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In the Live Light

Thoughts on Video Lighting for Live Performances and Worship Services

Lighting is still a theory. Even in video lighting, there are many elements that are subjective and a matter of preference and taste. Some people prefer strong backlight and narrow depth-of-field; others prefer a more flattened approach. As with any of the arts, there is no ‘text book’ answer.

Complicating matters is the advancement in video cameras and HD technology. While no camera comes close to the latitude of the human eye in terms of contrast and color balance, HD brings far more ‘real world’ vision into the medium. Much lower lighting intensities can be used and still get a good image, and saturated colors are no longer such a nemesis to be avoided like the plague. The down side, of course, is that with such higher definition of detail, lighting becomes even more critical. Even minor imperfections that would go unnoticed under standard video suddenly jump out and scream “look at me”.

Lighting for a ‘live production’ – where the primary focus is a live congregation or audience – presents another layer of issues to address. For example, shadows across the face are more pronounced from the camera’s point of view, which is why in studios, the lighting angles are rather low and closer to the subject. In large auditoriums and sanctuaries, that is often not a luxury. Lighting locations are far away and typically at or near ceiling level. While the human eye has the latitude to compensate and average out the shadow lines – and in fact, consider them an enhancement – video is far less forgiving.

Lighting for video is therefore vastly different than lighting for live presentations. If not planned well, one will suffer greatly at the cost of the other. While it is necessary to make compromises on both fronts, this does not mean that one must sacrifice the quality of the product. But it is important to establish up front what the purpose of the event will be, and what the experience should be for the live congregation or audience vs. the media viewer.
Lighting for theatre requires knowing the script. Architectural lighting requires a good knowledge of the human eye. When lighting for video, it is important to know the camera – or at least what the camera will need to see, and much of that will be decided by the Director.

Following are some simple points to consider based on lighting a venue for both live presentation and video. These tips are geared toward a more typical worship or presentation-type setting, as opposed to a musical concert situation. It is assumed that the reader knows how to use an appropriate light meter, and is familiar with basic lighting principles for live and video purposes.

Loving Geometry
Getting the right angle in a studio is much simpler than a live venue or sanctuary. Furthermore, in a multi-camera shoot, the simple idea of ‘Key/Fill/Back’ goes out the window with the click of a switch. Since most primary camera angles will be from the front, it is important to balance the lighting well for those cameras. A simple approach of using two fixtures in an even crosslight per area, coupled with good backlight coverage is a good starting point. The primary purpose is to light the subject and make them look good – no matter where they happen to wander.

Balance is the Key
Some directors prefer a narrow depth of field, some deeper with more detail. The level of the lighting should be such that you are allowing the camera to operate in a comfortable iris range appropriate to the desired depth of field. This of course, requires communication with the video engineer.

In the studio, the camera is closer to the subject, and therefore you can operate with lower illumination levels. In a larger space such as a theatre or sanctuary, the cameras and lights are typically much farther away. It is not unusual to see front illumination levels at 80-100 foot-candles. The key is to keep it balanced. Unlike small studio spaces, your subject is bound to move widely across the stage or altar. Achieving a reasonably even illumination level across the area is not difficult, but takes some time and planning in fixture hang and focus. Every venue will be a little different, but one thing to keep in mind – try not to let your frontlight angles be too steep, or you will produce shadows under your subject’s neck and nose. You can always add some fill down lower, but this certainly complicates things.

The important thing is to make sure your illumination levels for your subject stay within a small percentage of your target as you move from position to position. Backlight levels will typically be much higher than frontlight levels, but keeping your contrast ratio in frontlight to a minimum is very important to avoid constant iris adjustments by the engineer.

If it ain’t lit, it ain’t seen
When lighting for live services or theatrical production, we often use the natural falloff of light and the shadows created to our advantage. The same can be used when lighting the set or background for video, but usually in a more deliberate fashion. We cannot assume, for example, that the row of ferns in front of the choir will be sufficiently (or appropriately) lit just from the spill of the Altar lighting. If we ignore the ferns, they may come out looking unnatural and produce irritating shadows in the wide shots. By placing some downlight on them where possible, we can pop them out a little and easily add dimension and depth to any of our target shots. In sanctuaries, religious symbols often located above or around the Altar usually need special attention.

Fabrics are especially fun to play with, both in color and texture. Lighting backgrounds and scenery doesn’t mean just flooding the stage with light – it means paying close attention to the materials and colors used in the background or scenic elements, and often treating each one as a special item. White backgrounds are very alluring for a lighting designer – they respond to patterns and color well. But they can really wreak havoc with the video engineer who is trying to keep the image in balance. When faced with such situations, it is important to try to limit spill from your ‘subject’ lighting onto the background, while using more controlled techniques in terms of pattern and color. Darker colored materials are often used, and can be enhanced with the proper use of texture and color. Do be careful that the choice of colors does not over-saturate the video image. While a little blue on a blue fabric may make it jump out in a pleasing way to the live audience, the camera will have a difficult time if the enhancement is too great.

Using a lighting controller to adjust dimming levels compared to your subject lighting will help you create and maintain the appropriate balance and diversity in looks to enhance the experience for both the live and video audience.

The use of heavy color from the front is often detrimental to your subject, especially if those colors keep changing as might happen in a musical performance. Dark blues can look awkward on darker skinned subjects, and might turn others into Smurfs. However, the use of color on the background and backlighting – while keeping your subject fairly constant – can look very sharp and pleasing on video. Don’t be afraid to use contrasts in intensity and gentle color shifts – such as lighting the choir a little more blue and dimmer – to introduce more depth and dimension into the image.

Color Temperature – keep your cool
In general, it is good to balance between 30 and 32K. If the illumination levels are too high thus requiring the use of dimming in the front light, You should use a BLUE COLOR CORRECTION gel to keep the color temperature from dropping too much, thus creating ‘reddish’ light on your subjects. The video engineer will typically compensate for this by adjusting the camera’s white balance, so the subject appears natural. However, if he is having to balance too low or high, then the color rendering of everything else can become adversely affected, and you both end up working against each other.

When using automated fixtures, this becomes even more important. Most automated fixtures use a high-CCT HID source – which shows up very blue on video if you are balanced to 32K. Don’t fear this phenomena – use it to your advantage. You can position your fixtures such that the extra color contrast helps your effect lighting and patterns ‘punch through’ with greater clarity, and not get ‘lost’ in the rest of the subject or background lighting. Plus, most fixtures have an ORANGE COLOR CORRECTION feature built in, so for times where you want less ‘punch’ out of your automated fixtures, you can drop it in remotely. Flexibility is important, especially when dealing with live events.

Don’t ignore the floor
High camera angles from a jib or balcony position often show more of the floor than we usually like. Light-colored finishes are hard to balance, and you usually have to monitor your backlight to keep the contrast low. Dark floors can, if not addressed well, make your subject and backgrounds appear to ‘float’. It is handy to have some breakup patterns and such to light the floor – especially the downstage areas – from the back. You can also use your automated fixtures in a spread-out fashion to add texture and, for lighter finishes, a touch of color.

Your best friend – the video engineer.
Even small video shoots will involve several people – a Director calling the shots, cameramen, switchers, and of critical importance – a video engineer. If the event has little effect lighting, or few lighting changes, there will not be too much for the engineer to do. However, if the event involves high-energy music performances, or several scenic element changes with lighting, then this person can be rather busy trying to keep contrasts and color in balance. What you do affects them more than anything, and vice versa. They can either make your work easier, or look awful. If you run your contrasts too high, or are constantly changing dimming levels on your subject lighting, they must constantly compensate.

Insist on both a program-feed monitor (if not a switcher), and a headset that allows you to talk directly with the video engineer, as well as hear the director. Set up good communication with the engineer, and listen to what they need. Be ready to adjust levels as needed, and keep your eyes on the monitor – not the stage. What looks good to your eye may not look good on video. If parts of the program require specific effects that may confuse the engineer, let them know the intent up front. It is FAR better to have this person working with you than trying to compensate against you. You all have the same goal at heart. Learning to work well with others and respect their trade is key to success of the project.

Don’t Blind me!
Lighting for live worship services or performances can be hard on the audience or congregation. On the one hand, you want the experience to be pleasant and comfortable for them – but on the other hand, if you don’t light them for the audience shots – they will not be seen. Using typical sanctuary downlight often leaves their faces in shadows, and faces is usually what the director wants to see. Adding light from the Altar or stage focused back at the audience is extremely unpleasant and irritating for them. So again, we have to play the balance game – choose angles more from the sides than straight ahead, and soften the light with diffusion. Lastly, set the level and leave it – avoid the urge to constantly bring them up and down unless there is a very good reason – particularly if the director uses the audience shot frequently. Once people adjust to it (assuming it is well balanced), it will not bother them as much.

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