Film Lighting 101 – Comprehensive Guide To Understanding Film Lighting

Film Lighting – If you don’t have good lighting on a film set, even with the best camera in the world, you won’t be able to capture the perfect footage.

Lighting techniques are priceless for filmmakers at every level. It gives the ability of the film director to help communicate better to the cinematographer on the story’s mood and atmosphere.

Cinematic lighting design goes way beyond the standard three-point lighting setup you would see in a photographer’s studio. Cinematic lighting employs lighting methods like bouncing light, diffusing light, and adjusting color temperatures.

In this post, we will go over the basics of film lighting like why lighting is important, who determines the lighting setups for each scene, how to create simple and effective lighting setups, and so much more.

So if you are a beginning filmmaker looking for an easy guide to help understand better cinematic lighting, characteristics of light, or just looking for a refresher, let’s strike those lamps and begin.

understand better cinematic lighting let’s strike those lamps and begin.

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Why Lighting Is Important To Filmmaking

Principles of lighting – Lighting is necessary to filmmaking because it creates a visual mood, a different atmosphere, and sense of purpose for the audience. Whether it’s set dressing a film set or blocking the actors, every step of the filmmaking process influences the lighting setup and the other way around.

Lighting tells the audience where to look. The lighting setup guides the eye to a specific actor, prop, or part of a scene. Lighting displays the psychology of characters. The amount, size, color, and harshness of light encompassing a character can be adjusted to match their emotions.

Lighting represents and supports the genre of the film. Lighting is the tool that communicates mood most clearly. For example, one of the film genres most known for its distinguished lighting style is film noir, marked by stark contrasts between light and dark, dramatically patterned highlights and shadows, unique framing and composition choices.

Who Decides the Lighting Setup for a Scene?

On a film set, the director communicates visual motivations and ideas for the cinematic lighting of each scene. From this director of photography or cinematographer then generates a lighting plan with guidance from the director.

From there the gaffer plans and executes the cinematographer’s lighting plan and manages the crew to bring the lighting plan to life.

How to Create a Simple But Practical Film Lighting Setup

Lighting techniques in film – If you are looking for a basic lighting setup for your film, using a three-point lighting setup that highlights the main actor or subject of a scene that makes them stand out from their background is the simplest way to light for film. Here’s how to do it:

Film Lighting
  1. Set your main and most powerful source of light, which is called a key light, off to one side of the actor to create a slight shadow on the opposite side of their face.
  2. Add a second light, called a fill light, on the opposite side of the actor to soften any harsh shadows created by the key light.
  3. Place the third light, a backlight, behind the actor to help define and highlight their features and outlines.

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How to Light a Scene Without Professional Equipment

8 Important Low Budget Filmmaking Tips For Beginners

If you are a low-budget filmmaker without the resources of expensive film industry-standard lighting equipment, you can still achieve cinematic film lighting by building your own DIY filmmaking lighting setup.

A DIY film lighting equipment setup is the best way for a beginner filmmaker to learn film lighting by experimenting and playing with a variety of lighting setups to achieve a personal look and feel that will carry on to future projects.

If you don’t have a lighting kit or access to professional lighting equipment, here are a few film lighting items to invest in to create your own DIY filmmaking lighting setup

  1. Buy yourself some inexpensive clampsLED lights, or tripod-mounted lights that you can find easily on Amazon or B&H Photo/video.
  2. Next is to purchase some basic heat-resistant color filters, such as blue gels helping shift the yellow tint of a halogen bulb to white, and soft filters to reduce harshness.
  3. Finally, pick up some black cinefoil wrap to cover the edges of the lamps to help direct and focus the light on the subject.

Film Lighting Techniques Everyone on Set Should Know

What are the lighting techniques in film? 

Natural lighting

Film Lighting

Natural lighting in Gerry. Credit: IMDB

If you are shooting with limited lighting resources, Natural Lighting is perfect for utilizing the light that is already available at whatever location you choose. 

The key to natural lighting is to make sure that during pre-production that you location scout beforehand to think about the time of day you will be shooting, and adjust your schedule accordingly.

Things to consider when shooting using natural light:

  • Use bounce cards or flags to modify the natural light 
  • Make sure you do a location scout beforehand
  • Take the time of the day into account for when you need to shoot

Key lighting

Film Lighting

Key lighting in Casino Royale. Credit: IMDB

Key light is the primary light source of the scene. It is the most extreme and direct light source. Generally, the key light will light the form of the subject or actor.

Things to consider when using key lighting:

  • Avoid putting your key light near the camera or your light will become flat and featureless.
  • Create a dramatic mood by using the key behind the subject
  • A key light is the main light in a three-point lighting setup.

High-key lighting

Film Lighting

High Key lighting in Bruce Almighty. Credit: IMDB

High-key lighting is a lighting aesthetic with no shadows and intense brightness, bordering on overexposure. You’ll commonly see high-key lighting in a television sitcom, a music video, or a commercial.

Things to consider when using High key lighting:

  • Dominated by white tones from bright lights 
  • Minimal use of blacks and mid-range tones 
  • Tone can be optimistic

Low Key Lighting

Film Lighting

Low Key lighting in Inception. Credit: IMDB

Low-key lighting is a film lighting aesthetic with a lot of shadows to create a sense of mystery or suspense. It’s a film lighting style that uses a hard source to cover your scene in shadow. Low key lighting needs contrast and blackness.

Things to consider when using Low key lighting:

  • Dark tones, blacks, shadows
  • Stunning contrast images
  • Used in noir or thrillers for dark warnings

Fill Lighting

Film Lighting

Fill Lighting. Credit: Digital Photography School 

Fill lighting adds dimension and softens harsh shadows created by the key light. A fill light is placed on the opposite of the key light, and is usually not as powerful as the key.

Things to consider when using Fill lighting:

  • Remove shadows created by the key,
  • Does not create shadows or its own characteristics.

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Film Lighting

Backlighting in Blade Runner. Credit: IMDB

Backlighting is when a backlight hits an actor or object from behind. It is placed higher than the object it is lighting. Backlights are used to separate an object or an actor from a background. 

They give more shape and depth and help the frame feel three-dimensional.

Things to consider when using Backlighting:

  • The sun is a great backlight – you can use a reflector or bounce the sun at a lesser intensity back the subject.
  • If a backlight is placed behind an actor at an angle, the backlight is called a “kicker.”

Practical Lighting

Film Lighting

Practical Lighting in Birdman. Credit: IMDB

Practical Lighting is when you use all the lighting sources within a location like lamps, candles, or even the television set. Most of these types of lighting equipment are added to the set to light corners or faces by the set dressing time or anyone from the lighting crew to help the ambiance.

They’re not usually strong enough to light a subject, but they add to the cinematic feel of the scene.

Things to consider when using Practical Light:

  • Consider multiple practical lights to help lighten a subject
  • Keep a count of available outlets in every location 
  • Make sure color temperatures match

Hard Lighting

Film Lighting

Hard Lighting in Fight Club. Credit: IMDB

Hard light is a hard souring of light that can be created with a direct beam from a light source or from the sunlight. This kind of lighting produces shadows and harsh lines. 

A filmmaker can use it to draw attention anywhere in the frame, notably on the subject. It can also create silhouettes and highlights.

Things to consider when using Hard Lighting:

  • Direct sunlight will produce hard light and will often need to be diffused.
  • A smaller light will produce hard light, and a larger light will produce soft light.
  • Can be stopped with diffusers or flags
  • Will highlight anything in the frame 
  • Great for shadows

Soft Lighting

film lighting

Soft Lighting in Her. Credit: IMDB

Soft lighting is a lighting aesthetic with little to no harsh shadows that’s bright yet balanced.

Things to consider when using Soft Lighting:

  • It can be used as a fill light
  • It can add youth to a subject’s face
  • Gives the illusion of coming from practical sources

Bounce Lighting

film lighting

Bounce Lighting. Credit: Premium Beat

Bounce lighting is a film lighting technique where light is bounced from a strong source toward the actor with a reflector, which softens and spreads the light.

You can bounce light from the sun, lamps, or any film lighting kit to indirectly highlight a subject within the frame. Using a bounce light creates a larger area of evenly spread light. 

If used in the right way bounce lights can be used to create a much soft light, fill light, top, side, or even backlighting.

Things to consider when using Bounce Lighting:

  • Can be used to reinforce any kind of film lighting 
  • Created by pointing direct light and bouncing indirectly 
  • Highlights a subject without directly shining on them

Want to Learn More About Filmmaking?

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Motivated lighting

film lighting

Motivated lighting in Skyfall. Credit: IMDB

Motivated lighting is a controlled lighting technique meant to imitate natural light sources in the scene like the sun or the moon. This means if you are stuck in a situation where there aren’t any natural lighting sources, this technique attempts to imitate natural light sources. 

You can use flags or bounces to help create them and alter them to appear natural.

Things to consider when using Motivated Lighting:

  • Used to mimic natural elements
  • Can be altered with any tools or set dressing

Side Lighting

film lighting

Side lighting in Shutter Island. Credit: IMDB

Side lighting lights the actor from the side and focuses on the contours of their face for a high-contrast dramatic effect.

Side lighting is often used to provide drama and mood to a scene, particularly in the genre of film noir. 

Many people refer to side lighting as “chiaroscuro” lighting. To produce chiaroscuro lighting, you need a strong contrast and low-key to emphasize the shapes of your subject. If your side light is used to fill a scene you may need to bounce it or deal with high-key effects.

Things to consider when using Side Lighting:

  • Used to highlight a person or object
  • Can help in contrast
  • Can possibly provide harsh shadows if not diffused


When it comes to film lighting an object or scene it requires a lot of trial and error. If you are just starting in the filmmaking world, it takes a lot of time and patience to test out the hardness or softness of light to find the right balance for the best shot.

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

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

Now strike those lamps and start experimenting with your film lighting skills.

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About the author: Trent (IMDB | Youtubehas spent 10+ years working on an assortment of film and television projects. He writes about his experiences to help (and amuse) others. If he’s not working, he’s either traveling, reading or writing about travel/film, or planning travel/film projects.

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