Film lighting – whether it is natural or artificial – is absolutely essential to filmmaking.
Film lighting techniques can help to tell the story, in some cases – e.g. a night shoot – it may be absolutely essential. Film lighting techniques can also set the mood and it can enhance the visual qualities of the film. Good lighting is one of the ways to lift film production values and make a visual impact.
But, it can be easy to overlook or forego intentional film lighting, especially when working on a limited budget, shooting on location, or if you’re making a film by yourself or with a very small crew.
In this introduction, we look at all the fundamentals of film lighting techniques, including steps that you can implement easily whilst shooting.
Different Types of Film Lighting
All film lighting fits into one of two categories: natural and artificial.
Natural lighting occurs from sources that are naturally available on set, such as sunlight, moonlight, firelight, etc.
Artificial lighting tends to come from electrical sources, such as lamps, torches, streetlights, etc.
Film lighting can also be categorised as set up by the filmmakers, for instance, it is part of the kit they have planned for and brought along, or ambient, which means it just happens to be there, in situ whilst filming. For example, ambient car headlights may not necessarily be sourced by the crew, but could perhaps be found on set on a location shoot.
Natural Film Lighting Techniques
Natural film lighting can be highly effective, especially if you use it intentionally.
You can work more quickly with natural lighting, setting up artificial lighting setups can take a lot of time, and it can create lots of strong, naturalistic effects with cinematic qualities.
With natural lighting, good planning and good scheduling is likely to be your best approach.
Before you shoot, take the time to understand how the natural lighting is working in your environment. Is it strong enough? Consider how you can adjust the lighting, if indoors. Can you use reflectors to bounce the light around, or you can block it out?
Consider how it’s likely to change during the course of the day. Which direction are you facing? How will the sun move?
You might find that you can work mostly with natural lighting, but some artificial lighting is needed to ‘top up’ any areas of darkness. Using a combination of both natural and artificial lighting might offer the best solution.
Artificial Film Lighting Techniques
Filmmakers often use artificial lighting, because it can create a particular onscreen effect, or because it offers them more control over the light in a scene.
Artificial lighting techniques might include using specific film lights, which come in lots of different shapes, sizes and outputs. It might also include using lighting from within the scene, such as a desk lamp or the light from inside a fridge.
Artificial lighting is much easier to control than natural lighting, but it takes a long time to set up. It isn’t just setting the lights up in isolation, it’s also about how they work with the camera, the set and the actors. It can take a lot of tweaking to get things right.
Film Lighting Techniques
There are lots of different film lighting techniques and setups that can achieve particular lighting effects.
Here are some of the most popular film lighting techniques used in filmmaking.
Three-point lighting is one of the standard film lighting techniques used for lighting film scenes.
It uses three separate lights focused around one subject. A key light, the brightest of the three, to illuminate the subject; a fill light to balance any of the shadows; and a back light, positioned usually behind your subject, to create definition.
A scene shot with the three-point lighting technique will appear quite natural, the audience won’t necessarily pay much attention to the lighting within the frame, but the subject will appear clearly and well lit.
High Key / Low Key Lighting
These effects are created by intensifying the impact of the key light and varying the impact of the fill light.
A high key light, aided by lots of fill lighting, helps to keep a shot nice and bright, but also well balanced. There are hardly any shadows in a frame that uses a high key light. This is great for ‘early morning’ style effects, or in a space where the lighting should seem especially bright.
A low key light achieves the opposite effect, with plenty of shadow in the frame. This can be used to help create suspense, mystery or give the film a moodier quality.
Practical lighting uses lights within the set to create particular lighting effects.
For instance, a torchlight in darkness can create a sense of danger or discovery. Lamp lights in family spaces or on detective desks can also give a sense of place, character, and time, as part of the set, whilst adding to the functional lighting of the scene.
With top lighting, a subject is lit from above, with the light shining down on theme. This tends to elevate a character, giving them a ‘divine’ status, a sense of power or dominance. This can be used for props as well as characters.
This is a fairly dramatic film lighting technique, although it can be used subtly to just give the impression of power within a scene.
Like practical lighting, motivated lighting is when there is a reason for the lighting to be in the shot, it makes sense that the lighting is there.
Motivated lighting might look ambient, but it uses practical lighting to disguise artificial lighting going on behind the scenes. For example, a torch or a lantern might look like the light source on screen, but actually, this is just an illusion for further lighting going on behind the camera.
These are just a few of the many film lighting techniques. Each lighting setup is chosen based on the desired mood, genre, and artistic vision of the filmmaker, and often a combination of techniques is used to achieve the desired result.
Try experimenting with film lighting techniques on your next project. You don’t need to necessarily have professional or high grade lighting, you can achieve some creative effects with some simple LED light panels, or with lamps you might have around the home.
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