Mike Conway’s Indie Lighting Course – By Mike Conway

Reading books are great, but there is nothing like just doing it; and
some of you need to do it for your production, now! I’m more of a
director, so some of my bassackwards suggestions might drive some DPs
batty, but since few people are telling you how to do it…


Here’s what you need: Softbox light kit, clamp lights and some
gels (for your lights or windows – I usually live with just blue gels.)

Brighter bulbs in house lamps work better for film, because of that
format’s forgiving latitude. I find that the lamps blow out
(become indestinguishable white areas), on video, unless you use fill

These are the softbox lights that I’ve been using. You can also
get these in 3 light configurations and they are worth every penny:

Now, get yourself some clamp lights from the hardware store.
These make great "hair lights" and they easily clamp onto one of the
stands, in the light kit, above; or you can attach them to cieling
fans, cabinets and doors.

As far as the 500 and 1,000 watt hardware store lights, they aren’t
diffused, like the softbox lights. (Video yields a harsh image with
light, so diffused softboxes help a lot! Plus, they don’t give
you a lot of unwanted shadows.) However, the hardware lights work
excellent, outdoors. They could be the source from a streetlight,
building or even the moon, if you put some blue gel on them.


80A (Blue) for indoor "day" shots (camera is color balanced for
outdoor, 5,600 degrees), where you are using sunlight from windows and
you want your movie lights to fill with "sunlight." Clip this gel
on the barndoors of your lights.

85B (Orange) for interiors (camera is color balanced at 3,200 degrees,
indoors) that have a lot of sunlight coming in. This gel goes on
your windows and converts sunlight to tungsten color temperature.
Obviously, if you have BIG windows, you’ll want to shoot the 80A method.

Neutral Density filters cut down on light coming through windows.
Either boost your tungsten lights or put Neutral Density on the windows.

There are many different gels that you can use. I worked on a
movie, where we taped "Midnight Blue" gel onto the windows, to make the
sunlight appear like moonlight. We shot this "night" scene,
during the day.

The blue gels are good for making your Hardware store or Tungsten kit
lights look like moonlight. Here is a shot that uses one 1,000
watt light, that has a blue gel taped to the barndoors.

Nightvision Snipers:

The explosion is a squib, but the rest of the scene is one light.
A single light, at night, will give me the shadows that I want.
They help sell the "night" illusion.

This shot used the existing lighting of the set (50 watt bulbs in the
beds, 75 watt bulbs in the cieling ), but uses a 500 watt light, with
diffusion, to light the actor.

Shooting an Alien:

This moonlit room has a 1,000 watt light by each window. One is a
hardware store light. Each light has a blue gel on it.

Lara in Bed:

This is the same scene, exept there is an additional
1,000 watt light shining in from the hallway. Because it’s about
20′ away, the hallway light is not gelled or diffused.

David Consoles Lara:

David Consoles Lara, closer angle:

This shot used existing sunlight through the windows. The window in the scene is covered with Neutral Density gel.

Motorhome Refuge:

This shot is in a parking lot, at night. I used
the 1,000 watt hardware light and sat it on the roof of the motorhome,
shining on the actors, from behind. In front of the actors, but
slightly off to the side, I used another 1,000 watt light with blue
gel, to act as moonlight fill.

Parking Lot Muggers:

The light source is supposed to be the spotlights on
top of the ship. This shot uses a similar scheme as the Muggers’ shot
(but the power of direct light has been doubled and the blue fill has
been halved). Instead of just one ungelled light, I have 2
nondiffused 1,000 lights, pointing down, and a 500 watt, blue fill,
which is set up near the camera.

Checking For Ship Damage:

This dinner scene shot uses one light. The
softbox kit has a Boom stand. That allows you to place the light
directly above the actors’ heads. It’s a diffused 1,000 watt
light. The fill is provided by the white table cloth.

Lara And David’s Anniversary:

So, have I just set up one light and pointed it at the actors?
Yes, the softbox diffused light seems to wrap around the subject;
that’s why I love them. Notice in this shot, of Lara’s hands, how
smooth (not harsh) the 1,000 watt light is.

Lara Breaks Waterglass:

I’m learning as I go, but if you shoot with one softbox, as a keylight,
then it’s a good idea to use one of those 100 watt clamplights, as a
hairlight – if the lightsource calls for it.

You want a subject to be visible, but outlining the subject with
overhead or behind (backlights) lighting will make that image seem more

The key is finding motivation for that light. Is it from the
lamp, the sun, the moon? Have the key, or main light, come from
the direction of that source.

I should also mention that bounce boards can help out, especially with
a lot of overhead lighting. A white bounceboard will act just
like the white tablecloth, in that dinner scene shot.
I’ve used white boards, but I’ve been told that if you are shooting a
darkly lit (by flashlight) night scene and your actors are black, you
can use a gold colored reflector to bring out their faces. (An example
would be a handheld shot, leading the actor. There’s a camera
person and a bounceboard person. The actor shines their light at
the board, which bounces back diffused light on them.)

If you are shooting in the sun, you’ve probably heard the trick of
crinkling up aluminum foil and taping it to a reflector board. (I use
an artist’s drawing board; it has the clamps to hold the paper, or
foil, in my case.) You need to crinkle it up, otherwise it’s like
reflecting the sun with a mirror.

I also bounce lights off of white walls and cielings. Black
interiors (like my darn spaceship or the bar that we just shot in)
won’t yield that bounce. For effect, you can bounce light off of
different colors. I was surprised that my producer’s red shirt
bounced the way it did. I had to get him away from the light!

I have to share this one: I lit a driver, in a night car
scene. I had her drive around the brightest intersections, in the
vicinity. I used a Mag Light and a piece of printing paper, for
diffusion. I shined it on her face, like it was her
dashlights. Worked really well for the Medium Closeup shots I was
getting! Stationary wouldn’t be a problem to light, but I wanted
the moving background, without setting up a green screen.

We shot some scenes that involved lab switches and blinking
lights. I didn’t want to wash them out, so I used an overhead
clamp light and reflected a 500 watt worklight off of a white wall,
behind the camera. Reflected/bounced light is the key to many