Learning from the big & small screen

They say that practice makes perfect, and that’s certainly true when it comes to learning how to shoot creatively and effectively in low light situations. The reality, though, is that you’re not always going to easily find yourself in a situation where you have a suitable location, a willing subject, and sufficient time – save, perhaps, organising practice shoots with friends or family where you can push the limits of what you think you know.  However those times where you’re not shooting need not be times where you’re not learning how to deal with low light or indeed bad light.

So if you’re not shooting, how do you learn? One idea is to study images you like that are likely to have been lit by the photographer, and to try to reverse engineer the lighting. That’s something I do all the time, and we’ll discuss that in a subsequent post in some depth.  However it can come with a downside. It’s only natural that you’re drawn to images that you aspire to shoot. Equally it’s only natural that photographers will show their most creative shots. Taken together, these two realities mean as you deconstruct these shots, it is possible you fall into the trap of learning how to create those shots, but in a way that actually teaches you very little. If your aim is to light for creative purposes, you’ll likely be satisfied by this, but as I pointed out in my previous post, it’s more challenging (and educational) to learn to light for problem solving purposes and let that subsequently feed your creativity. So with that aim in mind, I suggest you sit down and watch a film or a television programme. While a photographer’s portfolio will tend to showcase their most creative work, a film or TV show is full of lighting of the problem solving variety. Figure that out, and you’re well on your way to working such solutions into your own photography.

By way of an example, I’ll talk through a few frames I’ve screen captured from a film I watched recently on a flight – Murder on the Orient Express. Why that one? Because I was struck by the lighting in it from the moment I started watching it. It helps, too, that there are a few behind the scenes clips to be found that help understand the problems and solutions that arose during the shoot.

I should mention that I watch plenty of TV in a normal manner like normal people! But what you will find if you do this exercise is that you become more and more aware of the lighting across all sorts of situations. And while that may be a little odd, I don’t think that’s a bad thing!

Deconstructing a scene in Murder on the Orient Express

One of the unusual aspects of this film is that the vast majority of it is set on a train (the clue is in the name), so much of it is filmed in tight quarters. The scene I’m looking at here takes place in the corridor outside the compartments in a carriage, and occurs at night.

Ok, let’s pause for a moment. In all likelihood this isn’t filmed at night, but it looks as if it is. Why? The base level of light, coming in the carriage windows at camera left, is cool blue, relatively muted, and that gives a level of fill to the corridor. And clearly our brains associate that cool blue muted light with night time. Straight away we’ve learnt something useful, and should we need to augment or even create dusk or moon light, we now have a trick up our sleeves. By the way, that trick doesn’t require an actual blue light source, but we’ll get to that in a future post.

That’s one light source, and it has a function. Are there others? There are definitely two more that we can identify. The easy one is the light on Johnny Depp’s face – it’s coming from camera right, and we’ll come back to that one. That’s the main or key light. It gives us a visual clue about what we should be looking at. The other light source that we can identify is a hair light that’s also providing some rim light to separate the right shoulder of his dark suit from the dark background. This light is actually really important to ensure that the subject stands out clearly from the background, and to define his shape. It looks to be coming from high and behind him (presumably out of frame at top left). So if you need to separate, say, a groom from a dark background, that’s one possible solution. Note, that need not mean you have to go and stick a flash high up behind him.  It may just be that you use, say, an existing ceiling light and position the groom such that it is in that hair light position. So now we’ve learned two things.

What about that main light? Well, let’s screen grab a frame once the camera has zoomed in.

Well this is more informative. The main light appears to be coming from that wall light we can see on the right, and the hair light we mentioned looks like it’s from another spot light of some sort on a wall at the end of the carriage. But I’m going to bet that neither is actually the light source. The lighting director here has used something that is really really important to lighting scenes in a convincing and “natural” way – and it’s the concept of motivated lighting. It’s one of the most important things you can learn about light in my opinion, especially for any environmental portraits.

Motivated lighting – A lighting style in which the light sources imitate existing sources, such as lamps or windows

If you’re ever trying to light a scene, and don’t know where to start with places to put the light, motivated lighting is your answer. Light the scene by being influenced by the existing sources in the scene. That’s what the lighting director has done here – the location of Johnny Depp along that corridor, and where his chat with Michelle Pfeiffer happens, has been chosen specifically to be next to that wall light, so that to the viewer it will look like he is being lit by that light, but in reality he is being lit (perhaps primarily, or additionally) by another source out of frame – this source is perhaps a bit bigger (note the fall off from highlight to shadow is a little soft) and from much the same direction. How do I know? Well you can make out two catch lights in his left eye, only one of which can be the wall light, so there’s another light source off to camera right. In reality, the two together are probably doing the lighting.

In that scene we’re looking over Michelle Pfeiffer’s shoulder. Now we cut to the view over Johnny Depp’s shoulder to see Michelle Pfeiffer:

At first glance the lighting is the same here, but look at the shadows on her face. That wall light – the motivated light, if you like – is from her right, but the shadows are on her right, so the main light on her is from her left. This is relatively soft light. And it’s probably not that far out of the frame, so the shot is tightly composed to keep that light source close, and therefore soft. The closer a subject is to the light, the softer that light is on the subject, because the bigger the light source appears to be. Don’t worry – that’s something we’ll come back to again and again.

There’s no obvious hair light here either, but there is still separation. This time, instead of a light from behind on Michelle, the background behind her has a highlight, and that helps create separation. So now that’s another way of separating a subject from the background – light the background. Again this need not be an added light – you might find a natural highlight in a scene in which to frame your subject.

By the way in the screen grab above, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is no light falling on Michelle from that wall light, and if the side of it we can’t see has been taped up or blocked in some way to keep the light from falling on her. Just because you can see a light in the frame doesn’t mean it is lighting what you’d think it’s lighting.

The key to this scene though is that wall light, and the use of motivated light to visually explain to the viewer why they can see some light on the actor’s faces, and to explain it in a way that makes sense and raises no further questions. The lighting director is trying to light the scene in a way that doesn’t look lit. That’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s a great thing to aspire to.

Now take a minute (literally) to watch the scene, paying attention to the lighting, and see if you agree with my assessment:

If you found that a useful exercise, there are lots of other clips from the film you can find online (or download the whole thing and watch it start to finish – it’s not a bad film, and it does look visually very good) or indeed you can do the same with any other film or TV programme.

I’ll leave you with a few other screen grabs and a few brief observations on them.

This is a behind the scenes shot where you can see how they’ve emulated window light – a big strip box outside the window is lighting Judi Dench as you’d expect a window to. More motivated lighting.

Looking in through a window at Kenneth Brannagh, he appears to be lit from that table lamp. However look closely and you’ll see the angle is wrong, and the colour is off too.

Lighting an outdoor scene at night must be tricky, so in this setup shot you see a big bank of large light sources suspended from a crane. The motivation for those being in that position is most likely the street lamps you can see, which are most likely kept in the frame for the final shot, again to help explain the light to the viewer before they question it.

Here’s one of those big light sources from the previous shot, but now mounted just above the camera. The camera and the subject will move, so I guess this is a practical way of moving the light with them. I suspect in the film this light looks more subtle, than the setup shot makes it out to be, but you can see it’s fairly muted here as it is. Note also the headlights on the train behind him, most likely to give some separation again.

Hopefully that’s inspired you to start reverse engineering the lighting the next time you’re watching TV, and as you figure out how lighting directors solve practical problems you can add those solutions to your own bag of tricks for when you find yourself needing to add light.

If you know of other TV shows or films with effective or distinctive or even really subtle lighting, I’d love to know what they are so I can go check them out too.