Tip of the Week | Kill your top light

Andy Wallace of KING 5 tests out his new LED light. But not really.

Tip of the Week | Kill your top light

Written by Matt Mrozinski


A simple but important message:  “Kill your top light.”

Take it out back and put a hammer to it (don’t really do that). Your chief will be sending Storytellers the bill. We can’t afford it.

But seriously, I almost wish I could tell you to do that. It really is amazing how often I see photographers in the field gunning an absurd amount of light from their camera. If you want to set yourself apart from other photographers you can start by leaving your top light behind (along with that stick mic).

If I’m anticipating the need for a light source, I will ask the reporter to carry a small LED on a stand or I’ll take that large one Mr. Wallace has in the cover photo. I will use that to create what is called “The Reporter Sandwich”.  Meaning, during the interview I will wedge the reporter between the camera and the key light. These days LED lights are relatively cheap and every chief should be outfitting crews with at least one.

Most often, I try going with natural light, sometimes it is all you need. Our objective as a photographer is to capture reality as close to normal as possible. There is no need to inject a flat and foreign light source onto your subject. It is sure to hurt your shot more than it helps.

Use your environment to your benefit. When in the field I will look for the brightest natural light source and make it my key light. Try using street lights, face your subjects to police lights, candles, or whatever is a natural source.

Natural or 3 point lighting?

Natural light or 3 point lighting?

This was done with natural light. I identified the primary light source, used it as a key light, filtered up, shuttered up and gained down to allow my f-stop to get to 2.8. I backed the camera up and zoomed in to make for shallow depth of field (soften the background).

Natural light. Notice the window to the left of the subject.
Natural light. Notice the window to the left of the subject.

If you look to the left, that is a window that is providing the key light. On right right side of the room was another smaller window, providing a slightly less amount of light.  It made for good fill.


Working at night:

In most active situations, I don’t mind if my subject is a little dark. That’s how I perceive them in reality. Allowing the low light condition can actually add more to your storytelling than take away.

Don’t be afraid to gain up. With our 2003 old & crappy Beta SX cams I gained up to 18-24 db in extremely low light conditions before I even considered an alternative light source. With the Sony XDHD Cam I’ve gained up to 24db in extremely dark situations and still get a nice picture with just little noise. I was actually impressed by the picture quality.

An alternative option, when you have no other choice, is gearing up with a low voltage battery powered light source that you can teach your reporter to hold from an angle or can place on a stand.  People have used iPads, cell phone, candles, flash lights, in addition to LED lights.  As long as it is from an angle and controlled.

This is a clip of raw video that demonstrates that how to take advantage of a natural light source. Watch as we walk into the room and notice what DOESN’T happen.  So often we hear “click” and then witness an absurd amount of light that guns down your subject. Notice how I gain up from 9db to 12db then back down to -3 and switch filters as we roll outside.  The shot looks great in my opinion. Then after I got a tight shot of the flames and used it as a set up shot in the dark room.

Photographers: You should practice this regularly.

Reporters:  Ask you photographer to, “Please – kill your top light!”

Give it a try this week!