Recreating natural outdoor lighting indoors

The main areas when it comes to lighting are arguably indoor, outdoor, architectural and stage.

Indoor lighting concerns all aspects of interior lighting – how to frame residential, work or play spaces for the purposes sought from them, balanced with the economics of cost. Outdoor lighting is generally cheaper in terms of fixtures because the lighting requirements are more easier to define, and obstacles such as shadows and glare are less on an issue than they would be in indoor lighting, but more expensive in terms of electricity because the electrical demands to light an outdoor area are generally greater.

Architectural lighting is the use of light to highlight building features. Lighting is used to accent or soften lines so that the features of the building are prominently displayed. However, architectural lighting may not exist all year round, and may be seasonal or limited to special occasions or festivals.

Stage lighting is usually more of a frequent occurrence as it is a requirement in indoor entertainment, whether or not it takes place during the day. However it is not always accorded the importance it deserves because the lighting is usually secondary to the event. “Come hear the Arctic Monkeys play. A great theatrical event of sound and light” is the possible description of any similar event. Unless it happens to be music groups such as Gorillaz, who are renowned for their music as well as use of light, stage engineers often have to live with a two-line mention of their skills in a three column review the next day and be content with that.

Despite its relative anonymity, apart from the recognition from those in the entertainment industry, stage lighting requires technical skills and adaptability. A stage engineer needs not just to have the skills to achieve the desired effects required on stage, but a sense of awareness to know the perfect timing. Imagine a play on stage; the lighting engineer needs not just to know the requirements of the particular scene, but the script itself, so that the light can be adjusted according to how the scene develops.

Lighting is an important skill that we often take for granted. It requires not only prior planning but in-performance adjustment and fine-tuning.

In preparation for an event that requires stage lighting, the list of equipment required can be more focused if a lighting design is first completed. The lighting design is a simple diagram of the stage with physical objects marked out, and then with this in mind the lighting and the necessary equipment can then be selected to meet this design.

Simple enough? For starters, yes. But then, it is how you select the equipment to meet this design that show off your technical knowledge of the physical aspects of the equipment, your knowledge of the basic theories of stage lighting, as well as your experience as a lighting engineer.

In an indoor event, the lighting present has been selected and arranged in a fashion that mimics the natural lighting around us. The two main sources of natural light are the sun; and during the night, the moon when it reflects the sun’s light back to us. There are natural highlights and shadows created by this natural lighting around us that we have to account for on stage, in order to make it appear natural.

Think of it another way. The things we see around us all slant to meet at a point in the distance and if we do not account for this perspective when we are drawing a scene, everything will look two-dimensional, flat, artificial and unnatural. And when we are exposed to this unnatural shift for prolonged periods we eventually lose interest. It is the same with lighting.

While people consider lighting merely as projecting light onto a surface, if we do not account for the naturally occurring shadows and highlights, it is very tiring on the eyes and the mind, which has to subconsciously make a correction. Imagine you are watching a play on the stage, such as Romeo and Juliet, at it is the balcony scene where Juliet tells us “a rose by any other name is still a rose”. If we are led to believe the moon is on the left on the stage and Juliet is on the right, it would be pretty disconcerting if Romeo’s shadow fell the wrong way, towards the moon, due to a poorly-placed light. This would detract from the scene and all other things such as the words, the mood and any music that might be heard, and influence our opinion of the overall production, especially if the error arose again.

Proper, natural light levels have an influence on the audience’s mood and receptivity. It maintains longer eye and audio contact, keeping the audience’s attention more focused. Imagine someone making a speech but the general background lighting being brighter than the local lighting. In other words, when you look at the speaker, there is glare which detracts from the message, causes you physical discomfort and affects how your react to the message.

We might not realise this but when we are out and about during the day, we take in the nuances of natural lighting, the shadows and highlights as the light bounces off objects. It is this effect that we have to try to recreate indoors.

In the northern hemisphere, the sun strikes the earth at a relative 45 degree angle; this angle produces specific highlights and shadows.

The extreme intensity of the sun creates a strong highlight on one side of a three-dimensional surface and strong shadows on the remaining areas. But because the sun is so intense, a primary object is also slightly coloured by reflected light from, and of the colour of, other objects around it. This reflected light also fills in the shadows on the remaining sides of the object.

It would be easy to simulate the sun light, shadows and natural lighting effects indoors if there was some kind of lighting fixture that was of the same light intensity as the sun, but unfortunately we do not.

The moon provides a similar source and angle of light, but because the moonlight is reflected sunlight, it is less intense. The sun is rather like an uplighter and the moon is it’s ceiling. The lower intensity of light means that moon light does not create the same bounce or fill effect. Nevertheless, it does present its own set of difficulties because night lighting has much more contrast than daytime lighting. Yes, there are shadows, but not all shadows are the same. Not to a light engineer anyway. There are different grades of shadows which must be achieved in balance. Similar to the previous example, any anomaly will be picked up by the mind and may grow to become a distraction that disrupts the whole event.

To re-create the effect of natural lighting, multiple lights are required to achieve the same effect using the same principles. The minimum number of lights required is three, although the more options you provide, the more specific your lighting can be.

The basic three light lighting design would consists of one fixture placed at a 45-degree angle above and 45 degrees to the left. The second fixture would be at the same 45-degree angle above and to the other side. A third light would be angled at sharp angle to the rear, or directly downwards. There are hence three lights on the objects on the stage. The main light is known as the key light while the rest are fill lights. Each fixture may perform the function of the key light or the fill lights, depending on perspective.

This three-light method allows enough coverage of the stage to provide lighting to an object and lights to fill in the shadow. There is however a blind spot at the rear but it is not necessary to site a light there because to do so would mean the light would be shining direct at the audience, at the audience would be looking direct at the back and dark shadow of an object or person.

The 45-degree angle rule that the lights are arranged in is not set in stone but one should be mindful of using too extreme angles. The key of course is that lighting has to look natural and simulate what we see in daily life. Too flat an angle will create a shadowless light on the object, which make it appear almost flat, two-dimensional and generally uninteresting and a kind of lighting pattern the eye is not used to seeing. But sometimes this distortion can be exploited to suit an effect. For example, in a horror scene, a face can be lit from below, causing an unnatural look which creates the sense of unease that is being sought.

In a play, the night scenes use the same siting of lights as the day scenes as the moon creates the same angle of light as the sun. Using the same set up also ensures that there is no discontinuity in light siting throughout the play. However, as the light of the moon is reflected from the sun, the lighting should be less intense in a night scene than it would be in a day scene.

The three light siting works for one direction of viewing, that is, if you are watching from the front. If the seating pattern is different, such as on three sides of a platform, than the three light creates a blind spot that is visible to viewers from the sides. Hence, additional lights may be needed so as to recreate the same lighting pattern for those viewers. It may be necessary to incorporate a four-light lighting system that utilises two key lights and two fill lights.

Can you imagine what plays or music performances were like in the days before electric lighting? In the Baroque period, for example, composers like Bach and Handel wrote music for performance on a fairly frequent basis in courts? Musicians did not have any lighting apart from candlelight, and while it may have been disconcerting for them, spare a thought for the audience who had to stare for hours at flickering shadows that the candles created, while staring at the direct lighting of torches around a stage. In other words, to view a performance where the general lighting was stronger than the local lighting, and lots of shadows were created. In today’s concert world that form of stage lighting would have been considered wrong! And if that were not bad enough, they had to aurally focus on music that was contrapuntal in nature, with ideas passed on from one melodic instrument or voice to another, one which required a lot of mental focus. Watching a music performance must have been an arduous task then!

About Me:
I give piano lessons in Crouch End (London N8). Lighting is one of my many interests.

Want to know more about the Baroque period and the kind of music performed then? You can find out more about it from my other site.