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A Short Introduction to Lighting

Do you want your footage to look more cinematic? Then you must properly light your shots. In this article, I will cover the basics of lighting in the film.

Guy Pearce in Christopher Nolan's "Memento"
Guy Pearce in Christopher Nolan’s “Memento”

Filmmaking is the process of capturing light on film or (nowadays) a sensor, thus the importance of light in the film cannot be understated. Many videographers and aspiring filmmakers will try to achieve a cinematic look with an expensive camera or high-quality lenses. While the cam and lens used certainly have an impact on the look of your shots, lighting is just as important. If you rely on whichever light is available, your scenes will probably look rather dull and flat.

Apart from making your film look great, lighting is an essential storytelling tool. First and foremost, it is used for orientation: A scene is lit so the audience knows where it is taking place. Lighting is also used to let the audience know, what time of the day or year it is. Furthermore, it can communicate a mood or an emotion a character might be feeling: For instance, characters that have something to hide or ambivalent feelings, can be lit from one side only, so half their face stays in the dark. Lighting offers endless possibilities to work with, but before you venture out into the wildlands of crazy lighting setups, here are the basics you need to know:

Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon”

Artificial light / Natural light

Artificial light describes all kinds of light that are man-made. That includes everything from the small lamp on your nightstand to a huge studio light. Natural light includes light produced by the sun and its reflections (be that off water or the moon). Artificial light is often used to recreate, redirect, or control natural light. With artificial light, there is more control and you are not restricted to a certain time period: If you have the necessary power, you could shoot a scene that is set at noon during nighttime.

Available light

Available light is not to be confused with natural light. It can be both artificial and natural. It refers to the light that is already on location, like street lights, headlights of cars passing by, or the daylight of whatever time you choose to shoot. Be sure to plan out your shooting accordingly, if you are planning on incorporating available light in your scene.

An example of Hard light: Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing”

Hard light / Soft light

Hard light describes a bright source of light, aimed directly at the subject, and creating hard and clear shadows. It is an important component of the film-noir genre. Since hard light is so stylistic, it is often diffused or bounced off a reflector or white wall/ceiling, thus making it soft light with smoother shadows.

Three-Point Lighting

This is the most basic lighting setup in film. As its name suggests, the three-point lighting consists of three different kinds of light:

The Key Light is used to illuminate the subject and scene from the front.

The Fill Light is mainly used to soften or eliminate shadows created by the Key Light.

The Backlight outlines the subject from the back. It is positioned to be aimed at the camera, with the subject in between.

Low Key in the front and High Key in the back in Ridley Scott’s “Alien”

High Key / Low Key

High Key lighting describes a setup, with a strong proportion of Fill light to Key light. High Key lighting makes a scene look very bright and dispose of shadows. Low Key lighting on the other hand creates a lot of shadows and sets an eerie tone for the scene because there is little to no Filler light. This technique is used particularly often in horror films or thrillers

Like I mentioned in the beginning: Lighting offers endless possibilities and is unexpendable to every film- / video production. The basics above are just general guidelines that you can use and mix up to underline your story.

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