Scrims and Reflectors, oh my…

Videography is about capturing light. Light is your paint and the scene is your palette. You can improve your paint job with quality paint brushes and good paint.

You wouldn’t paint every fine art piece with a roller and broom, so why light all your scenes with 1000-watt tungstens or 4-foot florescent panels? Sometimes your scene requires a little finesse along with a gentle touch. Just as a master artist uses fine oils applied with natural brushes, a great videographer uses lighting to express his or her interpretation of light. One of the best ways to do this is with reflectors and scrims. Nature’s wonderful light fixtures, the sun and the sky, can be unwieldy but they come with enough power to allow you to use reflectors and scrims in nearly every situation.

No lighting studio equipment or creative lighting technique is complete without using of some sort of diffusion or reflector on the set.

A north facing window is perfect for that soft delicate light so popular with the old master painters. Sunlight beaming through a window provides direct, contrasty light that can be dramatic if treated properly. As a videographer you can see exactly what you want from the lighting but, unfortunately your camera can’t, all it can see is what it’s capable of recording, which is far less than your eye can see, so you must modify the light to accommodate the limitations of your camera. Just like the master painters of yesterday, you have tools designed for the job, but unlike painters who use their imagination to “interpret” the light you must use lights, reflectors and scrims to modify the light.

No Power Source Needed
Film lighting techniques and lighting in photography rely on controlling the light. One can often diffuse light simply by using a softbox in the lighting design, but reflectors and scrims are wonderful because you don’t need to power them. They can be cumbersome with their large size and light weight, however. They can catch the wind and become a huge sail flailing about, but once you overcome such issues and grow accustomed to the natural quality they offer, you will always appreciate the light they provide.

One of best features of reflective light is that it rarely overpowers your main light source because reflectors or scrims never increase the amount of light emitting from the original light source, they can only reflect it or diffuse it and usually there is some loss of efficiency. (We say usually because mirrors are almost 100 percent efficient and you can expect nearly the exact same amount of light reflected from them to be equal to the amount of original light source.) If you have adjusted your artificial lighting to provide just the right exposure and then bring in reflectors to supplement your lighting you won’t need to worry about over-exposing your scene because reflectors don’t increase the amount of light. Just move the reflectors closer for more light or farther for less.

Further, if you have adjusted everything on a sun-lit scene and use scrims to soften the lighting all you need is to be sure they improve the lighting but the overall exposure should remain about the same. That’s why they are frequently used as fill instead of a main light, it’s easier to set up the lighting for the actual light source and modify that light to match your needs. But don’t let that stop you from using reflectors as your main light because reflectors provide a very soft, natural quality that is otherwise time-consuming to create with artificial lights. A great example of reflective lighting would be to use a large white fabric as your main light and reflect the sun from that into your subject. Add another reflector just a bit farther away as your fill light and you have powerful, natural light without the harsh shadows of direct sunlight.

Manipulating Lifestyle Dynamics

The use of scrims in direct sunlight allows you to contain the dynamic range to a more manageable level to better match the capabilities of your camera and you can choose the density of the diffusion material and better match your lighting needs. Using our examples, Image A shows how a very sheer fabric renders the sunlight too contrasty. The lighting on the white topping reveals detail in the shadows but no detail in the highlights. Image B has better definition in both shadow and highlight areas while in Image C the light from the scrim is too soft which is great for an overcast look but the topping has almost no detail at all. As you can see the exposure is about the same for all these images. The amount of light is not changed much but the quality of light changes from contrasty, direct well-defined shadows to soft barely noticeable shadows.
When shooting lifestyle sets you are required to create natural lighting that would be appropriate to the environment. Scrims and reflectors are perfect for this because if used correctly they don’t overpower the existing light. In Image D the natural light comes from a large window just to the left of the set. There is China Silk over the window which provides nice, controlled lighting with well defined shadows. Here is how the scene would render with that single light. It’s a bit dull and the label is not well defined but the shadows are crisp and well defined. Image E shows how just one simple reflector from about two feet out and to the right of the set adds an amazing amount of light and renders the label beautifully without changing the overall look of the scene while still maintaining a natural look.

Reflecting Light
Some convenient reflectors use collapsible, spring loaded frames which also have clips to latch to custom accessories allowing you to attach your reflectors to standard light stands. Manufacturers like Impact Studio Lighting and Photoflex offer a variety of collapsible reflectors in highly reflective gold and silver surfaces which are perfect for reflecting sunlight coming from the sky or north-facing walls, and reflectors work well with florescent lighting indoors. Reflectors can make a scene too contrasty and create fake looking lighting with too many speculars, however, if used in direct sunlight or raw lighting from non-diffused tungsten lights, that’s where white reflectors come in because they aren’t as efficient and are therefore more forgiving and provide softer, more predictable lighting.

Diffusing Light
Controlling studio lighting is easy compared to outdoor lighting and you’ll find you must often diffuse the sunlight that hits your outdoor set. Scrims are great lighting accessories because they come in all sorts of “textures” ranging from very thin silks to very dense taffeta and even an old favorite of still photographers – architectural vellum. Just like reflectors, scrims never need to be plugged in. But also like reflectors, scrims can be quite cumbersome because they can become kites catching every breeze that comes along.

Unlike reflectors which can usually be held in place with an assistant or one light stand and a few clamps, scrims can be difficult for one person to hold steady and usually require at least two stands. Hollywood studios use giant scrims on location to provide soft overhead lighting and network television crews frequently use overhead scrims on outdoor sets when covering events like parades or outdoor sporting events. They provide consistent lighting all day long and best of all they don’t make noise, which can interfere with audio. These crews set up giant trusses and stands with hundreds of pounds of sandbags to hold everything together but on a small production all you need are a few stands with a couple sandbags or grips to hold them down and a frame to hold the scrim. Scrim Jim is an industry-wide favorite and the F.J. Westcott Co. makes a variety of textures to suit your needs. Their system is universal so all the fittings are interchangeable and the modular design allows you to grow with the system. They are available in sizes ranging from 42-inch square to 96-inch square and they have diffusion fabrics like 1/4-stop China Silk that provides natural hard sunlight while diffusing everything for fill light in the shadows.

DIY Scrims
You can also buy a denser fabric that provides full diffusion to create an overcast look from direct sunlight. Look for reflector material in silver, white and gold so you can use the system for both diffusing and reflecting the sunlight. You might acquire a few frames and get some fabrics from your local fabric store. One of our favorite fabrics is a synthetic material used to line draperies. It is shear and matches China Silk closely, which allows just enough sunlight to give you a direct sun look but also diffuses it nicely so you get soft, flattering light. Add to that heavy taffeta and you have everything necessary for shooting in the sun.

Taffeta is great for reflecting direct and indirect light and it’s thin enough to shoot light through, so you get the best of both worlds in one fabric. Take a trip to the local hardware store to get some electrical metallic tubing and a few fittings and you can make your own frames. It’s easy and the materials will cost you about a quarter of the price of a manufactured one or less. The nice thing about reflectors and scrims is they are only limited by your imagination and the advantage of creating your own kit from the hardware store is that you can try a variety of different fabrics and figure out which one best suit your needs.

Using diffusers and reflectors is all about control. Next time you see a beautifully lit scene and want to capture it completely, consider how diffusing or reflected the light can help.