Lighting Techniques in Film

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Perhaps more than anything, lighting is responsible for setting almost any scene–except for when the lack of light is needed to provide some tension. When shooting an external playground scene on a beautiful sunny day, the use of reflectors and other lights may be needed to focus that natural light or remove shadows.

A simple flashlight can create a mood as the iconic Blair Witch Project used to great effect. In the black and white film noir The Man Who Wasn’t There, lighting was responsible for making the film as vivid as any technicolor marvel. In Se7en, the tone of the movie was set from the start, with low lighting and the liberal use of red, brown, and black colors.

Even in an age of digital filmmaking, where entire scenes can be shot with CGI and lighting added as an after-effect, the cinematographer and gaffer still play a huge part in the overall look of a movie. From illuminating a candlelight dinner in a romantic comedy to the bright neon of a futuristic thriller, how cinematic lighting is used can make or break a movie.

Lighting Techniques in Film

Illustration of 3 point lighting in film and commercial production consisting of back light, key light, fill lightRegardless of the kind of lighting you’re using for a scene, the standard technique is the 3-point setup. This consists of the main light source (the key light) along with the fill light and backlight. This configuration is used in film, still photography, video, stage productions, and so on. Even computer-generated animation will use this principle.

The key light is the source that is focused on the main feature of the shot, whether it’s the actor or some kind of object. It is the most intense light on the set and can be used in front of the subject, at the side, or even behind the subject. All other lights are used in support of the key light.

The second source in a 3-point system is fill lighting, needed when the primary light source is creating too much shadow. In some cases, the fill light may be used sparingly to create a stylized look to a scene. But for more natural-looking shots, fill light is needed but is not nearly as intense as the key light.

Backlighting is used to add another highlight to the main subject of the shot. Sometimes called a “hair light,” this light is behind the subject, often to one side or the other. It illuminates the subject from behind, creating a rim that highlights the edges of the actor or subject that are being filmed.

In some cases, shadows are required, so the Chiaroscuro lighting effect or side lighting is used. As mentioned before, this technique is created by lessening or even removing the fill lighting. Think about a clandestine meeting in a dark alley where only half the actor’s face is seen, the other half-hidden in shadow.

Using natural light itself isn’t necessarily a technique, but how you play with that light is. Using reflectors, diffusers, flags, and other materials, you can soften the light coming from the sun or bring in more light on those cloudier days. When shooting on location, it’s a good idea to scout the location during the time of day you intend on shooting.

If a brighter, more hopeful look is needed, high key lighting is used to bring whiter and lighter tones to the scene. There are very few mid-tones or blacks, although subjects that are black remain so. Low key lighting does just the opposite, bringing in more black and low tones and removing the bright white from a scene. Subjects can appear to simply disappear at the edges.

When you really want to highlight the main subject, hard lighting uses a direct beam of light. This will create high contrast, definite lines, and shadows around the subject. Hard lighting can be minimized using diffusers, especially if natural light from the sun is the source.

Soft lighting, on the other hand, is used to remove those harsh lines and shadows. Soft light creates more gradual shades of light and is often used as a fill light. Like high key lighting, soft light is used to bring a more upbeat mood to a scene.

Highlight a subject without using hard lighting or by using the key light to add more light to the shot with bounce light. Boards, cards, and other surfaces can be used to reflect or bounce light from any light source back onto the subject. It’s a great way to provide more light and can be used for side, back, and fill lights when used properly.

Need to shoot an interior daytime scene in the middle of the night? Motivated lighting is the art of trying to mimic natural light when none is available. Bounce lighting is one way of providing motivated lighting. It can also mimic other forms of light sources featured in a scene, such as a street light or headlights of a car.

Ambient light refers to any light that is not being used specifically on the set. This can be overhead lights, lamps, and so forth. Unless you’re filing in a black box, there will always be some form of ambient light. For interior shots, sunlight can be a huge source of ambient light that must be accounted for–especially as it moves from one coast to the other.

Main Sources for Lighting techniques in Film

In order to take advantage of these lighting techniques in film, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the types of lighting fixtures and light sources available to you. Obviously, there are light sources common to everyday life, such as lamps, candles, flashlights, and even the sun. These are known as practical lights.

In the case of lights that use bulbs, the normal 60-watt bulbs are replaced with something a little more custom to match the screen or other lighting being used off-screen. Many of the above techniques are used to redirect, amplify, or even soften candles or sunlight. In addition to these light sources, there are two common types of fixtures.

Open-Faced Fixtures
These are used when a large amount of light is needed to bathe a scene. They are a bit brighter than Fresnel lights despite their small size but have far less control than a Fresnel. In most cases, these lights have no lenses so what you see is what you get (so to speak). Reflectors (those white screens) are used to provide either a wide or narrow beam, but the light isn’t focused.

Because of their uncontrollable nature, open-face lights are ideal for fill light because they light everything. Although you’ll often see these light scenes in small rooms because of that ability, diffusers are sometimes needed to take the glare off the actors or other points of interest in the scene. These fixtures are recognizable by the four flaps around the bulb.

Fresnel Fixtures
More exacting than open-faced lights, Fresnels fixtures are much more versatile. Where open-face lights have no lenses, Fresnels feature a thin, adjustable lens that can be moved to create a floodlight as well as a spotlight. They also have four flaps, but the lens placement is how the light is controlled.

These pictures provide a softer beam of light than the open-face lights and are used for backlight and top light situations. The lens has ridges of concentric circles which help focus the beams of light coming from the filament (light source). There is a wide range of modifiers to help shape the beam, including barn doors, scrims, speed rings, and more.

Learn Lighting Techniques in Film from Professionals

The Film Connection Cinematography Program will put you on the set or on location with real-world professionals. Why sit in a film school classroom in front of a teacher when you can be working with actual cinematographers, gaffers, and other crew members on real-world productions?

In less time, and for less money, you’ll learn just as much (if not more) gain experience in the industry, and make valuable connections with other filmmaking insiders. When starting a career in film, it can be so much more about who you know instead of what you know. With Film Connection, you’ll get both.

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