Switched On - Getting an Angle on Lighting

 

 IT AIN'T WHAT YOU LIGHT, IT'S THE WAY THAT YOU LIGHT IT...

A sensible starting point for Lighting Designers is to ask, “where shall the light come from?” or to put it another way: “what angle of light shall we use?”

The angle at which a beam of light hits an object can reveal very different things. The two extremes being clarity and interest. Clarity is about how clearly the object being lit appears to the audience. Whilst interest is about how dramatic the object appears. These two ideas can, and often should, work together - but often one actually works to cancel out the other, as the former attempts to rid the view of all character-giving shadow, whilst the former tries to increase the effect of light seen against shadow.

When looking at lighting angles we need to consider where a light source is supposedly coming from. And the justification can be literal or abstract – i.e. the source could be said to be the sun or a table lamp, or it could be non-justified – i.e. the audience is not expected to see a link between the light source used and any usual light source.

The basic lighting angles are listed below. They all refer to the way the source hits the object as perceived by the viewer:

  • Flat light - light going straight to the object in a similar eye line to the viewer
  • Back light – light from behind the object
  • Side light – light from beside the object
  • Top light – light from above the object
  • Up light – light from below (and in front) of the object
  • Variations on these five angles include:
  • High front light – light from height, from above and in front of the object
  • Cross light - light from height and to the side of the object.

The choice of angle is dependant on what we are trying to convey – so let us consider the emotional weight or apparent meaning of these angles:

Flat light can be said to be boring as no shadows = no interest. But in a different context (i.e. used powerfully) it also has an interrogatory look.

Back light can be described as spooky or mysterious.

Side light is interesting, powerful, if somewhat abstract.

Top light can also be spooky and mysterious but can also look oppressive and dominating – i.e. It appears to push down on the object being lit.

Up light is strange, weird and most unusual – it is after all the most unlikely of angles.

High front light – is a good balance between interesting and clear, and also happens to mimic angles of light we are very used to seeing - i.e. a source at that angle could be the sun, a street light or an interior light.

Cross light is not as normal as high front light, but it is less strange than pure side light as it comes from above.

One of the most important things we can learn from this is that Shadow is as important as Light when it comes to revealing or showing the shape and form of an object, and in conveying interest. The interplay between shadow and light is called CIAROSCURO.

Combining Angles:

The basic angles of light can appear to be very different when used in combination – but remembering what they provide in isolation allows us to identify what they are contributing in any particular picture.

It is also worth noting that the use of too many angles of light simply blurs or swamps the picture– giving clarity but not interest - as is often the case in these things : less is more.

A combination of angles allows us to combine their uses – i.e. an angle for definition combining with an angle for drama. Some sources require more detailed examination:

Back Light: What is most notable is how back light – which in isolation fails the clarity test so thoroughly it can be rarely and then only briefly used on its own – in combination with other angles really becomes a force to be reckoned with. Especially as a definer of shape and form.

This underlines an important feature of lighting – its ability to project towards the viewer the object being lit. Back light or rim light (light that silhouettes the object) identifies to the viewer the three-dimensionality of the object – reveals its form – and thus pushes the object towards the viewer. The importance of this concept cannot be over stressed.

Key Light: This is simply the idea that a stage picture with a strong, dominant source of light is most attractive. Probably not the least reason for this is because a strong key, as from sunlight for example, is something we find naturally appealing. Obviously making one particular source stronger than another is not particularly difficult to achieve, but it does look good.


Here is the summary concerning lighting angles:

  • The direction from which a light hits an object, as seen by the audience, is vital when it comes to how that object will look.
  • Lighting as defined by its angle of approach can be FLAT or FASCINATING; it can be REALISTIC or STRANGE; it can be BELIEVABLE or FALSE.
  • The ways in which any of these can be realised is down to the way we see light working in the real world.
  • A strong single light source can be highly effective.
  • The appearance of a single powerful light source, amongst many, is called a Key. The use of a Key Light can also be highly effective.

Alongside our knowledge of how individual lighting angles work in different ways, we also can sum up what we have said about lighting angles generally in the following:

LIGHT REVEALS FORM

TOTAL VISIBILITY IS OFTEN BORING

SHADOW ENHANCES LIGHT

TOO MANY SOURCES WILL MEAN A LOSS OF DEFINITION

A DOMINANT ‘KEY' SOURCE IS HIGHLY EFFECTIVE

EXERCISES:

In developing one’s skills as a Lighting Designer there is no substitution for actually doing the job. However in preparation for undertaking an actual design it is useful to try things out first by practical experimentation. You can usefully set your own experiments or set them for your colleagues. In addition, whilst described for the individual, most of these exercises can be easily adapted for group work.

It is also a good idea to keep a notebook or JOURNAL of ideas, references, sketches, past successes, pictures, photographs, postcards, etc, etc. Such a journal can become a source of good ideas and a useful aide memoir. Certainly the results and any sketches or notes made whilst working on the following exercises could be usefully included in such a journal.

GENERAL NOTES: Most practical exercises require that you can obtain a blackout and the use of several light sources – obviously theatre luminaires are intended but in some exercises torches may also suffice. Some of the exercises may also work in miniature – i.e. using small torches and a table top. Other, non-practical exercises, are of the kind that will help you fill a note book or a journal of ideas. The latter are marked ***

Colour (i.e. gel) is not used in any of these exercises unless specified.

 

Exercise 1: GETTING AN ANGLE ON IT

a. Find yourself an interesting inanimate object to light – for example stack several overturned chairs on top of each other or throw a cloth over a the legs of a upturned table.

b. Choose your point of view – i.e. place your self in relation to the object.

c. Choose three light sources and place them at different angles to light the object.

d. Look at how the three sources look on their own – describe them to yourself.

e. Look at how any two of the sources combine – and describe them.

f. Look at how all three sources work together – and again describe them.g. If you can dim the sources – use this to create key and fill light combinations.

NOTES: This exercise can be repeated over and over, choosing 3 different angles on each occasion. The need to describe what you see is particularly useful in terms of later having to talk about and describe your lighting ideas to other people.

To add interest, and make the light sources clearer, put a very different strong colour in each source – e.g. red, blue and green.

 

*** Exercise 2: PICTURING THE LIGHT

a. Take the list of basic lighting angles:

  • Flat light Back light Side light Top light

Up light b. Get hold of a stack of old magazines, and look in them for examples of each lighting angle appearing somewhere in the illustrations.

c. When you have enough examples – put each pile in order of how best or how purely they illustrate the angle.

NOTES: Inevitably some of the angles above are more likely to appear than others, and all of them are unlikely to appear in their purest form.This exercise can be returned to when you have found a new pile of magazines. Paste the best images in a file for future reference.

You can also do the same exercise using images from TV or DVD.

*** Exercise 3: SEEING THE LIGHT

a. Take the list of basic lighting angles:

  • Flat light Back light Side light Top light

  • Up light

b. Search out various locations – e.g. your bedroom, classroom, library, park.

c. Write down the location in a sketch book (geography, time of day, etc) and note the angle(s) of light you can see at work in each location.

d. If you are good at drawing make a sketch of each location – and add this to you journal.

NOTES: Create a short hand symbol for each angle (this will be useful when taking notes at any time).

 

Exercise 4: THREE AGAINST ONE

The exercise is similar to that of Exercise 1, above but instead of an inanimate object a person is used as the model. Once again the act of describing what you see in words is a valuable part of the exercise. Indeed working with a friend or colleague in this way, and taking time to describe to each other what your results suggest, will greatly enhance this exercise.

a. Plan to place your ‘model' in the middle of your space. (you may want to seat him/her – you could be some time!).

b. Choose your point of view – i.e. place your self in relation to the ‘model'.

c. Choose three light sources and place them at different angles to light the ‘model'.

d. Look at how the three sources look on their own – describe them to yourself in terms of what they remind you of, and what, if any atmosphere or dramatic emotion they suggest.

e. Look at how any two of the sources combine, and likewise describe them.

f. Look at how all three sources work together, and describe again.

g. If you can dim the sources – use this to create a key and fill light – OR move on to exercise 6 which expands on this theme.

NOTES: This exercise can be repeated over and over, choosing 3 different angles on each occasion.This exercise can also be undertaken by a small group with each individual choosing the position of a single unit – in which case a useful additional rule is no unit within 2-3 metres of anyone else's one.

NB The lighting rig created for this exercise can be used again for Exercise 6.

 

Exercise 5: PLAYING WITH THE BASICS

It is so important to understand the way in which individual light sources from various angles aid or hinder good lighting that we make no apology for this exercise being very similar to those above – practising one's art is never time wasted.Create a lighting rig to light a person stood in the middle of your area with 5 units. Each unit to provide one of the following basic lighting angles:

  • Flat light

  • Back light

  • Side light

  • Top light

  • Up light

Of course in order to do this you will have to be very clear as to where your point of view will be – i.e. where you will view the results from, and therefore from where you will define the angles – e.g. back, top, side, etc

Having finished your rig:

a. Look at how the 5 sources look on their own – describe them to yourself in terms of what they remind you of, and what, if any atmosphere or dramatic emotion they suggest.

b. Look at how any 2 of the sources combine, and likewise describe them.

c. Look at how all 3 sources work together, and describe again.

d. If you can dim the sources – use this to create a key and fill light variations.

e. Ask yourself the following questions:

Do you like or dislike any of the angles for what they do on your model?

Choose you favourite single source – why is this the one you like?

Do you like or dislike any particular combination of angles that you have created? Why is this? Can you use your rig to make the model look to be a strong dramatic character - e.g. like a hero, or a weak one - e.g. like a prisoner?

Can you use your light sources to create any specific atmospheres?

Try these: Mystery / Horror / Suspense / Fun / Drama / Warmth / Weirdness / Excitement / Tedium / Oppression.

NOTES: We are now moving into using quite specific emotional terms for our lighting. In doing this it is important to understand that there are no rights and wrongs here, merely matters of opinion.

NB The lighting rig created for this exercise can be used again for Exercise 6.

 

Exercise 6: THE KEY TO SUCCESS

This exercise is about making lighting look real, and for it either lighting rigs created for Exercises 4 or 5 may be used – in which case go to c). Or start again at a).a. Place your ‘model' in the middle of your area.b. Choose three units and rig them such that you can light your ‘model' as follows:c. Using your rig create lighting on your model to suggest a bright sunny day – NB No colour can be used.d. Check your work by asking another to comment on your picture – ask them:

“What type of naturalistic lighting does it suggest?”

If they guess correctly – i.e. “daytime” or “a sunny day”, ask them to say where the sun light is coming from – i.e. which unit represents the sun. e. Repeat the exercise to suggest darkness with a moonlight source.

 

NOTES: This exercise is about creating a strong and evident key source – i.e. a clear and brightest light source. However if done well – i.e. interestingly - the key source should not necessarily be coming from a flat angle and will need ‘filling in' with other sources. Getting the balance right between the key light and these other sources is the aim here. It has to be noted that trying this without recourse to colour makes it twice as difficult, and therefore perhaps twice as worthwhile!

NB The lighting rig created for this exercise can be used again for Exercise 9.

 

Exercise 7: LOCATION - LOCATION

Creating effective ‘naturalistic' key-light is perhaps easier if colour can be used to influence the viewer as to what they are looking at – therefore colour is allowed in the exercise below. However this exercise is still fundamentally about the balancing of light levels between differently angled light sources, and the creation of key.

Once again, plan to place your ‘model' in the middle of your area, and rig lighting to create light him/her to suggest the following:

  • Sunshine in a forest

  • A cold winter's day

  • An office interior – daytime

  • A city street corner at night

  • In the control room of a submerged submarine

  • A weird and distant planet

  • The interior of a hospital

  • A tropical island

  • The North Pole

There is no end to the list above – you can add your own or better still get someone else to think of them. If working in a group, you can put them into a hat and take turns to choose. The amount of these that you attempt is of course down to the time and facilities available.

NOTES: In approaching this exercise the individual has to make a number of choices – the most basic being what equipment to use and where to place it. Sketching your ideas down – however roughly – can help you make these decisions and would help in the future when having to draw one's ideas onto a lighting plan becomes an essential part of the process.

NB The lighting rig created for this exercise can be used again for Exercise 9.

Exercise 8: DRAMATIC ATMOSPHERE

Creating effective dramatic atmospheric lighting is an important function of stage lighting. To some extent we have already discovered ideas within this area in exercise 5, however here the atmosphere is of prime interest. Colour can be used in this exercise but restraint should be used throughout – e.g. try and use it only if you cannot think of a way to succeed without it. Once again plan to place your ‘model' in the middle of your area, and rig lighting to create light him/her to suggest the following:

  • Anger

  • Redemption

  • Love

  • Envy

  • Violence

  • Peace

Once again there is no end to the list above – e.g. all of the seven deadly sins could be included! Again you (and your colleagues) can have fun adding to it. And once again the amount of these that you attempt is a matter of time and facilities available, but the rule to KEEP IT SIMPLE is a good one here.

NB The lighting rig created for this exercise can be used again for Exercise 9.

Exercise 9: SIDE BY SIDE

Many of the preceeding exercises (certainly 6 onwards) are about creating lighting around an individual – a ‘model'. The following exercise expands this further to treat a stage area rather than an individual.

a. Choose an area in which your ‘model' will be lit – i.e. the ‘model' will no longer be static. NB Do not choose too big an area – around 2m square will do.

b. Now choose any of the mini lighting rigs you have created in exercises 6 – 8 e.g. for ‘A sunny day', The North Pole, ‘anger', etc and recreate them or expand them to light the area such that your ‘model' can move around and yet remain lit as in the atmosphere described.

Obviously in some cases this will mean re-focussing your units. In some cases extra units will have to be added.

c. Pay special attention to the ‘model' lit at the extremes of the area – i.e. sides and corners. You are at all times trying to make sure the atmosphere is consistent throughout the area – get your ‘model' to move around within the space and check carefully that you have succeeded.

NOTES: This can become an important exercise in making sure that you light is even across the space that you are lighting, although this will, of course, depending a great deal on what mini exercise you have chosen. The important thing is that no light and no shadow should exist within the area unless you want it there – so look out for dark patches and hot spots.

Also be aware of how stretching a unit across to big an area can seriously compromise what it achieved when only pointed at the static ‘model' – when this occurs it is time to add another unit. This exercise is a first step toward lighting an entire stage and this is theme we will come back to in later exercises.