Lighting in Filmmaking

When filming it’s easy to overlook lighting. After all you’re there to film right? And what the hell is cinematography? Easy tiger we’ll get there, bear with me a bit.

Before we chat about the super exciting world of lighting what kit are you shooting (filming) on? And where are you shooting? The reason I ask is some cameras really need proper lighting and some can get great results with natural and/or minimal lighting. I’ve been making films since 2004 and I’ve used loads of cameras (boast) and believe me I’ve ballsed it up so many times it’s actually quite embarrassing. But one thing I’ve learning is that if you have decent lighting be it natural or staged you can get great results with an ok camera. Again here’s the disclaimer if you have a budget I’d recommend getting a filmmaker, they will have lighting and a decent camera and audio kit and I’m sure they have loads of experience.

The first things to check on your camera what’s the dynamic range? 

(Have a look at this article it explains it pretty well

Then check the iso. What’s the iso? (Here’s another good explainer article

Does your camera shoot raw? (Check this bad boy out–photo-8436)

Basically if you have a good dynamic range and a wide iso range your camera will shoot better in low light (filmmakers feel free to slap my wrists now).

Ok by now you’ve looked at your camera, googled the tech specs and know what it’s capable of, right? Awesome let’s crack on!

There are loads of articles on lighting for filmmakers so rather than regurgitate it have a fantastic article I’ve copied i below for you. Don’t be put off by the length of this blog post, most of it is pictures.

Use of light in filmmaking

Film lighting techniques chart

1. Natural Lighting

First up, let’s look at lights we don’t have to move. They move every hour of the day. Natural film lighting techniques are defined by utilizing the light that is already available at whatever location you choose. Most times, you head out on a location scout before you shoot and have that information. You also should think about the time of day you’re at those locations.

Natural lighting summary

  • Use bounce cards or flags to alter natural light
  • Make sure you do a location scout
  • Take time of day into account
Filmmaking - Lighting use outdoor
Natural lighting in The Notebook.Credit: IMDB

2. Key lighting

A key light is the primary light source of the scene. It is the most intense and direct light source. Generally, the key light will illuminate the form of the subject or actor.

Key light summary:

  • Avoid placing your key light near the camera or your light will become flat and featureless.
  • Create a dramatic mood by using the key behind the subject
  • A key light is the primary light in a three-point lighting setup.
Key lighting in Prisoners Film
Key lighting in Prisoners.Credit: IMDB

3. High Key Lighting  

The definition of high key lighting is a style of lighting for film, television, or photography that reduces the lighting ratio in the scene. In the first days of film, this was done to deal with high contrast, but now it’s used by filmmakers to adjust the mood and tone of a scene.

High key lighting summary:

  • Dominated by white tones from bright lights
  • Minimal use of blacks and mid-range tones
  • Tone can be optimistic or hopeful
  • Used in a lot of pop music video lighting setups

Low Key Lighting in Film

4. Low Key Lighting

What is Low Key Lighting? The definition of low key lighting is a filmic lighting style that uses a hard source to encase your scene in shadow. Low key lighting wants contrast and blackness.

Low key lighting summary:

  • Dark tones, blacks, shadows
  • Striking contrast images
  • Used in noir or thrillers for ominous warnings
Low Key Lighting in There Will Be Blood Film
Low key lighting in There Will Be BloodCredit: IMDB

4. Fill Lighting

What is a Fill Light? A fill light cancels out the shadows created by the key light. A fill light is placed on the opposite of the key light, and usually not as powerful as the key.

Fill Light Summary:

  • Remove shadows created by the key,
  • Does not create shadows or it’s own characteristics.
Back Light - Key Light - Fill Light
Fill light in Film NoirCredit: Crime Light

The Three-Point lighting setup

The key light, backlight, and fill light all make up the three-point lighting setup. Three-point lighting is a standard method used in visual media. By using three separate positions, the cinematographer can illuminate the subject any way they want, while also controlling shadows produced by direct lighting.

3 Point Lighting

5. Backlighting

What is Backlight? A backlight hits an actor or object from behind. It is placed higher than the object it is lighting. Backlights are used to separate an object or an actor from a background. They give more shape and depth. Backlights help the frame feel three-dimensional.

Backlight Summary:

The sun is a great backlight – you can use a reflector or bounce the sun at a lesser intensity back the subject.

  • If a backlight is placed behind an actor at an angle, the backlight is called a “kicker.” 
Backlight - Leo - Shutter Island
Back light behind Leo in Shutter IslandCredit: IMDB

6. Practical Light

What if you want to use light sources within a location? Things like lamps, candles, or even the television set? We call those things practical lights. Most of these accouterments are added to the set to light corners or faces by set designers anyone from the lighting crew to help the ambiance.

Practical light summary:

  • Consider multiple practical lights to help illuminate a subject
  • Keep a count of available outlets in every location
  • Make sure color temperatures match
Practical Lighting - Eyes Wide Shut Film
Practical lights in Eyes Wide Shut

7. Hard Lighting

Hard light is a harsh souring of light that can be created with a direct beam from a light source or from the sunlight. This kind of lighting creates shadows and harsh lines. You can use it to draw attention anywhere in the frame, especially on the subject. It can also create silhouettes and highlights.

Hard lighting summary:

Hard Lighting - Winter Soldier - Film
Hard light Winter SoldierCredit: IMDB

8. Soft Light

This one is tricky. Soft lighting is not a strict definition of a light source. Soft lighting is an aesthetic used by cinematographers to eliminate shadows and to recreate subtle shades of light from exterior sources.

Soft lighting summary:

  • It can be used as a fill light
  • It can add youth to a subject’s face
  • Gives the illusion of coming from practical sources
Soft Light - Her - Film
Soft light in HerCredit: IMDB

9. Bounce Lighting

Got a whiteboard or white card? You can bounce light from the sun, lamps, or any film lighting kit to indirectly highlight a subject within the frame. Using a bounce light creates a larger area of evenly spread light. If executed in the right way bounce lights can be used to create a much soft light, fill light, top, side, or even backlighting.

Bounce light summary:

  • Can be used to bolster any kind of film lighting
  • Created by pointing direct light and bouncing indirectly
  • Highlights a subject without directly shining on them
Bounce Lighting - Harry Potter
Bounce light in Harry PotterCredit: IMDB

10. Side Lighting or Chiaroscuro Lighting

Much like the name, side lighting refers to light that enters the frame from the side to highlight a person or object. These parallel lights provide a faint fill. They’re often used to provide drama and mood to a scene, particularly in the genre of film noir. Many people refer to side lighting as “chiaroscuro” lighting as well. To achieve chiaroscuro lighting, you need a strong contrast and low-key to accentuate the contours of your subject. If your side light is used to fill a scene you may need to bounce it or deal with high-key effects.

Side lighting summary:

  • Used to highlight a person or object
  • Can possibly provide harsh shadows if not diffused
  • Can help in contrast
Side Lighting - Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Side light in Forgetting Sarah MarshallCredit: IMDB

12. Motivated Lighting

Let’s say you’re on set and can’t find any natural light sources. That’s where motivated lighting comes into play. Motivated lighting is a technique that seeks to imitate natural light sources. That means it’s a stand-in for sunlight, moonlight, street lights, and even car headlights. You can use flags or bounces to help create them and alter them to appear natural.

Motivated lighting summary:

  • Used to mimic natural elements
  • Can be altered with any tools or set dressing
Motivated Lighting
Motivated lighting in The ExorcistCredit: IMDB

13. Ambient Light

Unless you’re shooting in a pitch black night or an artificial space, there will always be some sunlight or lamplight or overhead light that seeps in. This light that’s present is known as ambient light. You need to account for ambient light, especially when shooting outside or near windows. As the time of day changes, ambient light changes, so think about that when shooting one scene over a long period of time.

Ambient lighting summary:

  • Always take into account the time of day
  • Refers to light that leaks into frame
Ambient Lighting
Ambient light in Road to PerditionCredit: IMDB

If you are more visual in your approach the best way is to get out and try some stuff. Test different lighting states, experiment with different environments and make shed loads of mistakes. It’s better to make mistakes in the testing phase than in the shooting phase or when you’re being paid. Hands up I’ve been there I’ve fxxked it up before and you probably will at some point. Remember it’s not life or death you can always re shoot. 

Stray tuned for blogs on colour theory, camera techniques, sound and loads of stuff that will probably make you much better than me.

If this blog has helped you in any way do let me know and share your stuff with me I’m at @waynesables on social media. Also do me a solid favour and share this. 



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