Borrowing a Lighting Technique From Videographers

Compared to still photographers, videographers (and cinematographers) often light things in totally different ways. While still photographers often think about lighting the subject, cine and video shooters often think about lighting an area for the subject to move around within. This makes sense to me because cine and video shooters have to deal with a moving subject while still photographers are looking to capture a frozen moment in time.

But, I’ve been on enough video (and cine) shoots to know that lighting designers on those sets use the still photographer’s technique of lighting the subject when the subject of the shot is static or when the talent hits a spot and delivers his (or her) lines and expressions from that specific spot. I’ve watched a gaffer on a film set use 15 (or more!) little inky spots to highlight each detail on a beautiful banquet table that the camera was only going to dolly past. And, I’ve watched assistant camera operators put tape marks on the floor for the talent to hit and then watched as the gaffers lit a same sized stand-in to still photographer perfection while the stand-in was standing on the tape mark.

So the question then becomes: If cine and video shooters adopt still shooter’s techniques when they are applicable to their subjects, why shouldn’t still photographers adopt cine and video shooter’s techniques when they are applicable to the still shooter’s subjects? Why not exactly!

As a matter of fact, when I shoot a formal portrait I light the subject (see the family portrait and the girl in the piano immediately below), but whenever I light a scene to record my subject’s action (i.e. people on a dance floor or a couple during their wedding ceremony) I no longer try to light them but instead, I light the area they are in. Because I’m trying to freeze a moment, this second style of lighting is not perfect 100 percent of the time because sometimes an individual subject might have a misplaced shadow falling across their face but I think it’s a fair trade off because I can capture the raw emotion of the moment without having to interject myself into what’s happening. Who likes a photographer that stops the fun to get his (or her) picture anyway?

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To be totally transparent with you, I’ve even developed a hybrid lighting style that incorporates both of the lighting techniques I described above. In it, I use my flash on camera as a weak fill light, a second flash unit on a pole held by my assistant as my main light on my primary subject, and one or two AC powered flash units along the room’s perimeter to light the entire area or add highlights to my primary subjects. I have even started to refer to these AC powered lights as my “room lights” and their job is to light the entire area that my subjects are in – just like the cine and video guys do! By throttling down the power of the AC powered room lights, and making sure the flash on the pole held by my assistant is the strongest of all the flash units I’m using, I can get my primary subject to look more three-dimensional and appear to “pop off the page” and my resulting pictures don’t have that “flash in the face/dark background” look the guests get with their little digital cameras. Did I mention that I use Pocket Wizard radio slaves instead of light actuated slaves? That way, none of the guests with their little digi-cams can steal the lighting I’ve worked so hard to create! I’m often told by my clients that my pictures probably look so good because my camera is better than those their guests use, but in reality I know it’s not that I am using a better camera but better lighting instead. I never mention this though – I’m just happy they keep calling to offer me assignments! See the photo taken at a 13-year old girl’s birthday party immediately below.


If you are willing to try this more advanced lighting style yourself, there are two cardinal rules I suggest you try to observe: 1. I try to position my primary room light (the stronger of the two I use) on the same side of the subjects as my assistant holding the light on a pole – that way his light and the room light cast shadows in the same direction so the lighting looks more natural, and 2. See the photo and a bird’s eye view of the ballroom and where my lights are placed to better understand what I’m talking about plus the photo of the bride sitting on a chair as her friends dance in front of her while her family and friends look on so as to understand what I’m talking about.

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When I wear my wedding photographer hat (which I wear quite often!), I shoot traditional portraits in every sense of the word and for those images I light my subject but, when I’m shooting the guests on the dance floor, I switch to the cine/video technique of lighting the area my subjects are doing their thing in instead.

For those of you that can’t imagine (or be bothered with!) using four flash units simultaneously I must point out that even adding one room light and breaking the cardinal rule of not shooting into it can result in a unique image (again, compared to the guest’s digi-cam photos). As most of the guests milled around the dance floor while the best man gave his toast, after I got my shot of him, I turned around and captured this image of a reaction shot to his toast at a tent wedding on a rainy afternoon. The tent rental company was nice enough to have run a few power lines out to the tent so the band, the caterer, and me too had some AC power available. So, up went a room light! Next, and last, here’s the same lighting style using one on camera flash and one room light but this time I didn’t get the room light flash in my frame. Although I like the second shot better, I don’t think the light in the frame on the first shot matters because both pictures “pop”!

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Till next time, take care and good shooting!

Posted on January 31, 2011 at 3:29 pm by Steve Sint · Permalink
In: Working with Flash · Tagged with: , , , , , , ,

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