In this post experienced Lighting Cameraman Sean Twamley (@cameramanST) explains what he carries in his day to day lighting kit and why.
Not so long ago the standard lighting kit that cameramen had in the back of their cars was a set of ‘redheads’ or maybe something with a fresnel lens in the front, usually pumping out 600 watts of light and heat. For the bigger space you got the ‘blonde’ out, 2000 watts of light guaranteed to reduce most interviewees to a pool of sweat in twenty minutes.
Thankfully in the last few years location lighting technology has moved on at pace. The development of faster lenses and more sensitive cameras has meant the level of output doesn’t have to be so high and the move to tubes and LEDs has made lights more efficient.
You could fill several trucks with the different lights that are available for every sort of effect and situation, but I need kit that is portable, that will fit in the back of my car and will go in the hold of a plane without too much excess baggage charge. I have no room for lights that I will use a handful of times a year, each bit of kit must justify it’s existence. Every cameraman will have different lighting kit but my own has developed over the years in response to the type of work I do and the changes in technology.
The most important starting point for any lighting kit is what you’ll use to light up the subject, known as the key light. My choice is the Litepanel 1×1 daylight flood. It’s important features are that it’s daylight balanced, includes a dimmer, has a lovely soft wrap, and is very light and portable. I can power it from mains electricity or from a camera battery clipped on the back, so it can easily be used inside or outside. I used to use a Kinoflo Diva light which has a very nice soft feel, has a dimmer, but I found it a bit bulky and not very hard wearing. Another popular choice is to use the Chimera system, which is a soft box that fits on the front of most lights. LEDs are becoming very popular as they give out no heat and are very efficient. I can run this light off a Pag L95 camera battery for about two and half hours which really helps cut down setup time as you don’t have to plug in extension cables. There are now cheaper alternatives to the £1500 Litepanel, but beware that some have been known to develop issues with failing LEDs and a green spike to the colour.
I also carry three Dedo 100 watt lights. These are very controllable thanks to a revolutionary lens system that allows pin point spot to flood along with a dimmer. In an interview setup I’ll use these for backlight and putting light on the background. Because they are so controllable I can put the right amount of light in exactly the place I want it.
A useful bit of kit that goes with the Dedos is a small gobo projector. This is a lens that fits in the slot where the barn doors usually goes and is used to project patterns on a background surface. I use it a lot to put a window effect or venetian blind on the background of an interview. It’s an easy fix when you get to a location and find it’s a boring room with no interesting features to use as a background. There are hundreds of patterns available and they come on small metal discs that slot into the projector.
In a controlled environment like a sit down interview I like to work with a reliable field monitor so that I’m absolutely sure of the colours and that everything is looking the way I want it. Most cameramen used to have the Sony 9inch CRT monitor that had a great picture, but technology has advanced here as well. Due to most of my work now being in HD I have recently bought a Sony 7 and half inch OLED monitor. It is the first LED monitor I’ve seen where I’ve been impressed enough with the response to movement and good quality blacks to replace my trust CRT. Most LEDs display a lag when objects move across the screen and the blacks are often a bit milky.
My must have piece of kit that is always in my rucksack is a decent camera light. I’ve had a few over the years, but at the moment I’m using the Litepanel Mini Plus. Its a daylight LED light that fits to a small arm that screws to the camera handle. This allows the light to project over the camera mic and almost above the lens hood which avoids casting a shadow on the subject. It’s housed in a tough metal case so it withstands the knocks and has a built in dimmer. I’m a big fan of camera lights with a dimmer allowing you to turn the output right down and avoid that ‘rabbit in headlights’ you so often see from lights that are too powerful in a low light situation. The only thing I’m not keen on is that to convert the light to tungsten you slip in one of the supplied plastic filters. This feels a bit basic for a light that is at the upper end of camera lights and is certainly slower than being able to flick down a filter already attached to the light. Despite this I like the soft light that comes out the front and it has a the best spread I’ve seen from a small light source, important when you’re shooting with a wide angle lens.
The second ‘never without’ piece of lighting kit is my reflector. Its simple and cheap but it really helps lift faces in interviews and PTCs outside. Mine has white on one side useful for reflecting strong sunshine and soft gold on the other which gives a nice warming lift to faces even when the light is quite low level. Reporters, correspondents and presenters will always be your friend if you carry a reflector. I often use the reflector inside to create a bit of fill light, so I also carry an arm that attaches to a stand and holds the reflector in place.
I find that as important as adding my own light is also being able to control the light that already exists in a location. I carry a few pieces of thick black drape that I can put over windows with clips or gaffer tape to control what’s coming in from outside. Sometimes I don’t want to entirely darken a room, just control where the light is going. For instance I will often darken the area where the subject will sit so that I can control exactly what they look like, but leave the background to be lit by the light coming in from the windows.
That’s what I keep in the back of my car, but every cameraman is different and will have their own ‘must haves’. You buy what you need, what you can afford and what is the most useful.