Let’s break down the different types of lights you may see around a film set and how they can be used to achieve different looks.

What’s the H.M.I. Roger Deakins is always talking about? Do people still use tungsten lights? Should I use LEDs in this scene or fluorescent? There are a ton of different types of lighting on a film set, each with their own qualities, pros, and cons. Let’s take a look.


Fire

Lighting by Fire
Lighting a scene with fire creates a beautiful aesthetic, as well as an element of caution.

Let’s start at the beginning — FIRE! While not often used in filmmaking, it does have its use cases. Stanley Kubrick famously shot Barry Lyndon without modern lights, solely by candlelight.

Fire has some very unique qualities. An open flame can dance around a bit and gives a scene a very specific aesthetic that modern-day lights have difficulties replicating. It can almost seem like the fire is alive on-screen. Fire also has a unique color temperature of around 1500-2000K. Most modern lights don’t drop down to a color temperature that warm.

There are more than a few reasons why fire is no longer our main source of light in the world. Most importantly, fire can be very dangerous if not handled correctly. Having talent or crew get too close to an open flame can be a disaster for a production. There are a lot of flammable objects involved in filmmaking, so keeping close track of everything near an open flame is essential in the safety of a set.

Flames also have a tendency to extinguish unexpectedly. This can really stall out a shoot, if you’re struggling to keep a flame going. Lastly, if you need a lot of light from a fire, you’re going to need a lot of flame. This can be very difficult to maintain and drastically ups the caution you should be using on set.

While a flame is unique and has a very specific aesthetic, if you really want to use fire in your next shoot, be very careful and plan accordingly.


Tungsten Lights

Tungsten Lights
Tungsten lights are sturdy, rugged, and budget-friendly.

If we’re going by age, next up is the tungsten category. Tungsten lights have been used to make movies for as long as movies have been made. Tungsten lights are easily recognizable as “movie making lights.” They’re even labeled as such in Animal Crossing.

Due to tungsten lights being old, especially in technology terms, they can be purchased/rented for fairly cheap. Tungsten lights are also study, rugged, and can take a beating. The body on a typical light is made out of high-quality metal, with parts of the light easily repairable and replaceable. You can access the inside of the light with a simple flip of a latch.

The quality of light that comes from a tungsten fixture is very hard and will need some sort of modifier or softbox, if you’re wanting soft light in your scene. The color temperature is also fixed in at 3200K and cannot be changed without gels. This makes matching daylight (5600K) difficult, but we do have a tutorial on using tungsten light in a daylight-balanced scene.

Tungsten Lighting
A softbox or modifier minimizes the harsh light often produced by tungsten lighting.

The main downside of a tungsten light is its efficiency and heat output. After only a minute or two of running the lights, they’ll be far too hot to touch. You’ll need a pair of heat resistant gloves to move them around after they’ve been on, or make adjustments. This also passively heats up the room you’ll be shooting in. Shooting with tungsten lights in the heat of the summer is a memory I hope never to relive.

Tungsten Heat Output
Heat resistant gloves mitigates the heat generated by tungsten lighting.

Pros

  • Cheap
  • Built to last
  • Easy to repair
  • Plenty of modifiers
  • Classic look and feel

Cons

  • Very hot
  • Power consumption
  • Locked into 3200K
  • Fragile when lit
  • Cool down required

In 2020, I can only recommend using tungsten lights in a few certain circumstances. If you’re going for a retro look/feel, these definitely have you covered. These could also be used when they’re the only lights you have at your disposal or have a limited budget. While tungsten lights are iconic to Hollywood, 2020 has left them in the past.


HMI (Hydrargyrum Medium-Arc Iodide)

HMI Lighting
The HMI produces 2-3 times more light than a tungsten.

Closely related to the tungsten light is the HMI (Hydrargyrum Medium-Arc Iodide). We’ll stick to just HMI for the sake of space and pronunciation. While they look very similar to their tungsten cousins, they differ quite a bit.

HMIs are much larger in size in comparison to their tungsten-equivalent wattage light. Below is a 500W HMI right next to a 650W tungsten fixture. The HMI dwarfs the tungsten in size. With size comes a lot of power. An HMI is able to produce 2-3 times more light than a similar wattage tungsten. For this reason, they’re still used commonly in the industry. Nothing can compare to the raw output of an HMI.

HMI vs. Tungsten
While similar to the tungsten, the HMI dwarfs its competitor in size.

Additionally, HMI’s color temp is close to that of daylight, around 5600K. For this reason, they’re used to mimic sunlight or even counter the sun when needed.

The downsides of an HMI are similar to a tungsten light. These big things get hot and may even require more heavy-duty protection than what you’d use on a tungsten fixture. To make matters worse, when these lights are on or hot, they can be quite fragile. Moving an HMI that’s currently on isn’t recommended and could damage the fixture itself.

You may also want to think twice about grabbing an HMI for yourself, unless you have the budget. They can be some of the most expensive lights around. A low wattage HMI can run you a few thousand dollars.

Pros

  • Powerful
  • Built to last
  • Plenty of modifiers
  • Classic look and feel
  • 5600K color temp
  • More efficient than tungsten

Cons

  • Very hot
  • Fragile when hot
  • Cool down required
  • Massive in size
  • Expensive
HMI Lighting
Similar to the tungsten, HMIs also produces an inordinate amount of heat.

While HMIs share a lot of the downsides of tungsten lights, there’s no match for their raw power and output. For this reason, they’re still used on sets to this day. They output a ton of light. So, if you need a ton of light — go with an HMI.


Fluorescent

Fluorescent Lights
Fluorescent lights produce less heat, spreads light evenly, and creates soft shadows.

If you’ve ever seen the inside of a supermarket or office space, you’re pretty familiar with fluorescent lights. These lights came into popularity for a few key reasons.

With advancements in tech comes improvement in efficiency. Fluorescent lights are super efficient, especially when compared to a tungsten light. A 60W fluorescent could match the output of a 650W tungsten. With this low power consumption comes less heat. Fluorescent lights run a lot cooler. You don’t have to worry about burning yourself around fluorescent lights and can handle the fixture while being on.

When it comes to the quality of the light, fluorescent tend to be much softer and spreads the light more evenly across the subject. The light is so soft straight from the lamp, that sometimes it doesn’t need any more diffusion to get the right kind of soft shadows you may want.

Tungsten vs. Fluorescent
The difference between tungsten lighting and fluorescent lighting.

Another major improvement was the ability to change the color temperature of the fixture simply by changing the bulbs in the fluorescent fixture. In a matter of minutes, you could swap between daylight and 3200K, and anywhere in-between.

I always felt that fluorescent fixtures were a little too large for what they were capable of doing. The lights would sometimes take up a lot of valuable real estate on set and be difficult to move.

Fluorescent Fixtures
While fluorescent fixtures take up a good amount of space, they’re efficient and produce soft light without diffusion.

Some fluorescent fixtures are also prone to give off a flicker, if dimmed or used with high frame rates. Most high-quality (expensive) fluorescent lights have been able to eliminate this problem, but it’s still found on lower tier models or cheaper brands.

Pros

  • Efficiency
  • Cool enough to handle without protection
  • Interchangeable color temperature
  • Soft light without diffusion

Cons

  • Large footprint
  • Prone to flicker

LED (Light Emitting Diode)

LED Lighting
LEDs are efficient and cool to the touch.

Last, but definitely not least, we have the LED light. This type of light is the latest advancement in light-producing technology. LEDs (Light Emitting Diode) are basically microchips that produce light when electricity passes through them. Most, if not all, of the new lights coming out today are based in LED technology.

LEDs take the power consumption and heat improvements of fluorescent to the next level. LEDs are highly efficient and run basically cool to the touch. You don’t have to worry about these lights heating up a room because you ran them for hours.

Due to LEDs being so efficient, you can find them on dozens of different types of fixtures from on-camera LEDs, to a roll up light mat, to portable light wands. This also means they’re able to be powered via batteries. A small LED panel can run for hours, at full power, from a couple of common batteries you may already have in your kit.

Transporting LED Lights
LED lights are easy to transport.

Where you could interchange the bulbs in a fluorescent fixture to change the color temp, many LED lights have bi-color features. Making it possible to adjust color temperatures in a matter of seconds.

LED Output
LEDs have adjustable color temperatures, and some even have bi-color features.

The only major downside to LEDs is their raw output. While they can be very similar to tungsten or fluorescent, they cannot match the raw output of an HMI.

Pros

  • Most efficient
  • No heat
  • Portability
  • Creative fixture applications
  • Adjustable color temperatures
  • Affordable

Cons

  • Output can’t match HMI

LED lights really are the future of filmmaking. I’m very excited to see how these lights improve in the future, especially because they’re so affordable. Speaking of, these are LEDs under $500 that every filmmaker should have on set.


Learn more about lighting, and tricks that make it easier, in these articles: