It’s all in the lighting. If you look out your window and watch the bright colors of autumn, you might notice changes taking place as the sun moves across the sky. The colorful scene takes on different moods depending on the position of the sun, nature’s key light. In the morning and evening, as the sun hits the leaves at a relatively flat angle, life and color fill the view. But when the sun sinks below the horizon, the once colorful leaves become dark and foreboding. The branches that have already lost their leaves take on a menacing feel and the forest seems to be almost haunted. If the moon is full, its light becomes a backlight that creates an even more ominous feel to the cool night air.

Movie directors and videographers are very aware of the effect that light positions have on a scene’s mood.

Most of the mood differences are due to changing light conditions guided by the position of the sun and the moon. Movie directors and videographers are very aware of the effect that light positions have on a scene’s mood. Watch any classic horror movie and you will see how the director used light to string you along and help you feel the suspense of the scene. You can create mood changes as effectively as any Hollywood movie by following a few simple steps and realizing that the position of the key light is integral in creating a scene’s mood.


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Key Basics

For those of you just beginning to explore the power of lighting, the key light is the primary light in any light setting. It is the brightest light and is usually placed 45 degrees up from the talent’s face and at about the 1:30 position when the talent is in the center of the scene and the camera sits at the 12:00 position. The fill light in a three-point lighting setup is less intense than the key light and is typically placed on the opposite side of the camera from the key light. The back light, usually placed opposite the key, behind the talent is the third light used in this setup.The type of light you use for the key can vary greatly, depending on the mood you want to set. If you want your talent to look younger and softer, with no intense shadows on the face, use a large, soft light. If you want your talent to look old, dramatic or weather-beaten, use a small hard light to emphasize facial features and create hard shadows.

Key Positions and Mood

The position of the key light greatly affects the type of a scene’s mood. By starting at the top of the clock and moving down, let’s take a look at what the position of the key light does to the perceived mood of your subject.

If you place the key light anywhere between 6:00 and 4:30, your talent will be brightly lit with very few shadows . Directors use this type of lighting in most game shows and comedies because it portrays a happy light. It makes everything bright and cheery and there are very few shadows to hide things. If your scene is a party or is supposed to create a feeling of well-being and joy, brightly light it with big, soft key lights as close to the camera as possible. In Hollywood sitcoms, the lighting director often sets up a bank of diffused lights that act as key lighting across the front of the stage. The three or four cameras are then set up to shoot primarily from the front. The next time you watch Friends, notice the light is bright and even and the cameras never go behind anyone. The actors present the action primarily towards the front of the stage where a studio audience sits.

As the key light approaches the 4:00 angle, the mood changes to a more serious tone . Video camera operators often shoot interviews with the key light at 4:00 (and a slightly dimmer fill light at 8:00). This gives their models a little more shadow and has a tendency to make them appear more serious. The quality of the key light in this situation greatly affects the scene’s intensity. The harder the light, the more serious the mood of the interview.

Between the 4:00 and 3:00 positions, there is a spot that creates a dramatic feeling to the talent’s face, yet doesn’t fall in the drastic mood-change category. When you set up your key light, focus it so that the light shines on both of your talent’s eyes yet mainly lights just one side of the face. By catching the eye away from the key light, you lessen the impact and make the talent’s character a bit more friendly. This is excellent lighting for the hero of a dramatic scene. It creates a feeling of danger and excitement. But, by being able to see both eyes, it leaves no uncomfortable feeling.

At the 3:00 position, the talent will look very serious and dramatic . A hard key light setup at the 3:00 position with no fill and a backlight at the 11:00 position will create an intense mood change. Half of the face will be lit while the other half will be completely dark. This type of lighting is often used to show villains in Westerns and action movies. It accentuates facial features and provides the talent with a mysterious power. Anytime you can’t see both of the actor’s eyes, it creates a feeling of uneasiness. Like a pirate with an eye patch, your subject just looks meaner.

As you move the key light further back, it becomes more of a backlight. A silhouette is created by shining the key light on the background instead of the subject . Silhouette lighting is very dramatic because you can’t see the features of your subject’s face. This lack of visual information makes us uncomfortable and creates a very dangerous and forbidding quality to the scene. It can, however, also create a sensuous or mysterious mood depending on the subject matter and on the atmosphere that is created by the music and background lighting.

The Final Key

Positioning the key light is just one method a videographer can use to create moods, but it is by far the most important. Try out these light positions to see and feel the many moods that a single light can bring to a scene.