THE TRUTH ABOUT LIGHTING PEOPLE OF COLOR
By Troy Smith
The screen grabs throughout this piece are all from my own cinematography. Each instance came with its own set of unique challenges. I lit using different tools and techniques to best achieve the desired feel for each scene. Most of these examples were shot on film with out the benefit (or crutch) of the various scopes that are used on digital cameras today. If you’d like to know more about how I accomplish any of these looks, please feel free to reach out to me at: [email protected]
I’ve come across some articles recently that claim to teach cinematographers how to “properly” light people of color. As a cinematographer who has photographed a great deal of people of color, in a huge variety of situations, I’d like to respond to some of the misguided theories that are going around claiming to be a guide to the “proper” way to light.
Lighting is an art and every situation will be different and will pose a new set of challenges.
These challenges are what make the art of cinematography exciting. One of the challenges we face is bringing out the beauty of the tonal differences in people for color. We strive to translate that beauty and the unique qualities of darker complexions that we see with our bare eye to film (or the camera sensor) and eventually to the screen.
As cinematographers, along with our team (gaffer, key grip, etc.), we must paint with light. We start with the canvas that we are given by our collaborators. Our collaborators being our producers, directors, production designers, make-up artists, hair stylists, and wardrobe stylists, among many others who all work together to build the pallet. In addition, we work closely with our colorists in pre and post production to craft the right mood for the piece.
Speaking of collaborators, specifically make-up artists, statements have been circulating regarding the use of make-up to help people of color “shine” so that light will reflect off of them. I completely disagree that this is some kind of universal formula.
To any cinematographer with a modicum of experience and competence, the following Spoiler Alert should come as no surprise – There. Is. No. Formula. A cinematographer should approach lighting people of color the same way that they approach lighting anyone or anything else.
Simply putting shiny make up on your talent for reflecting light will probably only serve to make them look sweaty. That could be perfect for a scene where your actor or actress has just come in from a jog, or maybe dancing at a club, but not in most other cases. Let your make-up artist do their job in order to serve the scene and the vision of the director, and you do yours, which is to properly light the subject. “Properly” should always mean, “Use the best lighting to serve the scene and the emotion that is being created by the collaborative efforts of everyone on the crew.”
The idea of, “light reflecting off of a subject,” has been used as a “how to” for lighting people of color. The scientific fact is that light reflects off of everything. That’s literally how we see. We see objects because they reflect light from a source – the sun, a lamp, a bounce board, etc. Not only is that how our eyes see, it’s also exactly how film and camera sensors “see.” The quality of light that we put on people – of any pigmentation – can and should vary with how we desire to see that person – or for that matter background scenery, props, set walls, etc.
Whether using direct light from a fixture or bouncing into a reflective surface we light from a source. Reflecting light off of a bounce board to illuminate the subject turns the bounce board into that source, effectively making it a light. Once you have a source, then you can begin to shape the light to your desired look.
Regardless of the light fixture or implement we choose to use we are painting with light. Just as painters start with broad strokes so do we, roughing in light and color. Then we move to our fine brushes – cutters, nets, diffusion, colored gels and more. We shape the light.
Then, when we find a look that we like, we balance the light, bringing the levels and contrast to a place that we’re happy with. Key light, fill light, back light, background light, etc. Again, there is no formula for this. We may want to fill a face in for more detail or keep light off for a silhouette or make one of the million or so other choices that lay in-between. This is done for people of all complexions. We balance light between actors according to their proximity to one and other, to the background, even to the light source until the balance looks and feels proper.
The idea in all cases is to make our actors or subjects look the way they look, or more specifically the way they “should” look for a given scene. Some scenes are meant to be bright, others dark, some flat, others contrasty. As a cinematographer gains experience his or her approach to – and grasp of – the varying challenges will come with more ease.
Simply stating that keeping light off the background or that shiny make-up is the key to lighting people of color is misguided, as it implies that there are short-cuts to knowing how to light properly. There are not. We light our shot to serve the scene and the script. This can be easily achieved with people of color in countless ways, using the many techniques and tools at our disposition, with the most important tool being… our eye.
Relying on scopes to tell you, “this level must be here, and this level must be there” – has made many out there forget to trust their eye. When a cinematographer uses his or her eye to light the shot, treating each new shot as though it were a unique painting, they’re going to come up with something a whole lot more interesting and dynamic than by trying to use some sort of formula.
Cinematography is not painting by numbers. To suggest that there is a formula for any aspect of it demeans the art that we as cinematographers have devoted our lives to. People of different skin tones look different from one another when we see them out in the world, and so they should look different on a movie or TV screen. The key is understanding beauty and balance within a frame.
Troy Smith has been a cinematographer for more than 25 years. He has lensed features, commercials, documentaries, and music videos. Including hundreds of pieces featuring and starring people of color.