It's a bit like playing three dimensional chess -- I try several lighting approaches in my mind, letting the scene play out in my mind until I spot the potential problem with my approach, then tweak or start from scratch. ...Then I usually give the gaffer and key grip all the notes for the set-up.
It’s possible to take David’s “3-Dimensional Chess” a step further and actually set levels and balance your fixtures in advance. As a starting point a DP will choose the exposure of the key tone at the outset - say T5.6 for deep focus. Having chosen his exposure he can then calculate how many Foot Candles (FC) he needs on different elements of the scene.
To figure out how many FC you need for exposure, all you need to know is that it takes 100 FC to get an exposure of 2.8 with an ISO 100 film with a 180 degree shutter at 24 FPS (1/50th of a second shutter speed.) If your digital camera is 2 stops faster than an ISO 100 film, you will need 100 FC to get a stop of 5.6. Once you know how many FC you need for exposure you can simply calculate how many FC will give you the effect you see in your mind’s eye. Of course, it helps to have done a lighting test of what effect over and underexposing a subject will give.
Such a lighting test for talent (you may also want to do one for key props or sets) would consist of testing in a systematic fashion the effect of Key, Fill, Back Light, Kickers, Hair Lights, and Liners that are over and under exposure. For example, to test the effect of your key light on flesh tones, set your exposure with two doubles and a single in your key light. Then remove them a half stop at a time (without changing your camera exposure setting or exposure of the chip chart), and systematically note on a slate in the frame what you are doing. Once you have removed all the scrims, your flesh tone will be two and a half stops over exposed (since you have not changed the camera setting.)
Put all the scrims back in and now, using single and double nets, systematically under expose the flesh tone in half stop increments (remember rotating a net relative to the light source will make it "fatter" or "thinner", which will enable you to "dial in" the exact level you want from the light.) If you want to play on the lower register continue to under expose the flesh tone until it becomes a pure silhouette. Do the same for Fill, Back Light, Kickers, Hair Lights, and Liners in isolation and in specific combinations that you plan to use them. Having systematically tested each light, you can now see the effect that different ratios of each has on the scene and can even use the test as a reference on set when lighting the scene.
An example of this type of pre-visualization would be say you are shooting a couple conversing at a bar. After working through in your minds eye that you want a low-key look with selective (shallow) focus you might settle on a stop of 2.8. Say the script calls for the guy to be somewhat mysterious and distant and the women to be very open and receptive, then you may choose to keep him in deep shadow with just enough of a liner to separate him from the subdued background of the bar. This type of lighting on him could be motivated by a practical fixture you establish behind him, which would be consistent with the more frontal key you want for her, since you would want to light her more frontally so that her character is clearly apparent, but not him to retain some mystery to his character.
Having roughed out your style and light placement you can begin to set your levels and balance your lights based on lighting tests you have shot over the years. For instance, if your camera is two stops faster than an ISO 100 film, you will need 24 FC to properly expose your key tone (mid gray) at a T Stop of 2.8. 24 FC would then give you a “properly” exposed flesh tone on her. But this is a bar with subdued lighting, so you don’t want full exposure on her. You liked the feel of a half key (1 stop under) in your lighting tests so you would light her with 12 FC from a high frontal key. Again, because the scene takes place in the subdued lighting of a bar, you don’t want to over fill her. Going back to your lighting tests you like the look and feel of an 4:1 key to fill ratio so you would give no more than 3FC of fill light. You need to separate her from the dark background of the bar and so you might give her a backlight of 6 FC because that's what looked appropriate in the lighting tests to separate her hair color from a dark background without looking over-lit.
You would want to make sure you flag her back-light off him since you want to play him in near silhouette and so have to keep any frontal light on him to under 1 FC because four stops under exposure was a near silhouette with just the right amount of detail in the lighting test. For the liner to separate him from the dark background of the bar you will need a fairly strong fixture capable of delivering 48FC from directly behind him since your lighting tests established you need to be at least a stop over exposure for the liner to read. Once you have figured out how many FC you need for the effect (a liner in this case) you can figure out which lights will give you that using the photo-metrics that manufacturers provide on their websites, or you can download Arri’s handy photometric calculator (be wary of the photo-metrics given for LED lights.) With a little experience you begin to develop a feel what light will give you what you need in different situations.
You wouldn’t want to try to use the practical fixture that you are flying in behind him to motivate this lighting scheme as the source for the liner on him because, first of all it’s placement in the shot may not be far enough around his back to serve as a liner. But, also to deliver 48 FC on him, it would be screaming hot in the shot. For this reason it is better to use a separate light to light your talent and treat the practical so that it looks realistic in the shot. I find that practical lamps never look convincing unless one treats the lampshade as well as boost the bulb wattage. Unless it is completely opaque, you typically need to treat the shade to keep it from burning out (remember stopping down to keep it from blowing out will throw off the balance you have set with your other lights) You can put a lower wattage lamp in it, but then the output of the practical on the bar will look rather anemic. I find you get a more realistic look if you boost the wattage of the bulb and line the inside of the shade with ND gel. It is a delicate balance to achieve.
You can achieve this balance without a monitor, by using the old school method with incident and spot meters and a selection of practical bulbs including PH 211, 212, and 213 bulbs. Years ago Walter Lassaley, BSC, instructed me to balance practical’s such that an incident reading of the direct output one foot away from the bulb is one stop over exposure which in this case would be 48 FC. I have found that rule of thumb gives a realistic output to the practical. After establishing the practical’s output using an incident meter, you then use a spot meter to determine how dense an ND gel is needed to line the inside of the glass shade.
You can do all of this pre-visualization, setting of levels, and balancing based upon a location scout, blocking with stand-ins, and your lighting tests. In other words, almost everything can be worked out ahead of time so that when you arrive on set you know exactly what you need to do. This is especially helpful on low budget projects since, generally the time spent with minimal crew in scouting and blocking with stand-ins, is considerably less than the time wasted working these things out on set with a large crew and principle talent.
Guy Holt, Gaffer, ScreenLight & Grip, Lighting Rental & Sales in Boston