Types of Lighting in Film

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Tl;dr - In this article, I break down some of the most common types of lighting in film that you see on nearly every set.
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Table of Contents

What are the Different Types of Lighting for Film

The film industry is no stranger to tech innovation. As such, there are hundreds of options out there when it comes to selecting lights. 

In this article, I break down some of the most common types of lighting you would see on a film set. 

Tungsten

Tungsten light refers to an artificial lighting source (like a lamp or ceiling fixture) that emits heat and produce a “warmer” or reddish colour.

Canon

Tungsten lights are the original movie lights, and are often what you imagine when you think about big Hollywood movie sets.

There are many brands of tungsten lights for film, the two main ones being Arri and Mole Richardson.

The fixtures typically come outfitted with a yoke to position the light at your intended subject, a set of barndoors to shape the light and block it from spilling where it isn’t wanted, and a set of scrims that knock down the light without the use of a dimmer.

Dimmers (aka squeezers) are limiting the electricity reaching the bulb. Because tungsten is essentially a flaming filament, dimming to lower light levels results in different color temperatures.

This effect may be desired in order to create a warmer tone in your scene, but when fluctuation in color temperature are not desired, lower light levels can be produced by placing scrims in front of the fixture.

Benefits of Tungsten Lighting

Negatives of Tungsten Lighting

Arri is an extremely popular brand of lighting and camera equipment because of the high level of detail and build quality that goes into every product.

Because of this, they are more expensive than other brands, but it’s my experience that you get what you pay for.

Arri lights will last longer, take a tougher beating, and the company will provide better customer service and maintenance than the other much cheaper off-brands available out there.

An Arri kit is just a useful tool to have on any set and you may find yourself reaching for these lights more than you think.

They come in varying sizes and powers, but I recommend something with 1K, 650, 300, and 150 watt fixtures. This will give you a great selection for situations that may come up.

Plus, none of them will blow any fuses when used individually on a normal house circuit.

Fluorescent

A usually tubular electric lamp having a coating of fluorescent material on its inner surface and containing mercury vapor whose bombardment by electrons from the cathode provides ultraviolet light which causes the material to emit visible light.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Fluorescent lights gained popularity in the film industry thanks to a company called Kino Flo.

Kino Flo was a pioneer in the color accurate fluorescent lighting space and still remains to be the top player in the industry thanks to their TruMatch technology.

Fluorescent tubes offer a different light quality than tungsten, simply because of the form factor of the tubes.

Fluorescent tubes are long even light sources that, when used in an array of two or four tubes, creates a very even and soft light.

Fluorescent fixtures typically come with a corrogated plastic housing that also acts as barndoors, a ball-mount yoke that allows the operator to maneuver the lights into tight spaces, a louvre to make the light more directional, a gel frame to add diffusion or colored gels, a ballast to power the tubes, and head cables to allow the fixture to be up high and have the ballast down below to be operated from the ground.

Benefits of Fluorescent Lighting

Negatives of Fluorescent Lighting

A gaffer kit is a staple on film sets. It includes two 4×4 fixtures in one solid rolling case with all of the accessories, plus daylight and tungsten tubes.

It is a large kit, but can fit in most hatchbacks or SUVs. We have even loaded them into small sedans by putting the back seat down and feeding it through the trunk.

Kinos are great key lights or fill lights. Their lower power draw is great for indie filmmakers who are primarily using house power.

Because they are so light weight, they can easily be rigged overhead or armed out on a c-stand or menace arm.

HMI Lighting

An HMI (Hydrargyrum Medium-Arc Iodide) is a type of light which uses an arc lamp instead of an incandescent bulb to produce light.

Media College

HMIs have only been around since the late-60s, but ever since their introduction they have been a staple on movie sets.

HMI lights typically have a natural color temperature of about 6,000-6,500K combined with a light efficiency of 2-5 times that of tungsten fixtures.

HMIs come in double ended or single ended bulbs, which allow for the use of parabolic reflectors that can create a tremendous amount of extremely bright directional light.

Because of this, they are a great supplement to or replacement for sun light.

HMI lights typically come with a fixture that has a UV protective glass front, a yoke to position the light on a stand, barndoors to shape the light, a lens set to offer different light spreads, a ballast to power the bulb, and a head cable to run power to the fixture at a large distance from the ballast.

Benefits of HMI Lighting

Negatives of HMI Lighting

Some people reading this may be surprised that I’m recommending the Joker over the Arri M18.

Both are great lights, and the M18 has become an industry standard fixture that does provide 200 extra watts.

But, because this blog is geared toward indie filmmakers, the Joker Bug 1600 is more versatile, cheaper by several thousand dollars, and more manageable for a smaller crew while still providing great output on a standard 20A house circuit.

Plasma Lighting

Plasma lamps are a type of electrodeless gas-discharge lamp energized by radio frequency (RF) power.

Wikipedia

Plasma lighting in film has been popularized by a company called Hive Lighting which has been the main manufacturer for plasma lights in the industry.

Despite the fixtures being roughly 2x more efficient than HMIs, they still haven’t gained popularity and aren’t considered “industry standard”.

The fixtures typically come with barndoors to shape the light, lens sets to alter the light spread, a ballast to power the lights, and a head cable to run the light away from the ballast.

The Benefits of Plasma Lighting

The Negatives of Plasma Lighting

The Plasma Par 1000 by Hive Lighting provides more light output than an 2500 watt HMI in a smaller package and at a lower price point.

Because of it’s contained form factor, it will be easier for an indie film crew to manage and operate without a huge team and massive generators.

Since the light only draws 1000 watts, a crew could potentially use more than one fixture on a single 30A circuit that is often found in garages of homes.

LED Lighting

LED stands for "Light-Emitting Diode." An LED is an electronic device that emits light when an electrical current is passed through it.

Tech Terms

LED lighting has skyrocketed in popularity in the past couple years. It had a rocky start in the industry with a quick flood of cheaply made fixtures with poor color and build quality.

Now, the main lighting manufacturers such as Arri, Kino Flo, and Mole Richardson have all jumped on the LED bandwagon to produce fixtures that are now found on almost every movie set.

LEDs are different than any other lighting type found here in that there are dozens of variations.

LEDs come in fresnels, flat panels, pars, tubes, flexible light mats, and strips.

They also have the ability to mix colors, making huge white light ranges from 1300K to 10,000K plus full spectrum RGB options.

This all comes with its own challenges and drawbacks, but gives indie filmmakers smaller, lighter, and cheaper options to create interesting lighting.

The Benefits of LED Lighting

The Negatives of LED Lighting

Westcott has created the Flex Cine RGBW lights, flexible light mats that have full RGBW control and have a wide assortment of options available to increase the usability of the lights.

They produce a Kino-style housing that can turn the fixtures into flat panel Kino-style lights

There are a number of yokes that can be used to combine units into larger fixtures or hang from grids.

The flex panels themselves have built in magnets to stick to surfaces and are light enough that you can simply tape them to walls, poles, or ceilings. In tight spaces like elevators, they simply can’t be beat.

They can be operated via a control box, DMX, or a phone app.

Hive Lighting is also known for their plasma lights, but they have developed a line of LED lights that are different than many others.

The Hive Wasp line of lights have created a single-source LED fixture that can use par reflectors, be put in soft boxes or china balls, use a fresnel or leko lens, or be used open without any modifiers.

The shape of it was built to use Profoto brand accessories, which opens it up to hundreds of modifiers.

They are small and light and can be operated via the dials on the back of the fixture, DMX, or a phone app.

Summary

It’s pretty apparent that no one type of lighting beats the rest. Each has its own drawbacks and benefits that are often situation dependent. 

That’s why when you see film shoots happening around LA, there will be lines of massive trucks holding dozens of each kind of light.

It’s equivalent to having a toolbox filled with different tools, because you never know exactly what problem will arise and what tool you need to fix it.

What’s your preferred lighting setup? Let me know in the comments.

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  • Hello,
    Thank you for this info. I listen to your podcast and appreciate all the knowledge and info you both provide.

    I was thrown into video work 4 years ago. I’ve been a photographer for 22 years and in my field and where I live our industry is booking the hybrid shooters. Not a fan of this shift but I feel it’s an adapt or die kind of move and I really love motion work. O shoot mostly editorial work for Biz Journals but I’ve been picking up some larger commercial gigs. What are your thoughts on Apature or NanLite LEDs? Do you know anyone in your industry that speaks highly of them? The CRI seems high for the price. Thanks!

    • Thanks for the support, David! I’ve never heard of NanLite myself, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good. As far as Aputure goes, I know several people who rave about the Lightstorm series of lights. Particularly the LS C120D and C300D. Plus they seem to have a great team over there who will support the lights if need be.

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