Basic cinematography lighting techniques and how to make the most of them

 

Lighting is a vital narrative tool in filmmaking. It sets a mood and directs attention; good lighting tells a story all on its own.
But even so, why is so much effort put into lighting a scene? Why can’t we just use ambient lighting (also known as practical lighting)?

 

This is because cameras don’t pick up light in the same way our eyes do, so you’re not able to just use the available light on your set. But using just a few simple cinematography lighting techniques will help you achieve that perfect balance between your highlights and shadows.

 

After mastering a few cinematography lighting techniques, you’ll also be able to go one step further and take creative control of your environment by adding coloured gels and creating effects that wouldn’t be possible using just the ambient light.

 

 

Here are some basic tips on how you can create your own versatile cinematic lighting setup to achieve impactful results every time.

 

Hard vs Soft Light

 

Before learning any cinematography lighting techniques, you’ll need to get familiar with the light you’re working with. The first decision you need to make when deciding which lights will work the best, is whether you need the light to be hard or soft. We covered this in our beginner’s tips for portrait lighting, and many of the same principals apply here.

 

Hard light is perfect for techniques that involve harsh backlights because of the strong shadows they cast. Created by smaller or distant light sources, hard light is great for replicating light sources like the sun or moon. The shadows they create are a useful tool in storytelling, particularly in dramatic horror films like The Night of the Hunter, shown below.

 

For any other application, they’ll need to be diffused using reflectors, diffusion gels or softboxes to make the light useable enough to be shone on actors’ faces. Adding this much diffusion to a hard light may be more hassle than it’s worth, and that’s where soft light sources come in.

 

Soft light is flattering for on-screen talent, and more often than not integrates much more seamlessly with the environment to give the illusion there’s no artificial light at play at all. While usually less powerful, soft light wraps around the subject making it great for providing a romantic or dreamy feel to a scene.

 

 

HMI vs Tungsten vs LED

 

So, once you’ve decided which type of light you need, you have a few options for the types of bulb you can use.
Here are a few of options that you have when building your kit, that will all offer you a different type and quality of light.

 

HMI

 

HMIs are extremely powerful – the most powerful of your lighting options. Operated by creating an arc between two electrodes, they could make a night scene look like day with very little effort at all – pretty convenient considering their colour temperature is balanced around the daylight mark (5600K).

 

The light they emit is extremely hard, so HMIs are great for use in cinematography lighting techniques that require a light source that replicates sun or moonlight. The issue is that for any other purpose, the light can be far too hard and powerful. Which could make it both unflattering and uncomfortable when directed at an actor.

 

It’s also worth considering that in the first few hours, a new HMI bulb’s colour temperature will be about 15,000K, so you need to wait for it to reach 5600K – daylight. After this, the bulb will decay by about one kelvin for every hour it’s on and it’s advised that HMIs shouldn’t be used for much more than half of their lifetime. So, take this into account when planning your shoots.

 

Whilst an HMI offers all the power you could possibly ever need, it comes along with a hefty price tag and a number of limitations.
Due to the nature of the way the light is created, HMIs can cause flickering depending on the frame rate you’re shooting at and require an electrical ballast to constantly regulate their current and voltage.

 

Whilst many ballasts do offer a ‘flicker-free’ mode this can produce a fair amount of noise as the ballast exerts itself to stop the arc from extinguishing, making it difficult to record audio. Although you can try and combat this using a ballast’s ‘silent mode’, this means that the light is only flicker-free at standard framerates and makes it unsuitable for slow-motion filming.

 

You’ll want to be careful too: if the bulbs blow or they’re dropped, they’ll also explode mercury vapour, so if you decide to risk it make sure your gaffer knows what they’re doing!

 

With a short lifespan and steep price, HMIs are not for the inexperienced.

 

Overall, there are very few basic lighting techniques nowadays that require HMIs due to the expertise needed to operate them, so we won’t be talking much more about them here.

 

 

Tungsten

 

You probably already know what a tungsten bulb looks like and the type of light it produces, because a lot of us use them every day in our homes.
Tungsten isn’t commonly used in modern cinematography lighting techniques anymore because of their numerous drawbacks, but they can act as great practical lightsmore on that later.

Only about 5% of the energy produced by a tungsten bulb is actually light output – the rest is all heat.
As you can imagine, tungsten bulbs guzzle energy like it’s going out of fashion. The heat emitted can become dangerous on any set, with gaffers needing to wear gloves, wait ages after turning the light off to be able to handle it and regularly change out bulbs when they shatter.

 

That’s right – tungsten bulbs can get so hot on set that they shatter!


Like the bulbs that light our homes, tungsten lights are set to a warm colour temperature of around 3200K and can’t be adjusted. Whilst you can get gels that will do that for you, it’s not an exact art and it’s yet another item to add to the kit list when you’re heading out onto the set.

 

 

LED

 

LEDs are the new kid on the block when it comes to cinematography lighting techniques, but they’re quickly becoming one of the most popular lighting methods.


LEDs are providing cinematographers with more lighting options than ever; they offer more flexibility, portability, and allow you to take advantage of much simpler (but equally effective) cinematography lighting techniques that more traditional lighting methods just can’t.

LEDs also solve a lot of the portability and control problems that gaffers have been experiencing for decades using traditional cinematography lighting techniques. The Rotolight AEOS, for example, has a fully adjustable bi-colour output.

 

 

 

Unlike an HMI, the AEOS can be dimmed from 100% all the way down to 0% with no colour shift and tuned from 3150-6300K. All of this in an ultra-portable unit that weighs in at just 1.4kg with no need for generators or ballasts.


There are no safety hazards like shattering bulbs or mercury to worry about either, as the lights emit no heat, no matter how long you use them for.

 

Whilst LEDs can’t offer you the same power an HMI can at the moment, the technology is catching up at a rather astonishing rate, but it’s just not there yet. Not only that, they’re significantly more energy efficient and can be run on just V-Lock – or sometimes even AA – batteries. Consuming only 42W, the AEOS in particular grants you unrivalled battery performance whilst having the option to be powered on mains as well.

 

Ten years ago, it would have been unheard of to see gaffers using LEDs, and yet now they’re being used to light films like BAFTA-nominated Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool by renowned industry veterans like Stefan Lange whose credits include Mission Impossible, Tomb Raider and Skyfall.

 

 

Types of Light

 

The next step of learning a cinematography lighting technique is learning what the purpose of each light is. Each light will need varying strength, colour or light type, depending on the situation.
Here are the most common types of light you’ll need in almost every cinematography lighting technique. But remember, the rules aren’t rigid! Cinematography is an art form and its okay to break the rules when painting with light.

 

 

Key Light

 

The key light in any cinematography lighting technique is your main light. It doesn’t matter if it’s hard or soft depending on the look you’re going for, but it should be the brightest.

 

The key light serves the purpose of highlighting the form and dimension of the subject and is often positioned slightly above them at a thirty-degree angle to emphasise the cheekbones of human subjects. Using a key light to illuminate your subject from below distorts the subject’s facial features but is actually a common cinematography lighting technique used in comedies or horror films.

 

Some cinematography lighting techniques can call for numerous key lights when working with a moving subject to light it consistently throughout the line of movement.
It’s a misconception that your key light needs to directly illuminate the subject either. Having the light pass through a windowpane or bars can add a lot of visual interest to a scene.

 

Be unconventional! Add coloured gels for that pop of colour. Naïve Studios used Rotolight NEO 2 LEDs with coloured gels for their fashion film, Ultraviolet, to contrast the dark of the surrounding forest.

 

 

 

 

Fill Light

 

As the name may suggest, a fill light fills in the shadows of a scene.

 

A single light setup with just a key light can produce a very high-contrast scene with a lot of shadows. Whilst this works in certain scenes or genres, like horror, most cinematography lighting techniques call for a fill light as well to reduce this. Although you want the light to fill in the shadows, you also want to avoid any hot spots, so the fill light will likely be noticeably dimmer than your key light and diffused.

 

Using a fill light helps to match the dynamic range of the scene to what would be seen with the naked eye. There is a risk of the scene appearing flat, and part of the learning curve when familiarising yourself with cinematography lighting techniques is figuring out which fill position creates the most flattering look that achieves what you want it to.

 

 

 Backlighting

 

In most cinematography lighting techniques, the backlight is the last light to be added to the scene.
It helps create dimension and separation between the subject and the background but is also a versatile creative tool for establishing a multitude of different moods. Especially when used as a hair light, a backlight can go a long way to setting the tone.

 

 

A hard backlight or hair light light this adds interest and intrigue to any scene – the above is taken from the film, Paula Alto.

 

In the image above taken from the film Paula Alto, Director of Photography, Autumn Durald uses a street lamp as a bright backlight that overpowers any key or fill to create a feeling of mystery and intrigue. In an interview with FilmSupply, Autumn comments: This frame is from the last scene when Teddy (played by Jack Kilmer) is checking his phone. We never show what’s on the phone because the next shot is of him walking away in a really long zoom. There’s a river down there, and it’s like he’s walking into an abyss. It makes complete sense for the film, right? I mean, in high school you have no clue where your life will lead. They’re by themselves in the middle of nowhere. I think this shot captures that emotional feeling.”

 

 

 Practical Lighting

 

A practical light is any light where the source is in your frame when you’re shooting.

 

When you’re at home in the evening, the available light comes from your ceiling lights, the TV, side lamps or pouring through the gap in curtains, doesn’t it?  That’s how you want to stage your set so it’s as natural looking as possible.
If you were filming inside and the scene was well lit at night even with no side lamps, it would be extremely disconcerting for the viewer.

 

Any cinematography lighting technique that relies heavily on practicals is hard to master – but it has been done.

 

Renowned American screenwriter, producer and director, Stanley Kubrick, is considered a master of utilising practical lighting that is historically accurate to the time period. The most famous example of this is Barry Lyndon (1975) where the interiors were lit entirely with candles.

 

But in most scenarios, practical lighting is far too unpredictable; you can’t change the intensity, colour temperature or softness whilst still suspending the audience’s disbelief.
The most effective cinematography lighting techniques work alongside practical lighting to complement it, and with continuous advancements in LED technology, it’s becoming easier than ever to do just this.

 

Rotolight’s LEDs offer a suite of cinematic lighting effects – CineSFXTM – that can quickly and easily replicate practical lights such as fires and emergency services at the touch of a button.
Before, you’d need to hire a flicker-box to do this and operating it would be a time-consuming (and expensive) process in itself. You’d have no creative freedom; relying on the availability of both the flicker-box itself and the expertise to use it. Stefan Lange used Rotolight’s CineSFXTM on films that he’s worked on, including BAFTA-nominated Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.

 

 

 

“There was quite an elaborate set-up in a cinema location, which captured the ambience of a movie theatre beautifully, but rather too beautifully,” explains Stefan. “That all important story-telling flicker effect on the actors’ faces wasn’t very strong. The director and DOP wanted more close-up shots in the scene, which led to a discussion about needing more flicker.”

 

Where there’s not the budget or space for an actual moving car on set, CineSFXTM can also help simulate movement, replacing the natural light. Below you can see behind the scenes at what cinematography lighting techniques they used, and the effect that they achieved.

 

 

 

Of course, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to cinematography lighting techniques, but now you know what tools are available to you and how you can utilise them simply to make the most of your set. Now it’s your turn.