Film lighting becomes an essential part of the whole filmmaking process as it doesn’t just imply the lighting up of the whole set; rather, it also helps to set the mood of a scene or put forward the emotion.
From the screenplay to the actors’ performance to the director’s vision, everything is important when it comes to filmmaking. All these elements add up together to build the film’s content, yet it finally comes down to the cinematography for the way the narrative is presented to the audience.
Other than the director, the Director of Photography (DoP) and the cinematographer have considerable roles in making visual decisions for the film. As a fact, film lighting becomes an integral part of the whole filmmaking process.
Cameras do not respond to light the same way our human eye does. Our human eye is capable of picking up details, understanding contrasts, and also perceiving depth. This produces a requirement for additional lighting – artificial or natural, to manage the quality of the image on the screen picked up by the camera, to make it more presentable to our eyes.
The correct lighting and color palette helps to set the desired mood matching the psychology of the film and can also add more drama and emotion into the film. Thus one must know that lighting is a key requirement in every film and not just the ones shot in black-and-white.
Since it helps in interpreting the mood of a film, film lighting is also important to define the genre of a film. For example, a low lighting ratio where exposure is even throughout the frame is mostly used in light-hearted productions like romance, dramas, or comedy. In contrast, a high lighting ratio, with more contrast between light and shadow, is generally seen building tension and suspense and hence primarily used in thrillers or horrors. I’ll be talking more about contrast ratios later in this article.
As you can see how vital a part lighting is in the whole production process, filmmakers thus can easily play with the lighting to represent the perfect emotion of the narrative or the actors on screen.
Before we jump further into the different methods of cinematic lighting, we must learn the basic fundamental film lighting technique – The Three Point Lighting Technique.
The placement of light sources and the direction of light is one of the most important decisions a DP must make. Although, in modern cinema, we do see subjectively reformed and more experimental uses of lighting, these are all based on the principles of the conventional three-point technique.
The Three-Point Lighting Setup
The three-point lighting technique was a trademark in classical Hollywood filmmaking. This method implements the usage of three primary lights to light up a scene – the key light, the fill light, and the backlight. The light sources don’t necessarily have to be from artificial sources. Filmmakers often toggle between film lights, natural light sources like the sun, or even practical lights like a lamp.
The key light is the primary and brightest light source in the whole setup. Classically, the key light is placed in front of the subject and slightly off to the side of the camera. This is typically positioned at a 45-degree angle to the subject or the character.
The particular positioning tends to light up only a certain portion of the subject and creates contrast by casting hard shadows on the opposite side. This provides depth and gives dimension to the character.
The hard shadow produced by the key light is softened by using fill light on the opposite side. Mirroring the key light, this might also be placed at a 45-degree angle opposite to the key light. The fill light is used to decrease the contrast created by the key light by literally filling the shadows.
The fill light is the secondary light source and hence is typically less bright to maintain the contrast. The cinematographer might select the dimness of the fill light depending upon the narrative’s mood.
For example, we often see the usage of comparatively dimmer fill light in neo-noir films to keep a high contrast for the subject and thus sets a mood of tension and uncertainty. Similarly, the fill light is brighter in certain movies of the complete opposite and a somewhat optimistic mood. This lowers the contrast and gives an overall evenly lit and more balanced luminance.
The fill light doesn’t always come directly from a light source. Instead, the light bounced from a different source, using a reflector or a bounce card, can also be used to fill the shadows.
The third source of light in the setup is placed behind the subject, at an angle such that it hits the back of the character, creating a rim of light around the subject. This, in turn, increases the separation of the character from the background as well as the foreground and gives a sense of depth.
Generally, the backlight is placed right behind the subject, opposite to the key light, and positioned high or low to keep it out of the frame.
Now that we know the basics of the three-point lighting technique let’s look into some other common film lighting techniques based on the principles of the three-point setup.
Soft light and Hard light
The quality of light and how it is shaped is a crucial consideration made by the cinematographer and the DOP.
Hard light is generally a strong source of light cast directly onto the subject, thus creating a harsh effect. This results in hard, defined shadows and has a clear line of separation between the light and the darker areas.
The hard light is used to draw attention to a specific part of a scene or the main subject as it highlights the subject’s contour and creates a strong silhouette. This, in turn, adds a level of intensity and is often used in films with an overall gritty tone. Hard lighting can even be created by direct sunlight or other powerful artificial sources like LEDs to replicate the onscreen light sources.
Good Time (2017) has overall hard lighting to match the gritty tone of the film, with several uses of hard fluorescent lights creating a perfect silhouette separating the character. Blade Runner (1982) also showcases good use of hard lighting matching the narrative’s mood. It uses hard shadows cast from the characters to define the intense mood and emotions fitting perfectly in a futuristic dystopian world.
Soft light is a kind of diffused light and is one of the many cinematography techniques that can enhance and beautify a scene. Unlike hard light, the soft light produces shadows with a gradient, as well as with softer edges, gradually wrapped around the subject.
Soft lighting can be achieved either by projecting a light through diffusion before it hits the character or the subject or by bouncing off the key light of a suitable surface. Filmmakers often use another technique for soft lighting called Book Lighting, where they first reflect a powerful key light and then diffuse it before it hits the subject.
For diffusing light, filmmakers use various materials depending on varying strengths to soften the light. Commonly used diffusion materials are Lee Filters and textiles like a full grid cloth or silk cloth. One can also use options like a white bedsheet or shower curtain as possibly cheaper options of diffusion.
For bouncing light, common methods include using a textile-like white ultra bounce or using a poly board. Poly boards are generally used in buildings for insulation and come with different bouncing strengths. For example, a filmmaker might use a white poly for a softer bounce or a silver poly for a slightly increased bounce. Another technique can also be straight away bouncing the light off a lighter shaded surface like a wall or the ceiling.
Soft light is used to replicate the natural bounced light from the sun or the ambient light. This kind of lighting is generally associated with dramas and beautiful cinematography. In Lost in Translation (2003), Sofia Coppola uses soft lighting in her cinematography to bring out the film’s dreamy, moody, and melancholic tone.
Similarly, Her (2013) is another example where Spike Jonze uses an overall soft and diffused lighting and creates a very moody yet aesthetic tone. Again, the lighting setup helped the character’s psychology be projected much clearer to the audience.
High Key and Low Key
To understand these lighting techniques, we must know about the exposure idea of contrast ratios. The contrast ratio is the difference in luminance between the light part of an image, typically lit by a key light, and the darker part of the image.
Cinematographers often place their lights in different positions in such a way that there are different areas of exposure and thus creating different planes of contrast in the two-dimensional image. This gives an idea of depth in the image. For example, when the subject is brightly lit against a dark background, the subject is separated from the background and creates a perspective of depth.
Low Key Lighting
When the difference between the lightest and the darkest part of the image is high, the contrast ratio is naturally higher. This type of lighting is characterized as low-key lighting.
In this case, the images generally have strong shadows with deeper blacks and are often punctuated by areas of highlights. Cinematographers choose to minimize the number of light sources to achieve this particular lighting style. For example, using a single backlight with minimal fill light.
Low key lighting is used in films to amplify the drama or create a sense of mystery, tension, and suspense and is generally associated with films that are on the darker side of the emotional spectrum.
The 2019 A24 film The Lighthouse is a great example of low-key lighting. Robert Eggers has used a high contrast ratio. The constant use of light and hard shadows has helped to establish the emotional instability of the characters and the discomfort in the narrative.
High Key Lighting
Contrary to low key, this technique gives a brighter overall illumination, with a lower contrast ratio, and thus the exposure across the image is far more even, producing fewer shadows.
For this kind of film lighting technique, usually, more light sources are used to light up all parts of the frame and minimize shadows. This, in turn, produces a lighter, cheerier, and more flattering luminance.
This type of lighting is mostly used in comparatively less dark and light content. Overall high key lighting is also used to highlight beauty shots. This type of lighting sets up a moody, light, dramatic tone for the film. The overall luminance reduces the shadows and gives a dreamy look to the film, fitting perfectly to the mood of typical drama and romance films.
As an example, let’s talk about another A24 film from the same year – Midsommar (2019). The movie being a horror-thriller genre film, director Ari Aster and cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelsky used high key lighting throughout the film, making it evenly bright and less contrasting. This helped in visualizing many of the beauty shots in the film, and the tone of the movie was kept to be lighter, flipping the psyche of the narrative by concealing the underlying horror.
Now that we have the idea about basic hard and soft and high key and low key lighting, let us learn about some other standard artistic film lighting techniques.
Motivated lighting is a process to imitate natural light sources like the sun or the moon or even street lamps in a frame. For example, you can bounce light to imitate the projection of light from the sun, and thus even though you are producing light from a control system, the source in the scene looks natural.
From a cinematographer’s point of view, nothing can be as amateur as unmotivated lighting. It is always important for a filmmaker to justify choosing particular lighting. Motivated lighting means it is justified to the audience where the light is coming from in the scene.
For example, a subject is sitting on a chair inside a room. If the light is directly bounced off onto the subject, it would just look strange. But if a window is shown or maybe a lamp is kept near to the subject, that might justify the source of natural light cast on the subject in the scene, even though in reality, they might not help much with the exposure.
Table lamps, street lamps, or the sunlight falling directly or coming in through a window all are various possibilities of motivated lighting. Kubrick’s films are great examples of motivated lighting in cinema. He always justifies the source of light.
Practical lighting refers to the usage of light sources present at the location. That may be existing lamps, candles, or even the sun itself.
Practical lighting is important in a scene primarily for two reasons,
Firstly, it motivates the artificial lighting, that is, by placing various practical light sources around the set like lamps or LEDs, you can justify the source of your light, which is very important as otherwise, the unjustified lighting itself will pull away from the viewer’s attention from the main narrative.
Secondly, practical lighting becomes an important tool for creating depth in a scene. Placing practical lights at various parts of the set motivates your lighting as well as enhances the audience’s perception of spatial depth, often creating a bokeh effect if the subject is in close focus.
Kubrick used numerous candles and lamps around the set of Barry Lyndon as a part of practical lighting as well as motivating his light source. In Moonlight, the interiors of the restaurant had several lamps to practically light up the scene and also set up the mood and emotion of the characters.
Some filmmakers who ace the lighting
Roger Deakins is considered to be one of the most influential and greatest cinematographers of all time. He was nominated for the academy awards for fourteen years before he finally won for Blade Runner 2049. Throughout his career, he has worked with several prominent directors like Sam Mendes, Denis Villeneuve, the Coen Brothers and has delivered many cinematic masterpieces like the above-mentioned Blade Runner, Fargo, 1917, Skyfall, and many more.
Although Deakins doesn’t have a signature style or trait of his cinematography, while lighting up the frame, he typically uses a technique that is dubbed as “Cove Lighting.” In this method, he wraps the entire room with unbleached muslin and then uses various other smaller lights to light up, like a 650W tungsten or tweenie light.
The cove wraps up the set 180 degrees around the subject, even spilling down onto the floor. This produces an “up light” effect and lights the face of the subject even when it’s looking down.
The cove is very large and can sometimes be even up to 30 feet long and thus making it a larger source of light, which helps Deakins to take both close-ups and wide shots simultaneously.
In Revolutionary Road (2008), most of the interior scenes were shot by Deakins using this cove lighting method. The room was wrapped up with unbleached muslin, and the light was bounced so that it produced a soft, even light and minimized the shadows on the actors’ faces.
Deakins is a master of deciding the lighting setup to elevate the drama of the narrative and emotion of the characters. In 1917, most of the outdoor day shots were done with natural lighting, but the night scenes and the interiors were shot with practical lighting.
In the night sequence of 1917, Deakins chose to keep a high contrast ratio with strong, dark shadows to build drama and tension. He used several flares to provide light which would seem natural, fitting the devastative mood of war of the film. If it were not for Deakins and his cinematographic decisions, 1917 wouldn’t have achieved this level of visual success.
Wong Kar-Wai and Christopher Doyle
Wong Kar-Wai has a completely unique vision and approach to filmmaking. He loves to play with his lighting, alternately using high key and low key lighting and creating high contrast ratios with hard shadows to signify the characters’ emotions. Christopher Doyle has worked several times with Wong Kar-Wai and has successfully portrayed his vision onto the screen through his brilliant cinematography.
The films of Wong Kar-Wai usually deal with a rollercoaster of emotions. Hence it is important to light up the frames with suitable color palettes to establish the mood-setting.
For Example, in In the Mood for Love (2000), he shoots most of his scenes low key lighting with high contrast ratio, producing hard shadows from the characters. This not only just fits the emotion of the narrative but also symbolizes the psychology of the characters, as keeping Tony Leung Chiu-Wai in shadows also implies how lonely his character is.
Wong’s film generally projects a feeling of solitude, loneliness, and depression, and hence Doyle chooses to set up the lighting to represent the perfect mood. With several neon lights and practical key lights with high contrast ratios, Wong Kar-Wai creates a sense of alienation and turns his narrative into visual magic on screen.
Gaspar Noe and Benoit Debie
Gaspar Noe’s films tend to be uniquely psychedelic. Hence he uses lighting as a very important tool to manipulate our perception of viewing. To achieve this trip, he collaborates with the well-known Belgian Cinematographer Benoit Debie.
Gaspar Noe likes to play with the emotions and mood of the audience and always keeps them on a trip. Hence he uses a lot of flashing lights and strong, saturated neon colors to build drama and a psychedelic tone for the film.
Benoit Debie uses expressionist lighting to express the psychology of Noe’s films. He commonly uses strong saturated neon colors and also attempts for practical lighting. In Enter the Void (2019), he uses several flashes of light, neon colors, and also a monochromatic color scheme, like a dominant red or the orange-yellow tint, used in several frames of Noe’s movies like Irreversible (2002) and Love (2015), to represent the psychedelic and spiritual and tense narrative of the film.
Debie paints with his lighting in bold strokes of color to capture the vivid portrait of life. He uses his monochromatic color scheme technique in several films to add more intense mood and drama into a scene.
Although Gaspar Noe sets up his lighting in such a way to achieve the maximum in-camera, Debie has confessed that he relies a lot on post-production as well. He always works on the color grading of a film and considers it as a big part of the production from his end.
All these lighting techniques and color schemes help set the characters’ mood and the tone of the film and eventually make up for a typical Gaspar Noe experience.
Alfred Hitchcock has been one of the most influential directors of all time since the classic Hollywood era. He had some signature visual techniques which would set apart his work from other filmmakers.
Hitchcock is known as the master of suspense, and he uses various combinations of low-key and edge lighting to create the mood. Being an auteur, he had a large part of responsibility and control over the visual style.
In Hitchcock’s films, lighting is deliberately put to use in many effects. It is not just what he can do with the lighting; rather, he can do wonders with the lack of it. He uses this darkness in many ways to manipulate the audience’s viewing perspective.
Hitchcock uses darkness in many ways in his films. He often uses it to set the mood; that is, darkness in his films signifies the nature of concealment and mystery. He uses low-key lighting to achieve the desired light and darkness ratio. He uses it to create tones of mystery and sinister, as the darkness prevents the audience from seeing the surroundings and hides information, enhancing the mystification and thrill of the narrative.
Hitchcock also uses light to instill feelings in the audience as well as reveal information about the characteristics of a character or scene. For example, he often uses edge lighting with varying contrast ratios to represent the psychological differences between two characters.
He also uses light and darkness in metaphorical terms, like darkness and shadow represent something evil, while the good is represented by light. Hitchcock uses these basic metaphorical techniques producing strong effects not only for the technically literate audience but also for the mainstream viewers.
When it comes to practical and motivated lighting, Stanley Kubrick stands out to be the master of it.
Kubrick plays with his lighting to elevate the mood of his film keep the audience hooked into a particular scene. For example, in The Shining, the scene where Jack talks to the bartender for the first time, the scene is heavily underlit, thus adding more spookiness into the scene.
He never fails to justify his lighting, as in Barry Lyndon, which is a story that took place in the 18th century; he uses several candles, practically lighting the set, for the night scenes. But, other than motivating his lighting, he also justified the source fitting the demands of the narrative perfectly.
Even in his film Eyes Wide Shut, in the opening party scene, he uses a lot of lamps and Christmas lights as a part of practical lighting, setting the mood of the film.
Thus, for Kubrick, it is very important to have the light natural and motivated, justifying the emotion and mood of the scene.
Artistic use of light and the mood set by it
Film lighting is a very important tool for communicating with the audience. For helping the audience understand the film’s mood, it is very important to choose the correct set of lighting. For example, in a scene that is exposed just by white light, it is important to place additional lights to create contrast which would, in turn, add depth to the subject and elevate the mood of a particular scene.
Several lighting techniques can set the mood, but the fundamental is always the position of the light. Just by changing the position of the light source a little, you can change the whole emotion of the scene. For example, the subject is lit by a key light placed at his eye level. If the light is moved and projected from a lower angle onto the subject’s face, we immediately get a sense of evil onto the character.
This also brings in the importance of color to further heighten the mood as the color usually influences a person on a more psychological level, and we react with different emotions to different colors. This is used to manipulate the mood of a film.
Over the years, filmmakers have experimented with lighting a lot, creating various new visual styles. Chiaroscuro is a lighting concept that has been there since the time of the Renaissance movement, as a part of an art movement, and is still used as a part of cinematography in modern cinema.
Chiaroscuro is basically the juxtaposition between light and dark. Chiaroscuro is an Italian term that combines two words – “Chiaro” which means clear or bright, and “Oscuro” meaning obscure or dark. Developing in the Renaissance period, this art technique was used by artists like da Vinci and Caravaggio.
The artists crafted their paintings in such a way that there was a clear sense of lighting through mixing light and shadow, thus creating a sense of depth in the two-dimensional image. Of course, films are 2-D images as well, so it is no wonder the Renaissance artists took over this style for lighting their frames.
The usage of chiaroscuro in cinema truly began with the German expressionist movement. With films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Metropolis (1927), Nosferatu (1922) and, M (1931), the lighting style inspired generations of further modern films and filmmakers. You’d find a lot of similarities in lighting style between Tim Burton’s Edward Sissorhands (1990) and Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Chiaroscuro was most exploited in the 20th century. Directors like Orson Welles and Ingmar Bergman changed the way chiaroscuro added atmosphere to the films. Moral ambiguity and post-war pessimism both were represented in the visual style, and this style was used to highlight the mood in films that explored the darker side of human behavior.
From the opening scenes of A Clockwork Orange (1971), where Alex and his gang has been presented as terrifying with the use of hard shadows, to creating an entire gritty atmosphere in Sin City (2005), chiaroscuro has been forever there helping to create a sense of art in cinema.
Naturalistic and Expressionist Lighting
There are primarily two approaches for lighting a film, the naturalistic and the expressionist.
Naturalistic lighting: This attempts to emulate and enhance the naturally occurring ambient light on the set. Lighting in a realistic way presents the character in a more objective style hence drawing the audience more closely into the story.
All filmmakers tend to visualize their films in a naturalist way, even though the story is larger than life or maybe purely possible in fiction.
For example, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar has a larger-than-life story, yet he chose to make the lighting as natural as possible while experimenting with different lights to give it a cinematic mood and tone.
Expressionist Lighting: This includes the altering of quality, color, and shape of light to a more unrealistic level to provide a jarring, emotional effect. The colors in the frame can present the character in a particular manner to the audience and influence their perception.
Expressionism started as early as the German Expressionist movement in films, and now this art form is still adapted by many filmmakers all over the world to experiment with new ways of the portrayal of their stories.
Expressionist lighting heightens the mood and emotions in a film, and not just helps to bring out the character’s psyche but also serves as an overall visual treat to the audience. In many cases, expressionist light serves as metaphors as well, symbolizing different aspects and spectrums of the narrative.
Directors like Wong Kar-Wai, Gasper Noe, or even David Lynch experiment with expressionism in their films in a different manner. Tim Burton is a modern director whose works like Edward Scissorhands, Corpse Bride, or even Batman are heavily inspired by the German Expressionist technique. David Lynch’s Mullholland Drive is an excellent example of a non-noir modern expressionist movie.
Film lighting thus becomes an integral part of both the filmmaking process as well as education. Cinematographers, once they understand the basic concepts of lighting, can choose a set of their own, following these methods, or avoiding, or maybe using some and disregarding others. But from a filmmaker’s point of view, no matter how he experiments with lighting, it must always be motivated, and he must be able to justify his choice.
With the advancement of lighting techniques, a good filmmaker might go beyond the three-point lighting setup and experiment in several ways but always follows the fundamentals of this system. Else, the lighting would be just absurd and make no sense.
Thus in all the way, it is very necessary to study and understand film lighting to visualize a scene properly and add dramatic elements into the story.
About the Author
Arkaprava is currently completing his UGC as a student of Media Science and wants to explore the field of mass communication even further. He is a film enthusiast and practically lives in movies. He sees himself sharing his perspective with the world (maybe with the help of a pen or the camera).