Lighting in Color 101 – Things That You Should Know

Lighting in Color 101 – Things That You Should Know

Lighting for film or video is not an easy task per se. Although it brings enormous joy, it can also be quite frustrating. Especially if you are just starting out. Add color to this equation, and the task quickly becomes advanced. However, there is nothing one can’t learn. Our MZed course, “The Language of Lighting,” offers an entire module dedicated to lighting in color. There, seasoned filmmaker and educator Tal Lazar gives us thorough insights into what we should keep in mind and things to watch out for.

Color belongs to the basic characteristics of lighting, alongside intensity, angle/direction, and diffusion. (We touched on them here). There is no light without color since color simply describes the wavelength of the light itself. However, the camera perceives color unlike we do, and it’s an important bit to understand. How that affects lighting design is another interesting question. So, let’s start with them.    

Head over here to watch the full course “The Language of Lighting” on MZed.

The visible color spectrum

In 1931, CIE (International Commission on Illumination), based in Vienna, created the standard color space, which represents all the colors visible to the human eye. It looks like this:

Image source: Tal Lazar/MZed

We have referred to this diagram ever since to show the gamut of colors available on TV screens, monitors, projectors, and, of course, cameras. As Tal Lazar points out, though, we should keep in mind that our eye is the most advanced sensor. The moment we use a camera, our selection of colors becomes more limited. Why is that?

Our eyes and cameras

Let’s take a quick look at biology. Tal reminds us that we have two types of cells in our eyes: cone cells and rod cells. The former comes in three flavors, each generally sensitive to red, green, or blue. The latter are used for low light vision, which makes them mostly sensitive to the green-blue area of the spectrum. Both types combined, and we generally perceive blues and greens stronger than oranges and reds. Fascinating, right?

Image source: Tal Lazar/MZed

Why is it important to know? Well, it turns out digital image sensors in cameras were modeled after the human eye. Thanks go to Bryce Bayer at Kodak, who came up with the best color pattern in 1974 that allowed one to record all colors on one sensor. His famous invention is called the Bayer color filter array pattern and is used in almost all cameras today (including those in your smartphones).

Image source: Tal Lazar/MZed

The principle behind this pattern strives to mimic the way the human eye provides the sharpest overall color image. Thus, half of the pixels in it collect green light, and the others are evenly divided between red and blue lights (or for better visualization: 50% green, 25% red, 25% blue). That’s how cameras see color. They take most of the brightness information for the image from the greens.

How does this affect lighting in color?

Okay, now we know that the camera sensor doesn’t see all colors equally. Keeping that in mind, what should filmmakers watch out for?

Tal Lazar invites us to imagine a scene with an extreme color. For instance, a person in a darkroom is processing a photo film. Traditionally, those rooms use only red lighting, so there are no green or blue lights at all. But those two combined make up 75% of the information for the sensor, don‘t they? As a result, we will not get a very sharp image. So, to achieve this effect, you’ll sometimes have to go for another camera or take the “we’ll make it in the post” route.

Image source: Tal Lazar/MZed

The manufacturers of professional film lighting and gels know how cameras perceive color and what blind spots they have. So, they design their equipment accordingly. That’s why often, using the non-film equipment (for instance, lights for live shows or theater) won’t get us the desired result. Those lamps just don’t have to take into consideration the limitations of digital sensors. Bear that in mind when choosing your lighting gear.

Lighting in color: temperature

When we talk about lighting in color, the first term that comes to mind is color temperature. Over the last century, filmmakers broke it down into two major types of movie lights:

  • Tungsten, with color temperature (or CT) 3200K (which stands for Kelvin). Such sources are usually used indoors to emulate household lighting or outside at night to mimic street lamps.
  • Daylight, CT 5600K. Primarily, we use it to extend or emulate the light of the sun or moon.

Earlier in history, lights would be either tungsten or daylight-balanced. Nowadays, we have the flexibility of LEDs, where you can literally dial in the desired color temperature (and in some cases – any other colors from the spectrum).

In some cases, though, you will still need to work with gels, and we’ll take a brief glance at them in a moment.

Tools for measuring color

Let’s imagine that you’re using an old huge film light on set, and something seems off (maybe a color shift due to a rusty reflector?). Another scenario: you want to bring in a green touch to the background but avoid spilling it onto the protagonist’s face. How can you define those things for sure? Enter tools for measuring color.

Tal Lazar divides them into two groups: vectorscope and color meters. Vectorscope analyzes the color in an image and offers its conclusions in diagram form, so it can be used both on set and in post-production.

Image source: Tal Lazar/MZed

The thing about vectorscope, though, is that it analyzes only the video signal – the image created by a camera. In some cases, that’s enough. Yet, if you need to analyze the color of light itself, you’ll need a color meter (either a color temperature meter or a spectrometer). A spectrometer, for example, can reveal a huge difference between super cheap and expensive LEDs, which may not be visible to the naked eye. Also, it will give you the exact color temperature reading and even what color filters to use in order to convert one color to another.

Image source: Tal Lazar/MZed

Color filters and gels for lighting in color

Before LED lights came into play, filmmakers used so-called color gels. It was the primary way to create any color effect or to shift the color temperature of the light. You may wonder, but why do they still stick around?

One essential reason is brightness. Filmmakers on big sets still need to use something as powerful as 12,000-watt lamps from time to time. LEDs are not capable of such output yet.

Image source: Tal Lazar/MZed

Gels are a rather simple tool when handled correctly. You choose one and fix it in front of the light. They have their own classification. For example, the ones marked CT are used to shift color temperature. A Full CTO (“Color Temperature Orange”) will shift the light from daylight to tungsten. Tal Lazar suggests exploring the market and taking notes of gels that different manufacturers offer. You will discover so many choices, including gels for very specific color effects (like emulating fire or sodium-vapor street lighting).

If you want to dive even deeper into this topic, understand the term “mired”, learn how to decode the vectorscope readings, and see the difference between cheap and good LEDs from the camera perspective, head over to our MZed course “The Language of Lighting.” There, you will also get acquainted with lighting conventions and how to break them, as well as learn how to design light to tell your story.

What else do you get with MZed Pro?

As an MZed Pro member, you have access to over 500 hours of filmmaking education. Plus, we’re constantly adding more courses (several are in production right now).

For just $30/month (billed annually at $349), here’s what you’ll get:

  • 55+ courses, over 850+ high-quality lessons, spanning over 500 hours of learning.
  • Highly produced courses from educators who have decades of experience and awards, including a Pulitzer Prize and an Academy Award.
  • Unlimited access to stream all content during the 12 months.
  • Offline download and viewing with the MZed iOS app.
  • Discounts to ARRI Academy online courses, exclusively on MZed.
  • Most of our courses provide an industry-recognized certificate upon completion.
  • Purchasing the courses outright would cost over $9,500.
  • Course topics include cinematography, directing, lighting, cameras and lenses, producing, indie filmmaking, writing, editing, color grading, audio, time-lapse, pitch decks, and more.
  • 7-day money-back guarantee if you decide it’s not for you.

Full disclosure: MZed is owned by CineD.
Join MZed Pro now and start watching today!

Feature image source: MZed

Do you often light a shot in color? What are your go-to lights for that? Let’s talk about some tips and tricks in the comments below.

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