Throwback Thursday: “Murder with Lights”

“top lights” 1930s style

Paramount Sound News photographer Ray “Swede” Fernstrom, in a March 1934 International Photographer article, argues that news photographers really should quit being lazy and learn to light better.

One could only wonder what the “Swede” would have to say about toplights….

“During the last three years out here in Hollywood I’ve been studying composition, lighting and filtering. Now I’m going to pass on to you newsreelers a few pointers.

The most needed advice I can give right now is in regard to lighting. If ever “murder with lights” applied, it does to newsreel lighting with incandescents. Before I go further, let me point out that I fully appreciate the fact you newsreelers are handicapped. Yes, I realize that, with the composition, often five or six cameras are setup and forced to shoot with only four or six “lights.”

It has been a practice for years to hand newsreel men what were seriously called “lights.” A globe in a dishpan set on a fiddler’s music stand comes close to a perfect description of these. The idea of “flooding” or “spotting” a newsreel light never occurred to anyone buying new lights.

Now for the handling of these in everyday coverage. We set up our cameras, set up our lights and each one of us tries to get a “lot of light” on the subject.

What’s the result on the screen? A flat picture, flat subject, flat background, hard light and black shadows that make babies look like character actors.

Why murder folks with lights in the newsreels? There is no excuse for it, even with the present “lights.” It’s about time newsreel men used their heads in placing lights and it’s about time better lighting equipment be supplied. With but few exceptions news men have never used hard, soft and spotted lighting in coverage of subjects requiring artificial light.

Here’s the solution: Use hard lights on one side of the face or faces of your subjects. By hard light I do not mean hot or close lights the way you have been doing. Now, for the second light light or lights – set them on the opposite side of your subject, but make this or these soft, either a weaker light, a spread light, or place them further from your subject. Use all lights high, higher than the height of your subject.

Simple enough? O. K. Now for the separation of your subject from your background. Add a soft light to your lighting equipment. Get one that you can spread or spot as to cover one or more people. Use this very high in back of and above your subject from the side. Shoot it straight down on the heads and shoulders of your subject. That’s all. Of course if you wish to continue and one of the competition has an extra light, use this on your background, flooded.

That’s a simple enough explanation of studio lighting in its elementary form, isn’t it? Now if you care to further revive your subject, put on a nice light diffusion glass. You’ll be surprised at the improved results.”