Light is light, right?

Image copyright: http://www.brieselichttechnik.de/

The biggest light source also happens to be free, but it comes with a catch – it’s hard to modify or reposition or dim unless you’re Superman. Since this article is for the Cameraman, we have to do with more modest superpowers:

  • The ability to cut down light by many stops with a flick of a finger
  • The power to purchase lights and modifiers that make clients pay
  • Using super vision, make bad skin look good, and good skin look like silk
  • The magical ability to bring light into the dark corners of the world
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The cameraman (or director of photography, cinematographer, lighting director, or whatever name you want to call yourself) has many choices when it comes to light:

  • Tungsten
  • HMI
  • Flurescent
  • LED
  • Plasma

To know more about lighting and fixtures, read How to Put Together a Lighting Kit. As you know, these lights output different “kinds of light”, one major property of which is color temperature. Other properties are hard and soft light, bright and dim light, color rendering, luminous efficiency and so on. Light is not just light.

Add to that, modifiers:

  • Umbrella
  • Softbox
  • Polystyrene
  • Muslin
  • Reflectors
  • Beauty dishes
  • Fresnels
  • Focusing lenses
  • Snoots
  • Grids and Egg crates
  • Filters
  • Nets
  • Butter paper
  • Silks
  • Walls
  • Enough!

The choices are so numerous, and the permutations and combinations so great, that it would take a cameraman or photographer (these designations are converging faster than you think!) years if not decades to understand and utlilize as a tool of creative expression. When you look at the pros, and the gear they use, you are seeing a reflection of their philosophy on imaging. Since this article is about light, you must study how professionals (or put it another way, the artists you love) solve lighting problems for video and film.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out there isn’t one kind of light or modifier that can satisfy everyone. Or is there? It would be foolish to deprive yourself of a tool on vague prejudices. On the flip side, it would be foolish to deprive yourself of a tool that is not only versatile, but also an object of lust. Let me put it another way – if you pride yourself in getting the best image quality with cameras like the Arri Alexa XT or the Red Epic Dragon, then you surely will want to own a pair of what many believe to be the best lighting fixture or instrument in the world.

That lighting instrument is the Briese Focus parabolic reflector fitted with their HMI, tungsten or flash lighting fixtures:

Before you misread me, let me make this clear – the absolutely best light you can ever have is the dude mentioned at the beginning of this article – the sun. It is our reference for great skin tones, mood, clarity, vision and everything else. The rest are all wannabes. The importance of the wannabes are that they are small and easier to manage. So, let’s see what’s so special about the Briese lighting system.

The Briese lighting system consists of many modifiers, but the Focus parabolic reflector (the latest model is called the focus.2) is legendary. This is what Briese has to say about their system (verbatim):

Perfection. Nothing more, nothing less! Imagine you could control the sunlight ! Conjure with it´s “special character” and the strength of every possible mood… while the shadow is under full control. With our patented technology we have achieved just that: unique, sun-like light that is four times brighter than conventional Fresenell spots and completely controllable: the light source is on a movable axis inside the middle of the reflector. Create a light with lucid points, vibrant blacks and rich contrasts. With a handle you are able to give the studio light your personal signature.

Image copyright: http://www.brieselichttechnik.de/

The design is indeed strange, and the first time I stumbled upon it I couldn’t figure out which part was the ‘light’. The following videos should clear up a lot about the system:

Now that we know what it is, let’s look at some features for which photographers and cinematographers are willing to shell out something in the region of the mid five figures (US Dollars) for a single light (no typo, the light system might cost you more than a Red Epic, and a full kit of 3-4 lights and accessories will cost you more than an Alexa):

  • It is a parabolic reflector, which has one defining property – it can concentrate light and project it as far as possible
  • The long, projectile-like lighting fixture allows you to spot or flood this beast of a reflector from a single position.
  • The quality of light achieved is somewhat like what you get from a beauty dish or sunlight – a combination of hard and soft light without hot spots
  • The entire system can be controlled from one location on set using the eFocus system
  • The focus.2 reflector can accept tungsten, HMI and flash fixtures without catching fire
  • Even spread of light across the entire surface
  • The focus.2 comes in sizes from 44 to 330 (in cm, equivalent to 17 to 130 inches)
  • The reflector can be folded like an umbrella
  • There is almost nothing else like it on the market, for any price.

Let me explain that last statement. An Arri HMI fresnel is a beautiful light which can go to spot or flood mode, but it doesn’t have a parabolic reflector modifier that can go as big as 130 inches. To get a larger surface, you would either use a soft box, silk/diffusion or bounce – none of which gives you the parabolic effect of a light source.

This makes the Briese focus.2 system unique, and versatile. You can increase the hardness by spotting the light. You can further soften the light by wrapping the reflector with a diffusion material or bouncing it. In other words, you can make it behave like ‘normal’ lights but you can’t make normal lights behave like it. Of course, being a professional company, Briese Lichttechnik also makes other modifiers like fresnels, soft boxes, globes, etc. All of their gear is said to be made from top-notch materials – no corners are cut.

For heaven’s sake, they use Briese focus reflectors as lighting fixtures or props!

Image copyright: http://www.brieselichttechnik.de/

The only other brand I know of in the entire imaging industry that can get away with being a prop is Leica. Briese focus.2 is the Leica of lights.

To help you stop drooling, here’s some photometric data:

Image copyright: http://www.brieselichttechnik.de/

So, what are the negatives (other than its price, that is)?

The quality of light you get is great for music videos, corporate videos, fashion, etc., where the human subject is most important. The system is not that great when you need a lot of punch (the HMIs only go up to 4K). In fact, on features that need a variety of scenarios it will prove insufficient.

Secondly, these reflectors are huge as you move up the range. Not all locations have that space, especially height-wise. In a studio they work great. In terms of manpower, the Briese reflectors don’t need any more men than you’d need anyway to attain the same quality of light on a set. However, on an exterior location, these are sails, and fly in the wind – so don’t assume just because they look portable they can be operated by a one-person crew.

Finally, there’s price. Even if you want to rent these lights, you’re faced with two problems. A single light can be from $500 to $1,500 per day, excluding manpower, etc. The bigger problem is that very few places stock these lights for rental. For cameramen who can afford a Red Epic or Alexa with Zeiss or Cooke lenses, a Movi stabilizer, etc., a few Briese lights are just part of the expense of doing business. It pays to be seen with the ‘right gear’ in the circles you move in.

For the rest of us mortals, these systems are beyond our means, and we must learn to use our super powers with lesser (but still expensive!) equipment like Arris and Mole Richardsons. If you find your mind wandering towards these beauties, remember that most of the great cinematography and photography you have seen and are inspired by weren’t shot with Brieses.

Here’s a music video of the late Amy Winehouse shot by Adam Frish that pretty much sums it up:

This was shot in a huge semi-derelict patrician house on Portland Place in London. There were skylights, windows and even some stairwell-exteriors to be dealt with, so I needed a daylight unit that was soft and had great output. I also needed to achieve a pleasant perfume-advertisement-kind-of-look, i.e. classic beauty stuff, which almost inevitably means front/top or slight side-lighting. I had huge ceilings, so I needed something fast and light to fly around on an arm – no time to build goalposts and built complicated toppy rigs that would always be in the way. I first toyed with the idea of having millions of Rifa-lights gelled with full CTB and ganged together like one big unit, but the power at the location forbade that. Once again the Briese-lights came to my salvation. I ordered one 180 and one 140, both with 2,5kW HMI units in them. I used them for every shot in the video, except one when I got a reflection in a window and had to use a 1,2kW HMI PAR bounced in the ceiling. I used the units with silk fronts (and you can also attach egg-crates, if need be).

On the exterior stairwell we fired up the big 180 and my gaffer, who’d never worked with them before, was amazed at their output. They crank out more light on 2,5kW’s than a 6kW HMI in a Chimera – and that’s with no hotspots whatsoever. No problem fighting the daylight with it.

…Verdict? They’re a dream come true for any soft-lighter. Fantastic lights that completely shames most other so-called soft units. Just the fact that you can rig one on a megaboom, swing it out, crank it up and create a soft toplight on a night exterior for instance – stuff that’s normally a nightmare to achieve without huge cranes and/or 10 hour pre-rig days.

What do you think? Have you ever worked with a Briese? What’s it like?

Exclusive Bonus: Download my free swipe file on how to shoot night scenes well (PDF file optimized for mobiles and tablets).

7 replies on “Are these the Best Lighting Fixtures and Modifiers Money can Buy?”

  1. Sareesh Sudhakaran JonathonSendall 
    I uploaded but the image didn’t appear for some reason.

  2. Sareesh Sudhakaran JonathonSendall
    Her skin came out a little shiny but manged to get it back down in post. The shine was because of the make up artist.

  3. JonathonSendall  Aha! There’s nothing like experience to throw cold water over wishful thinking. I knew there had to be some negatives I missed. Thanks for sharing.

    And you shot with a Briese…sigh.

  4. I’ve shot with the Briese and it is indeed great for beauty shots etc. But one thing someone who has no experience of the light might be shocked by is the sound they make when on. They are quite noisy and you sound man might hate you for it. Otherwise they are literally brilliant.

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