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Stanley Yang
September 25, 2020

14 Film Lighting Techniques for Cinematic Shots

Without adequate lighting, even the best cameras in the world wouldn't capture perfect pictures.

This is why, as a filmmaker, it's always important to learn all the essential film lighting techniques and setup that enhances your images and creates in-depth light that supports your story.

After all, a camera captures the best moments with the best lighting.

If you want to capture your story's mood and consume every moment of the atmosphere and recording space, proper lighting is how to do it.

In today's post, we will examine what it means to capture that cinematic look that keeps the audience glued to the screen.

Our team broke down several lighting techniques that videographers use to achieve the best video moments.

What is Cinematic Lighting?

Cinematic lighting is a film lighting technique to add even more drama, depth, and atmosphere to a story. It goes beyond the three-point lighting setup most filmmakers use.

Cinematic lighting uses lighting tricks like diffusing light, bouncing light, and adjusting color temperatures.

As a fundamental aspect of filming, lighting plays a critical role since it creates that visual mood, a sense of meaning, and an atmosphere for the audience.

So, whether you are blocking actors or dressing a film set, every cinematic lighting process always affects the lighting setup.

Lighting tells your audience where to look in the film. It guides your audience's eyes to stick to a specific actor, prop, or other parts of the scene. It's also meant to reflect the psychology of the characters.

The size, amount, color, and harshness of the light surrounding the actor can always be adjusted to match his/her emotions at the time.

The type of lighting setup that you use should also define and support the genre of your film.

It is the tool that helps the characters to convey mood most clearly for the audience.

1. Natural Lighting

Natural film lighting is one of the best and most used lighting techniques in the filming industry today.

It refers to the use and modification of light available at the location where the film is happening.

Often, the shoot will occur on a location scout before the actual shoot is done. It's also vital that you consider the time of the day that you are at those locations.

You can take out your camera and attempt to take a shoot to check how natural light holds up. From there, you can now tell which additional lights you will need to ensure you capture the best shots.

2. Key Lighting

This is the primary lighting source that you will use for your main scenes. It's also the most intense, direct lighting source that you can have. Generally, the key light is meant more to illuminate the form of the show's main actor.

Key lighting is often placed much closer to the camera, or the light will become flat and featureless. It is also always the primary lighting source in the three-point lighting setup, but more on that later in the article.

Some filmmakers have also been known to create a dramatic mood by using their subjects' key lighting.

3. High Key Lighting

High key lighting refers more to the style of lighting meant for television, photography, or film. It should reduce the lighting ratio in the scene being shot.

Previously, this was done to combat high contrast. Today, it's used more to adjust the character's mood and tone in every scene.

High key lighting is usually dominated by white tones from bright lights and minimal use of blacks and other mid-range tones.

This tone is generally meant to be hopeful or optimistic. Many videographers use it when shooting pop music videos.

4. Low Key Lighting

As opposed to the high key lighting, this is more of a film lighting style that utilizes a hard source.

It works to encase the scene being focused on in shadow. Unlike high key lighting, it wants contrasts and blackness.

It's meant to bring out dark tones, black features, and shadows in a scene.

Therefore, you will mostly find it in noir or thriller videos for ominous warnings.

It brings out a striking contrast of images. So, the audience always knows what to focus more on.

5. Fill Lighting

This lighting style is meant to cancel out all shadows that have been created by the key light.

Therefore, you will always find the fill light on the opposite end of the key light.

However, it's not as powerful as the key light. Simply put, fill lights are meant to fill in any shadows that may form on the character's frame of a specific scene that needs more lighting.

The fill light doesn't create any shadows on the scene or its own characters, either.

6. Back Lighting

This basic lighting is meant to hit the actor or object of focus from behind.

It is usually placed at an elevated angle, higher than the actor or object that it's meant to light.

Backlights are used to separate characters or items from their background. They often give the actor or object more shape and depth, making them more visible.

Basically, they help to make the frame feel three-dimensional.

The sun is one of the best natural sources of backlights that filmmakers use.

You can also use reflectors to bounce off excessive light to get a much lesser light intensity backing the subject.

7. The Three-Point Lighting Setup

The key light, fill light, and the backlight is what makes up the three-point lighting setup.

This is the standard method that's used in most visual media.

Using the three different positions, cinematographers can always illuminate their actors or objects in any way they want, controlling any shadows produced by direct lighting.

Using the three-point lighting setup helps to set subjects apart from their background.

But for this to be possible, all the lighting equipment used must face the actor or object from three dimensions; the front, back, and sideways.

8. Practical Lighting

This lighting style is meant more for video makers who intend to use light sources within a specific location.

Therefore, things like lamps, television, and even candles can be used to illuminate the subject. Most of these accouterments are usually added to the scene to help light faces or corners by the set designer.

It's always beneficial to consider multiple practical lights to illuminate your subject.

It's also vital that the color temperatures match while using practical lighting. You can do this by taking into account any available lighting outlets in every location.

9. Hard Lighting

This is one of the harshest sourings of lights you can create using a direct beam from any light source.

This kind of lighting usually creates shadows and other harsh lines on subjects.

It can be beneficial, depending on which scene you are shooting and the type of attention that you want to draw in each frame and subjects.

Hard lighting can also create highlights and silhouettes, making it excellent for shadows.

However, it can be stopped with flags or diffusers, depending on how it is used.

10. Soft Lighting

This is one of the trickiest lighting sources that you can use.

There still isn't any strict definition of this lighting source.

It's more of an aesthetic used by videographers to eliminate shadows in frames and recreate subtle shades instead of exterior sources.

Soft lighting can also be used as a fill light in some filming scenes. When used correctly, it can add youth to the actor's face.

11. Bounce Lighting

You can also bounce light from the sun or lamps using a whiteboard or white card to indirectly highlight the actor or object within a frame.

Using the bounce helps to create a much larger area in a dark room with evenly spread lighting.

If executed properly, bounce lights can create soft light, fill lights, top, side, and even backlighting.

Bounce lighting helps to highlight subjects of focus without directly shining on them. So, the film scenes have more natural lighting.

12. Ambient Lighting

Unless you are shooting in pitch darkness or an artificial space, you will always have some sunlight, overhead light, or lamplight that seeps into your set.

This is known as ambient light, and it's something that videographers must account for, especially when shooting outdoors or near windows.

Ambient light also always changes as the time of day changes. So, you must be cautious of the exact moment you are shooting every scene, especially those requiring the whole day to shoot. 

13. Motivated Lighting

Filmmakers are always looking to know where the light is coming from within the scene.

They may choose to use practical lights already in the shoot location and even elevate their effect.

This is known as motivated lighting.

For instance, motivated lighting can be a stand-in for sunlight, moonlight, or even streetlights.

You can use bounces or flags to create motivated light that alters actors to appear more natural.

14. Side Lighting

Much like its name, side lighting is the light that enters the shooting scene from the sides to highlight the actor or object.

Side lighting is meant more to give the room a faint fill.

They are often used to provide mood and drama to a scene, particularly in film noir genres.

To achieve this type of lighting, you will need a strong contrast, and low-key accentuates the subject's contours.

And if you use the sidelight to fill a frame, you may need to bounce it.

Wrapping Up

Lighting an object or scene requires a lot of trial and error.

It takes a lot of time and patience to experiment with the hardness or softness of light to find the right balance for the best shot.

And like all aesthetic principles, the lighting choices you use help bring out more individualistic interpretations and expressions from actors.

The lighting techniques mentioned above go beyond just lighting your scene; they help enhance your storytelling too.

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