Testing the theory

In my last post, I reverse engineered a scene from Murder on the Orient Express to try to “guesstimate” the lighting. Obviously the natural thing to do then is to build the scene from Duplo, light it according to the theory, and see if I can recreate the shot. I mean, who wouldn’t do that…. that’s normal right? Right? In my defence, it was a pretty informative exercise and logistically a lot easier than sourcing a train carriage and Johnny Depp.  Instead I had all the Duplo blocks I could find and one of my daughter’s dolls.  As well as allowing me play with Duplo, what the exercise did facilitate though is examining the impact of each light on the scene and that’s where the educational element comes to the fore.

So let’s walk through it.

The set

As it turned out, it took far longer to get “the set” right than it did to subsequently light it. I won’t walk you through the set building exercise but here is a pull back shots to show you the structure.

Let’s remember what shot I’m setting out to create here… well, there are two actually that I examined in the original post, but we’ll start with the wider shot:

My substitute for that wall light, which (you might recall) motivated the lighting on Johnny Depp, is a single bulb from a small battery powered set of Christmas lights that I bought last winter for some experiments with night time shots – we’ll return to that idea at some stage, I’m sure.

Do you see the yellow bulb in that setup shot?  That’s my equivalent of the wall light that’s supposed to motivate everything else in terms of the lighting in the screen grab.  It’s a single bulb from a small cheap battery-powered set of Christmas lights that I bought last winter for some experiments with night time shots – we’ll return to that idea at some stage, I’m sure. But because it’s a really cheap set of light bulbs, and because all 30 of them run off 2 batteries, not only can I not adjust the power of them, but they’re really not very bright at all.  The first point (not being able to adjust the power) means I have to set my camera exposure for that light. The second point (them not being bright) means I ended up at quite a high ISO.

Setting the camera exposure

Let’s talk about the camera exposure so, and in particular the decision making process.  There are three variables I have control over – aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. The order in which you adjust them, and what dictates those adjustments, will vary from shot to shot.  But for this particular shot I set them in the following order:

  • Aperture – I wanted some depth of field to this scene, particularly given I was shooting a small object from quite close, so if I shot it wide open there’d have been extremely little in focus.  I’d have preferred to shoot it at f/11 but as you’ll see the light from the bulb was just too dark, so I quickly settled on an aperture of f/5.6.
  • Shutter speed – I’m not really too bothered by what this is, as long as I can handhold it (using a tripod for this wouldn’t have allowed me get the camera as close as I needed to).  I also know that given all I’m trying to do right now is get a good exposure for the light bulb, very little else is going to register in the frame without flash, so effectively the shutter speed for the rest of the frame will be the flash duration (in terms of things suffering from camera shake or not).  So I went with 1/30s – shooting with a 35mm lens and a static subject, that’s just about hand holdable for me.
  • ISO – with the other two set, this ends up being what it needs to be.  In this case, ISO 2000, which is higher than I’d have liked, but to bring it down I’d have had to go slower than 1/30s or wider than f/5.6 or both.  And I wasn’t willing to compromise further on those.

That last point, actually, is one that you run into again and again when shooting in low light, and is probably the first thing to take away from this exercise.  As much as you might like to shoot everything at f/8, 1/500s, ISO 200, when the light levels are low, something’s gotta give.  In fact, like here, often everything’s gotta give!

My test shot for this is actually a tight composition so it’s not as good a test shot as it could have been, but observe that at the exposure outlined – 1/30s, ISO 2000, f/5.6 – that yellow bulb registers in the frame.  Very little else does. (Note I had the room as dark as I could get it).

Added Light #1 – Creating night time

When I reverse engineered the screen grab, the first light I identified was a light source that was conveying the feeling of night time.  That was a light outside the train windows that cast a blue light in through the windows.  Partly because of the miniature aspect to my set, and partly because my set wasn’t enclosed, this light actually proved harder for me to get right than it would have had in real life – I had to deal with more spill than a life size set would have to contend with – but in the end I got close.  I ended up with a flash, with a blue gel on it to shift the colour from white to blue, and a grid to control spill.  Don’t worry if those terms are foreign to you, I’ll deal with gels and grids in much more detail in subsequent posts. Suffice to say for now that the gel changes the colour of the light, and the grid controls the spill (i.e. where it falls).

The light itself is just to my left, outside the set, and effectively pointed to skim across the outside of the wall of windows I’ve built as the camera-left side of the set.

Here’s a shot showing just that light:

There’s an unintended consequence to this light – it gives a blue rim light on the doll camera-left side.  That actually helps with separation.  And in hindsight perhaps some of the separation light on Johnny Depp in the screengrab is for a similar reason.

With the doll in place here, you can see the yellow light bulb is contributing a tiny amount of light to the subject, and creates a catch light in the eye.  I moved the doll and the bulb around a bit for composition purposes so ended up with the bulb further away so it didn’t block the camera’s view, but this frame above is more indicative of the placement of the wall light in the original screen grab.  So my contention that there are two catch lights and two light sources on Johnny Depp’s face looks like it holds up.

Added light #2 – Separation light

I knew pretty early on that I was going to struggle with one thing – the small working distances was going to make the spread of light from my flashes really hard to control.  So when it came to adding a separation light high behind the doll much as I reckoned there was one in the movie, instead of using flash I actually used the light on my iPhone.  Why? Because it’s a small source and would light less of the scene without me jumping through hoops.  I couldn’t control its output level, but I could control the effective exposure of it by moving it forward and back.

So the second added light to give that hair light (albeit on the dolls hat!) is my phone clamped high above and slightly behind the doll.

Turning that light on too, then, we get the following (this is from the tighter composition, but you get the idea):

Note that phone light actually causes a little light to bounce back from the red “wall” and give a tiny bit of light on the dolls face. I’ve moved the yellow bulb back here, so without that bounce the face would have no light.

Two down, one to go…

Added light #3 – Main light

Now for the motivated light – the one that’s supposed to look to the viewer like it’s from the wall light/yellow bulb.  In reality I didn’t nail this, primarily because the wall light is not itself convincing and is too dim, but also because I had a general colour issue due to my supply of Duplo being mainly red, which gave me a general red cast.  To try to counter that I warmed up the main light so that it was actually warmer than the yellow bulb, so my main light ends up being less convincing as a motivated light than the lighting director managed in the film.

Where I fail in the colour, though, I do well with the quality of the light.  Rather than use a mini soft box, I placed a flash outside the set at camera right, and fired it through a folded A4 sheet of white paper outside a gap in the wall along the camera right side of the set, to mimic the door to a train carriage.  The white sheet of paper illuminates and acts like (relative to the doll) a giant soft box to give me the soft light I desire.  I gelled it with an orange gel to warm it up.

Here’s what that main light looks on its own with the other two added lights turned off:

Note the catch light in the eyes showing where that light is coming from, even if it wasn’t obvious from the shadows.

Putting it all together

For each of those lights, the power adjustments are done one light at a time (or the placement, in the case of the iPhone light) and that’s generally how I will always approach a multi-light setup.  That allows you see exactly what each light is and (just as importantly) isn’t, lighting.

Switching all lights on at the same time we can see the net effect in the tight shot and the wide shot.  And for the sake of comparison, let’s compare them to the screengrabs I was trying to recreate.


It’s not a bad recreation for a Duplo set built quickly on my kitchen table and lit with two flashes, a phone, some christmas lights, and a sheet of paper.  A lot cheaper than the film too, I bet!

Finally, here’s the pull back setup shot showing all three lights. To recap, on the lower left of this image we have the scene setting light “creating” night time.  You can see the blue gel over the flash.  At the top of the frame you can see my phone with its light turned on, high above and slightly behind the doll.  And in the centre of the image is the main light – a flash gelled orange firing through a folded A4 sheet of paper which turns into a (relative to the doll) huge softbox.

Funnily enough that’s actually the most complex light setup I’ve covered on this blog so far.  And I don’t want to run before we walk, so we’ll be returning to a one light setup in a couple of weeks. But before that I need to talk a little about gear. What I use, and (from a lighting perspective) why I use it.  That’s up next.

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