Person holding a sparkler to light a night scene.
Technical and stylistic tricks will help you develop an effective strategy for lighting your night scenes

Hollywood, with its seemingly endless resources, spends loads of money on lighting nighttime scenes. But how do we — without a grip truck full of HMIs — try to approach lighting a subject or set at night? There are a few tricks of the trade that our budgets should allow.

This article is not about shooting ‘Day For Night,’ where you film during daylight hours and use in-camera tricks and/or post-production magic to make your footage appear to be shot at night. Instead, we’ll focus on techniques for illuminating a scene that is supposed to take place in the dark.

“Lighting a night scene is easy: eliminate all light and it’s a night scene.” But then you have a black screen. The main objective in shooting a nighttime scene is too keep the shot looking like it’s occurring at night, but letting your audience see what they need to see to move the story forward. How do we accomplish this?

Motivation

If we want natural looking light at night, we have to think about its source or “motivation.” Before we continue, ask yourself this question: where is the light at night coming from?

Exterior examples: moon, street lights, neon lights, car/motorcycle headlights, flashlight, campfire, lightning, explosions, cigarette lighter, cigarette, torch, lights from inside a house/apartment/store shining outside, etc.

Interior examples: Ceiling light, table lamp, television set, fireplace, candle light, open refrigerator door, computer/tablet/cell phone, exterior light such as a street lamp, etc.

Now, how do you replicate this light so that your audience is able to see what they need to, while keeping them in the reality you are trying to create? How do you show the emotion, reaction or movement of your character while either using this actual light or replicating it?

Let me take you back to roughly 1635 and a painting by Mattias Stom (figure 1). Talk about motivation! Notice how hard the light is on the faces and bodies. Light at night is generally “hard,” not “soft” or diffused. Look at the fall-off from this candle light. Any part of the subject that is closer to the light — the face, the robe, the hat feathers, etc. — will be brighter than parts of the subject that are further from the light source. Illumination “falls off” the further it gets from its source.

1635 painting by Mattias Stom showing the fall off of candle light.
1635 painting by Mattias Stom showing the fall off of candlelight.

I love the hard light at Kurtz’s compound at the end of “Apocalypse Now” (1979) (figure 2). Although technically not a night shoot, the hard (orange) sun coming into a pitch black room is similar to the look you might aim for while lighting a night scene.

The hard light at Kurtz’s compound at the end of “Apocalypse Now” (1979)
Gard (orange) sun coming into a pitch black room is similar to the look you might aim for while lighting a night scene.

Color

Filmmaking convention says night scenes are blue in tint. I personally see light from the moon as more silver than blue, but film history says it’s blue; so unless you’re a rebel, it’s blue. Candle, torchlight and campfires are orange. Street lights are orange as well, fluorescent lighting comes off as green and neon can be just about any color. Those are the rules.

Personally, over-lit/ultra blue night scenes like those in “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters” (2013) and “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (2001) (figure 3) distract me from the story, as I notice their “fakeness.” But does this technique tell the story better? The light at night seems to have been represented as blue for as long as color film has been a thing? I doubt 98 percent of the audience even notices that the “motivation” for the light is completely unnatural. The ‘blue over-lighters’ prevail as the audience can see the action yet still believe it is night time.

Scene from “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (2001)
The light at night seems to have been represented as blue for as long as color film has been a thing

“The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” (2001) director of photography Andrew Lesnie was asked where the source of light in one of his night scenes was coming from and he replied, “Same place as the music.”

Color-temperature-blue (CTB) gels on your lights will give you that night look. Don’t white-balance with the gel on the light or your camera will do what our eyes do automatically and adjust back to “normal color.” Another option is adding a blue tint in post. Run some tests to see what looks best for your specific situation.

Tricks of the Trade

A favorite amongst noir directors is the silhouette. Strong backlighting that “crushes” the detail of the subject to complete black coupled with extreme camera angles, deep depth of field, wide angle lenses and a whole lot of rain, smoke and/or fog will give you the noir look. A similar noir shot to the silhouette is the high contrast shot. High contrast lighting can be seen in night scenes from the 50s noir classic “The Big Combo” (1955) — which also used smoke — to “Clockwork Orange” (1971) (figure 5), “The Shining” (1980) and who can forget, “The Exorcist” (1973)… believe me, I want to forget that movie. It still scares me.

Scene from “Clockwork Orange” (1971) showing a favorite lighting trick amongst noir directors, the silhouette.
A favorite lighting trick amongst noir directors is the silhouette.

In addition to high contrast lighting, strategic light placement can help add definition to your shots. You might remember the hair light or rim light from your three-point lighting class? Rim lights are yet another favorite for lighters of the night.

And finally, an old trick: “Complete Wetdown” reflects light off the street. (figure 5) It gives some more depth to the image and it looks prettier and “pops” more than plain dry asphalt. A wet street at night combined with light creates a more contrasty look with the dark blacks and the highlights. Justification? Don’t need it–dry streets look boring. I’ve been on set for complete wet-downs that required many takes. I can’t imagine how much water we used.

Another old Lighting Trick trick: “Complete Wetdown” reflects light off the street.
Another old Lighting Trick trick: “Complete Wetdown” reflects light off the street.

Light the Night

These technical and stylistic tricks will help you develop an effective strategy for lighting your night scenes. What have I missed? Let me know in the comments below.

Morgan Paar
Morgan Paar is a multiple award-winning filmmaker and photographer who specializes in travel video, stills and articles. Paar has been location independent for over three years producing video, teaching filmmaking and consulting around the world. www.NomadicFrames.com

6 COMMENTS

  1. Would shooting at f1.4, or if you can afford an f1.2 lens, — give you less noise (or shooting film -grain) in the shot? This article DID NOT cover what lens to use.

  2. Technology advancements now make very high ISO cameras accessible to more and more people. Currently the industry “standard” is the Sony A7s, but there are many others. This makes it possible to shoot “real” night scenes, but raises questions like:
    1) how far do you actually push the ISO before image noise becomes unacceptable?
    2) what WB in Kelvin should you use?
    3) is shooting LOG in low light, a good thing or is it to be avoided?
    4) what are the practical benefits to using a video noise reduction process, such as offered by Neat Image and how best to use these?
    5) should we expose for the highlights, or for the shadows or the mids?

    There are certainly many areas for the DOP to explore and the answers will be different for each person as well as for each movie shoot.

  3. Excellent points pszilard, I could write a whole article on these five issues! I am now using two Canon 5DM3s and I try my best not to push them past ISO 1600, BUT, that gives me lots of latitude to work with. I occasionally push as high as 3200, knowing that there will be grain. I expose for mids, making sure I don’t blow-out the highlights. And I have used Neat with some success. Thanks for adding to the conversation!

  4. Greetings!

    Thank you for such awesome insights. I´m currently taking a lighting class online and boy am I in a pickle, please help me out.

    I need to draw a lighting diagram for the interior night scene in “The Pianist”, the one where Adrien Brody is playing for the Nazi officer. My problem is that I can´t figure out how they can light the officer and keep the pianist´s right arm in a shadow. My theory is that they used a 1kw fresnel with CTB as a keylight for the officer, a dedolight for the backlight on the pianist´s head accompanied by a 2kw fresnel as a flood to light up the room, an additional 1 kw fresnel for the officer´s backlight. But, where does the fill light come from? I know this is a low key scene, but if you look at the movie clip they go through the hall way and there is no indication of a Softlight to illuminate the scene.

    I´m really stumped on this one and I am overdue on this project, how would you go about lighting this scene? I would greatly appreciate your input.

    Here ´s the clip:
    https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=fer+mi+escena+favorita+de+el+pianista

  5. Hi Jose, that is a complex puzzle and I’m quickly approaching a deadline. I would suggest you ask a larger group of filmmakers such as those on these Facebook groups: Filmmakers Forum, The Frugal Filmmaker, Film/TV industry networking group, etc. This way you’ll get many professionals contributing suggestions. Best of luck.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here