Light Source: Creating Mood with a Single Light

Lighting is a powerful tool for setting moods and manipulating emotions. Extreme care is taken to light feature films to create precisely the right emotion for a scene.

But you don’t have to have a million-dollar budget to create moods with light. Even a single lamp can be used in subtle or dramatic ways. In this column we’ll light a single subject with a single instrument to demonstrate.

To reference light positions in relation to the camera and subject, we’ll use a clock-dial analogy where the subject is in the center of the dial and the camera is at the 6:00 position.

Mood: Guilt

Light Position: 6:00 (eye level)

Light Quality: Hard

You can make your subject look (and actually feel) guilty by positioning a small, intense, light just above the lens. Your subjects will have to squint their eyes to look towards the camera, giving them an uncomfortable expression.

Squinting, blinking eyes look shifty and untrustworthy. The bright, centered, light will wash out features, making it look like the blood has drained from the face, and the hard shadows cast by the light will create a feeling of isolation. Camera-mounted lights often unintentionally create this effect.

TIP: If you flag the light from the background, you can suspend your talent in a black void with the single bright light acting as the only illumination in the scene.

Mood: Tranquility/Beauty

Light Position: 6:00 (high)

Light Quality: Soft

Back in the days of the Hollywood starlet, great care was taken to light the star so that she looked glamorous and beautiful all of the time. You can duplicate this look by placing a large diffused soft light about four feet above the camera to softly fill your talent’s face with a glowing, shadowless light . The diffused light will make the talent’s face look flawless and provide a large sparkle in the eyes. Because the light is diffused and set above the eyeline of the actor, it is not hard to look towards the camera.

Mood: Happy

Light Position: 5:00 (eye level)

Light Quality: Soft

Have you ever noticed that sitcoms have a very bright, consistent lighting? You can hardly tell where the key and fill lights are since many lights are often used throughout the set. You can somewhat simulate this feeling by placing a bright softlight just to the side of the camera at about the height of your talent. This will provide a bright even light for faces and the lack of shadows will give the scene a cheerful look. The background is lit by the spill from the light.

Mood: Emotionally Neutral Lighting

Light Position: 4:30 (high)

Light Quality: Soft

Sometimes you want to create a lighting scheme that will not dictate a strong mood. Lighting for news, interviews and other non-emotional settings require you to remain neutral in your presentation. To do this, set your key light between the 4:00 and 5:00 positions about forty-five degrees above and in front of the talent. This setup will create a very pleasing diagonal shadow at the neck and beside the nose. This shadowing will create a three-dimensional look. The light will look natural and the audience will not feel any increased emotional engagement. For this setup, it is best to use a soft, diffused light to soften the shadows and ensure that the lighting doesn’t become too dramatic.

Mood: Drama/Mystery #1

Light Position: 3:00 (eye level)

Light Quality: Hard

To enhance the drama or mystery in a shot, increase the shadows. To do this with one light, place a small, intense lamp to the side of the talent, at about forty-five degrees. If you are trying to create a sense of mystery, place the light exactly at the 3:00 position. This will effectively divide the talent’s face, with one side brightly lit and the other side in dark shadow.

If you are want to increase the drama, but not the mystery, move your light towards the camera until you can see the reflection of it in both of your talent’s eyes. You will still have a dramatic separation between the light and shadowed sides of their face, but now you will be able to see both of their eyes. By moving the light, you keep the drama and reduce the mystery.

Mood: Mystery and Danger #2

Light Position: Directly overhead

Light Quality: Hard

By placing a light at a high angle above and near the front of your talent, you can create a more dramatic, perhaps dangerous look. By placing the light high above the talent’s head, you create heavy shadows around the eyes, hiding them from the viewer. When we can’t see someone’s eyes, they suddenly become mysterious and a little dangerous.

Placing a hard light high above the talent creates a feeling of menace and starkness, like a single bare bulb hanging from the ceiling.

Mood: Extreme Mystery

Light Position: 12:00 (high)

Light Quality: Hard

To create the ultimate in mystery, place your light directly behind your talent at a forty-five degree angle above the head . This will effectively give him a backlight, which will add a light rim to the hair and shoulders yet provide no light for the face.

Add an interesting twist by adding some fog and dropping the lamp to belt height. The fog becomes a prominent part of the image and the silhouette created will be very dramatic.

For a clean-and-simple "hidden-identity" silhouette, point the light in the wall behind the subject.

Mood: Spooky

Light Position: 6:00 (low)

Light Quality: Hard

We’ve all created this lighting effect by shining a flashlight under our chin. You can make the effect even more dramatic by lighting the talent with a light placed on the floor and focused on the face . The resulting shadows will make the subject look very strange and spooky.

One major reason for this is that we live in a world that is lit from above, by the sun and by lights in the ceiling, so it looks very strange to see someone lit from below.

Mood: Scientific

Light Position: 5:00 (reflected from below)

Light Quality: Hard

Have you ever noticed that when a person is doing something technical or scientific the lighting often comes from below? Sometimes this is used in a completely darkened set and coveys the idea that the scientist is laboring away late into the night.

If your talent is looking at a technical drawing or sitting at a desk and you want a spy look, place a light so that it reflects off the surface of the desk into the person’s face. Make sure there are no other lights in the scene so that the background stays dark.

Final Note

Before you begin lighting a subject, always ask yourself, "What am I trying to accomplish with this light?" Then, instead of laboring over a complex arrangement of lights, think about what you can do with a single source. Sometimes simpler is better.

[Sidebar: Camera Height]
You can enhance the effect created with your lights by changing the height of your camera. By placing the camera at an angle above the subject, you can make the subject look small and insignificant. Add this placement to a dramatic lighting setup and the subject suddenly looks even more frightened.

By placing the camera well below your subject, you can make a person look very powerful. Adding this placement to a dramatic setup and suddenly your subject looks more intimidating.

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