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