Lighting 101
The Key is key

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Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be bringing you a series of introductory features that discuss lighting for the beginning DV cinematographer. This week we take a look at the key light.

In order to capture beautiful images, there first needs to be light in the scene to illuminate your subject. Without light you have no picture. While light is used to illuminate the scene, it is shadow that creates depth and the illusion that what the viewer is looking at has dimension. But what is the best way to illuminate a subject to get the proper amount of shadow? If you are doing an interview, you can follow the three point lighting setup.
The Key is key to obtaining beautiful images.
It all begins with the key light. It is called the key light because it is the primary source of illumination in the scene. All other lights (fill, back, rim, etc.) are adjusted based on the intensity and position of the key light. The placement of the key light will create the much-needed shadows.

Typically the key light is placed 30 degrees to the left or right of the camera and at a 30-degree angle to the subject. That is what the textbooks say. Actually, you can place your key light anywhere you see fit in order to get the look and feel you desire. If you increase the horizontal angle (relative to the subject), it will emphasize skin features and produce an aging effect. As the vertical angle is increased, shadows begin to appear under the nose, chin, and lips. This causes your subject to look as though they are being interrogated. Unfortunately with today’s offices, if you shoot under fluorescent lighting, you could end up with this undesired look.

When you place a key light it is often helpful to refer to the placement of the key light in terms of time. Let’s imagine that you are doing an interview with someone. They are sitting on a chair and will represent the middle of an analog clock. Your camera is positioned some distance away and is pointed at the subject. The camera is at the six o’clock position, or at bottom of the analog timekeeper. The key light can be positioned at any of the other time positions on the dial.

The placement of the key light can radically alter the shot and how the viewer perceives the environment, the subject, the shot, etc.

Let’s take a look at some of the key light positions in our imaginary clock and see how the light influences the scene.

7:00: In the seven o’clock position, the subjects face if fairly well lit, with shadows starting to make an appearance on the left side of the face. This is a desired starting position and sets up discussion for the fill light.

7:00



8:00: Similar to the seven o’clock position, but the shadows start to become longer and begin to obscure the details on the subjects left side (opposite the key). The shadow cast by the subject’s nose begins to create a triangular patch of light below the eye opposite the key.

8:00



9:00: In the nine o’clock position, only one side of the subjects face is illuminated. This creates overly dramatic shots and obscures much of the subject.

9:00


10:00 and 11:00: In these positions, the light begins to illuminate the back of the subject and not the front. You need to be careful of placing an intense key light at these positions as lens flares can occur if the light is not properly flagged.

10:00


11:00


12:00: At the twelve o’clock position the back of the subject is fully illuminated and the hair begins to glow. While not very useful for key lighting, it will be perfect for another light discussion later on.

12:00




Source: Digital Media Online, Inc.

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