Film Lighting Techniques and Tips: With Pretty Pictures!

Use of backlight and fill light in a shot from 'Schindler's List' - Directed by Steven Spielberg, DP Janusz Kaminski

Soft front light / hot backlight

A popular technique in film lighting is to use a soft (diffuse) light source from the front and a stronger, more directional light from the back, so that your subject has a hot edge. The soft frontal light is known as the fill light; the strong light at the back is known, unsurprisingly, as the backlight.

You can arrange the lights in such a way as to leave darkness between the area illuminated by the backlight and the area illuminated by the fill light, depending on how moody you want the shot to be. This tends to work very well, although even the moodiest films tend to avoid leaving dark shadows on the faces of female talent. The film still shown above is from “Schindler’s List” and is a good example of this technique, but be warned that Janusz Kaminski is an extraordinary cinematographer!

For a slightly different look, the backlight can also be soft, but it should still be hotter than the fill.

You should light your film or video shot by shot. This means that when you relocate the camera to shoot a different angle, the lights must be moved as well to ensure the subject is always lit correctly. This is partly why films take so long to shoot.

Setting up lights is the most time-consuming task in film shoots. It is therefore good practice to shoot a scene in such a way as to minimize the need to relocate lights – in other words, shoot in the order of the lighting set-ups.

Here’s a trick that can save huge amounts of time: when covering a scene with a shot and reverse shot, instead of moving the camera and lights for the reverse shot, simply switch the actors around and move the camera to the other side of the eye-line, in order to maintain the correct eye-line relationship. This allows you to use the same lighting set-up for two or more pairs of shots. Depending on the situation, it may help to move some props around too. It generally works best when the backgrounds of the two actors cannot be distinguished. This technique is not always appropriate, but in the right situation it can be totally convincing and a huge time-saver.

Mixing color temperatures

Using lights of different color temperatures can be used to great effect. This simply means using lights of different color in the same shot. This was used to great effect by James Cameron in the steel mill scene of “Terminator 2”, in which he used blue and orange light (consistent with moonlight and molten steel respectively).

Mixed color temperatures (blue and orange) in a shot from Terminator 2 (Directed by James Cameron, DP Adam Greenberg)
The only caveat with this is that you must determine the relationship between the two different colors before filming, because it is not really possible, for example, to make the blue bluer without also making the orange bluer (i.e. less orange).

Why filmmaking needs lights

If you have ever been on a film set you will surely have noticed just how bright film lights are. To an untrained eye, mainstream film sets look drastically over-lit. Why are lights used in filmmaking? Surely if we want the film to look natural we should just turn up on location, set up the camera and shoot. Instead, we take enormous care to use film lights, which cost money and take ages to set up.

The reason for which lights are necessary in filmmaking is that film, and to an even greater extent video, does not respond to light the same way our eyes do. Specifically, film and video see things in a much more contrasty way. In other words, they cannot cope with the lighting contrast of real life: if you shoot a scene without artificial lights, either the shadows will go completely black or the highlights will go completely white. All of this means that if you want a scene to look natural, ironically the only way to do that is to have enough light to make film see the scene the way our eyes see the scene.

In any case, there is more to cinematography than simply making the actors visible and photographing them. For top results, the mood of the film must be carefully crafted with lighting, amongst other things. Not to mention the fact that there are many situations in which natural light will not result in exposure at all. For example, there is no way you can do an exterior night shoot without lights, even if there is a full moon.

There are other considerations I could make. For example, it has been noticed by many filmmakers and filmgoers that the best films present a heightened interpretation of reality; in other words, films that touch our hearts tend to offer a world that is “more real than real.” This is simply a way of saying that they are not bland. Presenting an enhanced view of reality involves using highly stylized lighting.

One of the biggest myths is that shooting video requires fewer lights than shooting on film. This is completely incorrect, because film can handle a much larger contrast range than video, and therefore suffers less if the lighting is excessively high-contrast. Video, on the other hand, has enormous problems looking even remotely decent when the lighting is not perfectly fine-tuned in such a way that the brightest spot in the scene it is no more than three stops hotter than the darkest point in the scene. Therefore, ironically, film is in theory the best choice when there is little or no control of the lighting, but the impressive lighting set-ups used on 35mm shoots has intimidated people into thinking that celluloid needs more light than video. The opposite is true.

The next time you have the pleasure of visiting a film set remember that things look flat and over-lit because they were lit for film, not for the human eye; the image will have much more texture, depth and contrast when you see it on celluloid on the big screen.

Film lighting techniques and their effects: a reader’s question

I’m writing a How-To book for comic book creators and am trying to learn more so I can, obviously, teach more. I use a combination of film, comic book, and photography techniques in my teaching as they all apply to graphic storytelling.

In this particular case, I’m trying to learn more about lighting, such as silhouette, backlighting, lighting from the side/top/bottom, etc. and what each technique can represent symbolically. I want to make sure I have a complete grasp before I go putting my foot in my mouth. So I guess my question would be:

How many techniques are there and what meanings do they represent regarding Light & Shadows?

My answer:

This is a very difficult question to answer, because it is appears to be predicated on the assumption that every technique will have a unique and predicable effect on the audience. While it is true that shadows are moody while flat lighting makes a scene moodless (not the same as happy), the effects do sometimes overlap.

Similarly, lighting from the bottom used to be only for male villains in film noir — now it is one of the most glamorous techniques known (when done with soft light).

Backlight is generally essential in film, because without it everything tends to go muddy. But there are also plenty of exceptions — e.g. “Minority Report,” which has some beautiful shots with no backlight. Lack of backlight can work well if the scene has a chiaroscuro quality to it, like Caravaggio’s paintings. For a strong example, see the painting below (“The calling of Saint Matthew,” by Caravaggio):

The calling of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio
This painting by Caravaggio shows how some exceptionally moody lighting can be achieved without backlight (“The calling of Saint Matthew,” 1599-1600)

The most helpful answer I can give is this: watch your favorite films repeatedly and make detailed notes on the trends you spot with respect to techniques vs. effect achieved. In this way you will produce a guide that is consistent with your tastes.

I think you will find that there is no straightforward relationship between lighting technique and the effect it achieves, notwithstanding the general principles we all know (low contrast = happy; high contrast = more serious).

Another example has just come to mind: pools of soft light. They can be moody in film noir, but super-glamorous in a skin cream commercial.

Silhouetting — meaning dark subject against very bright background — is quite a dark technique. Example: di Caprio’s meeting with his dad in the bar in “Catch Me if You Can.” The dark mood of the lighting reflects the subtext of the scene: his dad now knows that his son is a fraudster, and di Caprio is upset because his dad refuses to ask him to stop. Outstanding and classic use of silhouette:

Use of silhouette in a shot from 'Catch Me if You Can' - Directed by Steven Spielberg, DP Janusz Kaminski
I hope this helps!

Film lighting techniques: examples from my work

In this section I will describe some interesting lighting techniques and tips, using stills taken from projects I directed.

1. Putting real film lights outside windows instead of relying on natural light – always worth it

The still above is taken from the very first film I directed (coincidentally, it will be exactly 10 years this June!). Do you see the window patterns made by the light on the wall? That is not natural light – we achieved that effect by putting an HMI light outside each of three windows. A scaffold had to be erected to mount the lights because that room was not on the ground floor, but that is another story. The main point I wish to make here is that I wanted window patterns of light against the wall and could not rely on the sun to do that, for the simple reason that the direction of sunlight changes constantly. As I have repeatedly stated in my filmmaking tips:

Filmmaking is all about designing a look from scratch and then executing it on the shoot itself, which means that control is everything in filmmaking.

That pattern of light on the wall remained exactly the same from morning till dusk, because we used HMI lights to generate them. It took money and effort, and it was worth it.

2. No color in your shots must ever be an accident

The still above is once again from my first film. I am including this still because to this day it remains perhaps the most production-designed shot in all of my portfolio. If I were to make that film again I would use a much more muted color palette instead of using such bright colors, but that is beside the point: the point I wish to make here is that everything in that shot is there by design: the plant behind the actress, the blue wallpaper, the purple dress, the curtains that are visible at the left, the hairstyle, the lipstick, her necklace – everything is there by design. That room was originally empty, white and in a state of disrepair. The key light on her face is from an HMI lamp outside the window.

3. A beautiful blue can be achieved with HMI lights and a digital camera set to tungsten balance

This still is taken from a Public Service Announcement I directed in 2005. (Check out my detailed breakdown of that spot, complete with lighting set-up diagrams.)

Everyone always comments on how rich and impressive the blue looks, although of course giving night scenes a blue color is nothing new (James Cameron did it spectacularly well in “Terminator 2,” and the technique can be traced back to at least 1960, when cinematographer Russell Metty used it to great effect in Stanley Kubrick’s “Spartacus”). The main
point I wish to make here is that the deep blue color was achieved completely in-camera, with no color correction in post-production. We did it by using HMI lights and setting the camcorder (Canon XL1) to a preset that the Director of Photography had worked out in advance, but essentially the camera was set up more or less on tungsten balance, which means that it read daylight-balanced light as blue rather than white.

The other important point I wish to make here is that we used what was considered back then a semi-professional camcorder, the Canon XL1. Regardless of the quality of the lenses, MiniDV is still MiniDV, and we knew that with MiniDV, the closer you get to the look you want in-camera, the less you rely on color correction in post-production, the better the footage will look. MiniDV, with its comparatively low bandwidth, is simply not suited to film-style color correction. It is much better to get as close as possible to the correct hue that you want by creatively color balancing, as we did on this shoot. You can achieve pretty much any color balance in this way, as we will see below. If you shoot with a real movie camera, this trickery is not necessary.

4. A beautiful “Matrix”-style green can be achieved by shooting with regular fluorescent lights with the camera set to tungsten balance

The stills above are taken from a music video that I shot in 2005. This particular shot was filmed in a car park. We used the car park’s fluorescent lights plus one blonde with a yellow gel in front of it. The camera (Canon XL1 again) was set approximately to tungsten balance, as a result of which it read the fluorescent light as green. The shot has a very rich and convincing green color, but it was simple to obtain with the available lights plus the correct white balance setting on the camera, and once again no color correction was done in post-production. As with the blue shot above, if we had shot it as “white,” I know for a fact that we would not have been able to obtain the same quality in post-production, unless perhaps we had used a state-of-the-art color correction suite, and even then it is doubtful.

5. Soft pools of light on actors’ faces can produce a very interesting look

The still above is taken from that same music video. Notice that there are three light sources in the shot: hot light from the back, dim soft light over the whole scene and a brighter soft pool of light in the top half of the singer’s face. This look was achieved almost by accident: while the DP was setting up the lights, a random piece of equipment blocked part of the bright fill light, reducing it to a small pool on the singer’s face. I noticed it, I liked it and I instructed the DP to set it up deliberately and tweak it until I was 100% happy.

This shows how the most interesting discoveries in filmmaking are made while you are actually shooting something, but it will only happen if you keep an open mind and are not too stressed. The way to avoid being too stressed while you shoot is to prepare a lot, so what it boils down to, as I wrote in a past filmmaking tip, is that you must both prepare thoroughly and have an open mind while you shoot. The more prepared the director is, the more fruitful improvisation will be on the actual shoot.

6. Daylight-balanced light in the background with tungsten light from the front, with the camera set on tungsten balance

I discovered this look in 2007 while setting up this shot of a silver rose in a glass cabinet with mirrors behind it. I was experimenting with color balance – always a worthwhile pursuit – and noticed that a beautiful and elegant look can be achieved if there is daylight in the background, tungsten light from the front and the camera is set up on tungsten balance, which means it will read daylight as blue and tungsten light as white. This is why in the still above the rose has a neutral color while the background has pools of blue light. The “white” light was actually tungsten light, whereas the “blue” light was daylight reflected off the mirrors in the background. It produced a particularly elegant look that is well suited to the subject matter, and I am certain I will use this color scheme again in future.

The still below uses exactly the same technique, with a different subject (a porcelain rose):

7. Backlight vs. no backlight

These two frames are taken from my first film: the first has no backlight and the second was shot with backlight (a daylight-balanced Kino Flo):

The effect of backlight is clear: it increases contrast, reduces “muddiness” and enhances perceived sharpness.

One more point of interest on the second shot: although the key light and backlight are both nominally daylight-balanced in this setup, the backlight clearly has a slightly higher color temperature than the key light — in other words, it is a bit bluer. We could have compensated for this with a gel, but I’m glad we didn’t: the cold backlight gives the actor a clear edge and adds some real sparkle to the shot.

Interestingly, this finding confirms point n.6 above: an interesting look can be produced when the backlight is a bit bluer than the key light.

Final thoughts

You should take home the following lessons from this section:

i) Some very impressive looks can be achieved by tweaking the
relationship between the camera’s color balance and the lights. With regular DV cameras, this generally produces better results than shooting “white” and grading in post-production. Real movie cameras do not require this trickery.

ii) Beautiful looks can sometimes be achieved with a location’s lights, provided the camera is set up judiciously, as illustrated in the green shot above.

iii) As a filmmaker, if you want your work to stand out, you ought to develop a sharp understanding of colors and their relationships. If you are not fascinated by color and color schemes today, it is worth working on it.

iv) Some of the most beautiful looks are achieved by mixing color
temperatures (such as tungsten and daylight), but make sure that you understand the relationship between the two colors in advance – never assume that mistakes can be corrected in post-production. The lower-end the camera, the less likely it is that you can correct mistakes in post-production, because they capture less data.

v) You cannot know everything about filmmaking before stepping
on a film set: the most fascinating discoveries are made while you are shooting or experimenting. Even just experimenting with a camcorder at home will teach you amazing lessons that no film school is even aware of, let alone able or willing to teach it.

The use of bokeh in cinematography

What is bokeh?

Bokeh consists of blurred point sources of light in the background.

The image below is an example of bokeh from my work:

How we achieved the bokeh effect shown above

Behind the actor and to the left there was a window with shiny metallic blinds. Directional light was bounced off it in such a way as to create the point source of light. The blinds were left semi-closed to create some texture, since closing them completely would have produced a dull flat surface. We used a 25mm Zeiss Ultra Prime lens for this shot, mounted on a RED camera.

The effect of bokeh

Bokeh makes images glamorous and visually appealing. It can also produce a dreamy, somewhat fantastic look that may be appropriate in particularly romantic or fairytale-like scenes. More generally, they make shots more attractive by adding some contrast to the background, making it look less dull — always an important issue in film lighting.

How to produce bokeh in general

You must tell your cinematographer and production designer in advance that you want bokeh in a particular shot. The two most stringent requirements are:

a) point sources of light in the background;

b) a shallow depth of field, to blur the point sources of

While the shallow depth of field can be achieved with wide lenses (by using a very wide aperture and a short camera-subject distance, as in my example above), bokeh tends to need lenses of longer focal length because they make the blurred points of light much larger in the frame, which is an essential characteristic of bokeh. The effect tends not to work as well if the point sources of light are too small, even if they are blurred.

Remember that the point sources of light do not necessarily have to be electrical lights; they can be point sources of light reflected by shiny surfaces. For example, glass objects in the background can produce exceptionally attractive bokeh if they are made to sparkle with appropriate lighting techniques — indeed, that is my favorite kind of bokeh!

As with most effects in filmmaking, you really need to decide in advance that you want bokeh in a certain shot if you want high-end results.

I hope you found this useful!

Cinematography Resources

American Society of Cinematographers

British Society of Cinematographers

Australian Cinematographers Society

Canadian Society of Cinematographers

35 Replies to “Film Lighting Techniques and Tips: With Pretty Pictures!”

  1. Ed,
    Your experience motivated advice has fast become one of my favorite resources on the web. I’m always excited to see your emails arrive and they have already improved my outlook on filmmaking. It seems that in every article you write, you know exactly the questions that are on aspiring filmmaker’s minds. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and may happiness and success continue to be yours!

  2. Awesome article. I liked the idea to mix tungsten and daylight lighting for dramatic effect. It’s funny I had never noticed that’s what they had done in the Terminator movie but I did remember the effect in the overall visual style. Now I know how they did it..

  3. Great article. Does anyone know where I can gain some hands-on experience with film lighting before I jump in to making my own film? Mayb a class in NYC?

  4. ” when covering a scene with a shot and reverse shot, instead of moving the camera and lights for the reverse shot, simply switch the actors around and move the camera to the other side of the eye-line…”
    Question about this technique: wouldn’t the light change to the other side of the face?

    1. The issue does not arise, because the lights would be moved anyway. Film lighting is never designed to look real — it’s designed to look good. This is why characters are always backlit, even if the camera angle changes by 180 degrees. Sure, logically it makes no sense, but visually it makes a lot of sense.

      Pay attention next time you watch a high-budget big movie — it’s easy to spot once you know 🙂

  5. Your info is so helpful! I am taking a six month film school currently and have worked on professional film sets for two years in a row. However I am shooting a short film of my own and your info has been a priceless treasure in my endeavor. Thank-you!

  6. hey man
    i have a senior short film after 2 weeks , and my movie is a romantic comedy and about dating , so i was wondering how could i light the location and wondering about how is the mood suppose to be ? i know that it should be low contrast, high key , bright mood , but i need more info , son can u please reply to my email

  7. Here’s a situation I’m in often because of budget:

    Interior night scene. Actor next to a white wall. I want some sort of dramatic soft lighting. So hard. Where do I start?

  8. I am a beginner filmmaker. I make short films but I always struggle with the lighting and how to create a particular mood with the lighting. What is the best way to learn lighting? Please suggest.


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