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As a filmmaker, you should understand that it's not always what's in front of the lens that counts. Your final shot may represent a series of static moments in time, but when you're creating it, it's a living, breathing composition. To ensure that they bear the same vitality onscreen, you'll need to invest in adequate lighting. Could LEDs be the answer?
The same way the appearance of a painter's subject evolves with the time of day and shifting seasonal light, filmmakers can create entire universes by making seemingly subtle lighting choices. Here's how using LEDs could change your lighting and shooting techniques.
LED Film Light Basics
Light sources are known for their noncontinuous spectra. If you were to view their output on a light meter's spectrometer graphs, you'd see dips and peaks corresponding to the colors that made up a particular source's output. Even the sun, for instance, emits certain types of light more strongly than others.
For filmmakers, the goal isn't to obtain the impossible smooth curve but rather to come as close as possible to an acceptable standard. For this reason, many LEDs are designed to emulate specific light sources, like the tungsten bulbs and hydrargyrum medium-arc iodide, or HMI, lamps used in stage lighting and cinematography. In other cases, they can be fine-tuned to create pure colors for specific visual effects.
Why Would You Shoot With LED Lighting?
The fact that LEDs produce stable output at specific color wavelengths is a good thing. For one thing, it means that you can use these lights as either primary or supplemental sources because they're made to match references. There are also countless other practical advantages.
Color Fine Tuning
Many LED film light kits are extremely versatile. In other words, they let you pick color temperatures to match other sources with exacting precision.
This adjustability is helpful because no light source is perfectly tuned to a given ideal. Given enough time and usage, all lighting elements degrade. If you want to maintain consistency, then you'll learn to compensate by dialing your LEDs to specific settings and taking precise note of how you configured individual shots.
It also helps that you can accomplish a lot without using color gels since you have access to a wider range of colored lighting. You may still find gels helpful when you'd rather not remember precise color settings, but with digitally controlled LEDs, you can just load them up on the fly.
Minimal Heat Output
One of the defining characteristics of LEDs is that they produce cool, intense light. If you've ever burned yourself by touching a barn door without gloves on, then you know how nice it would be to eliminate such risks entirely.
Although LEDs do create some heat, it's generally minor. It's also easily remedied by attaching heat sinks to your lights or power supplies. You can also attach gels without as much risk of them melting or fading.
Low Voltage Requirements
Another big benefit of working with LEDs is that they don't take as much voltage to produce light. Even if you don't care about the ecological impacts of your shoot, the fact that you don't have to use a ballast like you would with an HMI or fluorescent lamp has huge implications. For one thing, you don't have to worry about hot-striking an expensive bulb and potentially destroying it because you didn't wait long enough before powering back on. You can light and shoot any scene as soon as you're ready.
Broad Expense Range
It's possible to equip your DP with highly capable LED lighting without spending your entire shoot budget. Whether you're searching for a fill, key, background or catch, you can find options that will serve you well without even coming close to the cost of your camera.
On the other hand, you'll also notice that more expensive lights give you increased freedom to shoot in your preferred style. Overall, however, the fact that there are so many different options means that you retain quite a lot of flexibility.
Working Around the Cons of LED Lighting
Every light has flaws, and LEDs are no exception. Fortunately, these weaknesses are only minor.
The unique spectral characteristics and color temperatures of LEDs mean that you won't always get the same results from different options and manufacturers. As many reviewers have noted, you're likely to notice significant variances in how individual lights portray skin tones and solid color fields.
Does this mean that you should avoid LEDs? No, such changes just require you to be more diligent about keeping your lighting practices as precise as possible.
For instance, suppose that you're shooting many different scenes. You'll want to grab an accurate color meter and do some testing before you begin. Even if you plan on color grading your film after the fact, you'll benefit from taking notes along the way or at least starting off your shot by recording a color chip chart for later reference.
Sizing and Portability
Many LEDs are perfect for mounting atop DSLRs, but their lack of power may require you to combine them with other lights to obtain sufficient output. You can also, however, group high-powered LED panels with hardware like focusing lenses to produce directed results that overcome the typically soft nature of these lights.
Some new DPs may even like using multiple sets of the same LED panels in conjunction with such modifiers. Tweaking things is always a good way to learn how to master soft and hard three-point lighting.
What Should Your Next Shoot Incorporate?
Will LEDs revolutionize the way you create media? If you're a seasoned cinematographer, then there's a good chance that they already have. For those who are just getting started, however, this lighting represents a highly accessible tool for making your creative work more polished and professional.