Bill Holshevnikoff Looks to Change the Mentality Around Lighting for Cinematographers

An interview focusing on his career, real-world experiences and an upcoming lighting workshop in Chicago

More than anything else, ProVideo Coalition is a place where experienced professionals can talk through the essentials around what you need to know. Whether that’s Brian Hallett telling us his thoughts about the FS7, Jeff Foster explaining the latest from the FAA when it comes to drones, or Scott Simmons documenting how to get the most out of your hardware, our focus centers on professional knowledge and experience.

IMAG7714 Cinematographer Bill Holshevnikoff is looking to showcase his own knowledge and experience in an upcoming workshop that’s going to be taking place on June 12th in Chicago, where he’ll teach powerful techniques to use creative lighting in the studio and on-location. An emmy-winning Director of Photography, lighting designer and educator, Holshevnikoff has been lighting and shooting broadcast, corporate and documentary programming for over 30 years.

It’s for that reason we wanted to sit down with him to capture some of that knowledge and experience in an interview. We asked him about how he’s seen the industry change, his most challenging project, what attendees of his upcoming class can expect and plenty more.

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All stills from the feature film America is Still the Place, a true story based on the 1971 oil spill under the Golden Gate Bridge


ProVideo Coalition: You’ve created stunning lighting and imagery for clients such as Marriott Resorts, National Geographic and ESPN, just to name a few. What can you tell us about some of your most recent work? 

Bill Holshevnikoff: Thanks Jeremiah – I just finished final grading on the feature film that I shot last year – “America is Still the Place”. Feature films are a long process, but I’m really pleased with the final results and it’s exciting to see it on the big screen.  Also, right now I’m working hard to launch my new lighting education site – VideoLightingTechniques.com.  Basically, I am finally going online with my Power of Lighting Workshops, but the workshops are expanded and embellished with lots of new stuff that I can’t do when it’s live …  along with podcasts, articles, interviews, etc.  I’m very excited about the possibilities of how I can better teach lighting and cinematography with my new site to many more people around the globe. 


How important is it for you to “see the way the camera sees?” 

That’s a great question … our brains and eyes see light differently than the way a digital camera captures an image – although recent advances in digital cameras is making it much better. In most situations, the latitude, or range, of the human eye is much greater than that of a CCD sensor – and the eyes & brain “focus” on different areas of a scene without us even being aware of the process. So, teaching your brain to “see” the way a camera sees light allows you to quickly assess the lighting at a location, the available light, windows, etc before you begin to setup for the shot. It’s a great time-saver to understand what the camera can “see” when working on location especially.


How much of your still photographer’s eye do you bring to your work as a cinematographer?

As a kid, I shot thousands of 35mm photographs … that taught me a great deal about composition, light and shadow. It also gave me years of experimentation that allowed me to make a lot of mistakes without a client around!

These days, setting a shot and the composition is such a natural process for me that I am not even aware of it. I do know that my eye is different in the way that I set a shot from many other people … and I like that. I think our compositional work is a big part of our “style” as we move forward in our careers.

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You mentioned that early in your career you saw that people fell into two categories: people who were making great images, and people who could just point a camera. Do you still feel people fall into those two categories?

Yes, I was referring to a particular story when I was a young camera operator. It became quite clear to me on an early Mattel shoot that the person in charge of the lighting was the critical person in our department. I still feel the same these days. There are lots of people who can point a camera, and composition, lens, camera placement and camera movement are all very important. But, if lighting is needed to bring about a mood, or a time of day, or visual impact – there is nothing more powerful than great lighting. Also, just lighting an interview can be tricky if the person is less than camera-friendly. After that day on set about 30 years ago, I decided that I was going to learn everything I could about light and the impact it has on the image. I am an extremely visual person, so light really is everything to me. 


How have you seen the industry change from the days when you got your start? Have the biggest changes for professionals been in the technology, or in their mentality?

Another great question … and this is an ongoing discussion I’m having with lots of my buddies in the business lately. In short – YES – the business has changed dramatically in the past 20 years especially, but specifically these past few years I have witnessed an enormous shift. Both the technology (editing, cameras, LED lights, etc.) and the mindset of our clients have changed so much in recent years. I believe the popularity of YouTube videos (often with little production value), the explosion of the Canon 5-D and HD camera phone technology have really been at the forefront of the shift. The basic structure of our business (pre-pro, production crews, post, etc) is being challenged and overthrown in many ways right now. But … people are creating some very exciting images right now with little-to-no lighting in the right situations … so things have changed, and we all have to learn how to move with the changes. 


Do cameras today react differently to light?

Yes – Today’s cameras have a much greater latitude than the cameras of 10-15 years ago and the light sensitivity of digital cameras today is extraordinary! That means we are getting cleaner images with less visual noise, which translates to using less (and/or smaller) lighting instruments to craft your images. That means less power, less heat, etc – It’s all a very positive thing for production across the board. I’ve always felt that engineers are driving that technology, and the higher the ISO the better in general. But, I do feel that it would be best if we can dial down the ISO on some cameras if we want to shoot at – lets say ISO 320 or so.  I feel that a native ISO of 2000 is a bit much for a lot of my work.

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What was your most challenging project? Was the difficulty around a creative or technical aspect?

My work varies greatly – which I love.  One week I may be lighting a news set in Romania or Taiwan, and the next week I’m shooting a segment for a documentary or a marketing piece for a resort. They all have their challenges, from language barriers to weather issues. I’m a lucky man … I love what I do – so the challenges are all just part of the job. If I had to point at one element – I would say it’s clients and people who don’t know what they really want … and what it takes to make their ideas happen on camera. My crews and I work really hard to make the pretty picture happen, but when the client can’t make their mind up on what works – that gets frustrating. We call it “goin fishing”, and it’s a waste of time and energy. I think there are many more people now working in our business who don’t have a real background in filmmaking or television – so the tendency for some of these people is to just shoot a bunch of mediocre images and then make it happen in post production. That’s just not how I like to work.


How often do you find yourself explaining the importance of lighting to professionals who should know better?

Haha – do you really want me to answer that?!

Well, I have been teaching lighting workshops to networks and TV news people for over 20 years, and I am still getting asked back. This is one of the reasons I’m going online with my training – so more people can learn lighting in their spare time.  For as long as I can remember, lighting and sound – arguably 2 of the most important components of filmmaking – have often been an afterthought. I’m trying to change that mentality – at least on the lighting side of things.


Are there any lighting tips or tricks that you wish you would have known about a long time ago?  

I’m not much of a “lighting tricks” kind of guy. I was lucky and had an amazing education with regards to understanding exposure and lighting early on in my career, so for me it’s been more about learning how to handle difficult clients and talent.  But – there are certainly some tricks to manipulating clients and talent that have served me well on many jobs!

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You’ve taught lighting classes all over the world…what’s the number one thing people want to ask you about during or after those sessions?

I think most often people are looking for a formula, or a bullet-proof lighting plan for their work. There are no formulas for lighting, mostly because every day, every location and every director is different. I can show someone how to light an interview with my eyes closed, but that setup may not work on their next location – due to ambient light on the location or maybe even because of some facial feature on the subject. Each day is an adventure – but if you understand the principles of light and how to craft an image, you are way ahead of your competition. 


You’re going to be teaching one of those lighting sessions on June 12th in Chicago that’s entitled The Power of Lighting for the Digital Images. The 6-hour workshop will teach powerful techniques to use creative lighting in the studio and on-location. Do you plan on devoting an equal amount of time to both environments?

The class I’m teaching right now for AbelCine in Chicago covers so much in 6-7 hours – from LED lights and green screen, to lighting products and studio sets. But yes, I cover studio and location lighting throughout the day. Controlling light outdoors can be a big job with big 12’x12′ silks, bounces, etc. so most of that I cover via production stills and images from shoots that I’ve done recently. It’s a really fun experience for me to teach because of the feedback I get from people after the workshop. It’s always super positive – which makes it a great day for me. 


The class is set to provide valuable info for professionals, regardless of their experience level. Will novices and experienced pros learn the same things, or will each group take away something different?

I have been working on how to do a great single-day lighting workshops for a long time now, so I believe I’ve found an ideal presentation that can keep almost anyone in production interested all day – and take away a lot of new info and techniques by the end of the day. For the novice, I work hard to explain some complex lighting issues in a simple way and they can then apply those ideas on their own shoots immediately. There is a lot of intense information covered in a day, so this class if often a mind-bender for the newbies. For the more experienced people, they tend to grabs some new techniques and maybe a different way of using a piece of gear, or managing a difficult studio setup, etc.  


For anyone who isn’t able to make it out to Chicago, what’s the best way to learn more about the power of lighting?

The Power of Lighting has been my “banner” for the lighting workshops for many years now, but the new site will be my outlet for information in the coming years. VideoLightingTechniques.com will hopefully be a super valuable asset for lighting information and techniques for production professionals around the globe – It’s free to sign up right now, and the workshops will be up and running online in the coming weeks and months.

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Jeremiah Karpowicz moved to Los Angeles to become a screenwriter but quickly realized making a film was about much more than the script. He worked at a post house where films like Watchmen (2009), Gamer…