Christmas Lights and Better Videos and Photos

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It is around this time every year that we hear on the radio, see on TV and notice in shopping malls that Christmas is coming. The coming of the silly season also means having to dust off the old tree that you just took down 3 months ago to hang up lights.

In a convoluted way, the constant radio ads telling me that Christmas is coming, reminded me that I have to start thinking about what to give to people who already have everything, and people who mean the most to me… And to fulfil my promise in an earlier blog to talk about how to use Lights to improve your home videos and photos.

So here are my top 7 tips:

1) Use natural light: The Sun is your Friend

For most parents, most of their home videos and photos are taken, as the name suggests, at home… or in an indoor location.

As mentioned in my previous blog, the camera you are using is a digital eye that needs good light to see well. So the more light you can provide your camera, the better will be the results of your videos and photos. If you think about all the best photos or videos that you have of your children, they are usually taken outdoors on a beautiful day.

You want to try to re-create that amount of light.

So when using your camera indoors, open up your blinds and curtains to let as much natural light in as you can. There is an inherent quality to sunlight, even on an overcast day, that you cannot recreate with artificial lights at home. If you feel happy when the sun is out, so does your camera, and so do the videos and photos you take.

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2) Turn on the lights

I know that in tip one I said that natural sunlight is the most beautiful. But in this tip, I am asking you to turn on the indoor lights as well.

You may not always have the luxury of natural light. So in this case, turn on as many lights as you can. Ultimately, having more lights is better than none. But having said that, please ready Tip 3.

If you are planning to take some beautiful baby videos or photos of your child in various poses or doing various things, I would suggest that you bring in your lamps from other rooms and place them around your “studio” to increase the general ambient brightness.

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3) Don’t mix your colour temperatures

Don’t what your what??!!!

Simply put: don’t mix the colours of light. As you can see, tungsten or halogen lights are warm yellow, like sunrise and sunset. Fluorescent lights are usually green to blue, more like the mid-day sun.

Mixing lights is similar to mixing paint colours – it results in colours that you may not want. If you mix the warm tungsten with the blue midday sun or with fluorescent lighting (Yellow and blue makes green), you will find that your videos and photos will tend have a green-ish hue.

In general human skin tone is red-ish because of our blood, but when a green light shines on us, it is our veins that reflect most of this light, resulting in a sickly green look to our skin. Which is also usually why you find portrait photos with a warm lighting hue tend to make the person look healthier.

Modern digital cameras have a “white balance” or “Colour Temperature” function that is automatic by default. What this does is that it decides what is the predominant colour of a scene, and decide whether to go  towards the yellow side or the blue side of the colour spectrum.

This is why sometimes, when you take 2 photos one after another, you find that one photo looks more blue, and another looks more warm. In one case, the camera thought that there was more blue-ish light, so it “warmed-up” the shot, or if it thought there is a lot of tungsten, it “cooled-down” the shot to make it as neutral as possible.

Modern camera are a lot smarter now on how it deals with mixed lighting situations because it happens so often. But it is still not always right.

If you can already give your camera non-clashing colours, then it can spend most of its processing time in making your video or photo look good.

4) Use Shadows – Shadows are also friends

If you watch the news, or any current affairs program, you will unconsciously notice that it is different from watching a good documentary or movie. For most people, it doesn’t matter, when they watch the news, it’s about getting information, and sometimes, you don’t even ‘watch’ it. It acts more like a radio, where you just listen, while you do something else.

If you look at a news reader, they are usually bright enough and saturated in colours, so that you only pay attention to the words, and maybe what they are wearing. But when you watch a good documentary or movie, when characters talk, the emotional content is seen through the face, and the general lighting of the scene.

A well-lit scene is usually a happy one, where scene with a lot of shadows and dark places can mean sadness or impending doom.

It is the play of the light and shadow that gives you the emotion of a scene even before the words are spoken.

This is also true of photos and home videos.

Look at any award winning National Geographic photo or video, and you will see that there is always a very strong play on shadows. I know that we are not making National Geographic documentaries at home, but you still want a good picture or video, so make sure you have some light and shade in your images.

Usually your eyes are drawn to the brighter spots, so things that you want people to notice in a video or photo should be lit, and the opposite is true.

A simple way to achieve this is to have your strongest light source on either the left or the right of the subject you are taking. (See pictures below)

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This gives light on one side and it falls off towards a shadow on the other side of the face. This gives the face a 3 dimension look because your brain can process distance from lighting information instinctively. (darker and/or blurrier is usually interpreted as further away)

The shadows also highlights the smile, or frown, the eye ridges and nose more, so that the emotional nuances are more obvious on the face.

Remember in Tip 2, I suggested to bring in lamps to your ‘studio’ when you can? Use these extra lights to create the light and dark spots. If you put your extra lamps on one side of the room you will have created an artificial “sun”, and naturally create the light and shade across the room.

Again, rule 3 of not mixing the colours of the lights should be  followed.

5) Make sure that there is a sparkle in the eye

In the industry, we call this sparkle in the eye an “eye-light”.

It is a subtle reflection of a light source in the dark of the eyes, usually a point that give life to the part of the face that humans look at to draw emotional cues in a conversation.

If you followed my last tip and have the brightest light source on either side of your subject, you would already see a little sparkle in the eyes. It is quite simple to do, but the results are remarkable.

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In Lord of the Rings, the film makers hung a string of fairy lights in front of Cate Blanchett’s face to create the eyelight. This gave many little sparkles of light in her eyes, to follow the description of her look by Tolkien, which says that her eyes look like a field of stars.

6) Lift and separate

This is one of the tricker parts of lighting for videos and photos – Using lights to separate your subject, your child or person you are taking the video or photo of, from the background.

In tip 4, I mentioned that our eyes are drawn to brighter parts of an image. This tip gives your subject a ‘halo’ effect, effectively making him or her brighter, then the background, drawing the viewer’s eyes to the subject.

Now this is tricky as I said, because it usually means having a light shining on the subject’s hair from the back, and a little to the side. This lifts the hair’s details and makes it stand out against the background.

How do you achieve that in a day to day situation?

Well, if you have an overhead light where you are, simply placing the person or child a little in front of that light will create the look.

When outdoors, put your subject in the direction where the sun is behind and to the side of the person.

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Unfortunately, for most cameras, this is also usually followed by the silhouette shot because the camera thinks that it is really bright, and show tries to dim down the image. The subject’s face, being in the shadow, obviously become rather dark.

So you usually need another light source in front to compensate, or your need to edit the photo or video to take advantage of the lighting.

Like I said, it is a very tricky tip to follow, but if you get the chance to get it right, the results are usually really stunning.

7) Don’t use flash (this is a tip for photography only)

I decided to throw in this one because… well, I think it is important.

Flash photography is a skill, and it is something that cannot be done well with just 1 flash on top of your camera, unless you really, really, REALLY know what you are doing.

Using the flash in a photo usually gives you photo where your subject is generally over exposed, with no nice shadows, and the background is dark and boring. Any shadow you get is usually an ugly black spot on the wall behind you (which brings up another issue: don’t take photos against a blank wall. It is really only useful for passports and official documents.)

So here are the 7 tips on lighting for better home videos and photos.