An overview of the different types of lighting fixtures and why we need them

In this video I go over the different types of lighting fixtures and why we need each one:

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Introduction to Lighting Fixtures

There are many different kinds of lighting fixtures used on film sets, and it can be overwhelming for a beginner to learn how they all work and which is the best kind for each situation. They vary by energy use, price, ability to control the direction of light, and more.

In this article, we’ll look at several different kinds of lighting fixtures and learn:

  • Why they are the way they are
  • What each feature means
  • How to find the right fixture for your shoot

Depending on the length and budget of your shoot, you’ll have to consider whether you want to rent or buy your own lighting gear, as well as whether to use industry-standard fixtures or to do your own DIY rigging. Some of these fixtures are designed for film and theater, while others are available for more general uses and can picked up at a hardware or lighting store.

What is light?

First, let’s consider the basics. What is the simplest form of light and how is it produced? For most of human history, the only light we could control came in the form of fire.

Think of the characteristics of a candle or lantern flame. They’re single sources of light that emit light in 360 degrees. If you want to control it, you can block the light from one side, but it doesn’t reduce the total amount of heat or light that the flame gives off.

A light bulb works the same way. It’s essentially a tiny flame surrounded by inert gas and contained by a glass shell. Typically, bulbs are made with a tungsten filament, a single point source that produces hard light – parallel beams that create distinct shadows.

If you don’t want the light to be emitted in 360 degrees, you can block the light from one side. The same amount of light is produced, but 50% of the output is wasted because it’s not being directed at the subject. You can use a reflector, which redirects some of the light toward the subject and makes it softer. But, it still doesn’t reduce the light or heat output.

Alternatives to tungsten filaments include:

  • CFL (compact fluorescent) bulbs, which typically fit into tungsten light fixtures, but use far less electricity
  • LED (light-emitting diode) lamps, which last longer and use less power than both CFLs and tungsten filaments

Now, let’s look at some of the fixtures you’re likely to encounter on a film set:

Tungsten Halogen

Tungsten halogen bulbs are similar to a standard tungsten filament, except instead of using an inert gas, the bulb also includes halogen. These use a higher wattage of electricity and produce more light than a standard tungsten bulb. They also output light in 360 degrees.

Tungsten halogen bulbs are some advantages over other other types of bulbs. For one, they don’t use mercury, as fluorescent lights do. They’re dimmable, don’t require any time to warm up when you turn them on, and last longer than incandescent light bulbs.

However, they can get very hot and are at risk of exploding. That’s why they should always be used in a proper fixture with a protective screen covering them. They can also be damaged by fingertip oils and shouldn’t be touched without gloves, even when they’re cool.

Shop light

A typical use for a tungsten halogen bulb is in a shop light (also called a work light or flood light). These are intended for outdoor use, such as lighting up a billboard or construction site. The bulb is surrounded by a reflector on all sides that projects the light forward.

They generally come in 500 and 1000 watt varieties, and are great for low-budget shoots. They cost very little to buy and operate and don’t heat up as much as other fixtures.

However, there are a few disadvantages:

  • No way to control the light
  • No way to attach barn doors, scrims, gels, or filters
  • Yoke of the light doesn’t tilt
  • No on/off switch

If you use a shop light on set, the only way to control the light is with DIY rigging. So, if you plan to use gels and scrims, etc., it’s better just to buy a more suitable fixture.

Redhead

A redhead is an open-face light that is similar to a shop light. It has a reflector to direct the light forward, but also has built-in attachments to use barn doors and scrims. You can use the yoke to attach it to a light stand and use a knob to tilt the light.

Redheads are designed to be durable. They typically use 800 watts of electricity and can be powered on a standard house circuit, so long as you don’t use too many in one room.

Softies

Another type of tungsten halogen fixture is called a softy since it’s designed to be used with a softbox in front of it. It’s a very simple fixture that can be used to quickly light a subject. Simply set it up in front of your subject and attach a softbox or eggcrate grid.

The downside to open-face lights like these is that you can’t focus the light. They flood the light in a forward direction but don’t let you spot the light. The only way to do that is to use a lens.

Tungsten Fresnel

One option is a Fresnel lens, which is similar to the design used in lighthouses. A tungsten fresnel fixture uses a reflector to direct the light forward and a Fresnel lens to shape the beam. The bulb can move forward and backwards in the fixture, which allows you to control the spot and flood more accurately than you can with an open-faced light.

A tungsten Fresnel lamp is bigger than an open-faced fixture but is relatively cheap and versatile. They vary in wattage from 30-50 W to 20 KW.

Dedolight

A Dedolight is a tungsten halogen lamp with an optical lens built in to the fixture. They allow for even more control of the light beam than a Fresnel, and are especially useful for spotting small objects with a direct beam of light.

However, these are more expensive than Fresnel lenses, especially if you use a larger model with higher wattages. So a Dedolight is more practical for lighting a small area rather than being the main light source for a large room.

ETC SourceFour

The ETC SourceFour is another fixture with a built-in lens that uses a 500 watt tungsten bulb. They bigger than Fresnel fixtures and are most often used in stage productions. They can also be used in film production if you need to spotlight a subject or control the angle of the beam.

HMI

Another way to control light is to vary the reflector. A standard reflector is curved, but you can also use a reflector in the shape of a parabola to maximize the reflection. It’s the only reflector shape that can provide that amount of output, so it’s useful for simulating daylight.

Typically, you’ll find par reflectors in a HMI, which stands for Hydrargyrum medium-arc iodide and uses mercury vapor and metal halides in the bulb. HMIs are more efficient than tungsten lights, and they’re balanced to a daylight color temperature of around 5600K, compared to a tungsten color temperature of around 3200K.

HMI bulbs use large amounts of power, and require a ballast to prevent flicker. They also can’t be dimmed to less than 50% without affecting the color temperature. But they can light large spaces that a Fresnel can’t cover and can simulate daylight coming through a window.

Fluorescent Tubes

Fluorescent lights use an entirely different technology that allows them to emit soft light when positioned in a horizontal direction and hard light when positioned vertically. They use a mix of mercury vapor and a phosphorous coating to produce around 100 lumens per watt.

You’ll often find fluorescent tubes used in “banks,” which is generally a set of four lights lined up side-by-side. Kino Flow is the most common brand of fluorescent lighting fixtures, although you can also rig your own using a DIY setup. One of the advantages of using a KinoFlow fixture is that you can adjust the height, attach barn doors and egg crates, dim the lights, etc. It’s built to be used in a variety of settings and can be transported easily and safely.

Fluorescent tubes can be balanced to either tungsten or daylight, and you can even use tubes of different color temperatures in the same bank if you’re going for a particular look.

LEDs

The last type of lighting fixture that we’ll look at today is the LED (light-emitting diode). An LED is a semiconductor that uses electricity to emit light in 180 degrees. An LED fixture usually comes in a flat panel with multiple diodes. It can be round, square, rectangular, etc., and can even be designed to fit into the design of a tungsten fixture.

Unlike the other lighting fixtures we’ve looked at, which emit light in 360 degrees, an LED only emits light in a forward direction. This means that LEDs are more efficient and have less wasted electrical output. They also project less heat onto the subject.

However, even though you can touch them without burning yourself — which you clearly can’t do with a Fresnel — they do produce heat from the back, so some models may require fans. This limits the amount of wattage that can be built into LED fixtures.

One advantage of LEDs over tungsten lights is that you can change the color temperature to any setting you choose. This means you can shoot tungsten or daylight scenes with the same LED fixture, rather than having to switch between Kinos, HMIs, and Fresnels.

Once the heat issue is sorted out, LEDs will likely be the only fixtures you need on a film set. Because they’re so versatile, you can use them in nearly any situation, including building them directly into the art design of your set or hide them in places where they can’t be seen.

Which fixture should you choose?

Until LEDs take over film sets, we’ll still need tungstens and Kinos, so let’s look one more time at the best uses for each kind of light. Remember, these are just guidelines, so the lights that you choose will depend on your locations, timeframe, and budget, and whether you want to invest in the standard models or do some DIY rigging. In short:

  • For the best color at the lowest price, choose a tungsten Fresnel. These fixtures help you light interiors to make them look and feel like real rooms. They’re good at creating realistic skin tone, and you can easily use them to mimic daylight by using color gels.
  • For spotting small areas, use a Dedolight. They use an optical lens to allow you a high degree of control, so you can illuminate small corners and close-ups of objects.
  • For a long-throw spotlight, use the ETC SourceFour. They’re originally built for the theater, so they can create a spotlight effect for scenes when your subject is on stage.
  • For the most powerful light beam, use an HMI. They’re portable enough to use on most film sets, but their higher power intake may require the use of a generator. Use them to mimic daylight or for lighting large spaces that a Dedolight or a Fresnel can’t cover.
  • For soft lighting that’s fast and easy to set up, use fluorescents. KinoFlows are versatile and portable, and can cast a soft light over your subject in a variety of settings.
  • For sets with power or space limitations, use LEDs. Build them directly into the set design or use them right by your actors without worrying about overheating them.

Don’t forget – you can also use practicals, such as a flashlight or a table lamp. If your set design includes interior lights already, see whether they are strong enough to show up on camera. You can always swap out the bulb for one that matches the color temperature you need.

Hope you found the video and article useful. Please feel free to ask any questions in the comments below.

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