Production Lighting: How Light Using Practicals

Production lighting is not just about exposing the characters in a scene. Lighting is about painting a setting into a beautiful frame. Practical sources can create exquisite highlights in any space.

Step 1: What Is a Practical Source?

A practical source is a light that appears in the frame and can conceivably be a part of the world that is on the screen. In a bedroom, this can be a lamp on the night table. On the street, you have windows and street lamps. Even a TV screen can be a practical source. You can work with the art department to find a way to incorporate such sources into your scenes.

Step 2: Being Prepared

It is a good idea to keep a few practical sources in the truck at all times. You never know when you will need to have something to enhance a scene. One day, you might find yourself in an office space and you will be kicking yourself because you would love a lamp on the desk. Be sure to keep a variety of lamps available whether they belong in an office or in a living room.

Step 3: Exposure

You now need to concern yourself with keeping these sources within the parameters of your overall exposure. If you have a lamp with a 75 watt bulb in it, chances are it will be extremely overexposed in relation to everything else in your scene. So, you should also keep a stock of bulbs with different wattages. A 40 watt bulb is usually a good standard to stick to. Along with the bulbs, you should keep some dimmers. Household dimmers will be fine for such small sources. Dimmers cut down the voltage passing into the bulb. However, as you cut voltage, your source also becomes more orange. To a certain degree this can be a desired effect, but you can risk going too far from normal color balance.

Step 4: Shaping

The beauty of a practical source comes from the highlights that it adds to a scene. However, you can also consider altering the shape of the light it projects. Perhaps you have a table lamp where light is spilling out of the top and bottom of the shade. It is possible that you dislike the light coming out of the top of the shade. To alter this, use some black wrap to cap off the hole above the bulb. As long as you are able to hide your alterations from the camera's view, you can manipulate your sources as freely as you can conceive.

Step 5: Motivation

Sometimes you will have a practical source, but it is not actually throwing much light onto the subject. This is to be expected since you have minimized its output so it will not blow out.  You can augment this practical source with your own light. The key to selling this is to make sure that the film light does not in any way hit the practical light. The shadows will give away the cheat.

Practical light sources can be aesthetically appealing while maintaining realism. Keep them in mind as opportunities to add texture to your images.