Fresnel lights: How they work and why they should be in your arsenal

In a nutshell

  • Fresnel lights are versatile and durable, making them ideal for both studio and location shooting due to their portability.
  • They offer the flexibility of emitting both soft and hard light. This makes them a preferred choice among directors of photography for their control and quality of light.
  • Despite their benefits, Fresnel lights can be expensive and heavy.

Fresnel lights can be found in studios around the world because they are both portable and durable. They are incredibly useful for location shooting and deserve a spot in every professional’s setup. Let’s take a closer look at these lights and why they’re so important in video production today.

Fresnel lights: Their origin

One of the most important things to know about a Fresnel light is how to pronounce it. There are few quicker ways to be labeled a “newb” (newbie, novice or newcomer) on a film set than by mispronouncing the light as FRAZ-nel. It’s pronounced “Fray-NEL,” with a silent “s.” The name for the light, or more accurately, the lens found in the lighting fixture, refers to the French engineer, Augustin-Jean Fresnel. He invented the technology for lighthouses in the early 1800s. His invention was so well received that he was nominated to be the commissioner of lighthouses in France.

Augustin-Jean’s inspiration came from trying to reduce the weight of a large spherical lens. He did this by carving concentric rings — like the rings of a tree — in a flat lens. Each ring bends the light slightly more than the one beneath it. The results in the light rays all projecting as a beam. Outside of lighthouses and movie sets, Fresnel lenses are also used in car headlights and those large, outdoor event lights that shine into the night sky at movie premieres — like the one Commissioner Gordon uses to summon Batman.

Working with Fresnel lights

Film set Fresnel lights are fairly simple tools and are quick to master. They come in various sizes and intensities and serve as a spotlight or a flood light. The apparatus itself is simple. A lamp (i.e., bulb) sits on a movable track behind a Fresnel lens and in front of a spherical reflector. The reflector directs most of the light towards the Fresnel lens, which then corrals the illumination into a beam.

Encasing all of this is a housing that dissipates the enormous amount of heat the unit produces. There is a knob, usually in the rear of the housing, which is used to move the lamp/reflector team along a track. This allows the beam to be either spotted or flooded. There are usually four brackets on the front of the light — three fixed and one movable. These brackets hold barn doors, speed rings, scrims and other tools. Finally, there is an AC power jack to provide electricity and a standard stand mount and yoke to mount the light to a light stand or ceiling pipe grid. Simple, right? Trust us, they’re even easier to use than we just explained.

Many accessories can be added to Fresnels to further control their light. These are traditionally sold separately. However, some may be included with the new LED Fresnels (depending on the make and model).

A four-leaf barn door mounted to the front brackets of the light can control the beam, for example. Round scrims — metal screens mounted in a metal frame — can reduce light intensity. A speed ring with a softbox can help create a soft, wrap-around light. Traditional tungsten Fresnels don’t come with built-in dimmers, but external dimming systems cost about $50. Blackwrap(TM) or CineFoil(TM) — essentially heavy, black aluminum foil — is useful for shaping light. Attaching Gels and diffusion elements using C47s (a.k.a. wooden clothespins) to change the color or intensity of the light.


If you’ve ever taken a film lighting class, you should know about a typical three-point lighting system. Often used for interviews, three or four Fresnels can act as a key light, a fill light, a rim/hair/backlight and the fourth as an optional background light. You’ve most likely seen the results of thousands of these setups in just about any documentary with a sit-down interview or in long-form news television shows, such as “60 Minutes.” But this isn’t all that you can do with a few of these lights. With the ability to up the intensity and direction for use in more artistic situations, you can create a moodier atmosphere.

Fresnel lights are also great for product shots where you need to light relatively small, immobile props from a distance. As mentioned earlier, many film stages will have a ceiling pipe grid filled with hanging Fresnels, usually controlled from a light board.

Fair warning: Never touch a Fresnel’s glass lamp. It doesn’t matter if it’s hot or cold. Even when the lamp is cool, your fingers will leave a small amount of oil on the glass. This will heat up when the lamp is in use. This can cause the lamp to explode, and they aren’t cheap to replace. They can also leave a nasty burn if touched when hot. Seventy percent of the energy used by a tungsten light is dispersed as heat, with only 30 percent visible as light. Use gloves when handling any tungsten lights.

The advantages and disadvantages of fresnel lights


First off, Fresnel lights make things look really nice on camera. They can emit light that’s either soft or hard, so they are highly flexible lights. Most directors of photography (DPs) seem to prefer the color of tungsten Fresnel lights to newer LED lights, as well as the control the traditional lights allow. However, while DPs often prefer tungsten Fresnel lights, LED Fresnels draw much less power and stay cooler. LED fresnels are also dimmable and can even switch between daylight and indoor light in color within their single unit.


Fresnel lights can be expensive. Also, learning how to use them takes time. So, it can be a tough investment to justify without prior experience with the lights. They can also be heavy, making them tricky to transport. These lights probably wouldn’t be a good choice for on-the-go productions or productions that need lights that are quick to set up and disassemble. They need some time to cool down before packing up, so fast-paced productions may find Fresnel lights hard to work with.

Strike the set

If you want to see what Fresnel lights are truly capable of, do an image search for George Hurrell and you’ll see beautiful portraits utilizing Fresnel lights dating back to the early twentieth century. You’ll find these workhorses of the lighting world on sets and on location across the world, making the movies, television and news shows we watch daily.

Fresnel lights have a lot of good points. But like with any tool, knowing its strengths and weaknesses can help you make the smartest choice. Fresnel lights, when used correctly and in the appropriate settings, can lead to truly cinematic, professional video.

For more free tips on setting up your studio production, check out our ultimate guide to setting up a video production studio.

Contributing authors: Morgan Paar and Kyle Alsberry

Morgan Paar
Morgan Paar
Morgan Paar is an independent filmmaker, the co-founder of Nomadic Frames and an educator based in San Francisco, California.

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