Cinematography Mailing List - CML

Candle Light

12th February 2004

Hi Guys!

Although I feel like I have a pretty good grasp of lighting for film, I've been in the business for twelve years now, the overwhelming majority of my gaffing experience has been with video. Now I have a big opportunity to light a major black female celebrity being shot on 35 and I must admit, I'm nervous (excited ) about it. More details will become available but here is what I know.

This woman will be in a sea of candles, maybe several hundred, in a ballroom type setting. They want her to appear to be lit only by these candles. The set will have many shafts of light cutting down through smoke. Although she is a big name the shoot is small in scale(and budget). Here are my thoughts.

The candles provide the ambience While a Barger Baglight w/flicker generator creates a key and a bounce card on hand for fill. Par cans can create the down shafts and can be used for a hard edge in the MCU when they want her silhouetted. The issue is that I don't have a clue as to whether the candles will give enough level to achieve this.

Unfortunately, the DP isn't to sure either. He wants to use 200 speed film to keep the grain low but I'm worried that we need something faster. I'm told that 5218 would be a good choice.

Any thoughts are appreciated.

Tom Burke
Gaffer, Atlanta

Rather than a single source such as one Barger Bag Light I would think it would be nice to have multiple soft lights on flicker generators or even simple dimmers. With so many candles it would look more like these are illuminating her if there are multiple sources. Also by having this many sources you can keep their individual levels low so that they appear less directional and any shadows are minimized, plus by keeping the units dimmed they'll burn warmer which will be closer to the color temp. of the candles. If other units are not available a bunch of paper lanterns should do the trick, just use some blackwrap or flagging to control the light some. It can make the star look nice if she's glowing a little brighter than anything around her or in the background.

Mitch Gross


The ambient light level 100's of candles will give will vary depending on the reflectivity of the set surrounding the actress. Obviously if it's just the actress and the candles in limbo the effect of all those candles on the scene will be different than if there are walls, set pieces, etc. that can bounce the light around. A lot will depend on how wide the shot is and the mood that you're going for. Adding smoke will bring the ambient light level up even more as the candle light will make the smoke more apparent and blacks and shadows less dense. Having positive (white) and negative (black) fill ready to place off camera will help control the ambient light somewhat.

As for the actress's key, it will be less important to have a flattering perfect key in the wide or medium wide shots. Something soft and controllable will be what you're looking for here. When you do move in to close-up, you'll want to give her a soft flattering key and if the candles are spread all around her then I would opt for very little modelling, bring it straight in from where she's looking.

I would personally shy away from adding a flicker generator to the key. Unless it's motivated it would be distracting and probably will not mimic what the candles are really doing. Lighting through beadboard can recreate the glow of candle light nicely. Experiment with the key to find a look that suits her face and the scene. Keeping her hair (probably dark) from fading into the darkness behind her will need some attention in all shots. Here's where I would use subtle flicker if I did at all. Unless she's sitting in a hard back light (like a par can) I wouldn't back light her with hard light unless completely necessary (as in a wide shot). I would warm up all my sources with a little CTO.

I'll let others comment on the 5218 vs 5274 question since I haven't shot the 18 yet. If it's for TV only, from what I've read here grain on 5218 shouldn't be an issue.

Lastly, if you can light this for video than you'll have no problem lighting it for film. Have fun.

Randy Miller, DP in LA

I agree with your observations...candle light a soft source...dimming sources or adding correction for colour temp...carefully controlling the smoke...and certainly flicker effects need to be treated with caution or they can look like a mistake.

My question : a single dark skinned subject in subdued light...other than the obvious, rim them with a backlight...but I normally look at firstly the shot by eye...then through the camera...anyone who has been around a while usually has a pretty good idea by eye roughly what the exposure will be in the wide... but on close-ups...I usually pull out the spot meter and read the skin reflectance off the subject to work out an exposure...this may not be all that successful in this case. Short of bracketing like the stills guys would you compute the exposure for this shot.

And yeah video is hard work to get a reasonable result.


Graham Rutherford

You could always try doing what I did for a commercial years ago.

We took one of the big old 5K north lights and filled it with candles.

Great softlight key but hell to clean afterwards  ...  It was Fuji 500…


Geoff Boyle FBKS
Director of Photography
EU Based

I read your email response and wondering if you could shed some more light in my direction.

I am working on a short thriller/horror shooting on Kodak 16mm film Vision 2 500. I am looking to create a cold creepy place that would somehow resemble either "Seven" or Buffalo Bill's apt (silence of the lambs") this character place has to creepy looking.

I thought about using candles to light up the place do you have any suggestion on what lights and gels should I rent out.

Thank you for your time


You could always hide low voltage lamps, wrapped in a nice coloured gel suitable for your look, in largish candles, with the cables hidden in clothing or wherever. If the lamps are always held away from the camera you can get enough light for a decent stop which actually comes from the source and is pretty cheap and very simple.

Read more if you want at


Hope this is of some use

Chris Maris

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