There’s a lot of lighting terminology out there and it can be a lot to memorize. We’ve compiled a list of all the lighting term definitions you might need to know.
No matter if you’re a beginner videographer trying to learn the jargon of pros, a student writing a paper on lighting or a pro looking for a one-stop quick-reference guide, you’re in the right place. This is a one-stop list off all the lighting terms you need need to know.
Let’s get into it:
Lighting terminology definitions
Any single light that highlights one single subject. The light can be a backlight, key light or fill light.
A light that doesn’t highlight any one subject for a natural room light effect. Usually a nondirectional light.
Man-made illumination not limited to the indoor variety: fluorescent bulbs, jack-o’-lanterns and car headlights all qualify. Typically, it has lower color temperature than natural light, and thus more reddish qualities.
Amount of illumination present in an environment: natural light, artificial light or a combination of the two.
Usually a reference to a 1000W (1K) light unit. It is also used to describe any light unit which is smaller than a standard size unit of comparable intensity (i.e., baby 1K, baby 2K, baby 5K, etc.). For grips, it refers to anything with a 5/8 inch stud (i.e., baby plate).
Lamp providing illumination from behind. Creates a sense of depth by separating foreground subject from background area. Applied erroneously, it causes severe silhouette.
The ballast regulates the current to the light’s lamp and provides sufficient voltage to start lamps. These are needed for fluorescent lights to work.
Barndoors are flexible, adjustable light modifiers. They are used to shape, direct and focus light. Barndoors consist of four hinged doors around your light.
Usually known as the assistant to the key grip or the assistant chief lighting technician.
Bi-color lights can be used to create both daylight and tungsten color temperature light.
A black aluminum foil that is wrapped around lights to control spill. It can also be used to make small flags.
An open face 2K lighting unit, also known as a “mighty.”
A black mesh substance, similar to garden shading, to use for darkening windows or as grip scrims.
A large open light generally used for fill or to light up a background.
A brute arc light, usually 225 amps and DC powered.
Also called a number-1 wood clamp, this lighting term is your everyday wooden clothespin used to attach gels and scrims to barndoors.
An all-purpose height-adjustable stand similar to a tripod with an arm for attaching flags, scrims and cookies.
A style of lighting where the foreground subject is illuminated by directional light appearing before a black or darkened background.
Plastic-coated wire mesh cookie.
Color temperature is used to describe the light’s appearance and is important to consider when setting your camera’s white balance. It’s measured in degrees of Kelvin (K) on a scale from 1,000 to 10,000. Most commercial lights range on the scale between 2000K to 6500K. Lower color temperature lights will appear redder while higher color temperature lights will appear bluer. The most common color temperatures in video are 3200K for indoors and 5600K outdoors.
This is lighting that stays on throughout the entire shoot. If you’re shooting video, you’re using continuous lighting. It’s the opposite of strobe lighting used in photography, which only comes on when triggered.
CTO, or color temperature orange, is a color correction gel used to convert the color temperature of a light source from daylight to tungsten.
CTB, or color temperature blue, is a color correction gel used to convert the color temperature of a light source from tungsten to daylight.
CRI and TLCI
CRI and TLCI are two scales that measure the color accuracy of a light.
A cucoloris, or cookie for short, is a lighting accessory consisting of random cutout shapes that cast patterned shadows when light passes through. It’s used to imitate shadows of natural lighting.
A cyclorama, or cyc, is a device used to cover the back and sometimes the side of the scene with special lighting. That lighting creates the illusion of sky, open space or great distance.
Daylight color temperature lights are artificial lights that recapture the look of natural light.
A 2K Fresnel lighting unit.
This lighting term is type of lighting illuminates a relatively large area with unfocused light. Produces soft light quality with soft shadows.
A diffuser is a gauzy or translucent material or a device, such as a scrim, that alters the quality of light passing through it to produce less intense, flatter lighting with softer, less noticeable shadows.
Diffusion is the scattering of light when it bounces off of a surface. The scattering results in a soften beam of light.
A dingle is a device that supplies a shadowed pattern, usually a tree branch, to suggest a shadowed area on a backdrop, floor or wall.
Direct lighting is when most of the light from the source hits the lit area directly.
Light that illuminates a relatively small area with distinct light beam. Directional light is usually created with spotlight and yields harsh, defined shadows.
DMX is a unidirectional serial data protocol. This means that once the control signal leaves the controller, it moves through all lighting fixtures in a daisy-chain.
Ellipsoidal lighting fixtures are used to collect and direct light through a lens barrel.
Supplementary illumination, usually from a soft light positioned to the side of the subject. It’s purpose is to lighten shadows created by the key light.
In lighting, a fixture is an electrical device that holds an electric lamp that provides illumination. There are numerous types of light fixtures including open-faced light fixtures, fresnel light fixtures and practicals light fixtures, as well as tungsten, fluorescent and LED fixtures.
Flares are bright flashes evident in video caused by excessive light beaming into a camera’s lens and reflecting off its internal glass elements.
Flat lighting is characterized by even, diffused light without shadows, highlights or contrast. This style may impede the viewer’s sense of depth and dimension.
A floodlight is a broad-beamed, high-intensity artificial light. Floodlights are essentially used to light up the surrounding area. They radiate a diffused, scattered blanket of light with soft, indistinct shadows. These lights are best used to spread illumination on broad areas, whereas spotlights are aimed to focus on individual subjects.
A flag is a device used to block light, cast a shadow, create negative fill or protect the lens from a flare.
Fluorescent lights feature tubes filled with low-pressure mercury vapor that bounces around to make visible light. They can vary in color temperature from 2700K to 6500K. Note, they aren’t the best at opening up space, so you want to get it as close to your subject as possible. Also, some fluorescent lighting designed for home and office use tends to skew green when it comes to color rendition and can create an unpleasant strobing effect on camera. To avoid this, use professional fluorescent lights designed for video production.
This light, or more accurately the lens found in the lighting fixture, is named after the French engineer Augustin-Jean Fresnel who invented the technology for lighthouses in the early 1800s. He was trying to reduce the weight of a large spherical lens 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, so the light rays all project as a beam. The Fresnel light fixture itself consists of a lamp that sits on a movable track behind a Fresnel lens and in front of a spherical reflector. This allows the light to function as both a spotlight and a floodlight.
A unit of illumination equal to the light emitted by a candle at the distance of one foot. One foot-candle equals 10.764 lux. (See lighting term: lux.)
The lighting technician in charge of the electrical department of a production. The gaffer is the chief lighting technician on a set and the head of the electrical department.
Colored material placed in front of a light source to alter its hue. Useful for special effects and correcting mismatches in lighting (i.e., scenes lit by both daylight and artificial light).
A gobo is a stencil or template placed inside or in front of a light source. The pattern is projected against a surface to increase the interest of the background.
High key and low key lighting describe the amount of light present in a scene and the mood this lighting choice creates. High key lighting contains a lot of whites and light tones. Low key lighting uses a lot of darker tones, shadows and blacks. A high key scene is one that is brightly lit throughout with very few shadows. A lowkey scene has lots of dark shadows and high contrast areas.
Hard shadows are shadows that are crisply defined and have sharp edges. Soft shadows have a much smoother transition from lights to darks.
HMI (Hydrargyrum medium-arc iodide) lights are a metal-halide gas discharge medium arc-length lamp. They are capable of 85 and 108 lumens per watt and emit 6000K color temperature light to match sunlight.
Indirect light is light that is directed upwards or to the side so that the light bounces and diffuses before hitting the subject.
The light that emanates directly from a light source. Measured from the object it strikes to the source.
Used for splicing gels (called jels outside the U.S.). Usually transparent.
A 2K lighting fixture.
The scale used to define the color temperature of a light source; abbreviated as “K.”
Principal illumination source on a subject or scene. Normally positioned slightly off-center and angled to provide shadow detail.
A light positioned close to the floor shining up. The kick light help create more distinction between subject and background.
A gentle brushing of light on a subject or subjects.
The lamp is the part of a light fixture that converts electrical energy into electromagnetic radiation (visible light).
LED (an abbreviation for light-emitting diode) is a semiconductor light that emits light whenever currents flow through it. LEDs offer many advantages over other lighting sources, such as lower energy consumption, longer lifetime, improved physical robustness, smaller size and faster switching. They also come in bi-color and RGB varieties.
The quality of light, hard or soft, is determined by the apparent size of the light source relative to the subject.
Lumens is a unit of measurement for the flow of light from a fixture or lamp.
A metric unit of illumination equal to the light of a candle falling on a surface of one square meter. One lux equals 0.0929 foot-candle.
Open-faced 1K lighting unit. Also known as a “Redhead.”
Modifiers are tools you use to alter or control light. Some modifiers soften light and others can redirect the light to a specific area.
A style that simulates real lighting, such as lamps, windows, TV glare, refrigerators, etc.
Celestial illumination (i.e., from the sun, the moon, stars). Light from these sources has a higher color temperature than artificial light, and thus more bluish qualities.
A very dark low-key light style, using harsh lighting and deep shadows.
An eyelight mounted on some part of the camera.
The quantity of surface light spill compared to all of the light in use.
This lighting term is a type of electrical lamp that projects a highly directional beam of light.
Practical lights are light sources that are visible as elements in your scene. This includes lamps, light fixtures and TVs.
Tungsten-Halogen lights or lighting units. The name comes from the lamp’s enclosure.
A backlight that is on the same level as the subject and more intense than the key light.
Light that bounces off the illuminated subject, or light redirected by a reflector. (See lighting term: incident light.)
Lighting accessory helpful for bouncing light onto a subject. Often made of lightweight reflective material.
Scrims are diffusers used to soften the lighting while retaining the scene’s overall exposure. These accessories are made of wire mesh.
A 5K Fresnel lighting unit.
A flag used to cut light. It is also referred to as a cutter.
A flame-resistant fabric used to diffuse or reflect light.
Light that spills beyond its desired surface area or shines from the side of a lighting instrument.
A spotlight radiates a well-defined directional beam of light, casting hard, distinct shadows.
An open-ended cylindrical funnel mounted on a light source to project a narrow, very concentrated beam of illumination. It directs the light into a specific, focused area and prevents light from spilling from getting into the shadows.
Strobe lighting is similar to a flash but lights up a larger space. Unlike continuous lighting, stones only turn on briefly when triggered. It is a high-intensity flashing beam that lights up your subject.
A basic lighting approach, three-point lighting employs a key, fill and backlight to illuminate subject with a sense of depth and texture. Strategic placement imitates natural outdoor lighting environment and avoids flat lighting. (See lighting terms: back light, fill light, key light.)
A standard studio 10K lighting unit, as opposed to a baby 10 or a Big Eye, which are also 10K lighting units.
Tungsten lights use incandescent filament bulbs that have long been used to light homes and offices as well as movie sets. Typically, Tungsten lights have a lower color temperature than fluorescent or LED fixtures and are known for providing bright, warm full-spectrum light.
Lighting accessory available in various sizes, usually made of textured gold or silver fabric. Facilitates soft, shadowless illumination by reflecting light onto a scene.
Unlike a spill, this light is deliberately set on a subject then slowly turned away so that part of the light will fall away from the subject.
Keep this guide to lighting terminology handy
If you found this guide lighting terms guide helpful, save and bookmark this page. So, whenever you need to look up some lighting terminology, you can pull this list right up.