A good film needs a solid script, stellar camera work, and amazing acting. But there is another factor that can make or break your film, and that is film lighting. Lighting can set the mood for your scenes, it can be used to display emotion, it helps you transition between scenes, and it sets the tone for your film. In other words, film lighting is the backbone of your film.
Learning how to properly light your film is one of the very first skills you will need to develop as an aspiring filmmaker. Even if you hire a professional cinematographer to do lighting setups for your film, you still need to have an idea of how your scenes should be lighted. Apart from learning about film lighting technology, you also need to flex your creative muscles to use film lighting to your advantage.
Here is a guide that walks you through the basics of film lighting and how you can place lights to get the right look for your frames. We’ve also included some pro tips at the end of the guide to help you become a master cinematographer in no time.
Why is Lighting in Film Important
If you’ve ever been on a film set, you must have noticed big bright lights all around the set. Even if it is a daytime shoot, film lights have been set up. The lights may seem like overkill to the untrained eye. I mean, if you wanted to shoot in natural light, all you have to do is show up midday, set up and start rolling right? Wrong. This is because film captures light differently than the human eye.
Film lighting is also used to enhance the natural depth of colors. For example, if you were shooting an outdoor music video in daylight, you would want the colors to be more saturated and warm so they stand out more. Your camera by itself won’t be able to capture colors that way.
But what if I want to film a video tutorial indoor for my YouTube channel? I don’t need artificial lights for that right? Wrong again. Contrary to this common belief, video requires artificial lighting more than film. Film can handle a much larger contrast range than videos. This is the reason why many YouTubers also use professional lighting sources to light their videos.
If you’re an aspiring filmmaker looking to enhance your skills, read on to learn more about film lighting techniques and tips.
Film Lighting Techniques
Film lighting is both an art and a science. You need some technical knowledge about cinematography to set up your lights just the right way for each scene. At the same time, you need to be creative enough to see how to manipulate light to your advantage. For example, slowly filtering light from bright to dull can not only change the ambiance of your scene but can also be used to showcase the overall mood of the shot.
Here are some of the most popular types of film lighting techniques. You can make any scene look just right by using a combination of these techniques.
Key light is essentially the main light that you use to illuminate your scene. The key light could be a LED panel you’ve placed on set, it could be the sun if you’re shooting outdoors, it could even be a window if you’re shooting in a dark room.
Positioning the key light the right way can define the overall luminance of your scene. You can place your key light anywhere, it doesn’t even need to be facing the subject in your shot. For example, if you’re shooting a moodier scene you can place the key light behind the subject. Just make sure not to place the key light right beside your camera or your scene will look flat.
Your key light illuminates the high points of your scene, but what about the shadows? That is where fill light comes in handy. Fill lights often have less brightness than key lights and they are placed in a way that they illuminate the shadows created by your fill light.
Placing the fill light in the right position is important. Otherwise, your scene will look overly bright and washed out. You can use a diffuser with your fill light to make sure the light is dispersed uniformly across your scene.
Backlighting is used to separate your subject from the background. This type of lighting helps you create a three-dimensional scene. This light faces the subject from a higher angle, highlighting the angles of your subject that make it look 3D.
You also need to diffuse the backlight to make sure it isn’t as bright as your key light. You can even use backlight on its own to capture the silhouette of your subject. Key light, fill light, and backlight together make the Three Point Lighting system. Essentially you can film any kind of scene using just these three lights.
As the name suggests, sidelight helps your illuminate your subject from one side. This is a good lighting technique if you want to film high contrast scenes. You can use sidelights on their own or pair them with key lights and fill lights.
If you use sidelights with fill lights make sure to reduce the brightness of the fill lights so you can keep the dark, dramatic look of your scene. You can use sidelights and fill lights to create Chiaroscuro lighting effect that will really make your scenes pop. Here are some more easy one light video setups that you can use in your films.
Practical lights are lights that come from objects that are already in the frame. For example, lights coming from lamps, televisions, candles, computers, street lamps, or even headlights are all practical lights.
Practical lights are a clever way of introducing depth in your frames. They are also great for motivating artificial light sources that you use to illuminate your scene. For example, a lamp placed on the bedside can be the reason why we (the audience) can see the person sitting on the bed. Smart use of practical lights can help you enhance the quality of your scenes.
To employ this lighting technique, you bounce the light coming from a main light source using a reflector or any light-colored surface. This technique is great for diffusing light across a wider area and making sure the light is spread evenly.
Bounce lighting techniques are great for softening your key, side, fill or backlights giving you a more evenly illuminated scene.
Soft lighting is a lighting technique used to mellow out harsh lines and shadows so your scenes look more neutral and calm. This technique is great for lighting scenes where you want to communicate beauty, innocence, happiness, or glamour.
It is very easy to create a soft lighting effect. You can use the lighting equipment you already have to create this effect.
Contrary to soft light, hard light is actually used to enhance sharp edges and shadows in your scenes. This type of lighting is used to film darker, moodier scenes. Hard light is a great way to attract the audience’s attention to specific aspects of your scenes.
You can create a hard lighting effect by using a smaller source of light or by placing your light far away from your subject.
High Key and Low Key Light
Filmmakers also manipulate the contrast of lights to create different lighting effects. Two of these effects are high key and low key lighting. High key lighting refers to scenes where there is very low contrast. In other words, these scenes are really bright. High key lighting is great for shooting comedies and sitcoms.
Low key lighting is when the contrast is kept really high. This makes your scene look more intense and dark. Low key lighting is usually used in filming thrillers, horror movies, or film noir.
Motivated lighting is used to enhance or imitate the light of other lighting sources in your frame. For example, motivated lighting can be used to imitate sunlight. This technique is great for enhancing practical lights as well. For example, you can increase the intensity of a light coming from the television in a frame.
Ambient or available light refers to natural light sources around you like sunlight, moonlight, or street lights. There is no reason why you shouldn’t use the light from the sun to light a daytime scene. You can use bounce lighting to other techniques to enhance ambient lights to use them in your scenes.
Film Lighting Pro Tips
Film lighting is an art that becomes better with practice. As any professional cinematographer will tell you, you can’t master film lighting in one day. To help you master this craft, here are some pro tips on film lighting.
Shoot According to Lighting Setups
Setting up lights is the most time-consuming task when shooting a film. This is because, as you change the frame, you will be changing the positions of the lights as well. A good way to minimize effort and time is to shoot scenes with similar lighting setups first and then move on to the next scene.
Another pro tip that works great with scenes that have shot reverse shots, is to move the actors and the camera instead of the lights. Just make sure to move your camera in a way that you can still maintain the correct eyeline.
Mix Color Temperatures
Contrasting colors can be used to make your scenes pop and stand out more. This technique allows you to enhance different colors in your shot to add to the overall sharpness and effect of your scene.
Wes Anderson loves using this technique to add richness to his shots. You can do the same by playing with color in your scenes. You will need a basic understanding of how colors work with each other to pull this off correctly. This is important because you can’t change the temperature of one color without affecting the other.
Hard Light vs. Soft Light
Hard light and soft light are both great lighting techniques to showcase the mood of your scene. Both techniques can be used to light similar scenes. For example, using hard light in a romantic scene will make it look more sexy and charged. While soft lighting the same scene can make the romance look soft and poignant.
Choose the lighting technique that best suits the type of scene you want to shoot. As a rule, it is easier to control hard light than soft light. This is because getting the right balance with soft light has a bit of a learning curve. Also, hard light can be softened but soft light cannot be hardened.
Use Practical Lights for Shooting Indoor
Practical lighting is a great way to manipulate the lighting in your shots without the need for expensive lighting equipment. If you’re just starting your filmmaking career, chances are you don’t have a big lighting budget. This is where clever lighting setups using practical lighting can really help you make your scenes look just perfect.
You can use bulbs of varying strengths when using lamps, floor or roof lights for indoor shoots. This can help you create the right depth and texture in your shots. Playing with color temperatures is also a great way to use practical lights wisely. Gels, black wraps, and diffusers can help you manipulate the light coming from practical sources. You can also use motivated lighting techniques to enhance these lights.
Use LED Panels for Outdoor Night Shoots
Nighttime shoots are the trickiest to light because you are completely dependant on a good lighting setup to make your scenes look just right. If you have a limited budget, professional grade flexible LED light panels are the answer to creating amazing nighttime lighting setups.
Flexible LED panels are not just easy to carry around, they are also great for lighting unusual spaces. This makes them great for lighting outdoor setups. You can use these panels to create hard or soft lighting in your shots. They can also be used for motivated lighting and as key, fill, or side lights. Also, since most LED light panels are battery operated, you can easily use them to light scenes where power sources are not easily available.
Film lighting is a craft honed by research and practice. Learn the basics of film lighting, notice how the pros do it, and set-up mock shots to really understand the nuances of lighting a film successfully. As any professional cinematographer will tell you, you can’t master film lighting in a day. The trick is to keep trying different variations of lighting techniques to understand how to use film lights to your advantage.