Film lighting: 5 important aspects of any setup

A lot of people mistakenly believe that shooting with a better camera will give them better footage. In reality, shooting with a top-of-the-line cinema camera often does more to reveal the flaws in your shots than it does to improve them. A film will never be as beautiful as it could be without good lighting.

The biggest difference between bringing home so-so shots and fantastic footage isn’t what you are shooting with; it’s what you are shooting at. The best way to shoot better shots is to take greater control over the look of the things you are shooting. This means thinking less like a camera operator and more like a Director of Photography.

Think about it: A camera operator stands behind the camera and shoots what he or she sees. But, a Director of Photography moves all over the set and takes control of everything in the frame. A Director of Photography isn’t only 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. Film lighting is the most critical factor in determining image quality.

The best way to shoot better shots is to take greater control over the look of the things you are shooting.

When it comes to making lighting decisions, there are at least five factors to consider every time you turn on a lighting instrument: position, brightness, quality, shape and color.

Light position

Light positioning is about adjusting the length, direction and angle of shadows that an instrument casts. Positioning a light source near the camera creates what is known as flat lighting. Flat film lighting is low on the creativity scale, and neutral in terms of emotion. When you move a light farther to the side of the subject it becomes increasingly more dramatic and emotional. When a single light strikes one side of the subject’s face at a 90-degree angle in relation to the camera, it creates a very dramatic look. And when it is pointed at the wall behind the subject, the result is the uber-dramatic silhouette.


We often refer to the overall brightness of a scene as being high-key or low-key. High-key lighting floods the entire scene with high levels of light so that everything is brightly lit. Filmmakers use high-key lighting for happy or upbeat scenes. By contrast, low-key lighting is dark. It makes greater use of shadows than illumination and, as a result, it creates drama and suspense.

Lighting quality

Quality refers to a light’s hardness or softness. A hard light is characterized by a sharp, defined shadow edge and a deep, dark shadow. Hard light pulls out the angular features of a face and draws attention to wrinkles and creases. It can make a subject look strong, or weathered, or wicked. Hard lighting can make a subject seem intimidating. Soft lighting has a broad, gradual shadow edge and a faint shadow. It is more flattering on the face. It conceals wrinkles and hides lines in the face, and makes people seem more friendly and approachable. Possibly more trustworthy. Filmmakers 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.


Shape is about controlling and focussing a light. In most cases, light shouldn’t just wash evenly over everything in the scene. It should only go where you want it. The lighting designer selectively shapes light into shafts and pools to highlight certain parts of the scene while allowing others to fall into the shadows. Professional lighting designers shape lights using film lighting tools such as barn doors, snoots, cookies and gobos, but anything that blocks light will work. You can shape light using household items like foam core, window blinds or an artificial tree branch.


Light color is a huge consideration that beginning filmmakers often overlook. Light color can be easily altered using gels, and light color has an immense influence on the look and feel of a scene. Yellow or amber gels give a scene a warm feeling. They can also create the look of a morning sunrise. Shots tinted light blue feel cold, like winter. Red or orange hints at evening, especially when combined with a light position that creates long shadows. Lighting an entire scene with navy blue lighting creates the look of nighttime. You can tweak your shots by using a small amount of color, or you can change them completely by bathing them in gelled light.

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. Give careful consideration to your lighting setups. The secret to shooting fantastic footage isn’t to buy a better camera, it’s to take greater control over what happens in front of the camera’s lens.

Chuck Peters
Chuck Peters
Chuck Peters is a three-time Emmy award-winning writer and producer. He is currently director of operations for LifeWay Kids in Nashville, TN.

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