A Beginner’s Guide to Film Lighting Basics

Written by Lamia Sabic

Through our eyes we perceive reality as a three dimensional space, but when looking through the camera the image is two dimensional. Combining imagination, creativity and knowledge of film language, the image can be created in a way which portrays life as we experience it; inducing the sensory experience and emotional feedback from the viewer.

This is achieved by using tools of visual storytelling. The two most effective tools of visual storytelling are light and color.

First there was darkness, then came the light.

When talking about light, we have to also talk about darkness. You can look at darkness as a canvas, and light as a paintbrush. By using light you bring your image to life, but the darkness plays an essential part in that life.

Shadows give the impression of roundness of objects, leading the image into a new dimension – from the two-dimensional into the three-dimensional. If everything was bright in the image, there would be no rhythm. The image would be monotone and static.

Light and darkness create rhythm and contrast, giving the image a cinematic look.

A lot of professional cinematographers say they don’t design the light, but the shadows within their image. You can use the quantity of light to determine your exposure, and the quality of light to determine the overall look of your image.

Before you go experimenting with light and darkness, it’s important to know the ground rules. We can look at these rules through different characteristics of light; like its direction, softness, intensity and color.

When it comes to direction in film lighting, there is a setup called Three Point Lighting. This light setup is used when lighting a person, or any kind of object within your scene.

If everything else fails, you can always come back to this setup.

Three Point Lighting

Three Point Lighting is based on the position of lights; where you place the lights, in regards to your subject/object. It consists of three basic lights, placed in three different positions:

  1. Key Light
  2. Fill Light
  3. Back Light.

Let’s imagine we need to shoot a scene in a bar, where we have a character named Jack, sitting and drinking whiskey at a table. We can use this example to examine the basic light setup of Three Point Lighting.

The first light we use will be the main source of light, the light with the strongest intensity – it’s called Key Light. This light should be positioned slightly above the subject, at 45 degrees from the left or the right side of their face/body. In this case we will position it on Jack’s right side. A key light positioned like this will create a drop shadow on the face, giving a feeling of depth to the face.

If the light is positioned too high, it will create strong shadows which cover the eyes, giving Jack a look called raccoon eyes. The same effect is achieved if you’re shooting outdoors in noon, during high sun. Eyes are the windows to the soul – they say, which makes them the most important part of the face; that’s why you should avoid this kind of positioning of light.

If the key light is positioned too low, it will create strong shadows facing upwards, giving Jack an unnatural look (as there’s no natural sources of light from below). This positioning of light is commonly used in horror films, for example, with a flashlight below the face of the subject. 

After we’ve lit one side of our character with the key light, we now have some strong shadows on the other side of the face. That’s why we use Fill Light, positioned on the opposite side of the key light, to make these shadows lighter by filling them with some soft light. The amount of fill light you decide to use determines the mood you will create.

Little or no fill light creates a darker mood, with dramatic or mysterious light, also known as low key lighting. It’s widely used in noir, horror, crime and drama films, to either emphasize dramatic scenes or to isolate a single character within a scene. If Jack was a murderer, waiting in the bar for his victim to arrive, we would use low key lighting for this scene; to build on the mood of our film.

A great example for a low key lighting film would be Se7en, by David Fincher. That film brought innovative ways of creating and using light and darkness.

A lot of fill light creates a flat image with little or no shadows, used in romantic comedies or commercials, called high key lighting. We would use high key lighting with Jack, if we were shooting a commercial for a certain beverage in the bar, or if we had a comedy scene with Jack and his friends hanging out in the bar during lunch break.

With the light intensity and contrast, you can completely control the atmosphere of your scenes.

With the position of the key light and the fill light, you can achieve an effect called catch light; which is the reflection of one of these lights in the eyes of your character. Even in old classical portrait paintings you can find catch light in the eyes of the models, for example, Girl with the Pearl Earring by Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer.

Now that Jack’s face is nicely lit from the key light and fill light, we can also add a light facing his back, which is called Back Light. It creates an outline around the body or the head, separating the character from the background. In the combination with the key light and fill light, it’s a great way to emphasize the depth of the image.

It’s also called Hair Light, if it’s positioned higher and pointed only at the head of the subject.

Besides the Three Point Lighting setup, there are other light technics which you can include with this basic setup.

Let’s say that behind Jack, the walls are covered with interesting images or have an appealing pattern, or some people are sitting at the tables in the background of the bar, who might add to the dynamics of our scene.

In order to light the walls, we can use background light. Unless you decide you want it black, you should always light the background. By lighting the background you give more context to the space and the story, while adding to the mood of the scene.

Make sure that the character is positioned further away from the background, as it will help separate the subject from the background and achieve more depth in the image.

Other lighting tips for you to use

For lighting the people in the background, we can also try using practical lights. Practical lights are part of scenography and they’re placed within the image, aiding to the lighting of the scene. Practical lights involve anything from a lamp, light bulb, television, headlights, phone and so on.

If we place several lamps on the tables where the extras are sitting, that can already give the light needed to softly lit their faces and bring them out from the background.

Depending on your project or budget, you can use practicallights instead of technical lights. If you’re on a tight equipment budget, you can use practical lights to your advantage.

They can be useful solutions in scenes, for example; if you have a tracking shot, in which the subject is walking in front of the camera while carrying a candle in front of his/her face. Such lighting reveals the face of the subject throughout the shot, while at the same time creating a strong atmosphere.

Practical lights also communicate directly to the viewer, since they are visible within the frame; making them a ‘real’ tool to utilize within a scene. 

At other times, practical lights can be a creative decision. Even though he wasn’t the first to use practical lights, Stanley Kubrick popularized practical lights by mastering and bringing them to another level in his films.

For the interior scenes in the film Barry Lyndon, filmed in spacious old castles in England and Ireland, he used only candlelight. At that time, equipment wasn’t advanced enough for such endeavors, but a great director doesn’t give up easily on his vision. He wanted to stay true to the natural feeling of the space and the historical accuracy of that time, for which he bought special 50MM f/0,7 lenses used by NASA to shoot the dark side of the moon.

If we had another scene with Jack leaving the bar very early in the morning, we could aim to shoot this, depending on our location, equipment and weather, with natural light. If you have a good camera, with a high dynamic range, you can shoot your film with natural light.

This is not a new practice, as it was common since the beginning of film. But, with digital video it took time to develop cameras with a dynamic range high enough to shoot only with natural light. Shooting with natural light can be tricky; any change in weather, sudden rain, clouds can interfere with the continuity of your scene and shooting schedule.

Also, high sun at noon can be a challenge to avoid raccoon eyes, or if you’re aiming to shoot during magic hours make sure your location gives you the open space for this kind of light. Magic hours are the periods just before sunrise and just after sunset. These positions of the sun create an even light, which is usually in golden or blue color, making it easy to use this quality of light to create beautiful images.

The only tricky thing with shooting in magic hour is the time limitation, as this effect lasts only up to 30 minutes.

A recent example of a film which was almost completely shot with natural light is Revenant, shot by Emmanuel Lubezki.  Only one scene in the film was shot with technical light, as the fire which was supposed to function as a practical light was not controllable because of the wind.

It’s important to know what you want to express through your images, long before you take the camera in your hands.

Portrait lighting setups

There are several basic portrait lighting setups, which depend on the position of the key light. All of these setups can serve a purpose, depending on what you want to achieve.

One of them, the Paramount Lighting, is also called butterfly lighting because of the shadow which resembles a butterfly under the nose of the subject. This light setup was used a lot in Hollywood movies when lighting actresses, emphasizing the cheekbones and slimming down the face.

The Paramount Lighting is achieved by positioning the key light slightly above the head, directly focusing towards the subject. The fill light is placed right below the key light, and a reflector is used to soften the shadows on the lower part of the face and neck. 

Loop Lighting has a position of light which is similar to Paramount Lighting, except that the key light is moved slightly more to the side. You will see the butterfly shadow under the nose changing into a loop shadow on the side of the face. The fill light is moved to the other side of the camera, not making a shadow of its own on the face.  

Rembrandt Lighting is named after the Dutch painter Rembrandt, who used this light positioning often in his paintings. This light technic creates a triangle of light on the subject’s face. It is the most common lighting used in cinema today, as it gives a great depth of the image. It’s created by moving the key light around 40 degrees on the left or right side of the camera, pointing towards the subject. Fill light is used on the other side of the camera, to slightly easy the shadows on the dark part of the subject’s face.

Use Color

With the darkness and light, came the color.

Besides light, the other important element for creating the mood in an image is color.

If we lit Jack with warm colors and soft light, and the background behind him with the color red, it will give a sensual, romantic mood to the scene. If instead Jack is lit with stronger white lights, giving more contrast to his face, and the background is lit with a blue color; it will create a mood of mystery and suspense.

Color is one of the strongest elements of film language. It is connected to our psychology, even if we do not consciously perceive colors all the time.

Each color carries a different meaning and will create a different atmosphere in the image – red is passion, anger, desire, danger; yellow is wisdom, idealism, imagination; green is healing, nature, renewal; blue is tranquility, mystery, order; white is protection, pureness, birth and so on.

Coloring/grading of the image can also be done in the post-production phase. But, since post-production is not within everybody’s budget, it’s better to work with color filters/gels on lights. In that way, you are creating the mood of the scene and not relying on the (expensive) possibilities of post-production.

If you already know what you want from your scene, in terms of lights and colors, it’s better to create it on the set. In that way, before the record button is pressed and action is yelled, you can directly work on shaping your vision.

Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, famous for films like Apocalypse Now, The Last Emperor and The Conformist, plays with colors very expressively in order to create emotion with his images.

In the end, this is what every creative journey should be about; expressing something you truly want to communicate to others and finding the best creative ways to do it.

Knowledge of lighting is crucial to the creative journey into filmmaking. This article is just the beginning, the exploration of light and shadow is up to you!

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