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Night and Day

As I said back in Chapter 2, the better the lighting, the better your footage will look. It's true that you frequently have little or no control over lighting—when you're shooting outdoors, for example. But anything you shoot in a place with lights and electricity (even your kid's birthday party) can be improved by lighting. And even when you can't control the lighting, your end result will almost always improve if you know where your light source is and position the camera to take advantage of it.

The best situation for controlled lighting is a soundstage, like those used by TV news shows and the like. While you may never shoot on a soundstage, knowing a few lighting “rules” can help you in other situations.

On a soundstage you can place a light almost anywhere you like. When you have this kind of flexibility, you should have at least two light sources (three or four is even better). Your primary light source, sometimes called a key light, should be positioned above and slightly to one side of your camera—left or right, it's your choice. Most lighting guides suggest that the relationship between the camera, subject, and three main lights—Key, Fill, and Back—should be something like this:

Outside, the sun can often fill the role of key light, but be careful about sun or other bright light shining directly in your subjects' faces. For one thing, you risk overexposure, which can make things look faded or bleached. For another, you usually don't want your actors squinting painfully into the camera.

Soft light is your friend; harsh light is your nemesis. It is very hard to photograph well on tape in direct light. Bounce light off the walls or ceiling, reflect it off white card stock, or drape it with something, but try not to use direct lighting when you can avoid it.

Your goal should be to throw enough light on the subject to provide the camera a clear, sharp image without glare or shadows. Some of the tools you might use are fill lighting, back lighting, and background lighting.

A fill light is typically positioned on the opposite side of the camera from the key light. Its function is to eliminate shadows on the subject, such as those produced by the bill of a cap or by facial contours.

A back light is positioned behind your subject to isolate it from the background.

Background lighting shines on your background or backdrop. This is particularly useful when you have a dull, solid-colored wall as the background. Position the light below and behind your subject so that it projects up and onto the background.

Lighting is an art and I can only scratch the surface here. Mostly you'll learn by doing, but if proper video lighting interests you, there are entire books, as well as Web sites chock-full of information, discussions, and tips. You can use your favorite search engine with terms like “video production,” “movie lighting,” “key light,” “fill light,” and so on. I just tried it on Google (www.google.com), and the first page of results had half a dozen sites that looked useful.


Just in case you skipped that section of Chapter 2, “RTFM” is the commonly used acronym for “read the fine manual.” Reading the instruction manual for your camcorder is not optional. But I've found that most people just skim it. So do yourself a favor and read it from cover to cover right now. I'll wait.

If you don't understand how the features on your camera work, you can't possibly configure it for the best results, and you may (albeit accidentally) change a setting and ruin a shot.

Note that many camcorders offer “presets” that adjust several settings at once for particular conditions. For example, my Canon ZR 25 offers these six presets:

  • Auto (camera does everything automatically)

  • Sports (for clear images of fast-moving subjects)

  • Portrait (for non-moving subjects in controlled-lighting situations)

  • Spotlight (for live performances on a brightly lit stage)

  • Sand & Snow (compensates for bright background)

  • Low Light (for dimly lit scenes)

These presets are a good baseline, and many casual camcorder users never move beyond them. But if you understand the adjustments they make, you'll know how to make further adjustments manually, and you'll have much greater control over your work.

While a complete review of camcorder features is beyond this book's purview, at the very least you should know and understand the white balance, shutter speed, iris control, auto focus, and digital effects features (assuming your camera offers them).

White Balance: White-balancing your camera automatically filters out some color casts. If your camera has white-balance adjustment, read your manual and use it as instructed.

The human eye filters out color casts associated with different types of light: sunlight is typically bluish, incandescent lighting has a yellowish tinge, and fluorescent lighting has a greenish cast. You might not see the color casts, but the camera records it, so you should make it a habit to white-balance your camera before you begin rolling tape in a new environment or what you capture on tape might not look as you expect.

Shutter Speed: In a nutshell, faster speeds freeze action better but require more light; slower speeds can blur moving objects but require less light. Manually adjusting the shutter speed provides more flexibility than presets. If you have a shutter speed setting, learn how to use it.

Iris Control: The camera attempts to adjust the iris (the opening) automatically when you have both dark and light areas in a shot—dark skin with white hair or shirt, a spot-lit performer on a dark stage, a dark-haired bride in a white dress, or even if you pan from light to dark or vice versa. As the iris adjusts, the scene will darken and brighten. It looks dorky. The manual iris control lets you compensate for dark and light areas and capture cleaner footage.

Auto Focus: Most camcorders have auto focus, but I think it looks like amateur night in Dixie and I hate the whine of its little motor (which the built-in microphone sometimes picks up, by the way).

Turning off Auto Focus makes it much more challenging to pan, tilt, zoom, and perform other camera moves. In addition, you might need to keep the subject in focus manually (or not, depending on the effect you're going for).

Digital Effects: Finally, avoid using your camcorder's built-in digital effects—fade, wipe, dissolve, sepia, and all the rest. You can do the same things in iMovie, with more control and the Undo command. There's no way to undo effects created “in camera,” they're applied to the tape immediately, like it or not. So add your effects in post-production, where you can remove them at will; don't apply them in the camera, where you'll be stuck with them forever.

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