Var­i­ous light­ing tech­niques are need­ed to cre­ate styl­ized scenes in a film. That’s why the set is always filled with many dif­fer­ent light sources, because each one serves a spe­cif­ic pur­pose.


Cin­e­mat­ic light­ing is very sim­i­lar to pho­tog­ra­phy light­ing. You’ve prob­a­bly heard of many of the tech­niques list­ed below, espe­cial­ly if you’ve done stu­dio pho­tog­ra­phy. This knowl­edge helps to cre­ate a cer­tain mood and atmos­phere in each scene.

1. Key light (main)

This is usu­al­ly the strongest type of light­ing in each scene. The key light is basi­cal­ly installed first.

The main light does not always have to be direct­ed at the main sub­ject. It can be placed any­where, even on the side or behind the sub­ject to cre­ate a dark­er mood.

Don’t place the key light near the cam­era as your sub­ject will look flat.

When to Use Key Light­ing:

Use pri­ma­ry light­ing if you want to draw atten­tion to the sub­ject or make it stand out from the rest of the scene.

2. Fill light

As the name sug­gests, this light­ing is used to fill in and remove dark areas that your main light cre­ates. It is less intense and placed in the oppo­site direc­tion of the key light.

Since the pur­pose of fill light­ing is to elim­i­nate shad­ows, it is rec­om­mend­ed to place it a lit­tle fur­ther and/or dif­fuse it with a reflec­tor (placed 3/4 away from the main light source) to cre­ate a soft­er light that spreads even­ly.

For many scenes, key and fill stu­dio light­ing is enough to add enough depth to the shot.

When to use fill light­ing:

Use fill light­ing to neu­tral­ize shad­ows or increase expo­sure and reduce con­trast in a scene. With fill light, the view­er will be able to see more of the scene.

3. Backlight (backlighting)

Light­ing is used to cre­ate a 3D scene. This light­ing is usu­al­ly placed behind and slight­ly above the sub­ject to sep­a­rate it from the back­ground.

As with fill light­ing, you need to dif­fuse the back­light so that it becomes less intense and cov­ers a wider area of ​​your sub­ject. For exam­ple, to shoot in the cen­ter of the frame, you need to light the shoul­ders and base of the per­son­’s neck, not just the top of the head.

This tech­nique can also be used alone, with­out the key and fill light, if you want to empha­size the sil­hou­ette.

When to use back­light­ing:

Use high­light­ing to accen­tu­ate the sub­jec­t’s sil­hou­ette. The back­light cre­ates a halo effect and cre­ates a cer­tain mood.

4. Side lighting

Side light­ing is designed to illu­mi­nate the scene from the side, par­al­lel to your sub­ject. It is often used alone or with a weak fill light to give a scene a dra­mat­ic mood or cre­ate chiaroscuro.

When com­bined with a fill light, it is rec­om­mend­ed to reduce the inten­si­ty of the fill light to 1/8 of the inten­si­ty of the side light to main­tain a dra­mat­ic mood.

When to use side light­ing:

Side light­ing empha­sizes the tex­tures of the scene and allows you to bet­ter feel the depth of the room. So, objects seem more dis­tant due to the fact that the space between them stands out.

5. Real lighting

Real light­ing is the use of con­ven­tion­al work­ing light sources: lamps, can­dles, or back­light from mon­i­tors and dis­plays. They are usu­al­ly inten­tion­al­ly added by the pro­duc­tion design­er or light­ing crew to cre­ate a cin­e­mat­ic night scene.

How­ev­er, this type of light­ing is not always easy to work with, as the light from can­dles and lamps is usu­al­ly not strong enough to illu­mi­nate the sub­ject. You can use hid­den addi­tion­al moti­vat­ed light (more on this below) or install dim­mers in the lamps to con­trol the inten­si­ty of the light.

When to Use Prac­ti­cal Light­ing:

Use real light­ing when an object needs to inter­act with a light source. For exam­ple, use a bed­side lamp that needs to func­tion with­in the scope of the scene.

6. Reflected light

Reflect­ed light­ing is the reflec­tion of light from a strong light source to an object or scene using a reflec­tor or any light sur­face, wall or ceil­ing. So, the scene is filled with more light and it hap­pens more even­ly.

When to use indi­rect light­ing:

If you need more ambi­ent light for the scene. Reflect­ing light off a ceil­ing, for exam­ple, cre­ates a more dif­fused light, so the light inside the scene is more even and soft­er.

7. Soft lighting

Film­mak­ers use soft light­ing for both aes­thet­ic and sit­u­a­tion­al rea­sons: to reduce or elim­i­nate harsh shad­ows, cre­ate a dra­mat­ic mood, sim­u­late nat­ur­al light­ing, or all of the above.

When to use soft light­ing:

Soft light­ing is good for shoot­ing peo­ple – it min­i­mizes the appear­ance of shad­ows, wrin­kles and blem­ish­es.

8. Hard lighting

Hard light comes from a strong light source, it can also be sun­light. Often this does­n’t work to your advan­tage, but some­times it does work for a cin­e­mat­ic effect.

Frame from the movie “It”

When to use hard light­ing:

While hard light­ing cre­ates harsh shad­ows, it’s great for draw­ing atten­tion to your main sub­ject or a spe­cif­ic area of ​​the scene to high­light the out­line of the sub­ject and empha­size the sil­hou­ette.

9.High key

This type of light­ing is used to cre­ate a very bright, light-filled scene with no shad­ows, often close to being over­ex­posed.

A scene from the movie Har­ry Pot­ter and the Death­ly Hal­lows. Part 2″

Illu­mi­na­tion coef­fi­cients are ignored, so all lights will have rough­ly the same inten­si­ty. This tech­nique is used in many films, TV shows, com­mer­cials and music videos, but it first became pop­u­lar dur­ing the clas­sic peri­od of Hol­ly­wood in the 1930s and 40s.

When to Use High Key Light­ing:

Use it for film­ing in the fan­ta­sy genre.

10. Low key

Unlike High Key, Low Key involves many shad­ows and often only one strong key light.

The focus is on the use of shad­ows and how they cre­ate the effect of mys­tery, ten­sion, or dra­ma, mak­ing it suit­able for hor­ror and thriller films.

When to Use Low Key Light­ing:

Use this type of light­ing for moody scenes, cre­at­ing a noir style, or for night scenes.

11. Motivated Lighting

Moti­vat­ed light­ing is used to sim­u­late a nat­ur­al light source such as sun­light, moon­light, or street lights at night.

It is also a type of light­ing that ampli­fies real light­ing (remem­ber we talked about table lamps) if the direc­tor or cin­e­matog­ra­ph­er wants to increase the inten­si­ty using a sep­a­rate light source.

To make moti­vat­ed light­ing look as nat­ur­al as pos­si­ble, spe­cial fil­ters or col­or gels are used to sim­u­late the warm, bright yel­low light com­ing from the sun, or the cool, bluish light that mim­ics the light of the moon.

When to use moti­vat­ed light­ing:

Use moti­vat­ed light­ing if you need to increase the inten­si­ty of a par­tic­u­lar light source. Don’t for­get fil­ters or dif­fusers to make the effect look more nat­ur­al.

12. Ambient lighting

Using arti­fi­cial lights is the best way to cre­ate a well-lit scene that looks very sim­i­lar to what we see in real­i­ty, or even looks bet­ter.

How­ev­er, try to use the ambi­ent light­ing that your loca­tion already has, whether it’s sun­light, moon­light, street lights, or even light from shop signs.

When shoot­ing out­doors dur­ing the day, you can use nat­ur­al sun­light (with or with­out a dif­fuser) and com­ple­ment the scene with sec­ondary light aimed at the main sub­ject.

Ear­ly morn­ing, after­noon, or ear­ly evening is a great time to shoot out­doors if you need soft light­ing. The only down­side is that the inten­si­ty and col­or of the sun­light is not con­stant, so be sure to plan for the weath­er and the posi­tion of the sun.

When to use uni­form light­ing:

Use ambi­ent light­ing unless you’re con­cerned about a par­tic­u­lar style or qual­i­ty of light.

Ambi­ent light­ing is a rel­a­tive­ly ver­sa­tile light source that even­ly illu­mi­nates all rooms or scenes.