How to Use and Modify Hard Light, Featuring the Gemini 2x1 Hard LED

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Hard light is like a cup of black coffee: pure, raw, exhilarating. Put in the hands of a skilled cinematographer, it can smother a scene with tension, develop a character faster than words, or steer an audience's eyes across the film screen. It is the boldest flavor of light but, like that cup of black coffee, its edge can be softened by adding the right ingredients.

Figure 1: Hard light oozes drama
Figure 1: Hard light oozes drama

Jake Estes and I were already brainstorming lighting tutorials when a Litepanels Gemini 2x1 Hard LED arrived on the doorstep of the B&H offices. When we opened the box, our plans immediately scaled up. Capable of outputting a whopping 23,000 lux at 9.8 feet, we saw in the new LED a perfect opportunity to demonstrate the many hats a powerful, hard light can wear on a film set.

Planning a Noir Scene

The best thing about a light like the Gemini Hard is that you can deploy it unmodified to create directional, hard light or you can transform it into a soft source using a variety of tools and techniques. We wanted to show off this versatility in our review so we schemed up a story that would benefit from both applications. In a nod to the leading role hard light has played in the noir tradition, Jake pitched a meeting between a detective and informant in an abandoned warehouse as our story. This would provide the opportunity to flex the muscle of the Gemini in a large space while also allowing us a chance to show how the light can be softened for closer shots of our characters.

Figure 2: Litepanels Gemini 2x1 Hard LED
Figure 2: Litepanels Gemini 2x1 Hard LED

We booked a warehouse with full blackout capability for maximum control over each lighting setup. The Gemini 2x1 Hard provided a key light for each shot but we knew we would need additional lights and modifiers to achieve our vision. For consistency, we stuck to Litepanels across the board. Our complete light and modifier list included:

Litepanels Gemini 2x1 Hard RGBWW LED Panel
• Modifiers: Ultralight Diffuser, Domed Diffuser, Barndoors, Snapgrid
Litepanels Gemini 1x1 Hard RGBWW LED Panel
• Litepanels Astra 6X Bi-Color LED Panel 1x1
Manfrotto Large Pro Scrim All-in-One Kit (6.5 x 6.5')

Illuminating a Large Space

Our first setup was designed to show how a hard light can be used to carve shadows in a dark environment. When we booked the location for our shoot, we thought that a 4,000+ square-foot warehouse would be an adequate test of strength for a 2x1 panel. However, when we cranked the Gemini up to 100%, it exceeded our needs by a long shot. This was a valuable exercise, nonetheless, because it showed that this light could easily take on a much larger space if needed. Next time we will book an airplane hangar.

Figure 3
Figure 3
Figure 4: Lighting for detective's Entrance
Figure 4: Lighting for detective's Entrance

After dialing the Gemini down to 20%, we were able to throw a warm light across the entire space, “painting” the columns of the warehouse for dramatic effect. During filming, a flag was used to simulate a door opening prior to the detective entering the space.

Figures 5 & 6: Light test prior to setting up the shot: full power (left), 20% (right)

We added two additional soft sources to fill in shadows as our detective approaches the camera. A Gemini Hard 1x1 was diffused through our 6.5 x 6.5' scrim to fill shadows and an Astra was bounced off the ceiling (and floor) to provide further fill.

Figure 7: How each light affected the shot
Figure 7: How each light affected the shot

Backlighting for Dramatic Effect

Our second setup was lit with the lone 2x1 paired with an ultralight diffuser and barndoors. The goal was to create a thin, directional backlight. Positioned above and behind our second character, the informant, it provided anonymity by placing her entirely in shadow. To heighten drama and add a dynamic element to the shot, we used a fog machine to catch the light around her. 

Figure 8
Figure 8
Figure 9: Lighting for informant's entrance
Figure 9: Lighting for informant's entrance

Softening a Hard Light

Our two characters meet in the third setup. We used this opportunity to transform the Gemini into a soft source. The quality of a light depends upon the size of a source and its proximity to the whatever it is illuminating. The closer and larger the light, the softer its effect. For a more nuanced discussion of the physics at play, check out this article on soft lighting. We experimented with two common ways to soften our light: bounce and diffusion.

Figure 10
Figure 10
Figure 11: Lighting for character meet
Figure 11: Lighting for character meet

The first shot of our characters meeting combined aspects of our earlier setups. A Gemini 2x1 was used with barndoors to create a hard, cool light on the informant while a Gemini 1x1 was shot through diffusion to create a softer, warm light on the detective. We wanted to keep the background dark, so flags were used on both lights to prevent any spill.

Figure 12: The effect of the two lights on the characters
Figure 12: The effect of the two lights on the characters

The next shot was a closeup of the informant. We left the 1x1 and diffusion the same, but we wanted to soften the effect of the 2x1, which would provide her key light. To do so, we added an ultralight diffuser, as well as a domed diffuser, to create a less aggressive effect on her face.

Figure 13
Figure 13
Figure 14: Lighting for informant
Figure 14: Lighting for informant

Our final shot was a closeup of the detective. For this one we kept the cool light hard using the Gemini 1x1 and went all in on softening the 2x1.

Figure 15
Figure 15
Figure 16: Lighting for detective
Figure 16: Lighting for detective

We used an ultralight diffuser and domed diffuser to soften and spread the light out and bounced that light off of the diffusion on our scrim. Note in the comparison shots how big of a difference bouncing the light made on the shadows across the detective's face.

Figures 17 & 18: Dome diffuser direct (left) and bounced off of diffusion (right)

The Benefits of LEDs for Hard Lighting

As their power and accuracy have improved over the past decade, the prevalence of LED lights on film sets has skyrocketed. It's not hard to see why: LEDs are more energy efficient, cooler running, lighter in weight, and easier to adjust than comparable tungsten and HMI lights.

Figure 19: You can layer modifiers with the Gemini 2x1 Hard
Figure 19: You can layer modifiers with the Gemini 2x1 Hard.

The Gemini 2x1 Hard is a great example of how far LEDs have come. Despite its impressive output, the new light consumes only 500W of power, far less than a comparable hot light. It can also be powered via 26-33 VDC batteries for location work, adding flexibility to its applications. Integrated DMX, RDM, CRMX and an intuitive on-unit control panel make adjustments easy and quick. Although I would hesitate to call it lightweight outside of the film world, the Gemini 2x1 Hard is a very manageable 25.3 lb.

Figure 20: The Gemini lineup can be used to create a wide range of colors
Figure 20: The Gemini lineup can be used to create a wide range of colors.

The RGBWW design of the Gemini allowed us to change the temperature of its light quickly without having to fuss with gels, saving us time and allowing a much wider range of options than otherwise possible. HSI mode offers full customization, while 300 gels come as presets for quick (and exhaustive) access when matching other lights on set. Although we did not incorporate any visual effects into our shoot, eleven come preloaded for those looking to do so. The Hard 2x1 adopts the same intuitive interface as past Litepanels LEDs—so once you get the hang of it, adjustments are quick and consistent across lights.

Although unavailable for our review, the Gemini 2x1 can be arranged as dual or quad panels. Considering how much light one Gemini provides, these arrays would be best suited for scenarios that require matching bright sunlight or filling enormous interiors.

To learn more about the Gemini 2x1 Hard and to see our setups in greater detail, be sure to watch the video above.

What is your favorite way to use hard light? Share your tips in the Comments section, below!

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