Light the night: How to light a realistic night scene

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 night scene? 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 to 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? Nighttime lighting is an essential part of film lighting


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, candlelight, 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 candlelight. 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.
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.


Filmmaking convention says night scenes are blue in tint; 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.

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) may distract from the story. 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? It’s unlikely 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 nighttime.

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 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)?

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.

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.

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

Related Content