Cinematography Mailing List - CML

Midnight Mass By Candlelight

I haven't been around on the list much of late but I've got a seasonally appropriate challenge for all of you: As part of a cinema-verite documentary about a Catholic church outside Boston I'll be filming a midnight mass on Christmas eve.

I've been working with an Ikegami HL-DV7 DVCam camera which rates out at about ASA 800 and it's been performing very well in various available light situations. I suspect this shoot will be a real test of its mettle as the entire service in the big old church takes place by candle light alone. (The priest admits even he has a hard time seeing his text.)
The crew consists of the director (doing sound), myself and a Vietnamese translator so we're not really staffed or budgeted for helium balloons, Kino Flos in the kneelers or anything like that. I'm hoping to lay in some extra candles and maybe (if my verite conscience will allow it) plant a couple of 9" mini-Kino tubes in critical places.

The challenge of capturing the spirit of this very solemn ritual is appealing to me. I'm wondering what "lighting-from-the-shelves-at-the-dollar-store" tricks you all have come up with in similar situations.

All the very best to you all as the year comes to a close..

Stephen McCarthy


If you could change the candles to double or triple wick ones you would get a fair bit more light out of them.

Don't know where you can get them in the jolly old USofA but they are easy to come by in the land of Hollywood bad guys.

Good luck

Chris Maris

>I'm wondering what "lighting-from-the-shelves-at-the-dollar-store" tricks >you all have come up with in similar situations.

I always like the aluminium reflector clip lights one can purchase in a variety of sizes and wattage capabilities. Paper tape on some diffusion with an 250 watt ECA or smaller and it works like a charm. Test this out first and be sure the socket is able to handle the wattage of the lamp.

Best Regards,

Jim Sofranko

>....takes place by candle light alone...

The suggestion of double wick candles is a good one but they are a bit pricey and may not fit the votive holders that are practical. Definitely get as many candles happening as you can!!!

You should probably take a look at some kind of diffusion. Maybe even back-netting if you are going to be bothered by filter reflections. ProMist filters do a nice job of giving a glow to the candles.

Maybe UltraCon or LoCon if you want to work more on bringing a bit of level into the blacks.

David Perrault, csc

>The suggestion of double wick candles is a good one but they are a bit >pricey and may not fit the votive holders that are practical.
>... Definitely get as many candles happening as you can!!!

Yup, that’s true.

Maybe if you can have a number of fixed candles, as on stands etc., you could rig low voltage bulbs into the candles, away from camera, wrapped in diffusion and a suitable coloured gel, say Lees 1/2 CTS. As I have said
before, I have done this on film and got a very usable stop.

Hope you sort it.

Chris Maris


I'd try to use as much reflected light as I possibly could. Rosco silver or even white cotton sheets lain on every available surface or tacked to boards would help or silver Mylar - the 'underwater' effect from it rippling probably isn't a problem when it's candle light to begin with.

Many years ago I had a large diameter concave mirror which was a terrific tool for not only bouncing light but concentrating it on a particular spot too. Great till someone smashed it.

You could get one here :

or if you are also a fan of barbeque, here :

Tom Townend,

This may be a little off-base, but incense smoke adds fill - lowers contrast a bit - kinda like pre-flashing the film

I first noticed this in a church - If they are using incense anyway, adding a bit more or burning some in farther corners of the church will help bring up the shadows a bit without breaking the mood.

Mark Weingartner

LA based

Jim Sofranko writes:

>I always like the aluminium reflector clip lights one can purchase in a >variety of sizes and wattage capabilities.

And If you're using diffusion, make sure to leave some gaps to ensure ventilation.

You can also clothespin aluminium foil and blackwrap to the reflectors, to create barn doors, cookies, etc., which are easily rotated to any angle.

Small clip lights with foil barndoors make great backlights and spotlights that can be attached to just about anything -- stands, bookshelves, chandeliers, etc. Encapsulated halogen reflector bulbs, available at any hardware store,
are durable and very efficient...

Dan Drasin
Marin County, CA

I really like those clamp lights too - I usually have a couple in my kit.

The other way to go to build up the ambience is paper lanterns - perhaps a few large ones up high would lift the shadows just enough...

Ted Hayash
Los Angeles, CA

>Small clip lights with foil barndoors make great backlights and >spotlights that can be attached to just about anything

Considering the color temp and general color of your candles, if you go this route, you might consider just using 150w household bulbs - the lower color temp may match better with your candles anyway.

Mark Weingartner

>And If you're using diffusion, make sure to leave some gaps to ensure >ventilation.

A clever way that I've seen gaffers address that problem is to pierce the diffusion with small holes.

Wrap the diffusion and paper tape it tightly to the light. Then take a sharp object like the point of a matte knife to make small holes in the diffusion. Another method is to use a pattern cutter used by dress makers. It looks like a pizza cutter but has little points on the cutting edge.

This makes small holes in the diffusion or gel and provides the light with adequate ventilation while keeping it's profile small and compact for hiding in places unseen. For higher wattages, some people even drill holes in the back of the reflector although Mark W. wisely pointed out that the wattage can probably be kept lower. Also the clip lights reflectors are available with a variety of sizes and shapes, all using the same threaded socket.

One method of lighting may be the diffused clip light as we discussed but for a harder light source there is a wonderful selection of small par and reflector bulbs available from Home Depot. These may come in handy for a harder light or a longer throw. They are available in a variety of sizes, wattages and beam spreads. You can even use the clip light without the reflector to keep it low profile.

What makes this approach interesting is that it is a box of clip lights, a box of bulbs, a box of reflectors, a bit of diffusion, color gel and paper tape with some zip cord extensions and your all set. Very simple and inexpensive.

Hope this helps.

Best Regards,

Jim Sofranko

>"...the entire service in the big old church takes place by candle light >alone."

Hi Stephen -

I think that a good trick might be to buy a whole bunch of strands of white Christmas Lights and just hang them out of shot and strategically string them along the backside of the pews, pulpits, columns, etc. The color temp of these lights is very warm (which will sell as candle light I think), but more importantly they won't distract from the ambiance of the service...

I think that it would not be bothersome at all to see them in the shot.

(And they are readily available this time of year!).

Would be nice to have a glow outside the stained glass windows too, but that might be another topic entirely.

I would like to add that the Christmas Lights could be put in line with a dimmer, so they could be warmed up (dimmed down) to match candle light even more closely if needed, but they are already at about 2000 K.


Toby Birney
broadcasting live from Vilnius, Lithuania
based in L.A.


Another option you could try is A/C fed MR 16s (available in various wattages), if you mount them in groups of six (2 rows of three), in a standard aluminium box, you get a small cheap light source. Then if you randomly pair the bulbs, leave one pair direct on A/C, the other 2 pairs on flicker units if you keep one flicker unit on slow flicker & the other on a faster flicker, you can create a subtle flicker/flame effect. Gel is your choice but Lee 004 (med. Bastard amber) give a nice candle/flame colour & you can soften to taste.

All of the above are available from hardware stores quite cheaply (the flicker boxes from any rental co., not overly expensive), if you have a few extra dollars there is a new range of MR 16s that have had the basic filament replaced by LEDs (available from more specialised stores in US try Radio shack/In UK RS), slightly less light output but the beauty is less radiant heat so you can place the gel directly on the glass at the front of the unit & not have the gel melt, & get the units closer to your subject.

Done this after extensive testing with fires, flame bars & candles, & got some great comparisons, but remember with candles less is more, the amount of flicker from a candle indoors is very very subtle. We’ve made units as small as 8 x 6 x 3, easy to hide. Hope this is of some use.


James Mc Guire
Gaffer Dublin

Steve McCarthy writes:

>I'm wondering what "lighting-from-the-shelves-at-the-dollar-store "tricks >you all have come up with in similar situations.

Church lights are often on dimmers. If that's the case maybe you can have the church lights on a low setting to give you a decent overall level.

If they're not on dimmers, you (an electrician) can temporarily wire in dimmers at the breaker panel for the lights you need.

Brian Heller
IA 600 DP

You are going to need to light this and whether it's 3 wick candles or cleverly hidden fixtures it is going to be a little intrusive. So, if you haven't already, you and the director should bight the bullet and have a discussion with the priest about what "candlelight" means when it's on DV. I don't think "some extra candles and maybe... plant a couple of 9" mini-Kino tubes in critical places" is going to get you what you want.

My favourite cheap trick (like Chris Maris's) is those little golf ball size vanity bulbs in bare sockets hidden behind pews, lecterns, candles etc. Put them ganged on 600w household dimmers and dim them down to warm them up. I usually use 40w but it depends on the placement so get a variety. (They also work great for restaurant back ground tables a trick I learnt from Tass Michos on "Man in the Moon"). They are hot bulbs though so you have to warn every one and watch out for seeing the bulbs when you change angles.

Oh and watch out for quantization in the near blacks due the DV compression and any DSP/gain tricks your camera may try and pull at low light levels.

Robin Melhuish

Director of Photography
Los Angeles


The great thing from hardware stores are rope lights and Christmas tree lights. I often use them for night time car interiors (yes you can get them in 12 volt for the lighter socket). Anyway, you could hide the lights on the podium, etc. I doubt in a documentary (360 degree shooting) you'll find a place in the pews, but up front you should have lots of opportunities to place them. Don't be afraid of multi coloured Christmas lights; just like the old theatrical footlights (red, blue, white) they give off a very flattering light, but will be different from candlelight.

Stephen Lighthill, ASC

Rosco silver or even white cotton sheets lain on every available surface >or tacked to boards would help or silver Mylar

Dollar store "Safety Blankets", are an item I always carry in my kit for reflective fixes. I've found them extremely useful in so many situations, you can cut them up. They're very lightweight, They unfold to a surface area of 6'x3.5', and they cost exactly 1$. Its best to scrunch them up first to eliminate the fold pattern and improve random reflection. In the finely crinkled state they make interesting back drops. In one situation I seamed 40 some odd sheets together with Super77 and created a seamless Cyc. With a total weight of about one pound, it was very easy to tape to the ceiling the gridless makeshift studio.

It resembled the inside of a large Jiffy Pop container. One caution, if they are hanging and not fixed to a stiffer surface (foamcore etc...,) because of the extreme lightweight, sight breezes cause by nearby movement, will undulate the surface. This can also be an interesting desired effect.

Good luck
Andrew Semple


I think one idea to bring the level of various sections of the church up, but at the same time keeping an atmosphere of normal ambience might be to hang clear icicle type Christmas lights as a decorative element. They work great if you're looking to light large areas evenly, and they can live in the shot !! I have these hanging on my house and they read out at 6 footcandles from a eight foot distance.

Another cheap way to throw some spotty light is to use pinspots ($15-20 each). Used naked they throw a harsh, irregular pattern... but adding some Hampshire or opal will smooth it out. I buy mine at Musician's Friend ( a music and DJ online store ) but I'll bet you can get them in Boston at the same price.

Because it's a church service, I'm guessing that the priest will appreciate you hiding the lights. These pinspots have a yoke but no baby receiver. If you work with 4 of these instruments, you can screw the yolk on a 1x3 piece of lumber which can lock into a griphead and be discreetly placed. It's almost like working with a baby triple header.

Best wishes,
Jack Cummings
Buffalo DP

I haven't tested this but I've always wondered if it would work. It might be problematic with candles. Use some sort of heavy filter (Low Con or Ultra Con) that really milks out the image. This might give you more detail in the shadows, and you can later bring down the blacks and massage the gamma in post for a nicer look.

If you have a matte box (hopefully not Chrosziel, because this trick doesn't work well in them) tip the filters forward to minimize filter kicks.

As far as off-the-shelf lights, the one that comes to mind when I think "bang for the buck without finesse" is the Q-Beam.

A Google search reveals some at

(I am not affiliated with this store in any way.)

I don't know how big your church is but these might add a footcandle or two if you want to create a bounce source somewhere overhead.

My approach in candlelit situations has always been to boost the ambient light level to the point where there's shadow detail but the candles still work on their surroundings. I haven't lit anything as big as a church that way but for small to medium-sized rooms a couple of tungsten units with full CTO bounced off the ceiling or from a bounce in the direction of the candles has worked wonderfully.

I worked on a feature where the method used for lighting a church was to aim a Raybeam at the ceiling. It worked marvellously.

Art Adams, DP
Mountain View, California - "Silicon Valley"

I shot a Christmas PSA for the Lutheran Church 2 years back...we intended on showing the audience the comparison of a crazy Christmas season at he mall and ending on a candle-light service.

We shot time-lapse in shopping malls and mounted to car hoods to show crazy shopping activity and then we finished in the church on 35mm with rear-nets on the rear of Cooke primes.

What an incredible look!

I used 5279 and shot almost wide-open [remember to compensate for the net's ND factor] and I used a few 2K Jnrs. for soft rims/backs as well as mini-flos on the key players...otherwise the cast was lit exclusively by the actual candles.

We used regular church candles, not fancy 3 wick just worked great because the singers actually keep the candles fairly close to their face. I might have used a mighty or 2 into bounce boards for some ambient light...I just remember the candles doing an incredible job all by them selves.

Shoot a few Polaroids to confirm your exposure.

Jeff Barklage, s.o.c.
US based DP

Dear Stephen :

Your approach to lighting the church is just right. You have overcome the barrier of too much knowledge. There are all those magical lighting tools out there and you know about Kino’s and balloons a still look ahead with "lighting" without them. Some of the best shots I ever did was when I didn’t know any better! I suspect the way you'll be working getting outlets and stingers from any lights will be tough. Have you thought about a small video light like the Sony HVL 20DW2? Its DC 7.2 Volts about three inches high. I have wrapped tracing paper around it to make an invisible light. You would put a warming gel to match candles. On picture I just finished I had the little light on a monopod to change the angle and intensity. As you know so well the best lighting will look like no lighting. The Video light I was talking about uses Sony Lithium batteries. Well nobody asked me but it is enjoyable to sit at this machine and talk to somebody I don’t know who loves to make images.

Take it easy but take it.

Haskell Wexler

Haskell Wexler writes :

>Some of the best shots I ever did was when I didn’t know any better!

Early this year I shot a large local peace march here in San Rafael, California. Just went out at the spur of the moment with my single-chip Sony PC9 with a Sennheiser short-shotgun bracketed to the top. Everyone was carrying candles, and round about dusk they lit them all at once.

Did a lot of tracking close-in at wide angle, just walking backwards. At a certain point the balance of ambient light, sky light and candlelight combined to produce something really gorgeous and magical. I wished that the Great Gaffer in the Sky could have held that lighting setup forever....

>On picture I just finished I had the little light on a monopod to change >the angle and intensity.


What's the running time of that Sony light with the largest available battery?

Best regards,

Dan Drasin
Marin County, CA

>Early this year I shot a large local peace march here in San Rafael, >California. Just went out at the spur of the moment

Funny. I did the same thing about two weeks ago in Hudson, NY. Shot an outdoor candlelight vigil with a Sony 1000 at magic hour and there was a time frame where it all balanced very well.

I wonder how many of us on this list have shot candlelight vigils recently?

Might be a good source of stock footage for projects.

Happy Holiday's

Jim Sofranko

I just want to say that this is one of the best threads that we’ve had for a long time.

This is what CML is about.


Geoff Boyle FBKS
Director of Photography
EU Based

Geoff Boyle writes :

> I just want to say that this is one of the best threads that we’ve had for a >long time.

Me too. I can't wait to find out how it all turns out.

I hope Steve will tell us...

Brian Heller
IA 600 DP

Thanks to everyone. You've given me so great suggestions and reminders for what to pack in me old kit bag for this one. I've got a lot to go on and I'll certainly will y'all in on how we work it out.

Holiday cheers to you all and God rest ye merry gentle people...

Stephen McCarthy

Hope you've all had a warm and restful break.

Here's a Sunday morning go-to-meetin' debrief on the midnight mass :

I arrived at St. Patrick's early Wed. evening to find the parish priest in gym shorts and work boots high atop the two-story marble facade behind the alter distributing a milk crate's worth of votive candles to any horizontal surface that would hold them. If you thought the "dogma" filmmaking movement had strict guidelines I need only remind you that the Catholic Church pretty much invented the concept - "candles only" meant candles only. However, for my trouble I also gained entry into the mysterious world of Roman Catholic gripology when the ever-creative church facilities manager pulled out some triple-header window candelabra’s he'd welded together from 1/2" black iron pipe couplings and wrought iron that morning. In the course of two hours, a half dozen volunteers distributed every imaginable form of candle to almost every corner of the sanctuary.

I had assembled a crate's worth of string lighting and small Ikea mock-pewter lamps with 12 volt MR-16s inside (we christened these "The Paul Revere") In the end, these stayed in the crate and it was black wrap and aluminium HVAC tape that carried the day. I was able to fashion some small, unobtrusive candle reflectors out of this heat resistant duct sealing tape and attach these to various large candles to serve as kickers in various strategic locations around the alter. Bent at just the right angle, these doubled the output of the larger candles. I also discovered a loophole in the candles-only rule in that I was allowed to place a few D-lights and a small HMI on the adjacent rectory building to supply minimal illumination to one wall of stained glass windows. This gave me very pleasant coloured highlights off various reflective marble and hardwood architectural features around the church.

The choir showed up about an hour before kick-off and immediately began complaining that they couldn't see their sheet music. On short order a dozen convenience store flashlights materialized and I found myself with a choir loft full of beautiful bounce cards and those hundreds of votives atop the distant alter in soft focus in the deep background. This all came together for a very moving rendition of "Oh Holy Night" high above the darkened sanctuary with the shadows of parishioners filtering in.

In the end, the night's sweet spots tended to be a matter of placing myself so that my subjects were rimmed by the illuminated stained glass windows with the triple candle fixtures directly behind them for a sort of golden halo. In the best of situations I had lots of foreground candles to shoot through and the wall-o-votives put out enough light that I actually was able to get some level on the church's vaulted ceiling. At +6dB gain I had a pleasantly under-exposed look with lots of votive halation to "flash" the blacks. The night was a series of scenelets - including some hilarious commentary from the exhausted choir director complaining about the darkness and alter servers saying they couldn't bear to look at another candle. (I've learned that dripping wax is a major occupational hazard for many mass participants). Shooting was a frantic walk on eggs but I felt like I managed to unobtrusively capture a sense of this very central ritual in a people's wintering through a dark night in their faith. This, in fact, was a central theme to the priest's sermon that evening so I was pretty much bound to accept his restrictions on lighting.

The night's end found me, dressed all in black, squeezing through the vent pane of a stained glass window of a nativity scene - a sort of anti-Santa hauling my artificial north star off the roof.

Thank you all for your illuminating contributions. It's been an unexpected pleasure to share a few virtual hot toddies beside the new electronic hearth with you all. The snow in Vermont this morning is covered crystalline feathers unlike anything I've seen before so I'm going out to soak in some more available light nourishment.

Happy New Year!

Stephen McCarthy

Dear Stephen :

Thank you for sharing your experience.


Haskell Wexler

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