We’ll begin this segment with ‘backlight’, the one shot to avoid the most. Occasionally a backlit shot can be used for creative purposes. I recently did a hand-held shot of a guitarist during an outdoor multi-camera shoot at a local concert. It was a MLS and the guitarist’s head was backlit by the sun. Tiny white ‘flowers’ from the cottonwood trees were floating all around him like snowflakes. Real cool shot, but the reality is a director controlled the camera iris (F-stop) with a camera control unit (CCU) in real-time as I was getting the shot, and the result was a somewhat flat image. I could have handled the iris myself, but at the cost of holding my shot, which I was doing on my knee. But I digress. My point is that in most cases you want to avoid backlit shots if you can.
From the previous segment you now know that if you’ve been hired to record a wedding, anniversary or outdoor special event, you have very little control of where crucial moments will take place. In an ideal world, each moment would take place in an open location filled with plenty of light. Unfortunately that’s not always the case. Or you may encounter the other end of the spectrum, lots of room but misdirected lighting.
For example, let’s take a car show or other outdoor event. If it’s news, you get b-roll, quick interviews and get out. But if you’re hired to make a promotional video of some kind, then you’ll be spending more time (maybe even days) capturing various activities. Whatever type of event, this presents a variety of locations, weather and lighting conditions during the process. Unless you’re just shooting b-roll for later use, you might be traveling with an on-camera host. This type of shoot might include on-the-spot spectator and/or scheduled interviews with special dignitaries. Hopefully you have a good working relationship with the host in deciding which location is best for each interview. Just remember that the sun moves throughout the day, but the location stays where it is. During an interview the sun may be behind, on the side, above or in front of your camera talent.
Let’s say it’s a bright sunny day and you have a scheduled interview between 11 am and 1 pm in front of a kid’s jumper. The sun will be at it’s highest this time of day. This means that shadows will be pointing straight down towards the ground. Good for a shot of a building, awful for people in front of the camera. To begin with, kid’s jumpers are always brightly colored. If it’s a color like yellow, it might even cause unintentional reflected backlight, possibly darkening the people in front even more. The noon-high sun will cause contrasting dark shadows in the eye socket area and under the chin of people. What’s worse, most people wear hats and sunglasses at these events. Now you have even more harsh shadows.
You can’t change the interview time, and adjusting the iris isn’t going to help much. So what do you do? If you only packed a camera and mic, there’s not much you can do other than just shoot it. You could try and move where there is flat concrete. This will help bounce some light up but might not be an option if there’s no concrete, or you have to shoot at that particular location. As for the talent’s accessories, you might be able to convince them to take the sunglasses off, but the hat is another matter. Most people don’t want to be seen on camera with ‘hat-hair’, so you may have to live with the scalp protector.
Professional movie or video companies bring along large expensive reflectors for situations like this. Unless you hired help, you probably don’t want to be lugging one of these around. There are less expensive alternatives that can be easier to bring along though. One lighter alternative is the foam insulator panels you find at hardware stores. The kind that has one side lined with reflective foil material and the other side is white. They’re cheap, come in 4′ x 8′ sheets, are very light and you can cut them up into handier sizes. Even so, these might still be a little awkward to carry around.
So you might try an emergency or survival blanket. They look like a big piece of tin foil, made of MYLAR and are designed to retain body heat in emergencies. What’s cool about these blankets is that you can spread them out on the ground and have the on-camera talent stand on one end with the camera on the other. You could probably whip up a frame out of PVC pipe if you wanted to stand it up. This web page has plans on doing just that (http://www.whatnots.cc/customer_info/how2make_pvc_light_reflector.html). The best part is you can fold these blankets right up and they easily fit inside a camera bag. Just use them with caution. Mylar is very reflective, and it might be too much reflection on a bright and hot sunny day. You don’t want to bake your talent. Wind may also be a factor trying to keep it down in one place.
Let’s move on to other lighting situations you may encounter at a wedding or other special occasion. Some banquet halls in restaurants hotels or convention centers have no windows. Other than a tendency of seating the main guests three feet away from the back wall (shadows), nothing too challenging in respects to lighting. Private clubs and fancy banquet halls are another matter. Designers of private halls are usually fixated on the view of its particular location. They often build these things with a huge wall of glass, enhancing the view. Where are the main people of honor usually seated? Facing the audience right in front of those windows, where they are essentially shadows to your video camera if it’s daytime. If it’s night and you use lights, you get reflections glaring back at you.
A photographer can quickly step up to grab their shot, and has a flash to compensate for the daytime backlight. The result will be a well-lit photo with the background darkened, possibly even blacked out. Some video cameras have a backlight feature that will brighten up the subject in the foreground. Opposite of what you get from a still camera, the video result will be that the background is even brighter, almost making it completely white. That may or may not work for you depending of how much frame space the subjects take up.
In professional film or video, the remedy is simple. Light the foreground and use sheets of special polarizing filter over the windows. Rolls of polarizing filters are expensive and come in a wide variety for different sun temperatures, and they wouldn’t let you use them anyway. Setting up lights on stands is out of the question. So maybe you could try a few shots from the side at different angles, where backlight isn’t so much of an issue.
Or you can mount a portable light on top of your camera. This will solve the problem and you’ll get the shot. Unfortunately direct on-camera lighting is usually on the harsh side and doesn’t often produce a visually pleasing shot. Think of a news interview at night. They’re useless for wide shots at more than fifteen feet. Less if you use any filters on them, but they’ll work in a pinch. If you opt for camera-mounted lights, use them sparingly and only when applicable. Also remember that mountable lights eat batteries up fast. So you’d better have a small supply.
You might want to bring the aforementioned reflectors (preferably the solid ones) in case the celebration is being held outdoors. You may encounter table locations or dancing couples with the magnificent ocean or mountain skies behind them. Take advantage of the sun and brighten things up in the foreground by leaning the reflectors up against a couple of chairs.
Sometimes events will take place under tents or other overhead canopy. Tents are usually white, which may cause some backlight recording inside them. Your camera should be able to handle this. The problems arise when there are no tent walls and its daylight. In your viewfinder everything outside the tent is well lit while everything inside is shadow. Without a camera light you might try shooting from a lower, higher or other angle. Moving the backlight out of frame as much as you can.
Today’s video cameras can overcome some of these problems electronically. Filters, auto-functions and other nifty features can make your job a whole lot easier. However, they are not fool proof and may not produce the clean image quality you’re hoping for. Even professional $30,000 cameras face the same issues. This is why we bring lights, reflectors and other gear along with us on productions. It is how to make video (or film) look good. Like your client will expect.
When using a camera at these events keep in mind that it’s a lot of physical legwork. You’ll be running around shooting this and shooting that. So get yourself a lightweight tripod at least five feet in height when the legs are extended. Most videographers will dismount their cameras when they move to different locations. I’ll usually keep mine mounted while roaming around at events, and I’m carrying around forty-plus pounds of camera and tripod. I might be crazy but this way if something happens I’m ready. Just spread the legs and away you go. I learned this while working in educational television when a special moment can happen in the blink of an eye. Anything can occur, and it usually passes in seconds. It cannot be recreated, and is lost if you’re busy mounting a camera.
Anyway. Be it a commercial promo, a television program, a wedding or even a crafts faire, you are telling a story with moving image and audio. You want to capture properly composed, stable and well-lit footage whenever possible. You want footage with clearly seen people, and see what they’re doing. Your client won’t want to see heads cut off. They won’t be satisfied seeing dark shadows of people they can’t recognize. They won’t appreciate feeling seasick while watching your camera bounce around. Heck. They can get their cousin to do that for free.
The next segment deals with post-production. Putting it together the way your client wants and expects. We’ll also discuss how much you’re going to charge for all of this. So stay tuned.