Film lighting 101: the tools and techniques you should know

The biggest difference between professional and amateur looking video isn’t the cost of the camera, the artistry of the shooter or the ability of the editor. It’s all about the color, quality and position of the lighting. When it comes to capturing beautiful images, lighting is the most critical factor. If you want to create shots that look more like television, or add cinematic drama to the scenes you shoot, it pays to learn the basic tools and techniques of film lighting. When it comes to making lighting decisions, there are a number of important things to consider. 

Lighting design

The best way to make your shots look like they’re from a Hollywood film is to approach lighting less like a video camera operator and more like a Director of Photography. When it comes to film lighting, give careful consideration to your lighting setups. The secret to shooting fantastic footage is to take greater control over what happens in front of the camera’s lens. This is why lighting is an essential part of cinematography.

A Director of Photography moves all over the set and takes control over everything in the frame, this includes light design. The DP isn’t merely concerned with the camera settings. The DP makes decisions about everything from the color of the shirt on the subject to the position of the props and the look of the lighting.

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Understanding light design and the best lighting techniques is essential in film lighting.

Light types

There are several types of lighting instruments available when it comes to film lighting. They each have benefits and drawbacks. It’s important to consider the perks and limitations of each type of light before you invest in purchasing lights for your productions.

Tungsten lights

Tungsten lights have been the go-to instrument for many years. They are still the tool of choice for most high-end professionals. This is primarily due to the excellent color quality and natural look they generate. Most can be adjusted from spot to flood settings and are dimmable, allowing users to create different looks.

Tungsten fixtures tend to be affordable to purchase, making them accessible to budget-conscious producers who want multiple lights to work with. On the downside, tungsten lights are notorious for getting hot. Really hot. A good pair of leather gloves are an essential accessory when working with them. Extra time is also needed. They will need 15-20 minutes to cool down before you can box them up after your shoot is complete. The heat they give off can not only burn your hands, but it also makes small spaces very warm very quickly. This often results in a sweltering set and sweaty talent, and they pose a fire hazard if knocked over.

The traditional style bulbs that they use have a short life span and burn out unpredictably, or when jostled, and always at inconvenient times. Make sure you have extra bulbs handy—and those leather gloves. They also require a lot of power. Powering tungsten lights for a three-point lighting setup requires more amps than a single home electrical circuit can handle without popping a breaker. So bring extra-long extension cords to spread the load to outlets on other breakers.

Compact fluorescent

Compact Fluorescent lights are far more efficient for film lighting in terms of their power pull, lamp life and weight. They are on the affordable end of the lighting equipment spectrum, making them accessible to most producers. One of their biggest benefits in comparison to tungsten lights is their cool factor. Because they don’t get hot, they are easy to handle and don’t heat up shooting spaces or make talent sweaty.

Because of the size of the bulbs themselves, fluorescents cast soft light quality. This makes them a good choice for shooting faces or lighting up entire spaces. You might be if you want to focus light into shafts and pools or employ hard light to create a dramatic aesthetic. Compact fluorescent lights do not produce color quality anywhere near as appealing as tungsten fixtures. Many producers feel they introduce a slightly greenish or purplish tint, even after camera calibration. Fluorescents can also be prone to flicker. 

LED

LED lights are the new kid on the film lighting block. They are super lightweight, always stay cool, have very low power requirements and the light diodes themselves last nearly forever. They cast soft appealing light that doesn’t have the impure color or flicker of fluorescents. LEDs come in various sizes, from tiny to large. The biggest disadvantage is that they are expensive to purchase. It takes a thick wallet to own a full array of instruments. The color quality of the light they cast is close to pure white, which may not be appealing.

Color temperature

Light color is a huge consideration that beginning filmmakers often overlook. Most people are unaware that different light sources cast light of different colors.

The color temperature of light goes by numerical values on the Kelvin scale that plot light color as a range from orange to blue. While Kelvin temperature units are not written as degrees, like degrees Fahrenheit, think of the color scale the way you might think of a thermometer. On the Kelvin scale, however, cooler colors have higher numbers—10,000K at the extreme blue end of the spectrum—and the warmer colors have lower numbers—1,000K on the orange end of the scale.

Once you are aware of the color temperature of lighting, you will begin to notice variations in light color all around. Candlelight or firelight is very orange in color and measure at about 1,900K. Incandescent light bulbs measure approximately 3,000K. Direct sunlight at midday measures around 5,000K, and the dark blue sky after sunset measures 8,500-10,000K.   

Your eye adjusts automatically to changing light color, allowing your brain to discern a white piece of paper as being white in any environment. Your camera, however, needs to be adjusted for various environments. The white balance setting on your camera calibrates your camera for warm or cool lighting so that it can process colors accurately. Using the incorrect white balance setting will skew the colors you capture.

The most important thing to know about color temperature is to avoid mixing sources of different colors in the same scene. For instance, you may want to light one side of an interview subject’s face with ambient daytime window light at 6,000K, and light the rest of the scene with incandescent lamp light at 3,200K. This imbalance can create an unappealing result. 

Fortunately, the color of light from film lighting instruments can be easily altered, either by using lamps with adjustable color temp settings or by using gels. In this situation, it would be better to use a reflector to fill in shadows, or color correct the incandescent fixture to match the color temp of the natural light from the window.

Light quality

Another thing to consider when it comes to film lighting is the quality of light. Quality refers to a light’s hardness or softness. The hardness or softness of a light is gauged by the qualities of the shadows it casts.

Hard light is a sharp, defined shadow edge and a deep, dark shadow. Soft lighting has a broad, gradual shadow edge and a transparent shadow. Small, unshaded instruments cast hard light. Adding diffusion softens hard lighting. You can see this easily by observing a household lamp. Without a lampshade, a bare lightbulb casts hard light that brightens a larger area but can be difficult to look at. By replacing the lampshade, the light from the bulb is diffused and softened.  

Producers often intentionally choose to light a scene, or even a specific character in a scene, with light of a preferred quality to influence emotional response in the viewer. When used on a person, hard light pulls out the angular features of the face and draws attention to wrinkles and creases. It can make a subject look strong, weathered or wicked. Hard lighting can make a subject seem intimidating. Soft, diffused, lighting is more flattering on a person. It conceals wrinkles and hides lines in the face, and makes people seem more friendly and approachable, innocent or trustworthy. 

You can alter the hardness of a lighting instrument by adjusting the lamp from spot to flood, or by adding diffusion material or a softbox to the front of the instrument.

Light modifiers

In most cases in film lighting, light shouldn’t simply wash evenly over everything in the scene, it should only go where you want it to go. Lighting designers for film and television take great care to selectively shape light into shafts and pools to highlight certain parts of a scene while allowing others to fall into shadow. The principle is to take intentional control over your lighting. Lighting can be shaped and changed using light modifiers such as barn doors, snoots, cookies and gobos.

Barn doors are the metal flaps that attach to the front of a lighting instrument. They open or close at the top, bottom and sides to prevent light from spilling onto certain parts of a set, or to create narrow shafts of light. 

A snoot is a long cylindrical tube that attaches to a lighting instrument to focus the light on a very specific, small area. Snoots can be purchased or self-fashioned using cinematic foil or aluminum foil. 

Cookies and gobos are cut-out shapes, typically in patterns, that go between a light and a set. These may be abstract shapes to create organic-looking patterns of light and shadow. When used with a special lighting instrument, gobos project logos or images onto a set wall or floor.     

Three point lighting

Three point lighting is the gold standard configuration for television-style lighting of a single subject. It consists of key, fill and back lights. They are positioned around the subject in predictable positions in relation to the subject and the camera. To understand light position, it is helpful to think of a giant clock dial lying on the floor. Your subject sits in the center and your camera at the 6 o’clock position. We can then talk about positioning our key, fill and back lights around the dial.

Key light

The key light is the primary source of light in any setup. The quality, intensity and position of the key light establish the overall feel of a scene. With all other lights turned off, start by positioning the key light. When the key light sits next to the camera at the 6:00 position, the result is flat lighting. This is generally not appealing, and is not a desirable position for the ley light in a three point arrangement. Positioning the key light at the 3:00 position will cast dramatic light on half of the face. The most common position for the ley light is between the 4:00 and 5:00 positions, so the light impacts the subject from a ¾ angle. This casts an angled shadow on the face to sculpt the shot and add depth and dimension.

Fill light

The fill light typically sits at the 9:00 position. Its sole purpose is to soften shadows cast by the key light. A diffused source is generally preferable in this spot. The goal is simply to lighten up the dark shadows that the key creates. Adjust the intensity of the fill light by distancing the instrument closer to or farther from the subject. With the key and fill both turned on, position the fill near the subject. Then, back it away until you achieve the desired result.  

Back light

The back light is always positioned behind the subject so that the light falls on the head and shoulders. This instrument sits on the fill side of the setup at about the 11:00 position. If you are working with stand-mounted lights, it is important to position this light outside the viewable area of the shot. If lights are mounted to a ceiling grid, the backlight may be positioned closer to the 12:00 position. The backlight’s purpose is to pop the subject off the background. It does this by casting a rim of bright light on the hair and shoulders. This creates visual separation and contours the subject. 

Outdoor lighting

When it comes to outdoor film lighting, things can get a little tricky. Outdoor lighting is about using the sun to light your scene or your subject. As such, considerations like the time of day and the weather have a great impact on the quality of lighting you can expect to realize. 

While you may assume that shooting at noon on a bright clear day would be ideal, it is decidedly not the preferred situation to create an appealing shot for three reasons:

1) the high position of the overhead sun casts steep downward shadows on the face that are unappealing

2) the intensity of the noontime sun creates hard lighting. The shadows it casts are dark with a sharp shadow edge

3) at 5,000K, the color temperature of midday sunlight is the closest lighting gets to pure white. It is neither warm nor cool, and therefore lacking in emotion.

Shooting in the morning or afternoon allows you to take advantage of a better angle of impact in relation to your subject. It also provides a warmer color temperature. The last hour before sunset is often referred to as the golden hour; at around 3,500K, it provides a soft, warm and beautiful look. Cloudy, overcast skies are often preferable to bright clear ones as the clouds serve to diffuse harsh sunlight, creating a soft and appealing lighting condition. 

Two lighting tools commonly used for outdoor lighting are reflectors and diffusers. Reflectors bounce or redirect sunlight. You might position your camera and subject in relation to the sun so that it impacts the subject at the angle of a key light. Then use a reflector on the shadow side of the subject to bounce in reflected fill light.

Diffusers are large semi-transparent screens or silks positioned over the head of the subject to soften and spread light. You can purchase professional reflectors and diffusers, but creative budget-minded shooters can create their own from household items.

Day for night shooting

Another important part of film lighting is knowing how to create the illusion of nighttime, even if you’re shooting in broad daylight. Day for night shooting comes down to manipulating the light around you. Often, filmmakers turn to shooting during the day for a number of reasons. They might have a tight budget that doesn’t allow for expensive equipment, or maybe it’s difficult to work with everyone’s schedules on set.

Ways to achieve a nighttime look during the day include controlling exposure, effective white balancing and work in post-production.

Nighttime lighting

For those productions that don’t want to use the day for night technique, but rather prefer to shoot an authentic nighttime scene, there are plenty of techniques filmmakers use to achieve effective and dramatic scenes that are well lit. A couple of common techniques include high contrast lighting, where you create a dramatic silhouette of your subject, as well as strategic light placement.

Final thoughts

Now that we’ve covered everything you need to know about film lighting, you are now ready and equipped with the knowledge you need for your next project. If you’re looking for some product recommendations, be sure to check out our Buyer’s Guide “The best lights for video production.”

For a one stop list of all common lighting terms, be sure to check out our guide.