taking one frame at a time since 1999

This is an attempt to condense the information from the original massive lighting control thread on the old board, which was long and meandering and filled with a lot of non-essential info (though some of it was quite good). I want to try to just present the basics at first and then add to it in greater detail later in followup posts. I'm covering physical methods of lighting control, not electronic. I don't know much about electronic methods, so if somebody else wants to make that thread, then by all means..

The basic methods of controlling lighting are shaping, filtering, blocking and reflecting.

It's been said (and wisely) that where you place shadows is just as important as where you place light. 

So, with that in mind, let's begin..

I don't have a real plan for this thread, I'm just winging it. I guess I'll start with light control devices that are sometimes attached right to the lighting unit itself. 

This is an inexpensive type of lighting unit called a PAR unit or PAR can. It stands for Parabolic Aluminized Reflector. The light beam is shaped by the reflector built in to the back of the bulb itself, and you can buy the bulbs (commonly called lamps) in narrow (spot), medium or wide (flood) configurations through suppliers like Premiere That link goes directly to their PAR unit page with many different types. The picture above is also a link to the same page. I don't want this to be about choosing a lighting unit - that's for either another thread or maybe later in this one. Right now I'm concerned with the little doohickeys built onto the can itself that make it so versatile. 

First there's the swivel system that allows you to position it aiming just about any way you want. The yoke is the big flat piece that's jointed onto the body of the can, which lets it swivel up and down, and you attach that to the C-clamp (seen to the right) which allows side-to-side swiveling as well as letting you clamp the whole assembly onto any piece of pipe or tubing within the acceptable size range or many other objects, like a shelf or rafter. When combined, this setup allows extremely flexible positioning. 

You can also see a few color gels (filters - so called because originally I think they were made of gelatin? Not sure). The ones shown aren't very suitable for lighting a movie set though, they're basic spotlight colors that would be used in a disco or some kind of stage show like a magic act. Often when you buy a PAR can unit it comes with a few gels like these. But you can buy lighting gels as well as other kinds of filters through Grip gear suppliers like Filmtools Cinesupplies or Setshop. You can get a kit of gels plus a few other things to help you get good lighting effects through either of those links. If the links ever go down, just search the sites for Expendables and then Gels. The ones included in the kits are much more our speed - nice subtle colors like you see in real movies and stuff! 

The kits from Filmtools also include a couple of the other types of lighting control filters I want to discuss - such as Diffusion, Scrim, and Black Wrap (also called Black Foil). All of these can be cut to fit into the Gel Holder or Filter Holder on the front of the PAR can. Well ok, you generally wouldn't put black wrap in there, that has other uses - but the rest are made to fit into the gel holder, or you can rig up some kind of frame and place them wherever you want (useful if you have a different kind of light that doesn't include gel holders). 

Black Wrap is a thick flat-black aluminum foil.. similar to kitchen foil but 2 or 3 times as thick. It's great for blocking out stray spill light coming out from behind or to the side of a lighting unit. It's important not to have stray light bouncing around in the studio - it can easily cause flicker or reflect into areas where you want dark shadows. 

Here's a pic from my setup showing how I rigged a quick frame to hold a couple of gels. Probably not the best idea to cut rectangular frames like this from foamboard - as you can see I had to clamp on a couple of support struts because it folded pretty quick. But if you look closely there are some good ideas here for how to rig things in front of your lights - I bought a bunch of extra C clamps (the lighting type as well as regular hardware-store C clamps - you can never ever have too many clamps on hand!) and used them in conjunction with some good thick armature wire and some smaller clamps of various kinds. 

Another essential item to buy when you make a purchase from one of these grip suppliers is some Gaffer tape. It's a cloth tape with just the right kind and amount of adhesive - not too strong and gummy like duct tape and not too weak and slimy like electrical tape, and it doesn't tear to pieces when you're trying to remove it or become permanently stuck like masking tape. Get a couple of rolls - once you've used it you'll literally want to use it for everything. 

Ok, back to the picture above for a moment. Beside the rigged-up gel holder there's also what's called a Flag or a Cutter. That's simply a rectangular piece of opaque material - often foam board like I used - that's there to cut off the edge of a light puddle or to block light in a nice straight line. 

And of course a flag doesn't have to be rectangular - you can shape them however you want. You can cut just a little disc to place in front of a light to kill a distracting reflection that draws attention away from where you want it. Maybe dim one puppet's face a bit so the other one stands out more. That kind of stuff.

I did say I was going to jump around, didn't I? Ok, all the way back now to the PAR can unit. There's another accessory not shown in that 1st picture called Barndoors:

^ That pic is a link to a place that sells barn doors for many kinds of movie and stage lights. They're essentially flags that are attached to the lighting unit. The entire barndoor assembly can be rotated and each flap can be hinged in or out as far as you want - you can close down the beam to a thin rectangle shape if you want or just cut into it on 1 or 2 sides - lots of options. In fact one way to reduce the brightness of a light is to close down the barndoors. Another is to simply move the light farther away, or closer if you want it brighter. These are the simplest ways to control illumination. 

Next up we have Gobos. A gobo is really just like a big flag except it has shapes cut out of it so it casts little shaped beams of light. These were used a lot in old black and white horror movies - gobos can be shaped to look like windowframes, tree branches, or anything really. In fact you can get creative - you don't have to cut shapes out of foam board - you can just rig objects up to cast shadows. Just make sure you don't use anything that will melt or catch fire under the heat. Here's an example of a very complex gobo in use:

Using gobos - or anything really to break up the light and tailor it a bit - can create a nice sense of atmosphere. 

If you want sharp-edged shadows like above then you need to use either what's called a single-point light source (no reflector in it) or some kind of light with a system of lenses to create a sharply focused beam. I discovered a nice little miniature version of the expensive full-sized lighting units used in the film industry:

This is the Solux Framing Art Light - made for casting a precisely shaped rectangle of light on pictures in galleries. You can see the 4 little handles that control the internal shutters - using those you can create sharp-edged shapes like rectangles, diamonds, and all kinds of variations. Solux also sells some great daylight-balanced bulbs. This is a track light unit - I had to work on it a bit to get it to go onto my lighting grid - you can see how I did it here

Ok - back to some of the various filters. 

Diffusion is a translucent (not fully transparent) material that goes in front of a light and scatters the beam. It turns hard lights soft, and is good for filling in harsh shadows and for making rough textured surfaces look smoother. It also effectively doubles the width of the beam. These are used a lot for glamour shots - faces look smooth and pretty in soft diffused lighting.

Hard light creates hard shadows, soft light creates soft shadows. 

Scrims are like screens - what they do is block a percentage of the light passing through them. 

Here's a set specially made for a Mole-Richardson light unit. You can also get scrim material in sheets and cut it to fit into gel holders or into home-made frames and just place it in front of your lights. They come in different densities - each blocks out a different amount of light. You can layer them in front of your unit to block even more. You can also see the half-scrims, which only block half of the beam. That's a good strategy to keep in mind. By layering 2 or more half-scrims and rotating them different ways you can get all kinds of effects. 

Neutral Density Filters (ND for short) do the same thing, but instead of being made of screening they're plastic filters - they're basically neutral grey gels made at various densities. Just like the scrims you can layer them to get greater control. Personally I prefer the ND filters - the scrims can cast a distracting screen pattern unless you add some diffusion or something.

Any of these filters are available through grip suppliers like the ones listed at the top of the thread, as is black wrap. 

So far we've been discussing ways of blocking or dimming light or diffusing it. Another tool at our disposal is the humble Reflector.  

Reflected light is diffused - the beam is scattered all over the place so it tends to be a very soft light, great for filling in a dark side of a puppet or a dark corner of a set. You can just make reflectors from paper - I often fold an envelope in half and tape it to the set, angled to fill in the dark side of a puppet's face or whatever else needs a little soft light added. Frequently there are several reflectors rigged up just off camera in my shots. 

One more lighting control device I want to mention before I end this interminable first post. The Chinese Paper Lantern:

This is actually a sort of Hollywood secret weapon. I've never seen it before in any behind-the-scenes docos or anything, but cinematographers frequently use them for soft diffused fill light. Cheap, lightweight, and totally collapsible. A couple of these are great to have on hand. It's often a good idea to first light your set with hard sources and then use a couple of these to fill in shadows and lower the contrast between dark and light areas. You control how bright the illumination is by moving them closer to the set or farther from it. Since they make very soft diffused light there's no way to partially block it - think of it as a moon or something that just lights everything up kind of dimly. You could rig a tube of neutral density around the bulb if it's too bright - keep it fairly far from the bulb though so it doesn't melt or anything. Or if it has the right kind of bulb in it (incandescent) then you could hook it up to a dimmer switch to control it. 

Whew!! Ok, enough for this marathon post! I feel like I've been typing all day! I *THINK* I've hit all the major points I wanted to cover - the rest can be edited in later or added below. 

Alright - feel free to ask questions. Not promising I or anyone else can answer them all, but we'll try anyway. 

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Great thread, Strider! 

I've been meaning to upgrade my lighting set-up for ages, but there are so many options available, I find it all a bit intimidating. I don't want to end up buying lights that aren't suitable and finding I've made a costly mistake. It takes me back to feeling I had when buying a camera.

So. I hope I'm not being rebellious, but I want to talk about which lights and bulbs I want to purchase. After all, you need to get the lights first before you can attach all the extras on.

I'm hoping that if I explain what I'm planning on buying, someone might let me know if this will be suitable or if I'm making any errors. I've been searching all day and it's been a pain trying to find things all compatible. Some par cans need external transformers (wut?), some don't. Some only take certain kinds of bulbs. So many different codes and numbers.  Anyway...

Firstly, I think I'll be getting 4 PAR 16s - These ones. The description says they come with halogen bulbs, but...

I'm going for LED bulbs (GU10 fitting, so compatible with the above cans). Though I'm worried about LED brightness. These ones here are 410 lumen, which I'm not sure is very bright. I'll use the halogens if brightness is an issue. 

I also looked at gels and filters, and lighting stands. But I'm going to wait until I have my lights before I get the accessories. I might use wooden beams in the ceiling for support, as my studio is in the loft. This would remove danger of bumping the stands, which is what I do with the camera tripod far too often. 

I thought about going for a bigger can with more of a flood, but can I just create a similar effect with diffusers and reflectors? 


Hey, don't feel bad about getting onto that topic - it does need to be dealt with, and this is a good place to do it. I just didn't want to include all that in the initial post, wanted just a kind of overview there and then maybe I'll write up some more in-depth stuff down here as I see fit. 

I can mostly just talk about the kind of lights I have - which are mostly halogen PAR cans - some run on mains power some are 12 volt with built-in transformers. And the ones you mentioned that need external transformers - don't worry about needing to buy transformers - they already come attached. The nice thing about low voltage lights is you can put more of them on a single circuit without overloading it and overheating your wiring. My PAR 16 birdies are all 12 volt, with little transformers attached. And they're nice and bright - no need to worry about them being dim. Though I did once buy some discount mains-powered PAR 16's and they were dim as a failing flashlight, with a corresponding orange color cast. Weird.. 

But yeah, it can be difficult sorting through all the different kinds of connectors the bulbs use - some are screw-in like household light bulbs, some use two little pins. I guess you just need to find out what kind of connector your units use and make sure you get that kind of bulb - trust me, I went through a few days of mind torture on the Premiere Lighting website trying to figure out what kinds of bulbs I needed for the birdies I was buying! It's nice if you can get the lighting unit and bulbs from the same place and they're made to work together. 

For brightness you're best off paying attention to the Kelvin temperature. Those dimmable LEDs you linked to are 2800 degrees kelvin, though personally I don't really know much about that stuff. When I bought mine I labored through figuring out which ones are considered daylight balanced and nice and bright, but I didn't retain the memories and never took notes unfortunately. Here, let me paste this in from Wikipedia real quick - very useful info:

"Color temperatures below about 4000 K appear reddish whereas those above about 7500 K appear bluish. A colour temperature of approximately 5600 K is required to match "daylight" film emulsions. The Sun, for instance, has an effective temperature of 5778 K."

You're going to want some bigger units too for when you need to light large areas. You don't always want diffused light, and you can't always get reflectors in where you need them. Think of the birdies as little spotlights - you still need some bigger ones. 

I think it's a wise move to look into LED bulbs. Halogens have been banned (at least here in the states, not sure elsewhere yet?) and the stores still seem to have plenty in stock so far, but when they're gone they're gone. I don't know if we can expect them to last years or maybe a decade or more. But it does help that the life expectancy is hundreds of hours (for both LED and halogen)! 

I suppose I should also do a post about building a lighting grid. 

One thing I don't like is that the birdies you linked on Amazon don't have any customer comments yet. I mean that's not a deal breaker - I'm guessing they're newly listed and nobody has commented yet - hey, that might be a good thing! No complaints yet anyway. But I also looked at their 12 volt version, and it says this in cryptic websitespeak:

"uses 12v Mr16 50mm Lamptranformer Required!fitted With High Temperature,mains Cordavailable In Matt Black,or Polished Finishdimensions"

Weird - tranformer Required! With High Temperature Mains Cord.

Was this written by Japanese machines that don't have access to spellckeck and only sporadic access to a space bar? But more importantly - it does sound like the transformer isn't attached and you need to buy one separately. I guess it would be like the little transformers you get for model train sets or dollhouse lighting kits. Weird that they don't have a link to the transformers or at the very least info on what kind you need. Probably a good thing you're getting the mains powered version. I know little about transformers and the like - when I bought a dollhouse lighting kit for my sets I got one with transformer included because I couldn't figure out the choices involved.  

Ah, so maybe I should get a couple of birdies and a couple of par 36s? Or are they spots too? The bigger cans look huge, it just seems like overkill. The bulbs I linked to are 6500k which on one chart was daylight temperature, and another chart was slightly cool. 

That seller on Amazon seems a bit suspect. I probably won't purchase from there. If I need to ask them something (which is highly likely considering the amount of confusion this lighting is causing me), I'll probably get an incomprehensible answer.

I remember now why I haven't yet got my lights, as it boils my brain looking for the right ones. This needs some more research when I have more free time. I might be better going directly to lighting suppliers, rather than sellers on Amazon.

Thanks very much for your input, Strider. 

Oh, sorry - they are 6500k - don't know how I got that mixed up! 

One good thing for you and others living on that island kingdom (Queendom?) - whenever I'd go in search of PAR 16's I inevitably found many of them on UK sites - hardly any stateside. That seems to have changed a bit, or I started finding better sources over here, not sure which. But they seem to be readily available over there. 

I'd go with the bigger ones - like PAR 56. The unit itself is much bigger - it's like a big coffee can as opposed to a can of beer. But the illumination circle isn't all that much bigger as it would seem. Let's see - I'd say my PAR 16's cast a light circle about half a meter (from a distance of maybe 2 meters from the set) - while the PAR 56 casts a circle more like  meter and a half from the same distance. Just guesstimating here - I haven't actually measured it. And of course it depends on what type of bulb you get. But if you get a couple of 56's then you can put spots or floods in them to get a wide range of lighting choices. 

Another issue I ran into when ordering PAR lights - especially with the professional lighting suppliers - is that some come with regular household plugs on them and some have specialty plugs for DMX or some other systems, and some come with no plug at all and you're supposed to install your own! The better suppliers I've run across offer a choice - at least one place does (was it Musician's Friend? Not sure). They'll essentially install whatever type of plug you request. Be sure to find out what kind come on lights before ordering or you might have to cut them off and install plugs from the hardware shop. 

Heh - sorry to add to your stress level - I remember how intense it was going through all this. 

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