• Mike Kozlenko

High-Key Studio Shoot

Last November I did a studio shoot for an online guitar education company. here's a long-ass blog post about it

The Concept

These were 4 separate :15 spots for a company called Method Teacher. Each spot is about a young musician’s dream of making it big. They're built around a “reveal” moment starting with a series of closeups, then pulling out to show a young guitarist passionately performing to the sound of a roaring crowd against a bright yellow background. Then, on the last note, the camera punches out to reveal the objective situation of them in an empty studio room, recording themselves on a camera. The campaign’s theme is “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Each spot is dedicated to a different genre of music: Blues, Rock, Bluegrass, Classical. There was also a matching photo campaign shot by Zach Kracht

Here's the final series of spots:

I always look somewhat angry on set. I don't even mean to. It's my resting "russian-face"

So this was a pretty low budget shoot. It was a day of pre-rigging and building the backdrop, and 1 full day of shooting. When things like talent, sound mixing, hair & makeup added up, there wasn't going to be much money left to get a proper large studio with a cyc wall and lighting grid, so we had to build a 16'x 16' wall from wood, paint it yellow, and try to smooth out the seams, since the backdrop was made from combining 4 pieces of 4' wide wood. But I'm getting ahead of myself. On to some of the prep:


I usually don't shoot things this bright and poppy. The brand needed something fun and youthful so we needed to be high-key with our aesthetic. So essentially the creative boiled down to filming teenage kids in front of a solid-color background, and using props, costumes, hair, & makeup to make the kids look like caricatures of the music style they were playing. It kinda needed to look like a Target commercial. Key lighting needed to be soft, the backlight needed to be exaggerated, and edge lights needed to draw them out and make them pop even more. The point is to make the subjects look beautiful. The shots needed to be locked down with some slow dolly moves peppered in. Since I had no idea what I was doing for this kind of shoot, I over-prepared and tried to make everything clear to the whole crew about how I was going about the imagery and what was going on in my head. I made a mini DP's treatment, see below.

*NOTE: the lighting diagram changed a little bit on the day. Also this is designed TERRIBLY. I wasn't trying.

Structure of the shoot day

The page that is labeled "Lighting Setup Questions/Notes is me just brain-dumping all potential thoughts & ideas so everyone kinda knew what was going on in my head. The day of the shoot was going to be jam-packed because we had to squeeze in the video & photo shoots on the exact same day with the exact same set. So that meant we had to have an understanding of where the lights where going and what their purpose was, because when Zach came in to do photos we would have to move some things out of the way, only to have to set them back up for the next spot we were doing video for. So for example, the day would go like this:

Set up rock guitarist scene for video> Shoot rock guitarist scene for 60-90min> Set up for rock guitarist photos> Shoot rock guitarist photos for 45-60 min> setup Blues guitarist scene for video> and on and on...

60-90 minutes seems like a long time to get 4-5 shots. But it went by quickly when things like performance tweaks needed to happen, makeup needed to get done properly, and the ending wide-shot for each spot needed to have elements very carefully and intricately placed in frame for composition purposes, so the joke makes sense on-screen.

So with that in mind, I needed to have a pretty precise plan so we could move quickly. I'm not saying I'm the best at it, but one of the most important skills a DP needs to know is how to work quickly. Some very high-end folks told me this, so don't just take my word for it. I heard it from Robert Mclaughlin ASC, Larry Fong ASC, Carmen Cabana (Narcos DP). The faster you light, the more work you get. But these people actually know what they're doing.

My way of getting around the fact that I don't know what I'm doing is to just have a rock-solid plan as well as contingencies for it.

Lightin' it up


The most important light was the background light. I wanted a radial gradient and a soft falloff around the edges. We actually didn't quite get it to look like my reference images did, and there's a good reason for it . The light I used was a Dracast 2K LED fresnel. I could've put it on the ground and pointed it up to blast the wall, but I didn't want to potentially see it in any of the cutaway angles (i.e. the foot closeup in the classical guitar spot), so we put it on a menace arm and boomed it over. Initially we blasted the light direct into the background, at full flood I believe. The gradient looked good there, but the problem was that the light quality was so hard that it showed the imperfections of the painted wooden background ALOT. And those looked like ass. So we needed to soften the quality of light so those imperfections wouldn't show as badly. We clipped on some 216 and it helped. You can still see the imperfections in the background on some of the medium dolly-out shots. But that's just what you get when you don't shoot on a pristine cyc wall that is painted properly. I adjusted my aperture to try and get a shallower depth of field; I went to a 2.8. I think the only stop I could've been at to make it non-noticeable is a 1.4, and there was no way I was going to do that to my focus-puller Jeremy.

Dracast fresnel on the menace arm, The other light on the menace arm is the photographer, Zach's background light. You can also see the backlight that Brooks, my gaffer rigged up to the ceiling

Key Light:

This was fairly easy-ish. The lighting package wasn't huge but it worked. We needed to have the talent 6-8 feet off the background so the key light wouldn't spill onto the background too much or cause any shadows. The most powerful light I had that I could easily control the spill of was the Aperture 300D. What saved me here was the Lightdome MK II and it's egg crate. This prevented too much spill onto the background. If I had set up a powerful fresnel or something, it would've needed flags left and right, and I didn't have enough crew to be fussing with additional C-stands with cutters and floppies on a fast-moving thing like this. I softened the light with a frosty diffusion. I chose that diffusion because it made the skin glow while not killing too much of the level.

Double diffusing the 300D. One of my favorite tricks. We messed with putting in a single 4x net to lower the intensity of light on the guitar. I'm not sure if we used it on every setup. It wasn't doing THAT much. We didn't have a double net with us.

Now, I chose to key from frame-left on all these spots. The look needed be consistent for each 15 second ad, so that general key positioning couldn't flip sides halfway through. Why did I pick the left side? I have no clue. Or at least I can't really remember. I THINK there was a good reason for it. It might've had to do with reflections on the guitar, which were a pain in the ass the entire shoot. In retrospect, it might've made more sense to key from the right-side because when the guitarists look at their left hands on the guitar neck (camera-right), they currently look away from the key light. This is pretty prominent in the classical guitar and the rock-guitar spots. I don't know why I didn't think of that. I might have, and it could've been a reflection issue that made me go with a camera-left key. There's enough fill light to make it not be the end of the world, but I'm curious what it would've looked like with a camera-right key. That being said, on that dolly-out shot in the classical guitar spot, just look at how beautifully that guitar just fucking GLOWS. I don't think a camera-right key would make it look as majestic. So it's all a catch-22.

Love how that guitar is just glowing and popping off the screen

On the classical spot, the key light positioning got hosed big-time because of the curtains. It needed to go BEHIND the curtain because otherwise it was getting blocked. But with how the shot needed to be framed, we couldn't move the talent back enough to get a nice 45 degree angle on the light. The spatial relationship between her positioning and the positioning of the curtains was pretty much where it needed to be. So with our resources, all we could do was side-light it and use a fill light to fill out the rest of the face so it wouldn't go dark.

Fill Light:

For the rock guitar & blues guitar spots, to make the light wrap around the face and fill in the eyes a bit, we put up a 4x8 white beadboard over camera, and bounced a 1x1 westcott flex (daylight) light into it, trying to fill up the surface of the board as much as possible. Those lights are pretty punchy. The reason I do frontal fill is because it lifts the front of the face + eyes while usually leaving just a little bit of dimension & contrast on the fill side. I wanted the lighting to be flattering, but I just kinda preferred having a TINY bit of contrast on the face. You can see it in full effect on the medium shot of the bluegrass spot. Speaking of that spot, we had to put that 4x8 bounce a good bit lower since our talent was wearing a hat. On the classical spot, we had to move the bounce around to the fill side since the face wasn't getting enough level there. We also switched to a 4x4 bead board but still bounced the westcott flex light into it for some active fill. For the inserts we adjusted the fill intensity as needed.

Fill light for the Rock & Blues spots
*Active fill= fill light where you're bouncing a fixture into some material for fill OR shooting a light direct
*Passive fill= just bouncing in whatever ambient light there is
Here you can see how we lowered the height of the fill to bring the light in under the brim of her hat.

Director, Corey sitting-in. You can see how we moved in the bounce and went more side-y with it for the classical guitar spot. Still fired a westcott flex light into it


I used a jank LED light that I've had for awhile to use as a backlight, the PixaPro 100D MK II. It was the most powerful hard source I had left, but it did the trick. It's like an Aputure 300D but it's the equivalent of like a 650w light, sort of. It has a bowens mount, so we threw on a fresnel attachment onto it. The fresnel also makes the light punchier because of the way the glass elements are designed, the light is concentrated into a tighter beam. It was a super hard source, so to just take the edge off ever so slightly, we clipped on a layer of Opal diffusion. The gaffer, Brooks, used some clever rigging to get the light up there. I messed with the idea of trying to make it a soft source for certain setups, by attaching a bowens mount softbox, but I decided to go with the harder backlight for all of the spots. The hard backlight really went with the heightened, youthful, studio feel we wanted.


What's better than one edge light? Well for this, .. 2 edge lights! The double edge was used to once again, play up the studio feel and make the talent just pop off the screen, trying to make them look magical. It also provides a nice gleam on some of the props; For instance, the amps in the Blues guitar spot. We used a Quasar-Kino for each side, with a Honeycomb grid to cut spill. We rode the intensity up & down for certain inserts, and we even turned one of them off for a couple of the cutaways.

For some insert shots, we brought in a quasar T8 tube to brighten up a part of the background that was going a bit too dark. Example: in the classical spot, on the shot of the foot stepping onto the foot stool, we had a quasar hitting the bottom of the wall to pop it up a bit because it was looking unnatural and noticeably dark.

The bluegrass spot ended up being my favorite look of the 4 of them. Although I hadn't planned to, I decided to try raking in some warm hard light (lowel pro 250w, on dimmers) across the hay bales. One light on each side. They ended up playing double duty, as they provide really nice edge lights to our young guitarist's hair that made it glow. It did end lighting up the fiddle on frame-right a bit more than I would have liked though, but I decided to just run with it.

One quick note: Apple Boxes are VERY important to have on set. We used them throughout the shoot for people and for props to get things composed evenly and in a balanced way. For the blues guitar medium shot, we needed to raise the amps up a bit so the frame could be balanced with our actor. Without the appleboxes, they would have been WAY too low and it would have looked very awkward.

What I would do differently

Within the confines of our budget and amount of resources, there's a couple ideas that I'm not quite sure would have worked, but I'm curious IF they would have resulted in a better-looking image

- I talked about flipping the key light to the other side. Maybe it would've looked better, but it also could've made the guitar look worse.

- I could've potentially added some sort of color gel to the backlight, perhaps something warmer or cooler (1/2 CTB) to create some subtle color contrast.

-On the master-wide of the classical guitar spot, the guitarist leans in and out of the hard tungsten spotlight that was lighting up the curtains. I should have controlled that light a bit better.

Tech Note:

One important thing to note: Studio shoots generally need ALOT more light level than what we had the budget to provide. I shot at 800 ISO, but on a proper studio commercial shoot like this, I need to be shooting at ISO 250 or 320 to get the cleanest image possible. Yes, 800 ISO on the Red dragon is a sweet spot of equal dynamic range distributed to the highlights and the shadows, but in a controlled environment like this, you don't need every single last bit of DR, because you can dial in your lighting precisely. Studio spots are shot at a lower ISO to make sure there's almost 0 noise in the image. To accomplish this, we would have needed much more powerful HMI sources. That's why on some BTS photos of monitors on studio shoots, you might see low ISO and ND filters in. It's because they blast the whole set with light and ND down. This gives you the highest signal to noise ratio because all that light is flooding into the sensor.

Overall I'm happy with how this spot came out, and everyone did a killer job and busted their butts like crazy to make it a success. Let me know if you have any questions or think this looks terrible or can be improved.

*All BTS photos by Robby Boyd


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© 2020 by Mike Kozlenko