Lighting for film is critical, not only for exposure but also to create a mood that best tells your story. In low-budget filmmaking, you may not be able to afford all the fancy lighting tools out there—a basic Arri kit can cost you close to $2,000 to purchase. So how do you go about lighting your small project effectively and artistically on a shoestring budget?
Before you even think about how to light, take the time to learn what your camera is capable of doing. Most low-budget filmmakers are now using HDSLR cameras such as the Canon 7D or the Blackmagic Cinema cameras which offer great picture quality at a relatively low cost. These cameras allow you to change all sorts of settings—F-stop, shutter speed, ISO, and even color schemes. Take some time to play around with these settings and see what your particular camera can do for you.
Camera tests are an essential part of preparing for your motion picture. Each camera will give you different looks and results in various lighting situations, so learn what yours will do. This is a time-consuming process, but one that will pay off in the end. Set up a subject with a specific lighting setup—say a woman sitting with a bare bulb lighting her face from the side—and then record multiple shots changing each setting one at a time. For instance, see the differences between ISO 100 and ISO 200 with the F-stop and shutter speed constant. Once you have a clear understanding of how your camera reacts to different sources of light, you can better plan for the needs of your movie.
Tech Scout Your Locations
During pre-production, take your camera to each location and shoot some test footage. If you are filming indoors, look at what sources of light you have—windows, overhead fluorescents, tungsten bulbs. Where is the light coming from? Do you have control over the sources of light? If you have access to your own lighting equipment, are there convenient electrical outlets? Is this interior location practical for setting up lights, or will you face problems such as harsh shadows, low ceilings, or intense heat given off by your lights?
Similarly, if you need to shoot outdoors, there are certain things you need to look for. What is the direction of the path of the sun and what shadows does it throw? What times are sunrise and sunset? What will natural lighting look like in various weather conditions such as a sunny day as opposed to an overcast one? What additional equipment might you need to compensate for the conditions natural light may give you?
When planning shots that take place outdoor, think about how long a scene will take to film because you will have constantly changing lighting conditions such as the direction of the sun and length of shadows. Do your wide shots first and then you can move in for your close-ups, where you can cheat your angles and have more control over lighting.
A good light meter may cost in the neighborhood of $400, but it may be the best investment for a limited budget. Due to digital cinematography, many filmmakers now rely on their monitors, either the ones that reside on the camera body or an external one the director uses. It’s easy to just see what’s being filmed and be satisfied. The problem is that each monitor is different and may not give you a true image. You’ll get back into the editing room and discover problems that you didn’t see before, such as digital artifacts in low exposure regions of the frame.
A good cinematographer will always have a light meter in hand. This is a critical tool that will not only tell you the proper F-stop to use in conjunction with the other camera settings, but it will give you readings that may change. An actor may need to walk in and out of the throw of various lights, which changes the reading on him. Sun may go behind clouds and then peek out again, changing the lighting conditions drastically. By using a light meter, you can see exactly what readings you are getting at all times and do not have to rely on guesswork or inaccurate monitors.
No matter if you’re shooting indoors or outdoors, you’re going to have light coming from directions you may not want. For instance, an actor’s face may be obscured due to where the sun is currently positioned, or overhead lights may cause an actor’s eyes to disappear thanks to long shadows raking down his face. To compensate for this, use a white board or reflector—a simple poster board from the dollar store can suffice—to bounce the light from the source onto the subject. You may not be able to see much difference with your eye, but your camera will pick up the subtleties. This will really be noticeable if your subject is backlit.
During your tech scout, you may see opportunities to use existing lighting to your advantage. Let’s say you’re shooting a horror film, but don’t have the resources to create the moody lighting that you want. Are there windows in your location? Set the camera’s white balance to tungsten and then change the exposure so that the location is slightly underexposed. The actors will then appear to be in a darkened room, but eerie blue overexposed sunlight will flood in through the windows. Can candlelight or flashlights be used for illumination? You can also place lamps at various spots in the shot that will illuminate the actors to great effect. What lights can actually be in the scene that can also be used to get the exposure you need?
Sometimes the simplest lighting setups can be the most effective. Your story will dictate what mood you need, so think in terms of how you can create that mood. A pool of light created by a work light in a garage, for instance, might provide that artistic touch that overhead fluorescents won’t allow. Staging your scene at dusk, while shortening your production time greatly, may give your film that Magic Hour quality that is very artistic.
Each movie is different and has unique needs. Go through your script and determine what types of lighting are necessary to effectively tell your story. Then assess reality—research your locations and see what you have to work with, determine what additional equipment you may need and can afford, and figure out how your camera can best provide you the photographic effect you need. By doing so, you don’t need to spend a fortune, but will still end up with quality cinematography.