than you think.

    They come in varying sizes and powers, but I recommend something with 1K, 650, 300, and 150 watt fixtures. This will give you a great selection for situations that may come up.

    Plus, none of them will blow any fuses when used individually on a normal house circuit.

    Fluorescent

    A usually tubular electric lamp having a coating of fluorescent material on its inner surface and containing mercury vapor whose bombardment by electrons from the cathode provides ultraviolet light which causes the material to emit visible light.

    Merriam-Webster Dictionary

    Fluorescent lights gained popularity in the film industry thanks to a company called Kino Flo.

    Kino Flo was a pioneer in the color accurate fluorescent lighting space and still remains to be the top player in the industry thanks to their TruMatch technology.

    Fluorescent tubes offer a different light quality than tungsten, simply because of the form factor of the tubes.

    Fluorescent tubes are long even light sources that, when used in an array of two or four tubes, creates a very even and soft light.

    Fluorescent fixtures typically come with a corrogated plastic housing that also acts as barndoors, a ball-mount yoke that allows the operator to maneuver the lights into tight spaces, a louvre to make the light more directional, a gel frame to add diffusion or colored gels, a ballast to power the tubes, and head cables to allow the fixture to be up high and have the ballast down below to be operated from the ground.

    Benefits of Fluorescent Lighting

    • Low heat. The heat that is put out by fluorescent fixtures is very minimal. They can be placed right next to an actor with little discomfort. Though, if you have a room filled with dozens of fluorescent fixtures there will be some warmth.
    • Low power draw. Fluorescent lighting is relatively power efficient. A standard 4-bank fixture is roughly equivalent to a 1000 watt tungsten soft light but uses half about half of the power.
    • Soft light quality. The nature of the tubes being used in an array such as a 4-bank fixture creates a large, evenly lit surface that, when brought close to the subject, creates a very nice soft light.
    • Multiple color temperature options. Kino Flo has developed tubes in a wide range of colors and color temperatures. This allows you to match different sources of light without losing stops due to gels.
    • Sub-out practicals. The tubes can be used inside practical fluorescent fixtures inside office buildings or parking garages. Large projects have been known to swap out all of the tubes on a floor of a building in order to create consistent, color accurate light for a film.

    Negatives of Fluorescent Lighting

    • Inconsistent Color. Because of the way the fluorescent tubes work, there can be problems with inconsistencies between older tubes. In my experience, tubes need to be changed regularly or there will be a magenta shift.
    • Big falloff. Because the fixtures are naturally soft light sources, there is a large falloff of light. (This can be a positive or a negative depending on the situation)
    • Tubes, tubes, and more tubes. Because the system requires you to change out tubes in order to get different color temperatures, that means you need to carry with you an assortment of tubes for each of the fixtures. As you can imagine, this can take up quite a bit of space if you have a large number of fixtures and a large number of color temperatures that you require.
    • More fragile. Though the fixtures are pretty robust, and Kino Flo has managed to create plastic covers to protect each of the tubes, the fixtures are still less robust than others out there. The wire inside the housing that allows you to shape the barndoors tends to break, leaving you with floppy barndoors.

    My Recommendation: The Kino Flo Gaffer Kit

    A gaffer kit is a staple on film sets. It includes two 4×4 fixtures in one solid rolling case with all of the accessories, plus daylight and tungsten tubes.

    It is a large kit, but can fit in most hatchbacks or SUVs. We have even loaded them into small sedans by putting the back seat down and feeding it through the trunk.

    Kinos are great key lights or fill lights. Their lower power draw is great for indie filmmakers who are primarily using house power.

    Because they are so light weight, they can easily be rigged overhead or armed out on a c-stand or menace arm.

    HMI Lighting

    An HMI (Hydrargyrum Medium-Arc Iodide) is a type of light which uses an arc lamp instead of an incandescent bulb to produce light.

    Media College

    HMIs have only been around since the late-60s, but ever since their introduction they have been a staple on movie sets.

    HMI lights typically have a natural color temperature of about 6,000-6,500K combined with a light efficiency of 2-5 times that of tungsten fixtures.

    HMIs come in double ended or single ended bulbs, which allow for the use of parabolic reflectors that can create a tremendous amount of extremely bright directional light.

    Because of this, they are a great supplement to or replacement for sun light.

    HMI lights typically come with a fixture that has a UV protective glass front, a yoke to position the light on a stand, barndoors to shape the light, a lens set to offer different light spreads, a ballast to power the bulb, and a head cable to run power to the fixture at a large distance from the ballast.

    Benefits of HMI Lighting

    • High output. The amount of light that you can get out of an HMI fixture is incredible when considering the power draw. They really do rival sunlight and can be blasted through windows in the dead of night to shoot daytime scenes.
    • Daylight balanced. Because the fixtures are already near 5600K, they do not need to use gels in order to match daylight, and thus, don't lose a stop of light like tungsten fixtures do.
    • Single directional light source. HMI bulbs are suitable for Par type fixtures, which means the light can be extremely directional. This is ideal for shaping light and using various modifiers to create shadows and other effects.

    Negatives of HMI Lighting

    • Big and heavy. HMI fixtures are big and the ballasts are heavy. The larger output of light, the bigger the fixture and ballast are. In some instances they lights and ballsts require wheeled dollies to move around because they are so large and heavy.
    • Noisy. Older magnetic ballasts are relatively noise free and in many situations, this is fine. But when utilizing various framerates, HMIs flicker due to the pulsing nature of the arced electricity. To combat this, HMI manufacturers developed electronic ballasts that have a "flicker free" mode that can be turned on to eliminate the flicker effect. It does, however, introduce an annoying noise that could be troublesome for your sound person.
    • High price point. HMIs can be very expensive. Price increases dramatically as the wattage increases, so a 200w HMI will cost much less than a 1200w HMI, but typically the higher wattage fixtures are the more desireable.

    My Recommendation: The K5600 Joker Bug 1600

    Some people reading this may be surprised that I’m recommending the Joker over the Arri M18.

    Both are great lights, and the M18 has become an industry standard fixture that does provide 200 extra watts.

    But, because this blog is geared toward indie filmmakers, the Joker Bug 1600 is more versatile, cheaper by several thousand dollars, and more manageable for a smaller crew while still providing great output on a standard 20A house circuit.

    Plasma Lighting

    Plasma lamps are a type of electrodeless gas-discharge lamp energized by radio frequency (RF) power.

    Wikipedia

    Plasma lighting in film has been popularized by a company called Hive Lighting which has been the main manufacturer for plasma lights in the industry.

    Despite the fixtures being roughly 2x more efficient than HMIs, they still haven’t gained popularity and aren’t considered “industry standard”.

    The fixtures typically come with barndoors to shape the light, lens sets to alter the light spread, a ballast to power the lights, and a head cable to run the light away from the ballast.

    The Benefits of Plasma Lighting

    • Energy efficient. 275w Plasma light can replace a 575w HMI and a 1600w plasma light can replace a 4K HMI.
    • Daylight balanced. Plasma lights are similar to HMIs in that they run at about 6,000K color temperature.
    • Long bulb life. Plasma bulbs have a 50,000 hour lifespan, so short of direct damage, you probably won't have to replace the bulbs
    • Internal ballast. The newer versions of the plasma lights have ballasts built into the head, which decreases the size of the overall package.
    • High-speed flicker-free. Plasma lights can be used at up to 10,000,000 fps without flicker!

    The Negatives of Plasma Lighting

    • Multiple heads. The higher wattage fixtures come in a multi-head configuration similar to a 9-light fay. This creates a different light quality and causes multiple shadows when used without modifiers.
    • Big sizes. Like HMIs, the lights are larger and heavier than other varieties, and again the size is relative to the output.
    • Not dimmable. Similar to HMIs, you can't really dim plasma lights. That means you are limited to utilizing scrims or diffusion and ND gels to decrease the light output.
    • High price point. Though plasmas are less expensive than HMIs, they are still at a price point that is high enough to deter independent filmmakers from ownership.

    My Recommendation: The Hive Plasma Par 1000

    The Plasma Par 1000 by Hive Lighting provides more light output than an 2500 watt HMI in a smaller package and at a lower price point.

    Because of it’s contained form factor, it will be easier for an indie film crew to manage and operate without a huge team and massive generators.

    Since the light only draws 1000 watts, a crew could potentially use more than one fixture on a single 30A circuit that is often found in garages of homes.

    LED Lighting

    LED stands for "Light-Emitting Diode." An LED is an electronic device that emits light when an electrical current is passed through it.

    Tech Terms

    LED lighting has skyrocketed in popularity in the past couple years. It had a rocky start in the industry with a quick flood of cheaply made fixtures with poor color and build quality.

    Now, the main lighting manufacturers such as Arri, Kino Flo, and Mole Richardson have all jumped on the LED bandwagon to produce fixtures that are now found on almost every movie set.

    LEDs are different than any other lighting type found here in that there are dozens of variations.

    LEDs come in fresnels, flat panels, pars, tubes, flexible light mats, and strips.

    They also have the ability to mix colors, making huge white light ranges from 1300K to 10,000K plus full spectrum RGB options.

    This all comes with its own challenges and drawbacks, but gives indie filmmakers smaller, lighter, and cheaper options to create interesting lighting.

    The Benefits of LED Lighting

    • Low heat. LED lights are cool to the touch, unlike tungsten or HMI fixtures that get extremely warm and require gloves to operate.
    • Energy efficient. LEDs are more efficient than tungsten and fluorescents and can provide greater output per watt or amp. Some LED fixtures can replace HMIs and easily be powered off standard 20A house power circuits.
    • Battery operation. Because of the low power draw from these lights, it is often times possible to power them with batteries.
    • Colors galore! Having the ability to dial in any color without using gels or swapping out tubes saves a ton of time during production and a ton of space in the truck
    • Gel presets. Manufacturers are now partnering with gel companies like Rosco and Lee to provide a familiar color system in LED lights. So, if you are a DP who loves to use LEE Filters 176 Loving Amber gels to warm skintones, you can now dial that in on fixtures that license gel packs from these companies.
    • Effects. Many lights come equipped with a selection of special effects such as police lights, fire flicker, lightning, and party strobes.
    • Light weight. LEDs come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from flat mats that can roll up or be taped to ceilings to large HMI replacing brutes. This makes them incredible versatile for indie filmmakers.
    • Wireless operation. Many of the manufacturers are including WiFi or Bluetooth operation that makes the fixtures operable via wireless DMX or custom phone apps.

    The Negatives of LED Lighting

    • Noisy fans. In order to keep the LEDs cool and fixtures lightweight, manufacturers have included fans in many models. They do the trick to keep the LEDs cool, but can sometimes introduce noise that may be a sound issue in some scenarios.
    • Multiple shadows. The popular 1x1 panels and other similar LED array-type fixtures can be very bright, but produce multiple shadows that can make shaping the light difficult.
    • Inconsistent color. Because these LEDs now mix colors, there is an extreme inconsistency in color quality and temperatures between manufacturers. Meaning, an Arri LED light set to 3200K will probably not match a Kino Flo LED light set to 3200K. This is because each manufacturer mixes lights differently and uses different technology to try to get to the same place. This can mean that some fixtures will shift toward magenta or green, and others can be off the mark by a few 100 degrees kelvin.

    My Recommendation: Westcott Flex Cine RGBW

    Westcott has created flexible light mats that have full RGBW control and have a wide assortment of options available to increase the usability of the lights.

    They produce a Kino-style housing that can turn the fixtures into flat panel Kino-style lights

    There are a number of yokes that can be used to combine units into larger fixtures or hang from grids.

    The flex panels themselves have built in magnets to stick to surfaces and are light enough that you can simply tape them to walls, poles, or ceilings. In tight spaces like elevators, they simply can’t be beat.

    They can be operated via a control box, DMX, or a phone app.

    Bonus Recommendation: Hive Wasp 100-C

    Hive Lighting is also known for their plasma lights, but they have developed a line of LED lights that are different than many others.

    The Hive Wasp line of lights have created a single-source LED fixture that can use par reflectors, be put in soft boxes or china balls, use a fresnel or leko lens, or be used open without any modifiers.

    The shape of it was built to use Profoto brand accessories, which opens it up to hundreds of modifiers.

    They are small and light and can be operated via the dials on the back of the fixture, DMX, or a phone app.

    Summary

    It’s pretty apparent that no one type of lighting beats the rest. Each has its own drawbacks and benefits that are often situation dependent. 

    That’s why when you see film shoots happening around LA, there will be lines of massive trucks holding dozens of each kind of light.

    It’s equivalent to having a toolbox filled with different tools, because you never know exactly what problem will arise and what tool you need to fix it.

    What’s your preferred lighting setup? Let me know in the comments.

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    Alex Darke

    Alex Darke

    Alex is an Emmy-nominated filmmaker located in Los Angeles, who has spent the past 7 years working with the legendary broadcaster Larry King and shooting thousands of episodes of television as a camera operator and director of photography. He owns the motion picture production company Gilded Cinema and co-hosts the No-Budget Filmmaking Podcast.

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