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What's the best correct height for a key light?


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#1 Jim Feldspar

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Posted 14 August 2006 - 07:03 PM

I work at a cable access station and the studio fresnels used as key lights are hung from a grid
about 12 feet high. When they do a location shoot they put their Lowell lights on stands up about
8 feet or so. They ddidn't seem to have any opinion on the height question but I know that height
matters- nose shadows and dark eye sockets - and they seem pretty sure about the key being 45
degrees to the talent.

Also, I saw a film director interviewed on the Charlie Rose show and because he used to do theater
lighting and D.P., Charlie jovially asked him what he thought of the show's lighting and the director
said well, his (the director's) key light could be a little higher.

Is there a most desirable height for a key light?
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#2 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 14 August 2006 - 08:02 PM

You're talking about pretty conservative lighting schemes for newsrooms, etc. Generally a key light can be as high or low as you want it. But in a TV station set, it probably needs to be high enough to keep the lens from getting flared when it is shooting a reverse angle and the key is now a backlight. So the lights are high enough for a 360 view of the stage at eye level without seeing the lights in the shot, if desired.

From a creative point of view, it just depends on the face and the mood you want to create. Some women look better with a higher key light because it throws their neck and underside of the chin into shadow, but others don't look good that way. Some people have such deep-set eyes that the lights have to be fairly eye-level or lower, unless the skull-like lighting effect works dramatically (that's how James Wong Howe lit Burt Lancaster in "Sweet Smell of Success" -- Lancaster wore eyeglasses and the key light was very toppy to make his face more skull-like and menacing because you couldn't see his eyes as well.)
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#3 Michael Nash

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Posted 14 August 2006 - 10:24 PM

In general the lower the light is the more it fills in recesses like eye sockets, and minimizes the size of nose and chin shadows (if it's a hard light). But there comes a point where a too-low light can throw shadows on the background, or just looks flat.

Also keep in mind that along with height, distance matters. In other words, to keep the same shadow angles you need to go higher with the light as you go farther away with it (and vice versa).
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#4 Michael Collier

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Posted 14 August 2006 - 11:08 PM

In our TV station we keep the lights relativley low (I relit the studio a few months ago with our cheif photog and producer.) I set the lights just above the height of teleprompters (probably 6-7 feet high) so that I could set them closer than they were for a softer effect (also being closer makes the prompters more readable from the same height). (these are colortran softlights, 2K I beleive. the face is about 1.5x3feet. 3 main lights) This is of course for a news set for near-shadowless environment. The only contrast comes from slight backlight.

For interviews I find that, like a movie, there is not and should be not be a set formula for lighting. One of our competing stations has taught all their photogs that they should take 2 omnis, put tuff-spun on the barn doors and then put those as far away as possible (sometimes more than 10 feet on 300-500 watt bulbs) Then they place the subject just below a bank of overhead floros in the ceiling. One of their photogs asked me once why I was placing a light behind the subject. Formula lighting could only work adequatley if there is no natural light in the rooms.

The best aproach to lighting is to work with what you get naturally. If you have only 1000-1500 watts of light you can throw, you really can't overpower natural light. 9 times out of 10 if I am in an office, I end up gelling CTB or 1/2 CTB and use the windows as either a key or backlight, depending on the frame I am after. Light placement is usually a reaction to the shape of the face combined with the look you are going for. Some faces are softer, allowing for harder light to be used, meaning that the window can be a backlight because you can get enough punch from lightly diffused light. With a harder face you would have to diffuse the light more, meaning less output. You can't usually up the wattage, since most shooters only have a small kit with them, and popping a circut breaker is no fun (I blew one in a computer lab at a job fair. very embarrasing. I forgot to account for the 10 computers running off the same circut.)

I like to spend a few seconds looking at and walking around a room before I light it. What lights are in the room? Are there any problem lights that need to be turned off. What is the best background availible, given the light? What do I want my lights to do. Somtimes I set only a key, sometimes only fill. Sometimes I set a key, fill and backlight. Also you can find objects in the room to help shape lighting. I am a huge fan of bouncing light of a finnished wood surface for fill. Something about the color looks very natural and apealing, moreso than 1/2 CTO.

If you walk the scene a bit, you can get a sense of the 3-D space you need to translate into 2D. With enough practice you can look at a scene and use your minds eye to project several different lighting methods before you start to set up. Once you get a rough placement then you fine tune each light to get the specific effect you want. Just placing a light 45 to talent doesnt mean its the right lighting for that person and location, and teaching people that leads to the many misconceptions that most ENG shooters I know have.
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#5 Chris Pritzlaff

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Posted 15 August 2006 - 03:24 AM

When doing interview style setups, are there any general rules to follow for lighting? For example women tend to look better in softer light, while men look better in higher contrast. Are there any other general rulse to look for? Tips for glasses, hair color, facial features etc?
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#6 Andy Kochendorfer

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Posted 15 August 2006 - 03:22 PM

Test
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#7 Michael Collier

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Posted 15 August 2006 - 04:10 PM

Its usually just a matter of preferance. Woman tend to take softer light, and I think they expect it, even if they don't know anything about light. They always ask me 'make me look good' and some soft light will soften wrinkels. past that its a matter of what features you want to highlight. I think one important key is to have an eye toward modeling the face. In 2D its hard to define a persons shape. Light is great because it doesnt change as they turn their head and people are very adept at taking 3D cues from lighting.

I think the 'rules' you listed are only aplicable to they 'typical' individual. By which I mean woman tend to have softer faces and men tend to have harder jaw structers. But if you come upon a man who has a more femenine face (or you want to play up their feminine facial features) you can light acordingly. I dont think that light can ever be to gender specific. As steven tyler said 'Dude looks like a lady, so light him like a lady' (well I made that last part up)
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#8 Jim Feldspar

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Posted 15 August 2006 - 06:13 PM

That's all good advice. Although I work at a t.v. studio, I'm more interested in films. I've helped on
some and people just seem to throw them up on the stands and then the D.p. comes over and shoots.
I've never heard anybody talk about the height.

I'm going to check out that Burt Lancaster movie.
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#9 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 15 August 2006 - 09:31 PM

I'm going to check out that Burt Lancaster movie.


Here's a really tiny frame I found online:

Posted Image
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#10 Brian Dzyak

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Posted 15 August 2006 - 10:20 PM

If the talent is looking from screen left to screen right, the key light looks best if it comes from the right side of camera. And visa versa. That throws the shadow on the side of the face that is facing camera. It just looks better that way. :)

For men, I try to pull the key around to maybe 45 degrees from the lens depending on how "moody" I want to make it. If they are wearing glasses that reflect, the light goes higher on the stand. Otherwise, having it just slightly higher than lens height seems to work out for most generic situations.

For women, I drag the light around so that they are essentially looking in line with the stand. That evens the light out across the face. With younger women, I pull the light up slightly higher...maybe 12 inches over the lens height. For older women, I lower it to just over the lens height.

I use Chimeras whenever I can, but if I have a very difficult situation where I have to control the light off the background completely, I'll just drop some 216 or Opal on the unit and maybe fill in with something smaller on a dimmer to take the curse off the harder light.

I flag the key off the background as much as possible so I can hopefully do what I want back there. It's not always easy, but I try.

That's my formula anyway. It works. :)
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